Priority Questions

Lansdowne Road Agreement

Thomas Byrne

Question:

1. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills his views on the dispute with the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland, ASTI, over the Lansdowne Road agreement; and to provide an update on the arrangements for dealing with the data protection issues that may arise if financial emergency measures in the public interest legislation is applied to ASTI members in second level schools. [18464/16]

Many issues will have to be handled in the Minister's Department this week, in particular the issue of the ASTI and the Lansdowne Road agreement. There are other industrial relations issues in the Department, including other issues with the ASTI. An update to the Dáil is needed on how exactly the Minister proposes to approach what is threatened by the ASTI and what he is doing to prevent serious industrial unrest and difficulties in the education sector in September.

ASTI members voted recently to authorise the ASTI standing committee to direct its members to cease fulfilling the Croke Park agreement hours. The decision to withdraw from these hours is a serious issue with implications beyond the question of whether the hours are fulfilled or not. This decision means the ASTI is withdrawing from the Lansdowne Road agreement. These hours represent a real reform with real benefits for parents and children and they facilitate staff meetings and parent teacher meetings without schools closing for half days. They represent 33 extra hours per year, which is less than one hour per week.

In opting to withdraw from the Lansdowne Road agreement, ASTI members are also opting to forgo a series of benefits and protections, as communicated by my Department recently. These include avoiding an increment freeze, continuation of the alleviation of the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act 2013 pay cut for higher earners, the supervision and substitution payment of €796 due to be paid on 1 September and protection against compulsory redundancy.

A further significant consequence of withdrawing from the Lansdowne Road agreement will be the withdrawal of benefits introduced for new teachers under the Ward report, which enabled them to gain permanent employment and full hours more quickly than before. I am aware of the union's concerns on the Croke Park hours but in response to these, my Department recently agreed with the INTO and the TUI that the usage would be reviewed having regard to teacher professional judgment, system and school requirements and experience to date of the best utilisation of hours.

I am keen to resolve this without a breach of the Lansdowne Road agreement. I have extended a further invitation following a recent meeting with the ASTI on the junior certificate to discuss these issues of concern. This afternoon the ASTI issued a statement saying it will issue a directive to its members to withdraw from Croke Park hours, thereby repudiating the Lansdowne Road agreement. I am disappointed it has chosen to repudiate the agreement. However, the union has indicated it will accept my invitation to talk. I hope this will give it and my Department the opportunity for constructive exchange of views on matters of mutual concern.

I am surprised that such a meeting has not taken place before now. There are difficulties on both sides and the ASTI leadership must reflect what its members have voted for and represent them but there must be value in talking and trying to resolve this because we face an administrative nightmare for the Minister and the Department. How will the Minister do this? Are we going to use the data protection forms that were signed by TUI members a couple of years ago or does the Minister have to reach out to TUI members again to ask them to certify that they are members of the TUI? Some schools are TUI and others are ASTI and there are quite a lot, particularly in the community and comprehensive sector, that are mixed union.

I do not know how the Minister is going to do it. What I do know is that if this dispute is not resolved and if it is simply the case that the ASTI repudiates and the Department institutes punishment or the consequences of that repudiation, there will be chaos in schools in September. There are no two ways about it and members and parents will be distinctly unhappy. There must be value in the Minister taking a grip of this issue and taking the lead on it with his colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, in order to resolve it. To me, it urgently needs to be resolved, with the issue of junior certificate reform.

The ASTI was invited by my Department to participate in the discussions with the TUI, but it declined to do so.

That is disappointing.

It had also declined an invitation from the previous Minister. However, I did recently meet it on the issue of junior certificate reform and I am glad that today it has indicated that its representatives are willing to meet me following my invitation to discuss the issues involved further. I am very disappointed, however, that it has also signalled today that it will trigger the measure on the withdrawal of hours, which will put it outside the Lansdowne Road agreement. That is a very disappointing development, but notwithstanding this, I look forward to talks with it.

On the issue that the-----

The practicalities.

Yes. In implementing the Lansdowne Road agreement my Department is conscious of the requirements of data protection legislation and putting in place arrangements to distinguish between teachers who are represented by unions that have accepted the agreement and those represented by unions that have not. These arrangements are being finalised and my Department will publish a circular in early July to notify teachers and the system in general.

