Other Questions

Schools Building Projects Status

Niamh Smyth

Question:

6. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Education and Skills the status of the development of a new school (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31577/17]

I am seeking an update from the Minister on the status of the development of the new Holy Family school in Cootehill, County Cavan.

The Deputy will be aware from the reply given by the Minister of State, Deputy John Paul Phelan, to her Topical Issue matter last week of the current status of this project.

The stage 2(b) detailed design report was recently submitted to my Department by the board of management and its design team. Following receipt of this submission, my Department authorised the board of management to instruct its design team to commence the pre-qualification process for the assessment of suitably qualified contractors to which the project can be tendered. This authorisation was granted by my Department in order to expedite the tender process for this project by running the pre-qualification in tandem with the finalisation of stage 2(b). The design team has commenced this process and the closing date for the e-tenders advertisement was 19 June 2017. The design team has informed my Department that it expects to complete its assessment of the pre-qualification submissions in the coming weeks and it will then submit its report on the shortlist of contractors to my Department.

Following examination of the stage 2(b) report, it became apparent that the submission was incomplete and some additional items which should have been included in the original submission were requested by my Department. A revised submission has been received, which is currently under review. Upon completion of the review of the revised 2(b) submission, my Department will immediately revert to the school with a timeframe to proceed to tender and construction stage.

The stage 2(b) submission is a vital part in the design process and is the final stage prior to the seeking of tenders for the construction of the school building.

The Department first approved the project for provision of the Holy Family school in 2015. The Minister will be aware there have been many delays since then. It has taken almost 15 years to get to this point. The Minister will be aware that the design team submission was returned to the school five weeks after it was originally submitted on the basis that information was not correctly labelled or in the right order. I hope that the Department does not intend to further delay progress of this project on the basis of the manner in which a submission is made. There are three weeks remaining within which the Minister must approve stage 2(b). Will he confirm today that the Department will give approval to proceed with the tender and will he give a commitment that his Department will work with the board of management to ensure approval of a contractor at the end of August because I do not want to have to raise this matter again with the Minister in September?

A number of Deputies have raised this matter in the House. I note Deputy Brendan Smith has similarly tabled a question on this issue, which we will come to shortly. The Department is aware of the local concern.

I do not need to tell the Deputy that a number of matters caused the delay which were not within the control of the Department. A consultant mechanical and electrical engineer was replaced on the design team. As the Deputy is aware, the original proposal was different from the current one. It was based on a two-phase construction programme, but it was decided at the request of the school that this should be changed and we now have a different proposal, which is advancing. The delays in the stage 2B report were caused by omissions, the details of which the Department requires. I am pleased to say the problems identified with the first submission have been addressed but the report has to be fully reviewed. The Department has to provide objective reviews to make sure that this project, when approved and released to tender, will be constructed in a way that meets the timeframe and all the other requirements. This process must be done thoroughly. Neither I nor the building unit is in any doubt about the urgency of this case.

I welcome the Minister's response. I am delighted he is present unlike last week when he was not able to be in attendance. It is unfortunate we have had to raise this matter again. As the Minister is aware, the students and the staff in the school are working in what I can only describe as deplorable and appalling conditions. It is unfortunate we have had to raise this matter so many times in this Chamber, but we will keep doing that until this work is progressed. It is one of the most important educational facilities in Cavan-Monaghan. As the Minister is aware, it is providing education for both primary and secondary school students. I was contacted by one parent who told me that four children in his family have had to go through this school. I am not exaggerating when I say that the conditions in the school are deplorable.

I hope the Minister can work with his Department and that it, in turn, will work with the broad of management, that there will be no more delays, that this project will be progressed, that work on it will proceed and be executed as quickly as possible, and that a contractor will be in place by August.

I want to add my voice in support of what Deputy Niamh Smyth said and what Deputy Brendan Smith would also say. This is an extremely important issue that is causing much angst locally. This is a common experience of schools. They find interfacing with the Department difficult. That is no disrespect to the Department officials who are overworked and very busy, but school authorities find it difficult to communicate and get matters right. There must be some other way of reaching out to them to help them get their submissions right in order that matters can proceed at a normal pace.

