Priority Questions

Schools Building Projects

Thomas Byrne

Question:

38. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills his views on the widespread dissatisfaction with the progress of many school building projects, including many on a list published in 2014 for construction in 2015 which have not yet commenced, and the slow progress on the subsequently announced six-year capital plan for schools. [45228/17]

This important question relates to the progress, or lack thereof, of the schools building programme. I started with the list published just before Christmas on 18 December 2014 for schools that were going to construction in 2015. Approximately one third of those schools have not yet started. That is the tip of the iceberg. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.

I am glad to be able to reply to this question. We have set out the Department's capital investment programme for 2016 to 2021, which details various school projects that are being progressed through the architectural planning process.

We are building more schools and providing more additional school places than ever before. This reflects the priority which the Government is putting on education. We have doubled the number of school places being provided from 8,900 in 2010 to 18,000 in 2017. We have also increased the number of school completions from 25 in 2010 to 50 in 2016, with an expected 46 schools this year.

In 2017, more than 80% of the capital allocation in respect of the school sector will be expended on the delivery of large scale projects and the additional accommodation scheme. It is expected that this expenditure level will be maintained in 2018. Since 2011, 170 new schools have been built, with 120 major projects. They represent more than 100,000 school places.

In the case of the school projects announced from within the multi-annual programme for 2015, 64 school projects have either been completed, are on site or are in advanced architectural planning. The remaining six school projects announced for 2015 have not advanced as the Department expected due to difficulties with acquiring sites and issues arising in the planning process. The Department is in ongoing liaison directly with each of these schools with regard to the ongoing progression of their projects into the architectural and planning process.

These issues are, in the vast majority of cases, completely outside the Department’s control. The Department seeks to progress all school building projects to completion as soon as possible and works towards this objective in all cases.

Following the capital review, additional capital funding of €332 million will be available to the schools sector, primarily from 2019 onwards, boosting investment in our primary and post-primary schools infrastructure.

The Minister is trying but failing to spin the situation by mixing up architectural planning with construction. He knows that building is different from planning. What was promised in 2014 was not that the schools on that list would go to architectural planning but would go to construction, that is, that building would start. Approximately 26 schools were promised they would go to construction in 2015 but that have not been started yet. It is a nonsense to say they are in architectural planning because the assumption was that they were well planned in 2014 when the Department and the Minister's predecessor announced they would be built commencing in 2015.

The Minister has also muddied the waters in respect of the capital plan from election year 2015 to 2021. That is another project in the realm of fantasy. There has not been a word about several schools such as the Mercy convent in Navan or Ard Rí community national school. What does the Minister have against special schools? Special schools around the country seem to be falling well behind, including St. Mary's and St. Ultan's in Navan, St. Ita's in Drogheda, a school in Enniscorthy and several in Stillorgan in south County Dublin, adjoining the constituency of the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor. They have been left by the wayside. The Minister is mixing up the idea of building which the Government committed to. Does the Minister have enough money to build the projects the Department has already committed to building?

The way we plan is to have several school projects at different stages in the architectural planning phases from the initiation, design, detailed architectural drawings, approval, evaluation, tender and on into construction. That is a pipeline and the Department works to the best of its ability to keep them all moving. We use every cent we get. We have drawn down an additional €100 million because of the quality of our planning and capacity to deliver. That does not mean that every school that wants a building will have it built the moment it wishes for it. There is a planning process.

We are put to the pin of our collar to meet the demographic growth, 80% of our money is going to build 18,000 new places, most of which are entirely new. There is expansion. We are meeting the demographic challenge of providing well over 100,000 additional school places. We are delivering those.

I fully recognise that in the case of announcements made about 70 projects which it was hoped would go to construction, that did not prove possible. They may have been over-optimistic as to whether they could be delivered in the time available. I can, however, show that the money devoted is delivering more and more school places every year. They are expanding the number we deliver and we are drawing down an additional €300 million in the new capital allocation to maintain that progress. It is putting a strain on funding to meet what we are very fortunate to have, a demographic bulge in our school population.

The question is not whether the Minister is facing the various challenges he has listed but whether he is facing the challenge the Department set itself by saying that these projects would go to construction in certain years and that has not happened in many cases. This is a fantasy list and it dates back three years. The pre-election capital plan is in the realms of even greater fantasy because very few of those projects have been built. Does the Minister have enough money to build what he said he would build? I did not ask whether he is meeting the demand or facing the challenges. We know and accept that. Does he have enough money? Is he going to his Cabinet colleagues and the Minister for Finance and for Public Expenditure and Reform to ask for the money? I suspect that if the Department's building unit were a private company he would be seeking an examinership procedure because he has entered into so many commitments for which it does not have the money. The Department's commitment to building these schools in a particular year has not been complied with. The Minister needs to go back to the Minister for Finance and for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, to ask for a substantial increase in funding.

