Other Questions

Special Educational Needs Staff

Ruth Coppinger

Question:

43. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Minister for Education and Skills his views on the ballot for industrial action by special needs assistants; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44855/17]

Question No. 43 is in the name of Deputy Ruth Coppinger and Deputy Paul Murphy has been nominated.

I ask the Minister about the impending industrial action by special needs assistants who have voted by 97% for industrial action. I understand it relates to the allocation by the National Council for Special Education. For four years in a row it has been very late - up to July - in allocating which schools would get how many SNAs etc., which obviously has a hugely disruptive impact on the schools, but particularly on the SNAs who do not have a guarantee of work or where they will be working and whether the issues can be resolved.

It is a good opportunity to clarify the matter. IMPACT’s decision to ballot its members on industrial action at this time is surprising in light of a development over recent months. When I announced the appointment of an additional 975 SNAs for allocation to schools between September and December this year, I recognised that we needed a better system for allocation in future years. At the time I said that I hoped to have a more robust system using the National Council for Special Education prediction models to inform the normal estimates allocation.

As a Government we have managed to achieve that. As part of a package of education measures in the recent budget, I announced that almost 1,100 additional SNA posts will be available for allocation to schools in 2018, more than 960 of which will be allocated from September 2018. Under the old model, this decision would have been made in mid-2018. Making that decision now will facilitate earlier allocations of SNAs to schools for the coming year.

There have been very substantial year-on-year increases in SNA posts in recent years. The most recent budget announcement will bring the number of posts to more than 15,000, an increase of 43% since 2011. Mechanisms have been introduced under the Haddington Road Agreement that give SNAs greater stability in their employment and these continue to operate under the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020. A comprehensive review of the SNA scheme, currently being undertaken by the NCSE, includes IMPACT as part of the consultation process.

It is disappointing in light of these developments that industrial action is being contemplated which would have a detrimental effect on children with special educational needs who depend on the care support provided by SNAs in order that they can participate in education.

While a decision on industrial action is a matter for IMPACT, the union is a party to the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020, which contains clauses on industrial harmony. The union will be aware of commitments and potential implications in that context.

I thank the Minister for the answer. I fully support the SNAs in the action they have voted for and are contemplating. It is not acceptable for them not to know if they have a job to return to and they are unable to apply for redeployment in the event that they do not. What they are requesting is very simple. I ask the Minister to give the simple commitments that in future SNA allocations will be announced in sufficient time, which means no later than May, to allow the supplementary assignment panel and distribution of available hours to serving staff to operate to full effect. That seems very simple and would allow people to be able to plan their lives. Can the Minister give that commitment? They are also looking for arrangements in respect of job security on a par with teachers and other public servants and an agreed procedure for dealing with SNA grievances.

That is why I am a bit surprised. The announcement I made in the budget was to allow the NCSE to make that announcement. In previous years the NCSE did the evaluation and then had to await a Government decision to approve the sanctioning of the money. Now we have sanctioned the money in October for next year, meaning it is in a position to do that.

There is a grievance procedure which to my knowledge is working satisfactorily. In addition a panel system was introduced in 2013. Prior to the introduction of that panel, a substantial number of SNAs, approximately 400, were being made redundant each year because the children for whom they were caring no longer needed those supports in the school and only 10% of them were getting redeployed. Under the panel we have introduced, fewer SNAs are losing their posts - about 54% got new posts and others having gone on the panel opted for redundancy. We have been acting under the existing agreements to meet the issues raised by IMPACT.

If the Minister can give a commitment that this is resolved once and for all and it will not be happening again after happening for four years in a row, I would say that SNAs would be relieved to hear that. For the past couple of summers I have been contacted by school principals and SNAs affected by this.

On the more general issue of allocation of SNAs, I welcome the increase in SNAs. It is largely keeping up with demographic changes and increases in the number of children with special needs. Over the summer, some worrying kites were flown about the special education needs budget being too large. Thankfully the Government pulled back from making any cuts. With that background, there is rightful concern that the Government may attempt to cut back, which would be completely unjustified.

I am pleased to tell the Deputy that we meet SNA requirements far beyond demographic needs. The demographic needs would be of the order of 2% or 3%. Since 2011, we have increased the number of SNAs by 43%. For example, at second level we have quadrupled the number of special classes for children with special needs. We have also massively expanded them at primary level. This has been an area of very significant expansion of provision. I am very proud we are in a position to do that. Obviously we need to ensure the service meets the needs of children and that is why a review is being undertaken. It is an area of high priority.

School Costs

Kathleen Funchion

Question:

44. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Education and Skills if his attention has been drawn to the fact that parents of students in primary and secondary schools are increasingly being asked for voluntary contributions of up to €100 upon registering with a school; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45003/17]

My question relates to voluntary contributions and what we are now hearing are being deemed as registration or re-registration fees. Particularly at second level, parents are being asked to pay a re-registration fee if they are interested in continuing their child's education at that particular school. Unfortunately it is on the increase. I ask for the Minister to comment on it.

