Other Questions

Schools Building Projects Status

Shane Cassells

Question:

30. Deputy Shane Cassells asked the Minister for Education and Skills the reason for the delay in the refurbishment of a location (details supplied) to enable it to accommodate a school (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24579/17]

I wish to ask the Minister for Education and Skills to outline the reasons for the delay in the refurbishment of the former St. Mary's national school in Patrick Street, Trim, so as to enable it to accommodate the new Trim Educate Together national school at this campus. The process has now been ongoing for some three years. The current enrolment for the school is going to rise to 60 pupils in September which is a very healthy start-up context. Could the Minister outline what is the hold-up in the refurbishment of the school?

I thank Deputy Cassells for raising this issue. I wish to advise him that it is my Department's intention to relocate the school in question to St. Mary's national school in Patrick Street, Trim, to meet the school's permanent accommodation needs.

The property in question transferred to the Minister's ownership last year. This building is a listed structure that requires extensive refurbishment to make its facilities fit for modern school purposes. In that regard, a significant financial investment will be required and that has to be considered within the overall available capital envelope. I am not, therefore, in a position at this stage to indicate when the refurbishment works will be undertaken. My Department will be in further contact with the patron when any further update is available.

In the interim period, my Department will be making arrangements to extend the school's current lease on its temporary premises until June 2018.

When the school was initiated, the parents were told that their children would be in temporary accommodation for the first year only. The school community is now facing into its fourth school year at the Glebe golf club on the Kildalkey Road, where it is currently housed, despite the divestment process having been concluded last year. The parents were told the refurbishment would take 14 weeks but as the Minister outlined no work has been carried out and the board of management has exhausted all efforts in trying to seek clarification in respect of the situation.

The parents understand that the section of the Department that approves the funding is now refusing to provide the money for the refurbishment as it believes it is too costly and it is in an internal disagreement with the section in the Department which sanctioned the old convent school building. It would have made more sense to check the cost and feasibility of the location, which is beside three other schools, before sanctioning it as a new school.

The current location is hindering enrolment numbers, which is restricting staff growth because the golf club is located on a country road, the Kildalkey Road, and there are no footpaths or infrastructure. The situation is limiting the school choice for many parents in Trim, which as the Minister is aware is a growing town and people are looking for choices such as Educate Together. The school will reach its full capacity by next year. What the Minister has outlined is very disappointing given the context of what has been provided in information to the parents who were told it would be a 14-week refurbishment period.

It does seem that the issue at the heart of the matter relates to the complexity of the refurbishment of a listed structure. I understand the Deputy's concern if the current location is not satisfactory for parents. However, my Department will have to be satisfied that the investment represents the best value for money and is the best solution for parents and children in the longer term. I will bring the concern raised by the Deputy to the attention of the officials in terms of the school's progress being hampered in its current location. I know Trim well but I do not know the precise status of the individual buildings concerned and what the level of refurbishment is that is a cause of concern. However, I will ask that the situation be reviewed in light of what the Deputy has said.

The Minister is correct that the situation is not satisfactory. The school is in a golf club on the Kildalkey Road, which as he knows is a country road. There are no footpaths and the school is located a couple of miles from the town. The school will have 60 pupils this September.

I am pleased the Minister will bring the matter to the attention of the officials because one of the biggest bugbears has been the lack of communication between the Department and Trim Educate Together national school about what has been happening, especially as we were advised that it would be a 14-week refurbishment period.

My office was in contact with the principal, Karen Reilly, yesterday and she said that if a parent of a prospective pupil asks how long the school will be in the temporary accommodation and when it will be able to move into the new permanent school that she would not be able to answer the question. The school was under the impression as well that funding would be provided through the redress scheme for the development of the school site. The bottom line is that there is a campus available in the town that is ready to go and which provides the necessary campus facilities for a growing town centre.

That is where the people are, that is where the town centre is, and that is where Trim Educate Together wants to be. Being out a country road a couple of miles in a golf club is not a satisfactory situation for the parents, the children and the staff who want to educate their children in the Trim Educate Together school.

There may be a bit of a misunderstanding with the redress scheme. This was offered by a religious order as part of its contribution to the general redress scheme. It does not mean that a redress fund is available to upgrade the school. It was a contribution by the order to meet some of the commitments it made to contribute to the cost of redress. The works involved in this particular location appear to be more complex than was first envisaged. I will, however, bring the concern to the attention of my officials and I can see the point the Deputy is making.

Student Retention Rates

Carol Nolan

Question:

31. Deputy Carol Nolan asked the Minister for Education and Skills his plans to address the non-progression rates in institutes of technology. [24756/17]

Will the Minister outline his plans to address the high non-progression rates in institutes of technology?