I agree with the Minister on one point: the ASTI should be in talks. I encourage its members to ask their leadership to go into talks. I also ask the leadership to show leadership. It is not acceptable that children may be put at risk, not simply because of the repudiation but also because of the general atmosphere that would pervade in schools come September. That is what I am mostly concerned about. There will also be difficulties in implementation in schools with mixed union representation. While in most sectors of society we have relatively quiet and normalised industrial relations, in one of the most critical sectors, the education system, we almost have an industrial relations powder keg in which people on every side are very slow to enter talks about issues. There can only be benefits in talking and it must happen. I, therefore, appeal to both sides to see if there is some way out. I appeal to the ASTI, in particular, to look very carefully at the consequences.

The Lansdowne Road agreement is an absolutely vital framework and every trade union within the public service has been within it. It is allowing us to manage our resources and make investments in important areas that are crying out for resources. Working within collective agreements of this nature has been crucial to the development of stable industrial relations. That is the way to proceed. It is deeply regrettable, therefore, that the ASTI has chosen to move outside it in making this decision. Notwithstanding this, I am glad that it has accepted the invitation and I will sit down with its representatives.

School Curriculum

Carol Nolan

Question:

2. Deputy Carol Nolan asked the Minister for Education and Skills his plans to introduce the well-being module for the junior cycle. [18560/16]

Will the Minister indicate when the well-being module is being introduced to schools and give a quick update on it.

The well-being area of learning will be introduced to the junior cycle programme from the start of the 2017-18 school year. Up to 400 hours will be available for learning in the area of well-being in the junior cycle. It will begin with a minimum of 300 hours of timetabled engagement from 2017 and move to the full complement of time as the new junior cycle is fully implemented in schools.

The well-being area of learning will provide learning opportunities that will enhance the physical, mental, emotional and social well-being of students. It will enable students to build life skills and develop a strong sense of connectedness to the school and the community. The development of this area of learning is part of the holistic approach to the well-being of students. Physical education, social, personal and health education and civic, social and political education will be included in the well-being programme, with guidance. The implementation of school policies such as anti-bullying and substance misuse will support the programme. During an extensive consultation process conducted for the junior cycle reform, young people identified social and lifestyle skills as the most essential young people should learn between first and third year. It is expected that most of the assessment activities in the area of well-being will be classroom-based and formative in nature.

Learning in well-being will be assessed by the students' teachers and reported on to students and parents or guardians during the junior cycle and in the junior cycle profile of achievement.

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment has developed draft guidelines to support schools in planning their well-being programmes. The views of teachers, school leaders, parents, students, other education partners and those with an interest in and commitment to young people's well-being are being sought on the guidelines. This consultation process continues to the end of June. Bilateral meetings have taken place with strategic partners in the work, including the National Centre for Guidance in Education, the HSE, the Professional Development Service for Teachers and Junior Cycle for Teachers among others. Feedback received will inform the final version of the guidelines due for publication in September 2016.

I thank the Minister for his response. It appears to be an excellent initiative. While I welcome the fact that it is closely tied in with physical education, the availability of school PE halls has been an issue for many secondary schools throughout the country. Will a national audit be carried out before the initiative can be properly implemented? It should be. Mental health is an issue that affects young and old. In our secondary schools there are many students from disadvantaged backgrounds who are particularly vulnerable. While I welcome the initiative, instead of putting the cart before the horse we need to do a national audit of PE halls available.

I recognise that not every school has access to a PE hall. Hopefully, within their wider communities they can ensure children have the opportunity to participate in the PE component. The suggestion of an audit of availability is sensible. I am conscious that resources for investment are under pressure to meet the growing numbers of children coming into the system. It has been given a priority in terms of the capital spend. Notwithstanding this, I recognise the Deputy's concern and will seek further advice from my Department on the issue.

I am glad the Minister appreciates the importance of the programme and the importance of an audit being carried on the availability of proper resources for PE. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds may be at much higher risk of mental health difficulties. I am particularly concerned that in 2013 the Central Statistics Office found that the rate of child poverty had doubled between 2008 and 2013 from 6% to 12%, with an inevitable impact on the well-being of young people. The links between poverty and poor physical and mental health are well documented. Will there be a specific focus on ensuring young people from disadvantaged communities will be well positioned to benefit from the well-being programme and has this aspect been factored into the design of the programme?