Registration fees are absolutely illegal; that is very clear. Schools may seek voluntary contributions in recognised schools provided it is made absolutely clear to parents that there is no question of compulsion to pay and that, in making a contribution, they are doing so of their own volition and that a child’s place in the school or continued enrolment is not dependent on a willingness to make a contribution.

The manner in which voluntary contributions are sought and collected is a matter for school management. However, their collection should be such as not to create a situation where either parents or pupils could reasonably infer that the contributions take on a compulsory character.

A school may seek payment to cover the cost of photocopied or other such learning materials where the amount sought by the school is consistent with the costs involved and the level of materials provided. It is also permissible for a school to seek payments in respect of extracurricular activities provided such activities are not obligatory and individual pupils can choose whether to participate. No charge may be made, however, in respect of instruction in any subject of the school curriculum, or for recreation or other activities where all pupils are expected to take part.

The Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016 clarifies this by prohibiting the charging of fees or seeking payment or contributions as part of the school admission process or for continued enrolment in the school. As the Deputy is aware, that Bill will soon proceed to Report Stage.

I am very conscious of the burden which can be placed on parents by the costs associated with school attendance. That is the reason I issued a circular to schools requiring a keen cost approach to the selection of items which could impose costs and requiring consultation with parents on the elements that can create costs. My colleague, the Minister for Employment and Social Protection, also made provision this year for a 25% increase in the back to school allowance and a significant expansion in school meals programmes.

The parents and students charter, legislation on which is currently before the committee for prelegislative scrutiny, will require schools to publish data on what voluntary contributions are used for.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Unfortunately, that is not the experience of most parents sending their children to school. There is considerable pressure on parents to pay the so-called voluntary contribution and, in some instances, schools are starting to call them school bills and making it very clear that the contribution is not voluntary. There is a good deal of pressure in terms of texts, emails, phone calls, letters and some schools even have incentives whereby if parents pay the full amount by a certain date they will be in with a chance to win a prize in a raffle or something like that. That places a great deal of pressure on parents because children are coming home from school and they do not want to be the child who is different. I have considerable sympathy for the schools because they are stretched. They are trying to come up with a way of subsidising their income but, unfortunately, it falls back on the children because some schools penalise them by not allocating a child a locker or not giving a child a school journal or homework notebook - items like that which are handed out. Some schools are brilliant and they handle it very well but others schools do not handle it well. The only ones who are paying the price for this are the children. There is nothing worse for a child than going to school and feeling they do not have the money for this and that they are going to be different. That puts a great deal of unnecessary pressure on children.

I hear what the Deputy is saying. I strongly believe that the provision of a parents and students charter, which will require much more sharing of information, consultation and collective decisions on school policies by the body of parents, will be a very significant step forward. That will greatly help the channels of communication and make sure that the misunderstandings, to which the Deputy has referred, do not occur. I say to the Deputy and to anyone else that if an impression is being created or children are being told they cannot participate in programmes that are core to the delivery of subjects, part of the school curriculum or part of the activities that every pupil is expected to participate in, they should complain about these impositions. We will certainly investigate them if they are brought to our attention.

I suggest that the circular be reissued to schools or that schools are reminded of this. Barnardos undertook research into this recently which shows that 56% of primary schools and 69% of secondary schools, which is a very large number, still have a voluntary contribution. I understand it is illegal. I am not saying the message is not being passed on to schools, but they are not picking it up. Much of it comes down to funding. We cannot get away from the fact that schools experienced many funding cuts in recent years. I urge that the circular be reissued to schools. If a charter is to be put in place, that will be welcome. We talk a good deal about mental health and children's mental health. It is very difficult for a child to go to school feeling different because there is something for which they cannot pay. We should be trying to avoid that situation at all costs for children.

I wish to clarify that voluntary contributions are permissible but compulsory ones are not. That is the distinction. The way in which voluntary contributions are collected is a matter for the school management. As I said, and as I believe the Deputy accepts, if parents are greater partners in the development of policies in this area, we would have more confidence that they would be administered in a way that is sensitive to all parents' needs. That is the reason I am keen to push ahead with the concept of a charter.

Schools Building Projects

Bernard Durkan

Question:

45. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Education and Skills the extent to which the school building programme requirements at primary and second level have been identified in all areas throughout the country with particular reference to immediate requirements in the next 12 months; the extent to which he expects to meet such requirements within the specified period and in line with requirements as set out by the various school authorities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45006/17]

This question relates to the extent to which the Minister expects to be able to meet the building programme requirements in all schools throughout the country, at primary and second level, with particular reference to the most urgently challenged areas from a demographic point of view.