I can sympathise with what Deputy Thomas Byrne said but the Department is dealing with about 2,000 projects at any given time. It has to operate on the basis of devolved responsibility where design teams develop these proposals on behalf of the patron and make submissions. The decision here to move from a two stage to a one-stage phase was the right one. That decision caused a delay but it was the correct one. There are mistakes in this process but in this case the correct decision was made. It caused a delay but it will mean that a fully integrated project will be completed in one piece for the pupils concerned. That is what we want to deliver.

School Staff

Joan Burton

Question:

7. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Minister for Education and Skills his plans to implement the recommendations of the teacher supply in Ireland technical working group report Striking the Balance; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31560/17]

Will the Minister confirm if he proposes to establish a standing group to supply, and plan for, the future needs of the teaching profession in our schools at primary and at secondary level? Does he accept the recommendations, which are a simple set of regulations, of the technical working group to plan for an adequate and appropriate supply of teachers at primary and secondary level?

The final report of the technical working group on teacher supply, Striking the Balance, was published on 9 June 2017. The report focuses on the development of a model of primary teacher supply, while outlining the work which will be required to establish a sustainable long-term model of post-primary teacher supply.

Officials of my Department are now considering how the development of a model can be progressed, from within available resources. The necessary actions will include engagement with the Higher Education Authority, HEA, in order to ensure that the supply of teachers meets demand and there is the correct balance of teachers in each of the various subject areas, as well as measures to address data requirements, in particular at post-primary level.

The Deputy will be aware that, in conjunction with the publication of the report, I announced a number of measures to increase the pool of teachers available to schools, in particular, to fill short-term vacancies. These measures are to be considered over the coming period with a view to having them in place, where appropriate, for the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year. They include: ensuring, in as far as is possible, that as many retiring and retired teachers remain on the Teaching Council register; increasing the limits for employment for a teacher while on career break; bringing to the attention of schools that final year BEd and professional masters in education students may be employed in schools for periods of up to five consecutive days.

I thank the Minister for his reply but I am not any the wiser. Is he going to establish a standing group? He said he had just published this report but it has been available for some time. Does he propose to accept the recommendation in the report on the establishment of a standing group? The report references what is required in primary education. There would seem to be a very broad consensus around that. It also suggests approaches in regard to secondary education and teacher supply.

With respect to secondary education, can the Minister indicate how many extra teachers at primary and secondary levels he proposes will be employed next year to meet the growing population of the country? A bad practice has developed at secondary level - not primary level - that should be ended. There has been a practice in some schools of splitting full-time jobs where two or more teachers end up getting bits of jobs and only a relatively small number of hours. That is very unfair to many people entering the teaching profession. Does the Minister propose to do anything about that?

At this stage, the Department is considering whether to establish a steering group and it is assessing what would be the nature, role and composition of such a group if it was put in place, and whether the internal resources of the Department could contribute to achieving some of the new data that are necessary to develop a model. The Teaching Council when it examined this admitted that it was a highly complex area. Despite its working group having worked on this for quite a considerable period, it was not able to develop a model that it considered to be robust. A good deal of work would have to be done to achieve this. The Department is quite rightly examining if it can we do this within existing resources and, if not, obviously it would be a matter that would have to be considered in the budgetary context. We have taken some short-term measures to deal with that. We will examine other potential short-term measures such as conversion courses and so on.

In terms of the projection for next year, we have already made provision for the coming September, and with respect to the following September, it is anticipated there will still be demographic growth at primary level but it is coming to an end. The main area of growth in enrolments after that will be at second level, as the bulge moves through the population pyramid.

Will the Minister indicate if he will end the practice I mentioned, which is unfair to new people entering the teaching profession. For the past three years hundreds of extra teachers have been employed every year and some schools are splitting the jobs at second level, part of that obviously is a function of subjects. It is not fair that quite a number of younger graduates in their third and fourth year of teaching at second level are ending up with bits of hours or travelling between one school and another when, with the type of co-ordination that was talked about in the standing group's report, they could get a full-time job. If we want some of our brightest and best young people to commit to becoming involved in teaching and building a rewarding career, there comes a time, certainly when they are in their third or fourth year of professional work, that they should have a full-time job.

That is what the country needs. We voted the resources to the Minister's Department to do that. That is what a committee or standing group such as this would do. It would address some of these issues. It would not necessarily land on the Minister's desk on every occasion, where he would have to reinvent the wheel. It could be done by the teaching profession itself at the various levels. There are also issues with Gaelscoileanna and how they are provided with an adequate supply of teachers.