The Higher Education Authority, HEA, has recently published its latest study of progression in Irish higher education, which provides an analysis of data relating to non-progression in 2013-14 of full-time undergraduate new entrants to HEA funded institutions.  The study shows that the proportion of new entrants who did not progress overall is 15% across all sectors and National Framework of Qualifications, NFQ, levels. This compares with 16% in 2012-13. That is a small improvement.

Below average progression rates continue in the fields of construction and related services, computer science and engineering, with variation between sectors and institutions. There is, however, some improvement reported in progression rates for computer science, with rates increasing from 80% to 84%. Institutes of technology rates have increased from 74% to 80% compared with universities from 85% to 88%. This would indicate that the funding made available for retention measures is having a positive impact.

One of the key objectives my Department has set for higher education is to improve equity of access and student pathways. The HEA works with the institutes to improve recruitment and to tackle early dropout. There are a wide range of initiatives that can contribute to better recruitment and retention. These include access programmes, surveys of student experiences, extra tuition in areas of known difficulty, and improvements in first year experience.

The HEA is working to ensure good practice in this area is disseminated and implemented across all institutions and disciplines. The HEA has produced a discussion paper on the factors that contribute to student success.  A working group has been established, which is chaired by the HEA, and it comprises representatives from across the higher education sector. The intention is to identify the type of strategies and measures that have been shown to be successful in different institutional contexts. The national forum for the enhancement of teaching and learning is facilitating a focused scoping exercise to inform the activities of the working group. The scoping exercise is being chaired by the Union of Students of Ireland. This will ensure the student voice is central to this process. It is expected that the working group will produce its report by the end of 2017.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The research shows that there are certain factors consistently associated with non-progression in courses. These include prior educational attainment and parental occupation. Colleges are encouraged to develop access and progress in their strategies. A role can also be played by broadening the choice of education and training paths available to students, and my ambition is that 20% of pupils would have the option of apprenticeships or traineeships in the coming years.

I thank the Minister for his response. It is important we address this issue as soon as possible. The fact the non-progression rate stands at 15% is extremely worrying. The Minister has pointed out that there was improvement in some courses, but there are courses such as construction and level 6 and level 7 courses that still have an unacceptably high rate of non-progression. The Minister is aware that we have had meetings of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills where many academics from the institutes of technology clearly outlined the impact of the lack of funding in the sector. Many of the academics spoke of how they were going out of their way to support students, disadvantaged students and students with disabilities and special needs and how they were finding it extremely difficult to do so. This issue needs urgent action. I would like to see concrete actions and timeframes. The Minister has said there will be a range of measures introduced, but we need a timeframe. Those academics are at the end of their tether in the institutes of technology and it is unfair to subject staff to that sort of pressure.

There are initiatives that are proving successful. This is about looking at the individual students, asking why they drop out and seeing what has gone wrong. Some of the access programmes have been very successful because they support students right through their transition and perhaps offer help with supplementary studies. Sometimes mathematics might be a problem, for example, for students whose maths preparation was not adequate for their chosen course.

It is not just a question of resources right across the sector; it is about policies being designed. Obviously, each institution is independent and the HEA, as I outlined in the reply, is looking to see what the best practice is and is seeking to mainstream that. From the overall framework we set targets for each institution, and reducing drop-out rates is a key target. We review the performance of institutions on this measure. This is why the HEA has taken this new initiative to try to improve the practice within each institution. It is hoped this will be crowned with success. It can be seen, across the various qualifications, that perhaps some people make mistakes in their choices. This goes back to Deputy Thomas Byrne's comments earlier that some students may pick a science subject when they may have been better off choosing an apprenticeship route. That scenario might have been better for all concerned rather than high placement rates. We need to work across the spectrum to reduce the figures of non-progression.

I totally agree with the Minister's point that students may make mistakes or errors in choices. Would the Minister not agree, however, that this is due to the cuts in guidance counsellors and the impact of that measure? Those cuts were at second and third level. The Minister has rightly pointed this out and I am glad he has acknowledged it. That is the reason.

I know the HEA is trying to improve practice, but I believe that the Action Plan for Education is quite ambiguous on the issue. It commits to no more than establishing a working group and identifying measures for consideration. Perhaps the Minister could give an update on the progress of the working group. How many meetings has it had? Will there be a report and - a key point - when will it be published? It is not good enough to simply identify measures. We need a clear commitment that action will be taken. We all acknowledge that there are serious problems around non-progression. It may be a good start to commit to the establishment of apprenticeships as identified by the Apprenticeship Council. We know there are skills gaps, as the Joint Committee on Education and Skills heard last week. It is my understanding that only three proposals have been implemented from the 85 proposals that were identified in 2015. The Action Plan for Education promised us ten new apprenticeship programmes to commence at the end of 2016. Clearly this is not the case. Will the Minister commit to providing the funding that is so badly needed? Will the Minister commit to ensuring the new apprenticeships come on stream for September 2017?