We had a similar discussion earlier when I dealt with Deputy Thomas Byrne's question. I am absolutely confident that we are in a position to meet the demands of the expanding population. We are very fortunate to have a situation where, since 2011, there is a requirement to complete provision for 105,000 school places over a seven to eight-year period. We are well on track to deliver those in accordance with the needs. That creates pressure on our budgets and 80% of our budgets have had to be devoted to the provision of additional places. The rate of provision is a substantial 14,000 to 15,000 new places every year and about 4,000 replacement school places. That is double what was occurring in 2010 and it has been steadily increasing.

In the recent review of capital funding, we got an allocation of an additional €322 million for the school sector. That will allow us to sustain the progress in this area. To give the Deputy an example of the delivery, we have had 170 entirely new schools since 2011 and 120 major expansions. We are making a very substantial investment right across the country. That is happening in light of our having a growing school population. Initially, the focus was very much on the primary sector but now it is moving into a very expanded programme at second level.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. What is the degree to which his Department can avail of modern building techniques with a view to making economic sense and also having regard to the need to ensure buildings are of lifetime duration rather than the temporary prefabricated buildings to which we had become accustomed over the years? What is the degree to which he expects that modular building programme to develop over the next number of years?

The Deputy has probably visited a number of sites. We are building phenomenal schools. They are impressive buildings. We have been using not only the build model by the Department through direct acquisition of design but also public private partnerships. Different approaches have been used. The Department is very much on top of modern building methods. That is not to say we cannot improve. One of the sectors where we have had least productivity growth in recent years has been in construction, perhaps for understandable reasons. With the advent of technology, no doubt there are new opportunities. They are certainly opportunities to become much more efficient, energy efficient in particular. My Department is very alert to the obligations of moving towards highly energy-efficient buildings in its programme.

Is the Minister satisfied that the most urgently required replacement schools are likely to be delivered at an early date or within a given time, given that during the period of the downturn in the economy it was not always possible to attend to those with the degree of urgency that they would have ordinarily required?

We had an earlier debate on this. We have a pipeline system and when cases are deemed urgent, they go into the pipeline. That can be a frustrating process. Site issues, planning issues and design issues can arise. We have probably 100 projects on the go all the time and many in the pipeline coming through. We can get instances such as the one we spoke about earlier where we can get hiccups in the process and something that would be perceived as urgent is nonetheless delayed for planning or site reasons. We do the very best to avoid that. We make sure that not a cent is wasted. We never give money back to the Department of Finance unspent at the end of the year because we make sure we have enough projects of a quality, that are well designed and shovel ready to make sure we spend every penny we get. I am confident the system works, but that is not to say I will not be looking to see if can we improve it as we move ahead.

Private Schools

Eamon Ryan

Question:

46. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Minister for Education and Skills the number of schools that offer the international baccalaureate; and his views on more schools offering the qualification. [45032/17]

Is the Minister considering increasing the number of schools that offer the international baccalaureate? There is a call for that in some instances because, with new foreign investment here and international offices being set up, people may be looking for an international school. There is one such school in train, as I understand, and a second school is seeking a site in order to be able to provide a secondary school option. I am keen to get the Minister's views on this matter. I will then come back in to explain my own thinking as to why it might make sense.

The Deputy probably knows my reply already. An international school providing the international baccalaureate would not be a recognised school for the purposes of funding by my Department, as it would not teach the Irish curriculum. All State-funded schools follow the curriculum as established by the Minister.

I understand that a small number of schools, possibly four, offer elements of the international baccalaureate currently, with none offering the entire curriculum from four to 18 years of age. I am aware of plans on the part of private providers to develop new schools which offer the international baccalaureate. These providers are not eligible for, nor are they seeking, funding or quality assurance from my Department.

I have no plans to devote resources from the education budget for the provision of the international baccalaureate. However, as a general principle, and in support of our international education strategies, my Department is broadly supportive of the value and role of international schools in addressing the need to provide education for children of internationally mobile parents.

I understand that the Minister cannot be supporting a private system. We have need for a public system as well. However, perhaps there are ways the two could be combined whereby we could possibly co-locate. A school that has been under-utilising its facilities might be able to co-locate with a new international school to allow it be established. One of the reasons I would support such a move is that I would like to see some greater options here and, perhaps, greater impetus in the reform of our junior certificate and leaving certificate systems. The introduction of schools offering the international baccalaureate might actually provide this. It might give us experience of other exam mechanisms and techniques and other learning mechanisms. As a parent of four children who are now going through the education system, it does not seem that the system has been reformed at all in the way we were promised it would be. My children are doing the same "murder machine" trick of learning things off and spouting things out. The advantage of us having a cadre of schools here offering the international baccalaureate would be that it might help us reform our system, which, I believe, is badly needed.

I agree that we should always consider reform and that is the reason we said that, within a decade, we would have the best education training service in Europe. We are looking at exemplars of good practice using bodies such the OECD, etc., to examine what we are doing and identify where we might make improvements. I do not think we need to establish baccalaureate schools for us to hold a mirror up to ourselves.