Between September of last year and this coming September, my Department will have employed 4,800 additional teachers. We are making a very substantial investment to respond to the demographic pressure. To date, we have not had difficulty in recruiting. There are difficulties in some areas, such as substitution, as the Deputy noted correctly, but we have also made some changes to make it easier for teachers to get permanency and to develop posts for promotion. Part of the negotiations that we successfully concluded with the unions will make teaching more attractive and we hope we can meet the need even in these more difficult areas where there are particular subject problems.

The difficulties identified by the Teaching Council were not those of inactivity by the Department. They were the sheer difficulty of forecasting things such as migration, subject choices, the choices which might be made by people with, for example, a degree in physics, how many of them might choose to go into education, and how a reliable forecasting model might be developed for that. The council recognises that these are very difficult issues for which to find a satisfactory forecasting model which is why this work will take some time.

Teachers' Professional Development

Joan Burton

Question:

8. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Minister for Education and Skills the way in which his Department supports and the total investment involved in teacher continuing professional development at primary and post-primary levels; the detail as a percentage of education spending overall; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31563/17]

This is related in a sense to the previous question. It relates to continuing professional development for teachers. The Minister made a number of pointed comments about the real importance of leadership in schools at primary and secondary level. I share that view, it is critical, but the Minister should remember that every teacher, and I am surrounded by them at the moment, is a leader in his or her own classroom. A teacher who is a leader, who has an opportunity to get continuing professional development education, is what provides the best experience for pupils. Will the Minister tell us his thoughts on this? He is in the job for some time.

The Deputy's question is not just about leadership, so I will have to answer the question she originally tabled.

Continuing professional development is critical to developing leadership.

That is correct, but continuing professional development applies to all teachers, not only to the leaders in the schools.

What I am saying is that every teacher is a leader in their own classroom.

I will answer the question. A key objective in the Action Plan for Education 2016–2019 is to develop the continuum of teacher education to equip teachers with the right skills for 21st century teaching and learning and improve school leadership. The quality of our teaching profession is a critical factor in sustaining and enhancing the quality of education outcomes. Specific targets for 2017 are outlined in the action plan.

My Department spent approximately €46.5 million on teacher continuing professional development, CPD, in 2016. The teacher CPD budget represents 0.56% of my Department's overall net expenditure, and also includes higher education, because that was the question that was asked. The expenditure of €46.5 million includes all costs associated with the provision of CPD at primary and post-primary level funded by the Department.

The professional development needs of serving teachers are being addressed through the provision of an induction programme for newly qualified teachers, support for new and revised curriculum areas, including junior cycle, the new primary language curriculum and ongoing support for the curriculum generally with a particular focus on priority areas: literacy and numeracy, well-being, support for school leaders and for teachers to meet the needs of children with special educational needs.

The responsibilities of the centre for school leadership cover the range of leadership development from pre-appointment training and induction of newly appointed principals to CPD throughout leaders' careers. Other areas of expenditure include training for child protection, board of management training, a teacher fee refund scheme, teacher professional networks and a number of postgraduate programmes to meet particular identified needs such as the teaching of mathematics and special educational needs.

The Minister misunderstands me somewhat. I said two things, first that the Minister has referred to leadership in schools in the sense of people in posts of responsibility and principalships. In my view of education, every teacher is a leader in his or her own classroom because when the door to the classroom shuts, what happens in that classroom is influenced enormously by the interaction between the teacher and the pupils in the classroom. This is where continuing professional development is so important. It will also send a message of confidence to those thinking of joining the teaching profession and those in it already. In my own constituency of Dublin West there is a great number of very young teachers in new schools because we have had a population explosion. If their skills, enthusiasm and talent is to be retained, it is important that they get adequate opportunities to develop as professionals.

The Deputy did not get around to asking a question.

What is the Minister doing about it?