The Deputy has raised a number of issues. With regard to guidance counselling, 66% of the guidance provision will be back in place by this coming September. It is hoped this will equip young people to make better choices. The Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, has outlined the ambition to treble the number of places on apprenticeships and traineeships over the next four years. This would represent about 20% of the cohort which would have the option of going to an apprenticeship or a traineeship. This would be a dramatic change in the range of options available to young people. Deputy Nolan is right that we also need to look at the role of industry as well as the role of the education sector, and this is why building links between education and industry is very important. We could bring to bear much more information about what jobs are really like in modern enterprise sectors today and we could give young people access to that information during transition year and at other opportunities. One of the things I am hoping to work through the regional fora is getting enterprise more actively involved in that practical guidance.

Back to School Costs

Carol Nolan

Question:

32. Deputy Carol Nolan asked the Minister for Education and Skills his plans to address school costs. [24755/17]

Will the Minister please outline how he intends to implement the recent circular on back-to-school costs? I would especially like to hear how the Minister will assess the implementation of the circular and the rate of premium capitation to be paid to schools as an incentive in reducing back-to-school costs.

My ambition is to make the education and training service the best within a decade. To deliver on my ambition to be the best, we have to improve information and complaint procedures for parents and students, particularly in relation to costs.

I want to give parents a strong voice in ensuring costs are always kept to a minimum. My Department recently published circular 32/2017, which details the measures to be adopted by schools to reduce the cost of school uniforms and other costs. The publication of this circular was one of the actions outlined in the Action Plan for Education 2016-2019.

Schools have to do everything possible to keep costs down for parents, including the use of generic items, sew-on or iron-on crests and making sure that various elements of the uniform can be purchased in multiple stores. In the Action Plan for Education I have committed to the restoration of capitation payments. In restoring capitation payments, where schools have introduced these cost-effective principles, they will receive a premium capitation payment.

Full transparency in the use of any voluntary contributions is important information for parents to have. The parent and student charter will require every school to set out a financial statement, which will include information on how voluntary contributions are used.

This is part of a suite of measures I am introducing, including the school admissions Bill, which will reform information and procedures around the process of school enrolment and the commencement of fitness to teach, which, for the first time, will allow a complaint to be made about a registered teacher to the Teaching Council.

I welcome that the Department is examining the issue of back-to-school costs, which, as consistently highlighted by Sinn Féin, puts a huge amount of pressure on families every year. I welcome that it is acknowledged. However, I am concerned about the lack of detail in the circular. I wonder whether the Minister's approach in this regard is the right one. For example, capitation in schools has been already cut by 11% and it is wrong to link capitation to schools' efforts to reduce back-to-school costs. It is critically important that capitation is restored to schools as soon as possible. I was disappointed that provision was not made for this in the last budget.

I am concerned that schools will have a different rate of capitation, which will cause confusion. This will also introduce an element of inconsistency in the funding model for schools. Will schools lose out on funding if school costs rise and what model will be used to allocate the funding? There are a lot of unanswered questions in respect of this circular. Can the Minister confirm that all schools will have their full capitation rates restored as a matter of priority - an issue I have also raised with the Minister on the education committee - and can he set out a timeframe for the restoration of capitation because schools are struggling to pay running costs?

I am glad the Deputy welcomes this measure. Each year, the Irish League of Credit Unions outlines the pressure on parents in terms of school costs. Surveys carried out by my Department have shown that the principles I have put into this keen cost approach are ones that parents generally support. The type of issues we will be looking at in terms of whether a school is compliant include whether a school is providing for generic choice for school uniforms and other items; whether the items are available in various stores; whether the school operates a book rental scheme and whether, if it has an exclusive agreement with a provider, it is tendered regularly. These are fairly clear issues on which we can make an assessment of whether a school is making a reasonable contribution towards keeping costs down for parents. It is perfectly reasonable that schools that are making the effort would be given a premium in terms of support from the State. It is a partnership and that approach is one that not only asks everyone to do this, which is important, but also provides an incentive for schools that make a real effort.

I thank the Minister for his detailed response. I welcome the acknowledgement that back-to-school costs is an issue but I do not agree with his approach to link it to school capitation. I think that is very unfair. Schools have managed to do more with less money and this is not the right approach. I am still unclear as to how the Department will implement this proposal. Will schools be expected to report to the Department on an annual basis in respect of school costs? How will the Department collect data on school costs on an annual basis? In my view, the type of approach being taken will only create problems. What happens in cases where schools do not have the resources to implement a school book rental scheme, for example, due to cuts in middle management posts? Will these schools be penalised further?