I take the Deputy's point about the slow pace of reform. As he knows, the junior cycle is the first significant step in changing the way in which we assess pupils. Although it has met with considerable resistance, I think it is now being rolled out and is proving itself. I hope that confidence in the junior cycle will build, in time, to a point where we will be in a position to examine whether further reform further up the cycle can arise. However, I am also conscious that the leaving certificate attracts huge public confidence in respect of being fair, objective and so on. We are open to good exemplars of better assessment and teaching methods. Recently, I met representatives of Atlantic Rim Collaboratory, ARC, including those from Scotland, Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Ontario. They are doing very exciting things from which we are learning. We are trying to test our model against good practice elsewhere.

A primary school offering an international baccalaureate programme is co-located with a public school in Synge Street. Would the Department meet the backers of that project to see if something similar might be possible at second level? It is not taking from the public system. The two working together could provide a model. That would be our own example of being connected to what is going on in terms of the international baccalaureate, which should and could be of real use not just for the business community but for our entire education system.

I am quite happy to listen to any case put forward in respect of co-location or whatever. Obviously, as guardian of the taxpayer's euro, I have to ensure that whatever I get is put to the interests of children pursuing the Irish State-funded system. That does not mean I would not be happy to meet people and discuss where areas of co-operation could develop.

Teacher Recruitment

Maureen O'Sullivan

Question:

47. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Education and Skills his views on the issues facing schools regarding supply of teachers to date; and the way in which he plans to fill the 1,280 teaching jobs announced in budget 2018. [44949/17]

The question concerns the current supply of teachers in primary schools and the Minister's plans to fill the 1,280 teaching jobs that he announced recently.

For clarification, those jobs are at both primary and second level. I am pleased that I have been in a position to significantly expand the recruitment of teachers. Some 2,300 new teachers were recruited in 2016-2017 and 2,900 will be recruited in 2017-2018. That figure of 2,900 is 21% more than the number announced in budget 2017. All of the 2016-2017 posts have been successfully filled and the process for filling the additional posts in the current year is almost complete. We are successfully filling the posts that we are making available.

Overall, the number of graduates emerging from initial teacher training at primary level is approximately 1,750 and that at second level is approximately 1,500 per annum. I am aware of certain reported difficulties in recruiting substitute teachers at primary level and in a number of particular subjects at second level. There are difficulties in developing a reliable model of teacher supply at second level, which was recognised in the work of the Teaching Council. This is because teaching is competing with many other sectors for graduates in areas such as maths, science, and Irish.

I have taken some immediate initiatives to ease some of these pressures. Some have been in respect of retiring teachers who remain eligible for periods of more than five consecutive days if they continue to be registered with the Teaching Council. I have also increased the limits for employment while on career break at post-primary level to a maximum of 300 hours in a school year and to a maximum of 90 days in a school year at primary level. The matter of the employment of bachelor of education and professional master of education students in limited circumstances on a short-term basis is still under consideration.

I have also taken particular subject area initiatives such as increasing the number of students admitted to St, Angela's, Sligo, to follow the home economics programme, which is one of the areas of tightness, with further expansion in future years. As part of the policy on Gaeltacht education, I have made funding available for the provision of two additional posts to the máistir gairmiúil san oideachas - professional master of education programme - in NUI Galway.

The extra teachers are extremely welcome. I want to give an example from recent experience. I chair the board of management of a primary school. Due to career breaks and maternity leave, we have had quite a number of vacancies to fill. We spent a full day last July, another half day in August and another period two weeks ago interviewing, yet we still have a substitute maternity leave post that we cannot fill. We have had to resort to unqualified teachers. As the Minister knows, they can only work for five days at a time. This means that the class in question will be getting a different teacher every five days. I totally understand that we do not want unqualified individuals teaching in schools because it would have a disastrous effect on the quality of teaching. However, this is an exceptional circumstance and, no matter what the rule or regulation is, there has to be some space for particular circumstances that arise. We can certainly document our efforts to get somebody, which have been unsuccessful to date. I ask for the Minister to allow for some space to manoeuvre in these situations.

There is no doubt that recruiting 5,000 teachers over two years puts some pressure on the system. We are successfully filling those posts, however, and are making provision to ease the pressure where pinch points occur. I am also sitting down with my Department to look at other potential initiatives, particularly in some of the areas, such as STEM and languages, in which we are experiencing pinch points. We are very definitely competing with other growing sectors that are demanding maths, physics, STEM and so on. I am looking to see if we can take targeted initiatives to attract more of such graduates into teaching.

We will have 1,750 teachers qualifying at primary level this year. The recruitment plan next year is for 650.

There will be considerably more headroom for recruitment next year than was there was in September last.