I agree with the Deputy entirely on the importance of teachers in transforming the learning environment. It is probably the most effective thing we can do to improve education standards. That is proven by international data as well as our own. It is heartening to see the progress we are making in mathematics, science and literacy standards. We are seeing huge improvements in these areas and that is due to the leadership of teachers in the classroom. Equally, we want to develop a stronger planning capability within the schools. We have developed systems of self-evaluation in schools in which the school principal and staff engage. That is why the centre for school leadership has been established to provide additional supports to leaders within schools who are doing that kind of planning. My own inspectorate is also working with those schools and we now have school visits that are not the usual type of thing with an cigire coming in with his red pencil to see what was going wrong but are advisory and supportive visits to schools. These are very successful and I want to see more of that done. I also want to evaluate the quality of the CPD we are doing. The Deputy is correct. It is an investment of €46.5 million. Perhaps it should be more, but we should do a deep dive to see its quality and impact, establish what is working best and how we might improve it as we go along.

Similarly, I recognise the importance of CPD in developing leadership. However, newly qualified teachers feel that induction workshops are being imposed on them. I have been contacted by a number of newly qualified teachers who have said it is a waste of time. We need to look at how we are doing it. It is fine if teachers feel they want to do extra CPD, whether in special education or IT, but it is wrong to impose anything on our newly qualified teachers, and I ask the Minister to look at those induction workshops.

There is a genuine difference between these. Most teachers do classroom practice as part of their training, but equally there is a process of people transferring from the college to the classroom setting. Principals and other members of staff are key in helping such a student develop into a member of staff and deploy their skills that they learned in college in the most effective way. They will probably have the most progressive skills available. Induction programmes, where appropriately designed, can also help to make those transitions. We often speak of the importance of transitions in education, and the transition from the education training to practical application is something to which we should devote time, but if the Deputy has particular concerns about the programme and what goes into it, we can look at improving induction supports.

Third Level Funding

Thomas P. Broughan

Question:

9. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Education and Skills the status of the feasibility study his officials are reportedly undertaking on the possible introduction of income-contingent loans for third level students; his views on income-contingent loans and the general funding of higher education; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31575/17]

A few weeks ago, Deputies, including myself, received a very good briefing from the Union of Students in Ireland and specifically from Mr. Kevin Keane, Ms Eleanor Nyhan and Mr. Kieron Pierson. They remain very opposed to the concept of income-contingent loans, which is the third option in the last year's report. The Minister told me he was preparing a technical evaluation of that option in response to previous questions and I also asked the former Taoiseach, Deputy Kenny, a while back. The Minister mentioned he hopes to deliver an extra €160 million in funding over three years to the higher education sector and a national training fund levy. Is it now time to abandon that proposal and get on with funding third level education?

I wish to emphasise at the outset that no policy decisions have been taken in this area pending the outcome of examination of the Cassells report by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills. The Cassells report, as the Deputy rightly states, considers a number of potential funding options, including the deferred payment of student fees. The report was referred to the Oireachtas committee on education and skills by my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Bruton, in order to build political consensus on the most appropriate sustainable future funding model for higher education. I look forward to receiving the recommendations from the joint committee once it has concluded consultation and engagement with relevant stakeholders.

Arising from the future funding options presented in the expert group report, technical work relating to income contingent student loans is being undertaken by an interdepartmental group chaired by the Department of Education and Skills. This work of the interdepartmental group is intended to address some of the practical issues that will have to be considered if there is a policy decision in the future to introduce an income-contingent loan scheme. It is clear that doing nothing is not an option when it comes to the future funding of higher education. To this end, the Minister, Deputy Bruton, secured additional funding in the last budget of €36.5 million. This is part of a three-year package amounting to €160 million for the sector. This is the first increased funding that was received for higher education since 2009.

I wish the Minister of State well in her new role in looking after higher education.

There are powerful arguments against income-contingent loans. We can consider the evidence from the UK, where 75% of students are expected to not pay off student debt and combined student debt now exceeds €100 billion. Those are incredible figures. We had an excellent study from Dr. Charlie Larkin from Trinity College Dublin and Dr. Shaen Corbet. Dr. Larkin's report, Public Education and Civic Responsibility in a Constrained Financial Environment, highlighted the fact that national debt would increase by approximately €10 billion over the first ten years if an income-contingent scheme was operated. Senator Bacik of the Labour Party has a motion in the Seanad on this exact subject and I have advocated that we would follow the French, Scottish and German model. The Minister and I represent constituencies where there are problems of access and there are parishes, as he knows, with less than 15% or 20% of people going to college, which is totally unacceptable. We do not want to make things harder for those people. We are an emigration nation and we do not want our children to emigrate.