Will the Minister accept that additional resources need to be provided to schools to enable them to meet the aspiration of a truly free education system and will he implement the full recommendations of the Oireachtas joint committee report on tackling back-to-school costs, which was published in 2013 and remains sitting on a shelf? Can the Minister set out a timeframe for the implementation of the Oireachtas report on tackling back-to-school costs?

What we are doing is introducing fairly practical measures to establish compliance with these principles. We are also introducing a parent and student charter and we are giving parents more say in the decisions that schools make. We are trying to reach a situation whereby everyone feels it is in the interests of the school and the parent group to ensure that costs are kept to a minimum in order that parents do not have this additional burden. We have yet to work out the details of how we assess compliance, how we measure contribution and the impact on capitation but the principle that we need to bring down costs is broadly supported across the House.

In regard to book rental, we provide support to schools in respect of book rental schemes. Most schools operate a book rental scheme but we want to ensure that every school does so. We are introducing practical measures that will bring about change. This will take time to reach its full benefit but it is a move in the right direction. I welcome the Deputy's support. I will look at the Oireachtas report to see if contains any additional initiatives that we should be considering.

Student Grant Scheme Eligibility

Thomas Pringle

Question:

33. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Education and Skills his plans to allow access to SUSI grants to students from Ireland that are currently studying a level 5 equivalent course in a college (details supplied) in view of the fact that students on level 6 courses are currently entitled to the grant; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24463/17]

This question relates to the thousands of students from Donegal who are attending the North West Regional College in Derry city on level 5 QQI equivalency courses but are unable to access student supports in that regard from the State.

I thank Deputy Pringle for raising this issue. Under the terms of my Department's student grant scheme, grant assistance is available to eligible students attending approved third level courses in approved institutions. An approved course is a full-time undergraduate course of not less than two years' duration or a full time postgraduate course of not less than one year's duration pursued in an approved institution. In addition, to qualify for grant assistance, an applicant must satisfy the prescribed conditions of the scheme, including those relating to residence, means, nationality and previous academic attainment.

Students from this State who are attending undergraduate courses in Northern Ireland can apply for maintenance grants in respect of approved courses at higher national diploma level or higher, which are pursued in colleges approved for the purpose of the student grant scheme. The student grant scheme is not available to students from this State who are attending PLC equivalent courses outside of the State, such as the specific programme referred to by the Deputy.

The crux of the problem is that students attending PLC equivalent courses outside the State are not entitled to supports. This needs to be examined by the Department. Approximately 2,400 students from Donegal are taking courses in the North West Regional College in Derry. This access to third level education is important to them. While students undertaking a higher national diploma at the North West Regional College can access the student grant scheme, students on the level 5 courses cannot. The purpose of the question is to ask the Minister to put this matter on the Department's agenda, with a view to allowing students taking level 5 courses in the North West Regional College to access SUSI grant supports.

By way of background, there is an element of international consistency in the way we do this. I understand that all countries adopt a similar approach. Supports for higher education programmes, but not PLC-type programmes, is the consistent practice across most member states of the EU. If one introduces a scheme that extends support to one EU country, one is under obligation to provide a similar level of support to other EU countries. There are a number of problems in regard to what the Deputy is proposing, including what might be expected to be a small extension proving to be a much wider extension because the rules have to be applied consistently across all citizens who have the right to free movement and so on. That is the type of practical obstacle that would arise. Also, the range of PLC is pretty thoroughly covered within the colleges here such that there is a full range of choice available within this jurisdiction.

The fact that the practice is the same across all countries is not sufficient justification to not do what I am proposing. A different situation pertains in Ireland, taking into account the island of Ireland, the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement. It is not sufficient to say that a range of courses is provided in the South because if that were the case, there would not be 2,400 students taking equivalency courses in the North West Regional College. These courses lead to QQI equivalency qualifications and there are particular circumstances pertaining to Border areas to which consideration should be given. I ask that the Minister give serious consideration to this matter in light of the serious difficulties being experienced by students in Border areas in accessing third level education and getting a start on the educational attainment route, which is evident from the number of students travelling to Derry to access courses because they cannot do so in Donegal.

There is an issue of reciprocity.

If Ireland provides certain supports for participation in a college overseas there is an expectation that a citizen from overseas has the right of participation in an Irish college. There is a quid pro quo for any extension in this respect and it is not as simple as deciding to pick a country or college and extending support to that place because of its geographic convenience. This suggestion would need to be examined carefully before we could consider it as it would raise an expectation under free movement rules in the EU. When one extends something to another national, one does not exclude others. I will, however, ask my officials to look at the matter afresh.