The well-being programme has been designed to be inclusive and conscious that certain communities are under particular pressure. It is reflected in the fact that they will have better pupil-teacher ratios, capitation and access to the National Educational Psychological Service and counselling services. There are in-built provisions that will support the effective roll-out of the well-being programme in schools in areas of disadvantage. Hopefully, it will result in success for the programme. We will closely monitor its progress to ensure it meets the objectives for children.

School Admissions

Thomas Byrne

Question:

3. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills how he intends to deal with the issue of discrimination on religious grounds in school admissions; and his plans to insert a provision into the forthcoming schools admission Bill to deal with this issue. [18465/16]

The religious criterion for admission to schools has been a major issue for years. Whereas the most famous example is in Dublin, I have come across it several times in Meath. We would like to know what the Minister intends to do in the Government's schools admission Bill, notwithstanding other Bills that are before us.

The programme for Government contains a commitment to publish new school admissions legislation taking account of current draft proposals and addressing issues including publication of school enrolment policies, an end to waiting lists, introduction of annual enrolment structures and transparency and fairness in admissions for pupils and their parents. I have commenced a process of consultation with Opposition parties to discuss my proposals to introduce a new admissions Bill. Following these consultations, it is my intention to publish a new admissions Bill during the current Dáil session.

An effective way of providing diversity and choice for parents is by providing additional multidenominational and non-denominational schools, and in this regard I have committed to increasing the rate of delivery of these schools, to reach a total of 400 such schools by 2030. I have set out a series of measures through which this can be delivered.

As the Deputy may be aware, Deputy Joan Burton of the Labour Party has initiated a Private Members' Bill proposing an amendment to section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act, and it is due to be discussed later today. As previously indicated, my preference is to discuss this complex issue with the Oireachtas committee at the earliest opportunity and I am open to hearing views on the best way to proceed within our existing constitutional framework.

Across the country, there is an increasing mismatch in patronage arrangements for national schools in particular, although it will become a more common issue for secondary schools as the years go on and as the bubble of national school students moves on. The overwhelming focus on patronage divestment during the past five years has distracted from the essential and immediately relevant question of how children from non-religious backgrounds should be accommodated in the existing structures and the rights of all to have freedom of conscience and school admission upheld. Fianna Fáil is very much concerned with it and we published a policy on it before the election.

The Equal Status Act prohibits religious discrimination, but allows schools to enrol co-religionists in preference to members of other faiths when a school is oversubscribed. It is wrong that 20% of schools in Dublin are oversubscribed and they seem to be the most active in applying religious selection criteria. Our difficulty is with the minority faith schools. Some level of positive discrimination is essential to Church of Ireland and other minority religious schools. If we simply delete the provision of the Equal Status Act, those schools could suffer disproportionately. I wonder if the Minister has a view on it.

Children from outside the area of a local school are often given preference over children who are in the school catchment area but who are not of the denomination. Deputy Joan Burton's Bill seeks to address this. The Bill may raise complex issues such as the impact on minority religions, and they need time and space to allow hearings by the Oireachtas education committee to tease out the issues. I propose that Deputy Joan Burton's Bill, which we will discuss later, be deferred and passed on Second Stage one year hence in order to give the Oireachtas education committee time to tease out the very complex issues. Deputy Burton's Bill is a very constructive contribution to the debate. This would be the best way to proceed. We will have a chance later this evening to discuss it at length.

Does the Minister have a timeframe in mind? If Deputy Joan Burton's proposal were to succeed, or our proposal which is a variation on it, work will have to be done on catchment areas. Does the Department have administrative arrangements in place for this? This issue is rightly a political hot potato. It must be addressed and there is a responsibility on us to do so. We all see injustices done when these criteria are applied in a way that is perfectly legal and correct at the moment. While we would emphasise the locality and catchment, we see that there are administrative issues. What consideration has the Minister given to it in terms of timescale? While some children have already passed the school entry age, others are coming up through the ranks and their parents are watching, worriedly, their prospects for entry to their local school.

The former Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, did much of the work on the admissions Bill, and I would like it to proceed, given that there is much consensus on many of the issues in it. Another issue which is not in the admissions Bill has been raised, and we should take the opportunity to tease out the practicalities of the Labour Party Bill, parallel to the passage of the admissions Bill, which is a priority for the school year 2017-18. Hopefully, we will be in a position to advance it.

That is the best approach. Let us harvest the admissions Bill and then examine the issues such as catchment. At the moment, catchment does not have a basis in legislation and, therefore, it is a new concept, which needs to be worked through.