There is a particular difficulty at primary level. Irish teachers are in high demand in other countries and they now have opportunities to work abroad, particularly in the Middle East where salaries are higher. A significant number of teachers are away in any given year. I do not believe it should be the responsibility of the voluntary management boards to make a decision in this area. There is need for a conversation between the Department and the unions on the maximum number, proportionate to the number of teachers in a school, that can be on a career break in any given year. Some schools have brought in their own quotas but I am not sure if that is the correct way to go. This exodus needs to be addressed because it has an unsettling effect on the children, whose interests are primary.

Another issue is Garda vetting, which can sometimes be complicated for teachers. It would be helpful if it could be simplified in some way.

The Deputy is right that under the current system it is up to the local authority to decide on employment policies of that nature. I will ask the Department to look at the issue. In regard to Garda vetting, to be fair to the various management bodies they have made a big effort to streamline the process. The Teaching Council has also done a lot of work to try to streamline it. Of late, I have not been receiving the level of complaints I was receiving previously. I hope it is working itself through.

On the issue of salaries, we have made significant progress in closing the gap that existed. Talks in this area are ongoing. Hopefully, across all of these initiatives we can ease the pinch points that the Deputy points to.

School Accommodation Provision

John Curran

Question:

48. Deputy John Curran asked the Minister for Education and Skills the work or progress to date in preparing plans for new schools in a proposed new development (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45011/17]

As the Minister will be aware, a strategic development zone is being planned for Clonburris in County Dublin. When completed, it will comprise more than 8,000 housing units and a population of more than 20,000 people. As this plan is developed, what is the Minister's and Department's plan in terms of the provision of schools at all levels for this new town?

My Department works closely with local authorities to establish the location, scale and pace of any major residential developments and requests sites to be reserved for school purposes, where necessary, to ensure as far as possible the timely delivery of any required education infrastructure in the future.

As the Deputy may be aware, the draft planning scheme for the area to which he refers is currently out for public consultation, in line with statutory requirements. My Department is preparing a submission to the relevant local authority in respect of the SDZ.

The current draft planning scheme provides for three new post primary schools and three new primary schools, in addition to existing school provision. My Department has plans to develop one of the school sites to provide post-primary accommodation in the area, subject to the adoption of the planning scheme and the views of the planning authority.

With respect to additional sites reserved, my Department uses a geographical information system, GIS, to monitor demographic growth and identify when the pressure for additional school places will arise. When the demographic assessments indicate that a new school, primary or post-primary, is required to be established, my Department will seek to proceed with the acquisition and development of an appropriate school site in order to provide the necessary accommodation.

I thank the Minister for his reply, which in some regards is the traditional reply that when the houses are built and people are occupying them the schools will follow. This has been the traditional model in the greater Clondalkin-Lucan area and it has imposed considerable hardship on new communities. The difference with this model is it is a strategic development zone, where infrastructure is to be provided in tandem with the housing development. We need to move away from the traditional problems we experienced in the past. Rather than waiting and doing an analysis on new population schools must be provided in tandem with the housing development. One of the schools identified has been built and is currently occupied and reaching capacity. It is important to recognise the location of Clonburris. It is straddled between Clondalkin and Lucan, an area which has seen significant population growth. Many of the existing schools in these areas have no spare capacity and so it is really important that the Department's plan is dovetailed to meet the strategic development such that there are no gaps. We should not wait until the population is in place to address the educational needs of the area.

I take the Deputy's point. Obviously, we do not build schools and wait for the population to arrive. We cannot afford to do that. Deputy Durkan asked earlier if we are able to meet the pressures of an expanding population. What we have is a just-in-time policy. This policy has been around for years. That does not mean that policy does not closely monitor demographic trends. Issues such as births and local authority information are used to identify where we need to anticipate provision. The system is working. As the Deputy said, there are already new schools in the area and we are planning to provide further schools. I will ask my Department to look specifically at how it is anticipating provision and the timing of investment in this area. We do not have the luxury of a build and they will come policy. We have to take account of birth rates, recognising that in three or four years times those children will be hitting the primary school system and that is when we need to have the places available.

There are no birth rates to take account of because this is a brand new town. It is a greenfield site on which there will be approximately 8,500 housing units. The schools will have to be built just in time, not afterwards, or there will be no school in the area for children to attend. This is a big development. I appreciate the Minister's undertaking to look at the issue. For this scale of development to occur, the infrastructure must be provided in tandem. This has to be a phased development. We cannot have thousands of houses built and a decision to build a school and it appear three years later. That will not work. It will put a stop to this housing development.

As the Minister is aware the already huge population of Clondalkin, Adamstown and set to increase by 20,000 following the completion of the Clonburris development. Has consideration been given to the provision of a third level institution in this area?

The Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, has responsibility for third-level provision. As the Deputy will be aware, what we need to do is consolidate the institutions of technology in Dublin into one strong technological university that has the capacity to span all of the needs of the city. Small stand-alone third-level institutions is the direction we have been taking. We need strong institutions. While I am not ruling the idea of new colleges in the future, the trend in recent times has been to strengthen the institutions we have and grow from the existing base. That is only a general comment.