I was not in this office in 2014 and cannot say why these projects were put on the construction list but every one of them is being progressed. The Deputy can see that in my reply. As he rightly says, some are at an earlier stage than would have been expected when they were put on the list in 2014. The reason for that is often planning or site difficulties. They were not due to an unwillingness to progress these projects. There is never an occasion in the Department of Education and Skills when money is returned to the Department of Finance. Most Departments return money at the end of the year unspent because they do not have a supply chain like our pipeline that ensures the money and projects are delivered. We can stand over the quality and numbers of our buildings. We are meeting the demographic trend. Of course there are people who would like to see it happen faster.

Schools Building Projects

Kathleen Funchion

Question:

39. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Education and Skills the status of the promised project for the building of a school (details supplied) in County Wexford which was in an advanced stage of architectural planning and scheduled to start construction in 2016; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45105/17]

I am sure the Minister is aware of St. Patrick's school, Enniscorthy, because its case has been highlighted in the media recently. It has been promised a new building for some time and had hoped to be in it last September. That has not happened. It is no further down the road. The school caters for many children with additional needs and I would like an update on it.

The major project for St. Patrick's special school, Enniscorthy, which will provide replacement facilities for the school, is included in the Department of Education and Skills's construction programme. The project will provide for 20 classrooms and will include such facilities as special teacher rooms, multi-sensory, physiotherapy and occupational therapy rooms and a nurse's area and the provision of ball courts, external dining area and a garden play area.

As a replacement project, this school project was not initially included in the Department's five-year construction plan, due to the focus in that plan on providing additional accommodation in areas of significant demographic growth. In 2015, the project for the school was brought into the programme and has been advanced within the architectural planning process since.

While it would have been expected that this project would have progressed more quickly, it was delayed due to departmental revisions to its technical guidance documents and owing to staff changes internally. In July 2017 the stage 2b, detailed design, was approved and a process to carry out a short-listing of suitably qualified building contractors and subcontractors was commenced. The relevant short-listing contract notices were posted to the Official Journal of the European Union, OJEU, and the Government's eTenders website on 27 September and 8 October, respectively. This process encountered a short delay due to the revisions to the technical guidance documents, arising from changes to the public works contract which came into effect this year.

My Department is fully committed to the delivery of this project and will appoint an external consultant architect to oversee the project when it progresses to construction. It is anticipated that following the tender process to appoint a building contractor, this project will go on site and commence construction in the first half of 2018.

I welcome the Minister's reply. I visited the school when it was giving July provision for students with autism. It is doing tremendous work. I question the health and safety of the building and classroom conditions. The classes are in prefabricated buildings. There is a lot of damp in the building. These children have very particular needs. Some need to be isolated for part of the day because of the risk of infection. It is unacceptable that children with those needs are asked to be in that kind of environment day in and day out and that staff have to deal with that. There is no outdoor space. There is chaos when buses come to collect students. I welcome the plan to have this done by next year but the school should be in that building now. It should have started there last September. I hope the Minister will keep this high on the agenda and that there will not be any more delays and that the school can look forward to having this building next year because it is long overdue.

I accept that the planning was not as well done as it ought to have been in this case. There were delays. At the time the Department wanted to make sure that it was designed in-house to ensure that we had the internal expertise for the construction of special school projects of this nature. In the event that decision probably delayed the project somewhat, which was unfortunate. I can understand why it was done but there are no foreseeable delays now and I am confident that it will progress.

I welcome that and the fact that the Minister accepts there were unacceptable delays. Hopefully, he will keep this high on the agenda. They seem to have been on lists for a very long time but always seem to be forgotten. Hopefully, this time around, they will not be forgotten and will get that much-needed new building.

The Department has recognised that. An external consultant architect has been appointed to make sure that this will be overseen very effectively by the Department.