School Accommodation Provision

Catherine Martin

Question:

34. Deputy Catherine Martin asked the Minister for Education and Skills the communicative process, the system of review and the progressing and implementation strategy in place between himself and the forward planning section of the planning and building unit of his Department in relation to ministerial announcements of new schools and or major builds, especially in respect of the regularity, frequency, nature and duration of such meetings between him and the section; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24726/17]

I seek clarity on the relationship between the Minister's office and the forward planning section of the Department in respect of the manner in which they communicate on the progress of announced new schools and major builds. This arises from the recent experiences of a number of schools in my constituency where the respective communicated experience with the Department has been immersed in uncertainty and confusion over future plans. The schools in question have found communications in respect of future plans and decisions to be erratic, indecisive, unreliable and ever-changing.

The original question does not include all those issues. The Deputy may find the reply a bit generic.

In the process leading to ministerial announcements of new schools, my Department carries out nationwide demographic exercises at primary and post-primary level to determine where additional school accommodation, including new schools, will be needed. When this process has been completed, I receive a detailed memorandum with recommendations for the establishment of new schools. Once I have approved the recommendations, an announcement is issued advising the details of where the new schools will be required.

In order to determine who will operate the school, a separate patronage process is subsequently commenced and I receive a memorandum advising on the details of the process, when it should commence and the closing date for applications. Once approved, a ministerial announcement is issued inviting patron bodies and prospective patrons to apply.

When the assessment of patronage applications has been completed by the forward planning section, a report is then sent to the independent new schools establishment group, NSEG, with detailed analysis of each area. The NSEG reviews the report and submits its observations and recommendations to me. On this basis, I make the final decision on patronage of the new schools. Depending on the issues to be addressed in the course of an overall process, I will seek updates or meet with the relevant section as required.

The process is similar for major building works. The demographic need is established using the various CSO, departmental and local authority input on demographic trends and projects are chosen to achieve the best fit for emerging needs in an economic manner. A list of major projects, covering a multi-annual programme, is then drawn up.

The nub of the question was on what happened following patronage and following the announcement. A concrete example of where there needs to be more oversight and communication between the Minister's office and the forward planning section is Ballinteer Educate Together national school, which was announced as a primary school in 2012. A deal was negotiated between the Department and St. Tiernan's community school to house the school temporarily until it received planning permission for a permanent home. St. Tiernan's agreed because it was promised a PE hall but, five years later, there is no permanent home for Ballinteer Educate Together and no PE hall for St. Tiernan's.

It is the manner in which Ballinteer Educate Together school is learning about its future which is of the greatest concern. In November last year the principal, staff and parents learned of the Department's plans to move the school to the Notre Dame campus via a tweet. That is unacceptable. Last month, parents from Ballinteer heard by word of mouth from other people that a Gaelscoil would now be moving into the junior school at Notre Dame. Despite the fact that only 27 school days are left until the summer break and despite repeatedly requesting the layout of classrooms, Ballinteer Educate Together has not been guided through exactly how the move will work or whether it will happen in June, July or August, and it has not been afforded a visit to the new campus by the Department. To compound the departmental communications fiasco, when the principal recently rang to seek clarity, she was told the forward planning section was under pressure planning for other schools. It is not good enough and I appeal to the Minister to communicate with the forward planning section so that clarity can be provided.

Incredible confusion and stress arises when a school goes from, say, stage 2b and is waiting on the final go-ahead for the commencement of work on a project. It is very difficult for traditional parish schools because the budget for new school buildings for large primary schools with 1,000 pupils, or secondary schools with even more pupils, is between €5 million and €10 million. The task of managing the budget falls to a voluntary part-time board and although I find the attitude of many officials positive there is enormous confusion in the Department, causing stress to school boards, principals and parents. We are still recovering from the construction collapse because lots of schools have lost various technical teams or had to replace them. The Department, particularly the Minister's own office, does not seem to be able to address these issues.

A huge range of issues have been raised. I am not fully briefed on Ballinteer but my recollection of previous discussions in the House is that the site chosen was refused planning permission by the local authority, which was confirmed by An Bord Pleanála. Attempts to resolve it resulted in another refusal and an appeal to An Bord Pleanála. There has been particular difficulty in getting resolution to an access problem on the chosen site. I do not know why that occurred and any planning process can run into difficulties.

For managing these projects we have a patronage model and individual patrons run schools and bring forward proposals, for which there is a process within my Department. We are managing it pretty efficiently and we spend all the money we get. We built 22,000 school places last year but, with a budget of that scale with up to €20 million for individual projects, we have to plan our resources and release them in accordance with the budget schedules we have to meet with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. There can be hold-ups in the system, which ensure the spending flow is in accordance with the available resources, and the building unit has developed its approach over time. Nevertheless, I am open to looking at ways in which it can be improved.

Traditional parish schools are getting a raw deal.