The point made by the Deputy is a valid one. We do look at the type of occupancy that one would expect in see in developments as they come on stream. That is factored into the plan. It is not a case of looking in a rigid way at the birth rates. Given these types of developments are going to become an increasing feature of integrated planning, which we will have to adhere to if we are to meet the ambitions of the national framework, I will ask my Department to take a fresh look at how we deal with the education planning of SDZs because I think the issue warrants attention.

Special Educational Needs Staff

Kathleen Funchion

Question:

49. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Education and Skills the service monitoring the SNA sector which is in place to ensure that SNAs and trainees are being treated fairly in their employment. [45004/17]

What service is in place to monitor that SNA sector to ensure they and trainees are being treated fairly in their employment?

The terms and conditions of employment for SNAs are outlined in their contracts of employment.  These contracts were agreed with the school management authorities and the relevant trade unions representing SNAs, IMPACT and SIPTU, prior to their introduction in 2005. The agreement reached between the parties found expression in the two circular letters issued in 2005 detailing the contracts of employment for SNAs.

The contract of employment is augmented by all of the relevant departmental circulars governing special needs assistants, which detail the standardised terms and conditions of employment for SNAs. From time to time, these circulars are amended and new circulars are issued by my Department. 

In addition, my Department has implemented a nationally agreed set of grievance procedures for SNAs which can be invoked by an SNA, with an employer, to deal, where appropriate, with issues such as school rules, policies and procedures or practices. Department of Education and Skills, DES, circular 72/2011 - Grievance and Disciplinary Procedures for Special Needs Assistants in Recognised Primary and Post-Primary Schools - refers. 

If, upon conclusion of the grievance process, the grievance remains unresolved, the SNA may refer the matter to the Workplace Relations Commission through the normal dispute resolution channels.

As is the case for certain other employees, SNAs have the right to submit or refer complaints in relation to contraventions of or disputes relating to entitlements under employment, equality and equal status legislation to the Workplace Relations Commission for resolution and agreement.

Are the special education needs organisers, SENOs, who oversee special needs assistants responsible for them? Several people have contacted our office about an anomaly in the sector whereby many who have been in a job for quite a long time but whose hours might have been reduced are penalised if they get work in another special needs role because they are unable to carry forward their yearly increments. If a full-time role comes up in a school, those who have been trainees there for several years are able to get that role ahead of those in an existing position in the school. Should the SENO or the school principal and the board of management be the first point of contact for special needs assistants? Which is in charge on this issue?

The school is the employer and the SENO is an adviser who helps assess children's individual needs. SENOs do not have a role in the deployment of SNAs. As I said in reply to Deputy Paul Murphy, a panel is in place that has resulted in a substantial improvement in the successful placement of SNAs who have to move from a school because of a changed needs profile. The number getting a successful placement has increased from 10% to 54%. The panel arrangement also provides that if additional hours come up, a person with reduced hours gets preferential access to them. The existing procedure through the panel arrangement makes provision for the concerns the Deputy has outlined. If she wishes to send me details of a particular query I will have it clarified for her.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Can members of the panel carry forward their yearly increments? I might submit further details to the Minister's office but there seems to be a difficulty on that issue. It is possible there is some confusion but SNAs do not believe they can carry forward their yearly increments. If the Minister cannot clarify that now, I will submit it to his office at a later stage.

An incremental scale comprising approximately 15 steps starts at approximately €23,000 and goes up to €38,000. Perhaps it would be better for the Deputy to send me the detail of how increments are earned in order that I can clarify the policy for her.

Teacher Recruitment

Gino Kenny

Question:

50. Deputy Gino Kenny asked the Minister for Education and Skills if his attention has been drawn to the lack of primary school teachers available to fill both long-term and short-term posts (details supplied); his plans to rectify this through setting up supply panels; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44858/17]

The question is similar to that asked by Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan. I am pleased to have been in a position to significantly expand the recruitment of primary teachers, with 1,093 new primary teachers recruited in 2016-17 and 1,160 in 2017-18. The 2016-17 posts have been successfully filled and the process for filling the additional posts in the current year is almost complete. With regard to the 637 primary posts announced in budget 2018, my Department estimates there will be approximately 1,750 new primary teachers next year, which is sufficient to meet the requirements of the system while taking into account anticipated retirements.

I am aware of certain reported difficulties in recruiting substitute teachers at primary level, including in the cases referred to by the Deputy, and have taken a number of steps to address them, as I earlier outlined. I am considering other initiatives that could be taken.

I do not wish to be alarmist but there is an emerging crisis in the primary education system. The lack of substitute teachers has led to the traditional student-teacher model becoming quite dysfunctional. On eight occasions there were no teachers to supervise classes in Adamstown Castle Educate Together school in Lucan, which is in my constituency, and that meant classes were put together and students lost out. The Minister is probably cognisant of the emerging crisis but it could get worse.