School Admissions

Joan Burton

Question:

4. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he has reviewed the recently published Labour Party Equal Status (Admission to Schools) Bill; if he supports the aims and objectives of the Bill; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18564/16]

Following on from the previous discussion, does the Minister agree it is unfair and discriminatory that parents feel they have to baptise their child in a particular religion to have a serious chance, if not certainty, of securing a local school place in the area where the child lives? Will the Minister consider supporting, therefore, the Labour Party's Bill, which proposes to amend the Equal Status Acts and seeks to balance the constitutional right of religious bodies to organise and run schools with the rights of the child to have access to his or her local school?

I am sympathetic to the case the Deputy has made in that Bill but I am conscious that the previous Oireachtas education committee, which conducted pre-legislative scrutiny of the Education (Admissions to School) Bill 2015, acknowledged the potential tensions between articles of the Constitution relating to education and religion and concluded that it poses a particular difficulty when legislating in this policy area. The Deputy's Bill has sought to steer a way through that but it is important we make sure it is robust and that there are not unintended consequences as a result of this proposal. This is why the incoming education committee should be given a period to hold hearings on the legislation and to assess it.

In reply to Deputy Byrne, I acknowledged that it is unfair if a school is going outside an area to recruit coreligionists while those close to it are not given an opportunity. It is only fair, though, to acknowledge that 80% of schools are not oversubscribed and the admissions Bill would have made it obligatory for denominational schools that are not oversubscribed to accept all those who apply. There is provision in that Bill to deal with one aspect of this but the Deputy has raised another aspect and I look forward to discussing the Bill later. It is to be hoped we can advance on that basis.

The purpose of the Labour Party Bill is to acknowledge the constitutional right for religions to be recognised and practised as people wish. That is agreed by most parties in the House, if not all. However, we are faced with an uncomfortable scenario where parents, especially when their first child attends school, find out that unless they are of a particular religion, they are unlikely to gain access to the school. This is often particularly significant for people of a Catholic background. Our Bill would give much greater protection to minority religions because to maintain the ethos of the school, 51% of the students must of that religion. That would considerably strengthen the position for minority religions compared with the current position.

I do not understand the Minister's diffidence in dealing with this. The Bill will not amend education legislation. It will amend the Equal Status Act, which is equality legislation. I understand him raising other points but this is just about equal status and seeking to calibrate rights for the religion, the student and the family.

It has become standard and good practice to have pre-legislative scrutiny of all Bills that will come before the House. This Bill raises complex legal and constitutional issues, which I do not say make it unviable, but they need to be examined. That was recognised by the previous Oireachtas education committee and, bearing that in mind, we need to do that. I refer to the way minority religions are dealt with in the Bill. It is common practice that particular Protestant denominations admit those of other Protestant traditions to their schools and give preference to them. The Bill, as drafted, would stop that practice. There are issues, therefore, that we need to tease out. Giving that to the Oireachtas committee, which has the experience to do that, and allowing witnesses to appear before it is the sensible and responsible way forward. I do not pour scorn on the Bill or the effort that has been put into it, which is obvious from the way it has been drafted.

I appreciate that but given the likely duration of this Dáil, the Minister has suggested a full year of consideration having had five years of consideration during the previous Dáil and more consideration during previous Dáileanna. The net point is that it is good on the whole to ensure children have a reasonable opportunity to attend school in their own neighbourhood and to make friends and all that that involves. That is provided there is no shortage of school places, which is a different scenario that can only be addressed by building more schools or expanding existing schools. Parents should not be put in a false position whereby to secure a reasonable objective they end up, perhaps against their personal wishes, having to have their child baptised. People of religious faith do not like that either. Should we not give primacy to diversity and inclusion, which many of the patron bodies have been brilliant at providing for?

I do not share the Deputy's poor belief in the longevity of the Government. I am optimistic that new politics will result in longevity because that is what people want.

The Bill was not part of any legislative proposal scrutinised by the House previously. That is clear from the conclusion of the previous Oireachtas committee. We need to examine the complexities, and the responsible way forward is to provide the time for the committee to conduct that examination and to come back to the House. That is the sensible and correct way to proceed, but we will have an opportunity to debate the Bill later.