I hear what the Deputy is saying. I noted at the outset that no funding model has been agreed and we are waiting for the Oireachtas education committee to come back to the Department and me on this. Last night I watched a programme on Sky about the funding model and its difficulties in the UK. I am taking all that on board. With the Minister, I will make a decision on this.

A Deputy drew the Minister of State's attention to the fact that third level pharmacy students are being asked to pay big fees for their final year before qualification. The Minister was to address that issue. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil-led Governments cut third level funding by a third during the austerity years. We need an extra €600 million. Although people know what is needed, it is a key vital service that people are prepared to support. With regard to the improvement of access in areas of north and west Dublin, Waterford, Cork, the midlands and all around the country, it would be a disastrous route to follow as many counties have a poor enough third level record. We had the example in New Zealand where people were being stopped at the airport and not being allowed to leave the country because they owed income-contingent loans. I urge the Minister to abandon the idea. I hope the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, will not come in to the House, as he did the other morning on another matter, and announce something on this education matter without consulting both the Minister and Minister of State.

The Minister of State indicated she watched a programme on Sky last night. A report was published in the UK yesterday and it serves as a very clear warning about the proposed system. I disagree with the people who have proposed it but they have done much interesting work. Yesterday's report makes for devastating reading for working class children if the system is introduced here. In England, the amount of debt a student has as he or she exits the system is approximately £57,000. The banks are gouging people with interest rates in the UK with the cheap rate of 6%. The Minister, Deputy Bruton, can do the compound interest maths problem, as 6% is an alarmingly high interest rate. The equivalent debt burden would be over €80,000 in Ireland as we have many four year degree programmes. It would be disastrous for working class children. How could any working class person take on a debt of €80,000?

I stated no decision has been made and we are waiting for the Oireachtas committee to come back on the matter. We will examine it. Deputy Broughan said funds were cut by a third. I am not sure it was quite a third but they were certainly cut severely. I wish to put on the record that numbers have grown in our third level sector. I thank the colleges that took in students and educated them while needing to have bigger classes. I understand that situation. No decision has been made and we will certainly consider the issue. I am able to do the compound interest calculation and I taught it in schools.

What is the figure?

We know exactly what are the difficulties for a working family. I know them as a mother who has lived on her own and who put two children through college. We will take all that into account.

Schools Building Projects Status

Brendan Smith

Question:

10. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Education and Skills if a building project at a school (details supplied) will proceed to construction stage without further delay in view of the urgent need to provide additional and upgraded permanent school accommodation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31731/17]

As the Minister, Deputy Bruton, is well aware, this project, the Holy Family School at Cootehill, is of utmost importance. This school was established in 1966 and one of its founders was our former colleague in this House, Dr. Rory O'Hanlon. It serves the catchment area of Cavan and Monaghan and it is the only special needs school we have in either county. Since 2002, the school population has doubled. The enrolment in September is 168. The main buildings were constructed in 1973 and the school is now on two sites. As I discussed with the Minister - I appreciate our recent meeting - there is an urgent need to progress to construction stage the proposed permanent accommodation.

I thank Deputy Brendan Smith for raising this again. I acknowledged earlier the Deputy's interest and question. I fully understand the concerns. As I stated earlier, the right decision was made not to have a two-phase development, and the board took that decision on the development.

There were a couple of delays, which were unfortunate. They were not caused by the Department, but delays are a feature of any project. I understand the Deputy's concern. He has spoken to me about it at private meetings as well as publicly here in the Dáil. I assure him that we will do our utmost to ensure that unnecessary obstacles are not put in the way of this project. There were some shortcomings in the original stage 2b report, which had to be corrected. They were sent back to be corrected. Those have been overcome. While I cannot say how long the process of approval will take, I assure the Deputy that we are determined to push this ahead. We hope to get to a point where we can release this for tender at the earliest possible date.

I thank the Minister. I raised a Topical Issue on 6 April. At that time, the concern of the board of management and the parents association was the detailed stage 2b submission and the Department had not given permission for the pre-tender qualification process to commence in tandem with the examination of the submission. That evening, I requested the Minister to ask the Department to issue the approval in respect of commencing the pre-qualification process. I want to record that the next day, the Department contacted me to say that approval had issued to the school to allow both processes proceed in tandem. I appreciate that.