Pupil-Teacher Ratio

Thomas Byrne

Question:

40. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills his views on whether there is an imbalance in the pupil teacher ratio mainstream staffing schedule which means that the bigger the school the PTR progressively disimproves; and his further views on whether this contributes to a particularly large amount of supersize schools in certain parts of the country which happen to have larger schools. [45229/17]

This is an interesting issue. The Minister pointed out that he was not Minister for Education and Skills when the last list regarding school buildings came in, and I accept that. I certainly was not in any position of influence when this matter first arose, which is probably some time around 2009 or 2010 so I will give the Minister leeway on that one if he gives it on this issue. I am raising this issue in good faith because the pupil-teacher ratio seemed to be larger in the commuter belt in particular and high-growth areas than in other parts of the country. Many people put that down to a preponderance of small schools but when I looked at it, it turns out that the pupil-teacher ratio is effectively worse in terms of the staffing schedule in larger schools, which are predominant in the area in which I live and my constituency and possibly the Minister's constituency. Has the Minister any thoughts on this? Can it be changed without causing huge disruption, particularly in the context of the welcome commitment to reduce the overall pupil-teacher ratio next year?

I can see what the Deputy is saying but this has a historic and justifiable basis. The staffing schedule is an allocation mechanism that uses enrolment bands to determine the number of classroom teaching posts allocated to a school. This is a long-standing arrangement for allocating teaching posts to our primary schools based on their respective enrolment and I have no plans to make changes to this practice, which is well settled in the school system.

There is a bias towards small schools in the staffing schedule in policy terms to reflect the fact that small schools have particular challenges teaching across a number of class groups. In larger schools, teachers are usually assigned to single class groups.  Budget 2017 introduced added protections for small schools, in particular, a capacity for one-teacher schools to apply to the staffing appeals board for an extra teacher where the single teacher has pupils across six or more class groups.

The staffing schedules operate in a clear and transparent manner and treats all similar types of schools equally, irrespective of location. For the 2017-18 school year at primary level, it operates on the basis of one classroom teacher for an average of every 27 pupils.  With the allocation ratio set at 27:1 for this school year, the classroom allocation ratio, when measured at the mid-point of the bands for schools, generally is 27:1. It is lower in smaller schools.  

Budget 2018 includes a further one point improvement in the staffing schedule in primary schools which brings the position to the most favourable ever seen at primary level. This measure will further assist all schools at the upper end of their individual respective bands. This budget measure delivers on a commitment made in the confidence and supply agreement and programme for Government to reduce primary schools class size. One can see that with small schools, it is a case of two teachers at 19 so that is nine children per teacher. That is the base. When one starts at that, it is equitably built up from that base. It provides really small schools with that higher level of staffing. It would be very difficult to go away from that principle.

I again acknowledge the change to the pupil-teacher ratio from next to the lowest ever. It was an example of mature politics. We can shout and roar across the Dáil Chamber but when we work together, put our case on the basis of what we have done in the confidence and supply agreement and work professionally, as the Minister and I have done, we can actually achieve and change something. I am not speaking against small schools in any way. We will be the first to defend them if we have to. However, there is an issue in larger schools.

We are building bigger and bigger schools all the time. Realistically, the Minister will not be establishing new schools with two or three teachers. He will be establishing new schools with at least two streams and at least 16 teachers plus principal. In many cases, the numbers will be bigger. There are anomalies on the staffing schedule for ordinary schools and indeed Gaelscoileanna. In respect of a principal plus seven-teacher school up to a principal plus 16-teacher school, an increase of 26 pupils is required to get the additional teacher. A principal plus a 17-teacher school needs 37 pupils to move up that ratio and get the extra teacher so it does press the school hard. When one sees the headlines in the newspapers that the largest class sizes are in Meath, Kildare, Dublin, particularly suburban Dublin, and suburban Cork, this is the reason for it. Could it be looked at? Obviously, it will be in the context of financial and budgetary pressures and we have already taken one significant step so I am looking ahead. Is there a way of saying that a maximum class size should be this and we would not allow it and would not give the schools discretion to have class sizes bigger than a certain size, possibly 30?

The system, which includes all parties in the House, certainly Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour, has been designed to protect small schools. They have a lower retention point so the system protects smaller schools from the loss of their teacher as well as providing a better ratio in the structure. This is deliberately designed to defend the rural school which is trying to cater for multiple classes. There are some mitigating factors. For example, the walking principal comes in at the size of 177 and larger schools with five special classes get an additional post so there are compensating points.

While I am open to looking at individual initiatives that deliver better outcomes, this system is tried and tested. I took the trouble to look at what is the average school size in the Deputy's county. It is 235, which is considerably larger than other smaller counties and counties that have suffered population decline. That has been done for good policy reasons. While my county of Dublin is even worse in terms of the average size of schools being larger, the policy is reasonably founded and I am content to leave it as it is. I will listen to debate in this House if compelling points are put forward.