It is not acceptable for a school to learn of the plans for it by social media or word of mouth and that has to stop. I ask the Minister to keep schools informed of progress. Is he aware of the problems making progress with new builds? Is this lack of communication happening throughout the country? Is the forward planning department vastly underresourced and does the Minister need to prioritise funding for the section? Dublin Rathdown is a constituency which will soon not have enough schools to meet its needs. How is the Department planning for the future needs of schools and children? The lack of vision in the Department is worrying.

The issues also affect another school in my constituency, Our Lady's Grove, where a large portion of the land has been put up for sale. I appreciate that the land is private land being sold by private organisations but the Department should seek to protect the lands at whatever cost, whether that be through purchase or seeking a long-term lease. I ask the Minister to keep communication open with these schools and to do what he can to protect our schools, our open spaces and our children's education.

I do not pretend that the planning and building unit in the Department is perfect but when a site chosen with local input is refused planning permission on two occasions it slows down the anticipated progress. When a site unexpectedly becomes available the Department moves to acquire it, as happened in the case of Notre Dame, so that it would be in a position to facilitate schools in a new site.

The Department is seeking to respond flexibly to a very rapidly changing environment. The construction of a school building does not automatically run on schedule every time, as Deputy Martin saw in regard to the Ballinteer Educate Together school. I am happy to consider any suggestions on this issue. The system is tried and tested and delivers high-quality buildings relatively cost-effectively. It is impressive that it is meeting the huge demand caused by the pressure of new pupils on the system. However, I am always open to improvements and will ask for an examination of the processes of the building unit to ascertain whether practical improvements can be made.

Skills Development

Bernard Durkan

Question:

35. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Education and Skills the extent to which he is satisfied regarding the availability on an ongoing basis of sufficiently-qualified young persons with sufficient skill sets to meet the demands of the modern workplace, academically and technically; the degree to which corrective steps are needed to address deficiencies in this vital area in the future; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24654/17]

This question concerns the extent to which an adequately-skilled workforce is available to ensure the continued economic expansion and growth of the country.

I thank Deputy Durkan for this very important question.

The National Skills Council, which was established in April and had its first meeting on 15 May, will oversee research and provide advice on the prioritisation and delivery of identified skills needs. As part of the Action Plan for Education, €36.5 million has been committed to the expansion of higher education in 2017 and there is a commitment to grow further in the years ahead. The Department is also consulting on an employer-Exchequer mechanism to support the effort to meet skills gaps. To promote lifelong learning in the workplace and provide for employee development, the further education and training authority, SOLAS, is preparing an employee development policy framework due to be published in 2017.

The recently-published Action Plan to Expand Apprenticeship and Traineeship in Ireland 2016-2020 sets out targets to increase new enrolments on apprenticeships and traineeships from the current level of fewer than 6,500 to 14,000 by 2020. Following the first call for proposals, several new apprenticeships have begun and more are to be launched later in 2017. The good news is that a second call for proposals for new apprenticeships was issued on 8 May 2017.

The requirement to provide for Ireland's future skills needs is considered in the determination of funding allocations through the service level planning process in the further education and training sector and the system performance framework at higher education level. I, along with the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, this week launched Springboard 2017, which will provide 6,471 higher education places in areas of identified skills needs. This year, the eligibility criteria have been expanded to include homemakers and those in employment who wish to upskill or reskill in specific high-demand skills areas such as biopharma and med tech.

The Deputy's question is very relevant. We have identified relevant needs and meetings are taking place. Appropriate structures are in place for 2017.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply. To what degree do he and his Department continue to identify the likely skills requirements over the next five years? Which areas have been identified as most vulnerable in terms of our ability to meet employers' requirements for necessary skills? I ask that the skills considered include computer technology, which is becoming ever more important. The IT sector needs to be catered for in the area of skills likely to come available and in regard to job creation. The job creation efforts of all Departments will encounter great difficulty unless the skills are available. I seek clarification on those issues.

The regional skills fora, RSF, operate under the National Skills Council. To help foster stronger links between employers and the education and training sector, the Department of Education and Skills has established a network of nine regional skills fora, each with a forum manager. The fora have been established to align with wider Government policy initiatives on regional economic development, including the regional action plan for jobs. Indications are that the RSF are having a positive impact at regional level by bringing together key stakeholders to develop swift responses to emerging needs and to gather better data of the needs of enterprise and employers in the region.

On the Deputy's second question on computing skills, we have issued a second call for new apprenticeships. In my earlier reply to Question No. 25 tabled by Deputy Thomas Byrne, I detailed some skills and apprenticeships that we have at present such as ICT network engineer and ICT software developer at level 6 and manufacturing and ICT engineering, which is level 7, as well as engineering service management accounting technicians. There also is a level 6 apprenticeship in IFS financial services.