The Department sought clarification from the school's consultants on a number of points about the stage 2b detailed submission. Those questions have been answered. All the data has been returned to the Department. If I was to paraphrase the representations I have received from members of the board of management, the parents association, the principal and staff it would be that they want this particular stage finalised as quickly as possible. They want the project to proceed to the next stage. None of us are talking about taking shortcuts. We fully appreciate that where major projects are about to proceed to construction, processes have to be completed in a proper manner. However, I cannot emphasise enough the need to ensure that the examination of this stage 2b process is concluded as rapidly as possible so that the Minister will be able to issue approval to the school for the project to proceed to construction stage.

I absolutely understand the position. The Deputy raised this issue previously and I was pleased to be able to release that pre-qualification tender. This is slightly complex because the full decant is part of the overall tender. I understand why people would like to see that move forward, but that is conditional on the tender completion. That means it is urgent that we move it forward. My Department is very much aware of the anxiety locally and we will do everything we can to keep it moving. I will keep in touch with the Deputy.

I thank the Minister. Those of us who have the privilege of representing the constituency of Cavan-Monaghan and having had interaction with the school on many occasions over the years know that it is a school of which we are all proud. Successive principals, the current principal, Rachel Moynagh, all her staff, the board of management and successive parents associations have worked to develop a great school community and they are anxious that they would have modern accommodation. The school is currently on two sites, which creates additional pressure both on the teachers and their support staff, but also on the pupils and the families concerned. We need to get to a point where we have modern, permanent accommodation on one site to ensure that those children are taught and that services are provided in modern, proper accommodation and that the staff can deliver those services in that environment.

School Curriculum

Bernard Durkan

Question:

11. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Education and Skills the extent to which he remains satisfied regarding the adequacy of the school curriculum at primary and second level to cater for the creation of an education and skills base adequate to meet the requirements of a modern, competitive economy, with particular reference to the maximisation of access to opportunities in the workforce; if the third-level institutions in their turn are in a position to ensure graduates have the requisite skills and qualifications to meet the challenges globally; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31753/17]

This question seeks to ascertain the extent to which each stage in the education system dovetails into the next to give the students every advantage in extracting from it the requirements needed to meet the challenges they will face eventually in the workplace.

I thank Deputy Durkan for tabling this question. The curriculum has to evolve if our schools are to successfully equip young people with the capacity to meet the requirements of a modern, competitive economy and the needs of a modern and changing society.

The Action Plan for Education details clear curriculum change and other commitments that will secure the step-change needed to equip learners with the skills necessary to participate in the modern economy. It includes: actions to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, at primary and post-primary levels; the introduction of a new leaving certificate computer science subject from September 2018; the development of a new primary mathematics curriculum that will support all children in the development of algorithmic and computational thinking, which form the basis of coding; and the implementation of a digital strategy in schools will seek to enrich the teaching, learning and assessment environment.

The entire thrust of junior cycle reform is to enrich the learning experience of pupils with new curricula, new opportunities for project work, team work, short courses and the new junior cycle profile of achievement, which can showcase this work. This approach puts a higher value on the competencies which employers seek.

As part of the framework for junior cycle, a new science specification was introduced in September 2016, while the new mathematics specification will be implemented from September 2018. A short course on coding is also in place.

The higher and further education systems are responding strongly to the challenge of meeting Ireland’s human capital needs. Graduate output increased by 7% over the past four years and there will be a further 3% increase in 2018. One thousand additional STEM graduates will graduate from the colleges in the next two years compared to 2016. Graduate employment is increasing, and employers report strong satisfaction levels with the quality of the graduates.

New opportunities are also being developed in regard to apprenticeships, and the curriculum for apprenticeships has been updated, and traineeships. Under Springboard+, 6.500 students will have opportunities this year to participate in upskilling their existing skills in areas such as ICT, advanced manufacturing, financial services, entrepreneurship and hospitality. The education system is responding robustly to the changing nature of expectations on young people.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I ask further about the degree to which any research takes place on the completion of each stage and induction into the next stage and the degree to which the student is best placed to progress to the following stage and, eventually, to third and fourth level and on into the workplace, whichever is the optimum.