School Transport Administration

Thomas Byrne

Question:

5. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills to address concerns that the school transport scheme is not being run on an efficient basis, especially with regard to route selection criteria and criteria for providing a service to students wishing to avail of the scheme on a concessionary basis. [18466/16]

School transport is an issue of major concern. My difficulty is there are three different positions on the scheme within the Department. These are outlined in a ministerial briefing, the programme for Government and by a press officer following a major story in the Irish Independent. There is huge confusion among the public. A number of my colleagues, including Deputy Calleary, have been in touch with the Minister of State about particular instances. I would like clarity for families and children who depend on the school bus service.

I thank the Deputy for his question. This is a complex issue in the sense that the school transport scheme is a significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of my Department. Approximately 113,000 children, including 10,000 children with special educational needs, are transported in approximately 4,000 vehicles each school day. The overall costs of the scheme have reduced by 7% since 2008 as a result of policy changes and other efficiencies, and this has had an effect on the scheme. One of its main objectives is to ensure that, as far as possible, eligible children have a reasonable service while, at the same time, ensuring school transport vehicles are fully utilised in an efficient and cost-effective manner. One of the impacts of the policy changes introduced in recent years is that there has been a reduction in the number of eligible pupils availing of school transport places and an increase in the number of pupils availing of places on a concessionary basis. Routes are planned on the basis of the locations of children who are eligible for school transport only.

In general, children are eligible for school transport if they meet the requisite distance criterion and are attending their nearest school having regard to ethos and language.

Children who are not eligible for school transport may avail of school transport on a concessionary basis only; the demand for transport on a concessionary basis is mainly from families whose children who are not attending their nearest school. Transport on a concessionary basis is subject to a number of terms and conditions including that there are spare seats available on an existing school bus service and on payment of the annual charge.

The programme for Government commits to review the concessionary charges and rules element of the school transport scheme prior to budget 2017.

The Minister of State's answer has not provided any clarity to anybody. I would like him to clarify what is the position. Will students who have concessionary places lose out this September because of the review, or can he give a guarantee to this House that no students with concessionary places will lose out because of the review by his Department, that their place will be available on a concessionary basis as it always has been? That is the commitment we want to hear from him. We want to put at ease the concerns of the parents, in rural Ireland in particular, who are worried about this issue. As the Minister of State will note, a newspaper has run this story on the front page two days in a row and it did that because this issue is a matter of concern as a result of the confusion coming from his Department as to what is happening. The Minister of State needs to do those parents a favour and set out exactly what is happening and confirm that those students with concessionary places will not be subject to a review for this year, and then we will have to deal with what will happen next year. There has been three different stories and I want to know what is the correct story.

The Deputy is aware that the seats for concessionary applicants are allocated after all eligible children have been accommodated on the school transport service. I accept there are some difficulties with respect to routes, the sizes of buses and so on: of that there is no question. I am inundated with requests for school transport from applicants throughout the country. I give the Deputy a guarantee that no student will lose a seat on the school bus during this term. I have called for the Department to have another review of all aspects of the school transport scheme, concessionary places and otherwise. Nobody will be cut off the school transport scheme in this term, once they are eligible for school transport under the concessionary or the eligibility criteria. There are extreme difficulties, of that there is no question. Deputies have contacted me. I have met Bus Éireann and any groups that wanted to meet me and I have spoken to parents. I have met Deputies from the Deputy's party. I accept there are compassionate grounds in some instances but every parent wants to obtain school transport to bring their child to school. If people want to come to my office to raise individual cases, they can do so. I can assure the Deputy there will no cuts or changes until another review is carried out by my Department.

I want to clarify with the Minister of State that no students, regardless of their having concessionary places or otherwise, will lose their place on a school bus this September; that they are guaranteed their place on a school bus this September.

Once again, I want to be clear on this. Once all eligible children have their place on the school bus on a particular route, if students with concessionary places already have seats on that route, they will not lose their places, and there is no reason they should lose their place. As the Deputy is probably well aware, if other eligible students who need school transport come into the scheme, that is where the difficulty arises with students with concessionary places - I would have a difficult with this - where those students would be asked to give us their seats to accommodate the eligible students. I have asked for a review on that. I do not like the idea that a student, whether they have their place on a concessionary or eligible basis, would be asked to move off a bus because there is not room on it if another eligible students is given a place on it. I have asked the Department to review that with me. I say to the Deputy and other Deputies in opposition that if they want to put forward suggestions, they can come in and meet me and we will examine it. I would not want to see any student who has a place on a concessionary or other basis lose a place on a school bus.