To what extent is the Department of Education and Skills in contact with potential employers to monitor the issue from the employers' point of view and determine the degree to which they think particular skills are likely to be required in future or whether, on the basis of information available, the Department will be able to meet that skills demand?

Employers are represented on the regional skills forecasting group. The Department is in constant contact with employers through the nine regional skills fora regarding skills development and the situation in terms of the call-out for skills. The Department has been kept up to date with the needs and development of skills throughout the country by the nine regional fora, each of which has a manager who reports to the Department every two to three months.

Schools Mental Health Strategies

Thomas Byrne

Question:

36. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills his views on whether the allocation of 300 classroom hours, rising to 400 hours, to the new wellness programme at junior cycle will reduce the number of hours schools can devote to science and language education in many schools that teach four classes per week in these subjects; and his further views on whether this is inconsistent with the ambition to improve science and language skills. [24667/17]

This question asks the Minister about school hours to be devoted to well-being. He is allocating 300 classroom hours, rising to 400, to the wellness programme at junior cycle. However, this will replace many existing classes and will reduce the amount of time that can be devoted to science and languages. People are concerned by that. It was reported at Christmas time that these were to be hours devoted to mental health but the reality is somewhat different.

Well-being and mental health are major priorities for my Department and are set out in the Action Plan for Education.  In the context of increasing concerns about suicide and mental health among young people, it is crucial that we place a major focus on this issue and that is what we are doing through the Action Plan for Education.  The Deputy is aware it contains a number of actions in regard to both science and language education, which are also priority areas.  An ambitious ten-year foreign languages strategy and a STEM education policy statement and implementation plan will shortly be published by the Department.

The allocation of up to 400 hours for well-being was agreed as part of the new framework for the junior cycle in 2015. I am satisfied that the time allocated for the well-being programme, which is a minimum of 300 hours over three years from 2017, increasing to 400 hours from 2020, will not negatively impact on the time available for other subjects such as science and languages. This is because well-being is built on a number of pillars, which include the currently-offered subjects of civic, social and political education, CSPE, physical education, PE, and social, personal and health education, SPHE. These three existing curriculum inputs contribute 275 hours of the 300 hours that schools will be required to allocate to well-being. The extra 25 hours amounts to about eight hours, or 12 40-minute classes, per year. It is important to note that well-being is an area of learning, not a subject, and students will learn about it through a wide range of curricular subjects and through the provision of whole-school activities. There therefore will be no requirement for schools to find an additional 100 hours from within the timetable. Most schools will reduce the number of subjects undertaken by students to reduce curriculum overload, as advised in the junior cycle framework and in Departmental circulars. This will also allow increased flexibility to schools with regard to time allocation.

Although a well-being programme has never been more necessary, I am worried that it has become a buzzword for the Government. Coding was a buzzword in 2016 and this year well-being is becoming a buzzword. The follow-up is not being provided. There has been extremely limited follow-up to coding provision.

The Minister is dressing up PE and the old civic, social and political education, CSPE, and taking hours from other academic subjects to provide these well-being classes. They have never been more necessary. However, there is something slightly underhand in this. It is part of the solution to the severe mental health crisis that exists in society, but the Department is not being honest about it. A report at Christmas of an interview given by the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, described the classes as mental health hours. That is not what it is. PE is a large part of this, and the Minister needs to come clean and explain what schools are supposed to do and when they are to do it.

The well-being programme is to become a whole-school activity and it is to go beyond those individual curricular areas of PE, social, personal and health education, SPHE, and civic, social and political education, CSPE, to integrate those into a whole-school package. There will be a plan developed in each school. Supports are being provided to principals to design this plan in an integrated way. I have met people from a number of schools in various parts of the country and there is a great belief that this is a vitally important programme. There is guidance on well-being workshops which will be delivered by guidance councillors. They are going to be a part of this process. There is the possibility of healthy eating weeks being provided in schools, which will be an integrated programme and involve not just those subject areas but perhaps home economics and other areas. The assessment is that developing student resilience and their capacity to cope in areas where they are much more challenged is important, and this well-being programme is going beyond the existing subject areas to provide a whole-school support to pupils. It is the right direction in which to go.

I was happy to be involved in St. Kieran's community school in Kells. It brought in a first aid programme which is now going to be rolled out in the well-being programme. That illustrated to me that there was nothing really there for well-being and that they were actively looking for good ideas. They got a good idea in the first aid programme in St. Kieran's community school.

There are officials in the Department of Education and Skills who are working really hard, but I worry that the direction is not coming from the Minister. The direction changes with the wind. We have had coding, we have well-being and we will probably hear about modern languages in a few weeks or there will be a science, technology and mathematics, STEM, plan as the latest big idea. However, it is all being mashed into one because there is no extra space for this. Something is going to suffer, and I do not believe the Minister has been open and clear about that.