That is a crucial point. I mentioned earlier that the transition from preschool to primary level, from primary level to secondary level and from secondary level onwards is often the occasion when children fall by the wayside. It is a very important area. Research is ongoing and a group chaired by the Secretary General of the Department considers initiatives we can take in this area. There is increased emphasis on the hand over in terms of the emerging preschool area and primary level. The primary level curriculum is being re-assessed to try to have stages within it that allow those transitions to be more successful so that the early stages are more akin to preschool and at the late stage more akin to the expectations that will be in secondary school. A good deal of work is going into that, both on the curriculum side and on more practical issues as well such as access at third level for children who could fall by the wayside, either because of disadvantage or disability. All of those metrics are improving. We are seeing more successful transitions to third level.

Are any comparisons made with other jurisdictions in like-for-like cases? To what extent has information been gleaned from any such comparisons with a view to maximising the benefit from the point of view of the students?

The Department participates in a number of international fora one of which, the Atlantic Rim Collaboratory, has been particularly useful in providing examples of successful educational reform. This is not rocket science. As Deputy Nolan said earlier, it is often around the leadership and the quality of teaching. There is no magic bullet in Marlborough Street. It is about equipping teachers to allow them do their job effectively. There are initiatives, but we could do more of what the Deputy suggests in terms of learning from international standards. That is the reason we set the standard that, within a decade, we would be the best in Europe, which forces us to examine those other international players.

Special Educational Needs Service Provision

Carol Nolan

Question:

12. Deputy Carol Nolan asked the Minister for Education and Skills the way in which he plans to ensure sufficient autism units are provided to address local demand. [31571/17]

I want to ask about the Minister's plans to ensure a sufficient number of autism units are provided for children throughout the country.

The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, through its network of local special educational needs organisers, SENOs, in consultation with the relevant education partners, is responsible for the establishment of special classes in various geographical areas where there is an identified need. The NCSE, in looking to open special classes, must take into account the current and future potential need for such classes, taking particular account of the educational needs of the children concerned. The NCSE will also take account of location and sustainability in looking to establish special classes in certain areas.

Since 2011, the NCSE has increased the number of special classes by over 100%, from 548 in 2011 to 1,152 across the country now, of which 887 are autism spectrum disorder, ASD, special classes. The NCSE will establish an additional 145 ASD special classes for the coming school year, increasing the number of ASD special classes to 1,032. While it is not always possible to ensure that a special class placement will be available in the child’s local area, the NCSE has informed my Department that, in general, it is satisfied there are sufficient ASD special class placements to meet existing demand.

As the Deputy knows, given that this was raised by Deputy Thomas Byrne and others, we are planning to introduce a Report Stage amendment to the admissions Bill, which will provide, based on reports from the NCSE, that there will be a power to direct schools to open special classes, if necessary. As this power will require a school to provide land or alter existing property, I am of the view that the power should be with the Minister who can engage the patron or trustees and that there should be adequate safeguards to ensure people’s rights are protected.

The Minister said it has been reported there is an increased number of units in order to meet demand. I assure him that is not the case on the ground. I have met many parents and teachers who are totally frustrated. They feel very strongly about this issue and that their children are being failed. I am sure many Deputies concur with what I am saying because they have met the same stakeholders. The fact is there are not enough units.

I was very disappointed to see that a number of amendments which sought to address this issue were ruled out of order last week on the admissions Bill. It is a huge issue, as we have all been saying in the House. I am sure the parents who have contacted the Minister have told him the same thing. I welcome that the Minister has indicated he will deal with this issue on Report Stage of the admissions Bill but will he elaborate on this? Will he indicate whether this Bill will be dealt with before the recess?

I emphasise the need for inclusive education. The reports I am getting from parents are that they have to travel long distances in order for their child to attend a unit. That is wrong. It is not inclusive education and it is not giving children fair play or the chance to achieve a high quality education, far from it.

The figures speak for themselves. Since 2011, we have had a 136% increase in the number of ASD special units. We are massively expanding this area. Across the range of children on the ASD spectrum, many parents, some 61%, choose that their children are in mainstream classes, and they are supported there with resource teachers and with SNAs, where they are needed. The increase in resource teachers has been of the scale of 50% over that period and, in addition, there is a 32% increases in the number of SNAs. While there is a growing need and that is identified in early assessments, we are also seeing children with disabilities staying longer in our education system, completing programmes and progressing to third level. The system is having a tangible impact on the future of these children.