Substitute posts can be difficult to fill. If a very short-term substitution for a person pursuing other interests needs to be filled, potential applicants may be more interested in a long-term placement. As part of the negotiated agreements, we shortened the period whereby people can get contracts of indefinite duration or a permanent post. Strong career opportunities are offered by the increase in the number of permanent full-time positions at the current rate of over 1,000 per year. That puts some pressure on availability for substitution, which is why I have made some changes in respect of those on career breaks, the recently retired or others who could take up some hours when they become available. There will be 1,750 new primary teachers next year, 630 of whom are being absorbed in net new intake. The Department believes that intake when balanced with the number of retirements will be sufficient to meet the needs in the sector. I continue to examine the issue and will discuss concerns arising in the area with various stakeholders. Analysis has to be based on more than anecdotal evidence; we have to look at detailed statistics on the nature of the problem.

It is more than anecdotal evidence. The chairwoman of a group representing principals of primary schools in Dublin 15 wrote an alarming letter to The Irish Times, the first few sentences of which stated:

We have collated the figures for the month of September 2017 alone and they make for disturbing reading – the number of school days when substitute teachers were not available to cover absences in Dublin 15 during September 2017 was 546. As a result, classes are divided and children are being sent to other available classrooms, often at short notice, resulting in disruption and overcrowding in those classrooms. The education of all concerned is significantly compromised on these occasions. Often, special education teachers are required to suspend their support timetables to teach mainstream classes, thereby depriving the most vulnerable children of their vital supports.

The principals of schools in Dublin 15 hold a different view to that of the Minister. There is an emerging crisis in regard to substitute teachers.

Absences occur for various reasons such as sickness or in-service training. The level of absences requiring substitution noted in that letter are very high. There may be a need to examine how we schedule activities in order that strain is not put on schools during certain months of the year. The Deputy has indicated it can be a particular problem during September. I will examine ways to plan a better spread of in-service training days, which might cause a considerable number of absences at the same time and consider if there is a better way to reduce the pressure that gives rise to the need for substitution.

Residential Institutions Statutory Fund Board

Catherine Connolly

Question:

51. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Education and Skills the status of the review of Caranua; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45000/17]

What is the status of the review of Caranua? Has it been completed and when is it to be published? When will it be discussed in the House? The Minister knows there is a background to the issue and that the Dáil debated having a full review, as was promised from the beginning. He is also aware of the upset among applicants to Caranua. While I will not dwell on it at this point, I certainly will return to it following the Minister's answer.

The review under way is confined to the issue of eligibility to apply to the organisation for support.

The terms of reference of the review of eligibility, a draft of which was published on my Department's website earlier this year, provided for an initial phase involving a review of Caranua's expenditure to date and an estimation of the projected expenditure, taking into account applications on hand and anticipated further applications together with an estimation of any possible underspend of the available funding. This initial phase of the review is now at an advanced stage and I hope to receive a report on it shortly.

If the findings of this initial phase indicate that an underspend of the €110 million in funding available to Caranua is likely, a consultation process will then be initiated with stakeholders about an expansion of the eligibility criteria, including identification of the groups that could be considered for inclusion in any expansion. The consultation process would seek to identify possible arrangements for verifying eligibility, resource implications and related issues. If the findings indicate that an underspend was unlikely, the review will conclude at that point. It should be noted also that any proposal to widen eligibility would require legislation.

It is worth noting that to date Caranua has received 6,000 applications and expended some €66 million in support of over 4,000 applicants.

The Deputy will recall the debate in this House in May on a Private Members' motion in her name and that of others relating to Caranua's operations. The amended motion accepted by the House called on the Government to take a number of specific actions regarding Caranua. In response, Caranua has advised that it is reviewing its customer charter in consultation with stakeholders with a view to making data available on whether targets for responses to phone calls and correspondence are being met. Data on feedback and complaints received are also to be made available. Caranua is also working to increase the level of face-to-face engagement with applicants. It is doing this through scheduled face-to-face meetings in various venues in Dublin and in the regions. It should also be noted that the recent move by Caranua to new office accommodation will facilitate a greater level of face-to-face engagement with applicants than had previously been possible. Finally, I understand that Caranua is working to enhance the level of statistics it provides to my Department and to the public on waiting times for processing and communicating decisions.

That is the same reply I got over a month ago, at which stage the Minister told me in a written reply that the report was nearing completion. Over a month later he is telling me the same thing. I do not wish to argue with the Minister at all, but he must place this question and answer in the context of people who are extremely upset. My office is in constant receipt of urgent representation from applicants, as I am sure are other Deputies' offices. One applicant rang my office today to confirm that he is on hunger strike along with a number of other people, such is their dissatisfaction with the service. The reason I used my Private Members' time on this matter was to indicate to the Dáil the level of dissatisfaction with it, the lack of monitoring by the Department of Education and Skills over it, a list of contracts that had never been sanctioned - it looked like they were sanctioned retrospectively - and many other issues that we raised in the Dáil. We appealed to the Minister to carry out a full review. Not alone did he not do that, but the limited review he is carrying out still has not been completed. May I have a date? When will it be published, and when can we discuss it?