I do not agree. This was developed after much thought. Extensive consultation went into developing the well-being programme. It was identified by the stakeholders as an important element. Extensive planning has gone into this. Not only are we restoring guidance counselling and guidance teachers, who will be very important to this, we are also expanding the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, programme and we have developed supports and materials that will be part of this programme. There is continuing professional development, CPD, on well-being. There are modules on mental health, gender and sexual orientation, child protection and anti-bullying. Materials are being developed and workshops are being put in place in order that schools can integrate this into their whole-school approach. No one doubts that young people need this level of support in school. The school cannot solve all the problems, but having that level of support within schools is a positive and beneficial thing for education. It impinges on all subjects. We are going in the right direction.

Third Level Institutions Governance

Joan Burton

Question:

37. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Minister for Education and Skills if his attention has been drawn to reports in the media of audits into third level institutions that have revealed a range of governance issues, including additional payments to staff and non-compliance with procurement rules; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24658/17]

Several universities and institutes of higher education have tens of millions of euro in private trusts and foundations and alumni funds. These institutions are resisting declaring these moneys in their accounts despite pressure from regulators and from the Government. This is a scandal that is besetting the Department of Education and Skills, damaging third level education in Ireland. We do not know what is happening with these very significant resources.

This question is about general governance across higher education. The Higher Education Authority, HEA, oversees governance issues through a number of mechanisms, including the return of annual governance statements from each of the institutions, annual system funding reviews and meetings with the Comptroller and Auditor General concerning audits of accounts, and acting upon those. Indeed, it was as a result of acting upon one of these that the particular issue of the foundations came to light. These are now being integrated into the accounts of these institutions. That is progressing, and many of the colleges have already done so and others are in the course of doing so.

As part of my Department and the HEA's ongoing work to develop, in co-operation with the higher education sector, a robust system for good governance and accountability in the sector, it was agreed that a programme of rolling reviews would be set up which would cover specific elements of governance. This process involved setting a centralised procurement framework to deliver the reviews, the aim of which is to evaluate the effectiveness of governance in organisations against stated policy, best practice and national and international standards. My Department agreed with the HEA that the first rolling review of governance compliance would be on procurement. This review was undertaken in 2016. As a follow-up to the review and to increase awareness of the need to comply with national procurement guidelines, the HEA, together with Education Procurement Services, EPS, organised a higher education procurement summit.

It has been agreed that the next rolling review will be carried out on non-compliance of payments, including any payments to staff at higher education institutions. The process of tendering for this review is under way in the HEA.

The Department’s overall intention is to standardise its approach to governance compliance across the education sector, taking into account the diverse nature of education sectoral bodies and having regard to the core standards of governance as articulated in the 2016 code. In developing this approach, the Department acknowledges governance codes do not override existing statutory requirements such as the Companies Act, ethics legislation and other obligations imposed by the specific statutory provisions relating to the body itself and any other relevant legislation.

Is the Minister saying that he is washing his hands of this problem and that because many of the third level institutions and universities are established under particular statutes, he, as Minister, is powerless to do much about it? The public are going to be genuinely scandalised when they find out the extent of what has been happening in terms of the money in these accounts, which are essentially off the balance sheets of their parent institution.

The Minister mentioned the question of salaries. Will he tell us if it is true that in some institutions numbers of staff are being paid over and above their public salaries and that in some cases these payments run into tens of thousands? It may be that the institutions have good arguments for this, but the fact is there is no accountability for it. At a time when educational resources are scarce, everyone is pleased to see universities fund-raising. However, they need to be accountable for the fund-raising. The Minister is being quite evasive about this.

My Department and the HEA are very alert to the need for effective governance. We have, as the Deputy knows, given institutions of education considerable autonomy. They have to use that autonomy carefully. They are subject to audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General who has, as he has done in other public institutions, revealed cases of bad practice. Those are being addressed. Going beyond that, we have outlined a specific programme of rolling reviews that are now in place to enhance the governance. Besides the annual reviews of governance which we receive, we are undertaking cross-institution reviews and focusing on areas where there have been particular concerns. Non-compliance of payments is a particular example where there is now a review in place. We are taking a very proactive approach to this.

On the specifics of the foundations and bringing them on balance sheet, we have been working with the Comptroller and Auditor General. Many of the institutions have now regularised their accounts and others are in the course of doing so to make sure these foundations are properly reported. Many institutions have funding sources other than just the State. That is how these developed. They have been commendable sources of funding, but they do need to be accounted for in a proper way in order that we can see transparency. This is an issue the Comptroller and Auditor General has identified and it is being addressed.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.