In terms of the debate in the House, I indicated to the committee that I would bring forward a Report Stage amendment. That will now be dealt with in September when we return. I am very conscious of the concern of Deputies on the need to do this, particularly Deputy Byrne, who tabled an amendment. We are fully committed to providing that power. It would be wrong to suggest we are not seeing many schools across the country gladly and openly welcoming the provision of these units.

I believe the only way forward is for the NCSE to have the powers to designate a unit where there is local demand. That is the only way we can provide an inclusive and proper education to all of the children of this nation. It is problematic that there is a huge issue at second level in terms of the lack of resources, which has been emphasised time and again. I wonder how the Minister is going to address those issues. This needs to be taken on board. I am glad the Minister has acknowledged it is a problem but the figures the Minister has trotted out are not the solution to the problem. Even with increases, there is still a huge problem which we have to address in a timely manner in order to give fair play and equal opportunities to all of our children.

I do not know what the Deputy means if she is says resources are not the solution. We are investing €1.68 billion in services for children with special needs and it is an absolutely correct investment. We have expanded that massively. Even in the very difficult years when there was no money available, we continued to expand the number of resource teachers and SNAs. We protected resources and we expanded the school transport service for children with special needs, and we are seeing the results. We are seeing more children identified earlier, completing their programmes at first and second level and progressing to third level.

The system is working. The extra resources, which the Deputy says is just the trotting out of numbers, are real teachers. There are thousands of teachers going into our schools. We now have 13,000 resource teachers and 13,000 SNAs providing support to 49,000 children who are in these categories in one shape or another. This is a huge commitment of resources. It is unfair of the Deputy to suggest there is not a commitment here because there is a massive commitment and it is growing. Even this week, we announced a 7.5% increase in resources specifically for the groups about which the Deputy is expressing concern.

Pupil-Teacher Ratio

Thomas Byrne

Question:

13. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills his plans to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio across the school system. [31748/17]

The question concerns the pupil-teacher ratio. I want to find out the Minister's plans to address this, knowing it is a key issue in the Irish education sector and knowing there is very little about in the Action Plan for Education. Nonetheless, it is a key condition of the confidence and supply agreement that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have entered into.

Between the school year just completed and the school year commencing in September, my Department will have provided 4,800 additional teachers across the school system. At primary level, 830 additional teachers have been allocated to meet demographic needs and a further 840 resource teachers and 300 teachers to reduce the staffing schedule by one point, which occurred last September. At post-primary level, 800 additional teachers have been allocated to meet demographic needs - an additional 660 second level resource teachers, 420 teachers in respect of school leadership, 400 teachers in respect of guidance and 550 teachers in respect of junior cycle professional time. It is expected that this additional allocation will improve the overall ratio of teacher to students when the statistics section of my Department releases the 2016-17 statistical data later in the year. The improvements made in budget 2016 improved the ratio of teachers to students from 16:1 to 15.7:1 at primary level and 14.1:1 to 13.7:1 at post-primary level.

The confidence and supply agreement and the programme for Government has a commitment to reduce class sizes at primary level and it is my intention to make further improvements to class sizes over the life of the Government. However, I recognise there are needs across the system which have to be balanced in the decisions made in each budget.

This is an issue that has been allowed to go off the boil politically for a little while but it has not gone off the boil in our schools across the country. This is a key demand of the INTO in particular and of the second level unions. Shockingly, 10,000 pupils are in primary level classes of over 35 students. That is incredible but it is a fact; that is what is happening on the ground.

The children in these super-sized classrooms receive an inferior education and there is no question about this. It is not because of the quality of the teaching, the ability of the teachers, or the students; it has to do with the fact that there is shocking overcrowding. We have to take steps towards addressing this. We have to give the pupils a better deal at school, and also give the teachers a fairer chance to do the job they love to do.

I agree. The reason I answered the question in the way I did was just to show we are putting teachers into the schools. Most Deputies are aware of the importance of the 1,500 additional resource teachers we have put in over the past two years. Deputy Carol Nolan just emphasised it. People recognise the importance of leadership and guidance, which Deputy Byrne has emphasised very often, and also the importance of resourcing junior cycle reform. I recognise exactly what the Deputy is saying, but I am trying to balance all these other needs within the school system. As I said, I recognise this is not only a very important issue, but also an issue within the confidence and supply agreement. We are seeing progressive improvement on all fronts and I hope we can sustain this in the coming years.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.