Education and Training Boards

Ruth Coppinger

Question:

41. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Minister for Education and Skills if guidance will be issued on the way in which students can opt out of religious instruction in education training board, ETB, schools in view of reports of a de facto Roman Catholic ethos in ETB schools in County Tipperary, details supplied; if he will clarify the religious ethos of ETB schools; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45230/17]

Deputy Paul Murphy is taking the next question on behalf of Deputy Coppinger.

Hopefully, the Minister will agree that what has been revealed by a Workplace Relations Commission decision and the very good work of Atheist Ireland, including getting information through FOI requests at its own expense, has exposed the unfortunate reality that ETB schools - definitely in Tipperary but it also appears elsewhere - are operating under a de facto Catholic ethos despite being State schools. Will the Minister clarify the position and issue an instruction to make it fully clear that these are State schools and that there should be no religious ethos whatsoever?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue and for giving me the opportunity to clarify the situation. My Department is preparing a circular that will provide guidance to ETB post-primary schools on the arrangements that should apply in future for students who wish to opt out of religious instruction or worship. The schools to which the Deputy refers are multidenominational schools and as such are required to provide for religious instruction according to the profile of the students who attend the school.

It may have been reasonable when the schools were established for a school to assume that its pupil population was predominately Catholic and to make arrangements for religious instruction and worship exclusively on that basis. Historically, some ETB schools also made provision for religious instruction required for pupils from local Protestant communities. Depending on their future pupil composition as multidenominational schools, ETB second level schools may have to make provision for religious instruction for those from other minority religions should it be required.

It is important that schools consult with parents and in the case of pupils who have reached the age of 18, the pupil, to find out what their wishes are in respect of participating in religious instruction and worship. This practice should also apply to the parents of pupils already enrolled in the school and not just those seeking admission for the first time.

Schools engaging with parents, or pupils where appropriate, must at the outset of the school year clearly indicate what arrangements are in place for those who choose not to participate in religious instruction.  The outcome of this engagement should be integrated with the school's processes for establishing subject choices generally. Instead of waiting for a parent to request a withdrawal and then having to make alternative arrangements for the pupil for the class periods concerned, pupils who do not chose religious instruction should be timetabled by the school for alternative subjects.

Societal change with a decrease in religious belief and practice requires a change in school practice and the circular will address how those who wish to withdraw must be catered for in future. I expect the circular to issue later this year. It will also apply to community schools, in all of which ETBs are co-patrons.

An opt-out is not enough and neither are guidelines on an opt-out because it is a question of what ethos schools have. The CEO of the ETB in Tipperary told ETB school principals that the Christian belief, ethos and spirit of their schools was Catholic and this needed to be addressed in all policies. She recently stood over that claim. The Minister needs to respond to it and clarify whether it is the case. I have a copy of the religious education policy of the Central Technical Institute which is also an ETB school. It states the ethos is Christian and Irish and states: "Our community is a part of the wider community primarily composed of Roman Catholics, and the majority of our students are Roman Catholic, and the ethos of the school reflects this." It continues: "Faith formation is governed by the majority religion, 90% of the pupils being Roman Catholic." It is fair enough if there is religious education but it cannot be faith formation. There cannot be compulsory religious education that in reality is about Catholic faith formation.

The statement the Deputy is citing was made in 2015 and it was made very clear at the time by the then Secretary General that it did not accord with policy. I have clarified in my statement, not only here but on a previous occasion, that it is inaccurate. The schools to which the Deputy refers are multidenominational and there will be a circular to make that absolutely crystal clear. That does not mean they are non-denominational. They will accept people of religious belief, of different faiths and of none. They must plan for the wishes of parents and pupils to ensure their timetable reflects those wishes. That is the multidenominational provision we are making. Multidenominational does not mean those of Christian faith are not welcome in the school. They are absolutely welcome but so also are those of other faiths and none. The imperative is to accommodate all of them.

To clarify, a non-denominational school would not be a school that refuses to accept religious students. It is a school that does not have a religious ethos and one to which all people are welcome. It could include religious education but would not have the character of faith formation. Does the Minister agree there is a problem that a Roman Catholic diocesan adviser was assigned to that particular school's religious education policy and has been involved in decisions on the school?

On the opt-out, does the Minister agree that religious education cannot be faith formative? There should not be faith formation in these schools. Religious education and talking about different religions is fine but for State schools to be involved in faith formation is wrong and an opt-out will not deal with it. When it comes to the opt-out, it has to be a non-coercive opt-out. It should not be an opt-out that effectively punishes the students by putting them to the back of the class and not allowing them to do any other work. They should not just be sitting there listening to the lesson. They have to have a real, meaningful alternative.

There is a debate within the ETBs about whether faith formation should occur within the school or not. Recently the ETB group has indicated it would move to a position where faith formation would not be during school hours. ETB schools at primary level, the community national schools, welcome and celebrate all faiths. It is not that they leave religion at the school gate and wish to keep it there; they celebrate all faiths. The trend is clearly that over time faith formation would move out of the school. That has been indicated by the ETBs as the direction. They have to complete their consideration of the issue. It is an approach I favour.

English Language Training Organisations

Joan Collins

Question:

42. Deputy Joan Collins asked the Minister for Education and Skills his plans to address the working conditions of English language teachers in private schools (details supplied). [45344/17]

I will read out the full question because the details have been included, which I did not request. Will the Minister address the working conditions of English language teachers in private schools? There are approximately 120 of them. Will he lay down standards in the industry that do not only adhere to basic employment law but exceed it to ensure these wealthy schools treat teachers as any worker would expect to be treated? Will the Minister legislate for zero-hour contracts to be banned and provide that a high percentage of teachers must have permanent contracts, that all schools must have a proper salary scale which reflects service and experience, and that all schools must pay sick pay, for all hours worked and overtime?

The majority of English language schools in Ireland are privately run.  The relationship between teachers and private providers of education is based on a private contract. Issues relating to working conditions are a matter between the two parties and do not come under the remit of the Department.  There is an extensive range of legislation in Ireland which protects the employment rights of workers, including English language teachers, to employment contracts, payment of wages and related matters. It is the responsibility of the employer, in the first instance, to ensure their employees receive their employment rights. Where an employee considers his or her rights have been breached, he or she may bring a claim under the appropriate legislation to the Workplace Relations Commission. The Workplace Relations Commission has a range of services available including adjudication, inspection and advisory services. There is also provision for the negotiation of sectoral pay agreements and having those registered with the Labour Court. 

In May 2017, when I was in my previous Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, on my proposal the Government approved the drafting of legislation to meet the commitment in the programme for Government to address problems caused by the increased casualisation of work and zero-hour contracts and to strengthen the regulation of precarious work. The draft legislation has been subject to a detailed dialogue process with ICTU and IBEC over a period of several months. The Bill is being drafted and it is intended to publish it before the end of the year subject to Government approval.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. The Government keeps coming back to us and saying there is the Workplace Relations Commission process. The Minister of State knows that some of the issues that affect teachers in the sector, such as bogus self-employment, the absence of employment contracts and paying less to non-native teachers, breach legislation and can be tackled through a third party although it is virtually impossible to do so because of the precarious nature of the work. The most prevalent issues are completely legal although they are wrong. They are things such as maintaining all teachers on fixed term or zero-hour contracts, not paying for non-contract hours worked, not paying sick pay, taking an anti-union approach, allowing a fixed term contract to expire in December and rehiring in January to avoid holiday pay and having no salary scales. None of those things is illegal because of the terrible employment legislation we have in this country. Those workers, through Unite, are looking for an SEO to be put into the qualifications and quality assurance (amendment) Bill. The Minister should at least meet the representatives of the unions.

I thank the Deputy. She has raised the issue numerous times in the Chamber. A core component of the Government's future policy for the English language sector will be the introduction of the international education mark, IEM.  It is the intention that the regulations governing the IEM will include a requirement that all obligations concerning national employment legislation are complied with by education and training providers seeking to access the mark. The necessary legislation to facilitate the introduction of the IEM is being progressed through the Department of Education and Skills.  This legislation will also provide Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, which will manage the IEM, with additional powers to examine the bona fides of providers, including English language education providers. 

There is a huge opportunity here with the Bill, which is going through committee, to address the demands I have raised.

If the State can legislate for the size of desks, the classroom temperature, the ownership, administration and health and safety, why can the State not legislate for workers' rights?

Unite, the union representing 100 workers - it is not 50% of the workforce; it is about 1,200; it fluctuates - has tried to meet the Minister of State and the Minister for Education and Skills to go through these issues. If things are being organised in the background as the Minister of State has said, it would be an opportunity to talk to those workers and their union about what protection could be offered to them. The first thing the Minister and Minister of State should do is meet representatives of Unite and the workers themselves. They have not done so; they have already met representatives of MEI, but have not met the people most affected in the workplace. I appeal to the Minister of State to meet them and we can relay that information on to them.

I hear what the Deputy is saying and we will consider what she has suggested. I had not heard that I was asked to meet that group, but I have no problem doing so.