When Caranua has completed its work, it will report to me. This is the latest that I have. The reply to the Deputy's question states that I hope to receive the report shortly. I presume that represents very considerable progress on the work but I am also pointing out that since our debate earlier, there have been significant efforts and work by Caranua with my Department to ensure that the procedures regarding customer service support are improved. The very issues that were raised here about delays, face-to-face time and the ways in which issues were being handled were issues of particular concern. The Department and Caranua have been taking steps to address these, and I hope people are seeing some improvement as a result. There is an appeal process. We will monitor the level of appeals and complaints that occur in an attempt to make sure that the changes being made are being reflected in better performance regarding those very sensitive areas. I hope there is improvement being reflected in the efforts being made in the experience of those dealing with Caranua.

I ask Deputy Connolly to be brief because I want to get-----

I appreciate that the Minister is referring to changes that have been brought in but I do not know whether he appreciates the seriousness of what I have just said about the representations to my office, and I am not alone in this regard. Someone has gone on hunger strike. I am only repeating what he has told my office and a number of other people, and for the second time we have passed that correspondence on to the Taoiseach's office today.

Second, I understand that Caranua is functioning without a CEO. I have separately asked the Minister whether that is correct and I have also tabled a Dáil question on the matter. Perhaps the Minister could confirm, since he is referring to these changes, who is in charge pushing these changes. Is a CEO in place? I do not wish to stray into employment law or anything like that, but it is a matter of public concern whether a CEO is in place. If not, is someone else in place steering these changes, and may I have a precise date for the publication of the limited report?

I ask the Minister to be very brief. I want to accommodate Deputy Shortall-----

To be fair to anyone who is employed under a contract and entitled if they are sick to be on sick leave, it is unfair to present the matter in the way in which the Deputy is presenting it. Of course during periods of leave the organisation is properly managed and has a proper board that is very attentive to its role. It is not holding up the work that is going on. I absolutely understand the sensitivity of the work that is involved. These are people who have suffered hugely at the hands of institutions and the State and we must deal with them very fairly. At the same time, I also realise the constraints on a board such as Caranua's, which must comply with what has been decided by the Legislature and the framework within which it must administer its decisions. This has been a source of friction, but I hope these new changes will help to ease those tensions.

Deputy Shortall has a very short space of time. I will allow her 30 seconds to introduce her question and perhaps one supplementary question.

Teachers' Remuneration

Róisín Shortall

Question:

52. Deputy Róisín Shortall asked the Minister for Education and Skills the steps he is taking to reach an agreement with the teachers' unions in respect of two-tier pay scales; his views as to whether this issue is significantly undermining morale within the profession; the direction he has given his officials in respect of unions that engage in industrial action; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40646/17]

The question concerns the two-tier pay scales in operation for teachers at present, the fact that all three teacher unions have now rejected the pay agreement, the implications of this for future working with the teachers' unions and what the Minister intends to do to address this pressing issue.

The public service agreements have allowed a programme of pay restoration for public servants to start. I have used this to negotiate substantial improvements in pay for new teachers. The agreement reached in September last year will see pay rises of between 15% and 22% between €4,600 and €6,700 for new entrant teachers.  The agreements also provide for earlier permanency for younger teachers, new promotion opportunities and new flexibilities in working hours.

The agreements have restored an estimated 75% of the difference in pay for more recently recruited teachers and deliver full equality at later points in the scale. This is substantial progress and strikes an equitable balance with other claims for funding on my Department, particularly needs such as enhanced services for children with special educational needs, disadvantaged schools, growing schools and so on.

In education there is a well-established increment system, and teachers are not paid equally. For example, the pay scale for teachers appointed prior to 2011 ranges from €33,800 to €61,950 depending on the date on which the individual began teaching. Part of the negotiation to date has secured a convergence of the scales of recruits at different periods.

I accept that the teacher unions have outstanding pay demands and that the new entrant deal does not travel the full distance they set out to achieve. However, any further negotiation on new entrant pay cannot focus on just one sector. The recently concluded Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020 includes a provision regarding new entrants which states that an examination of the remaining salary scale issues in respect of post-January 2011 recruits at entry grades covered by parties to the agreement will be undertaken within 12 months of the commencement of the agreement. An initial meeting on new entrant pay under this process took place on 12 October 2017.

The Government also supports the gradual, negotiated repeal of the FEMPI legislation, having due regard to the priority to improve public services and in recognition of the essential role played by public servants.

The new Public Service Stability Agreement would also bring undoubted benefits to young teachers. In January 2018 a newly qualified teacher straight out of college will earn €35,958. In October 2020 a newly qualified teacher straight out of college will earn €37,692. This is a very competitive graduate salary.

It is important not to confuse this issue with the whole question of incremental pay scales. We are talking about a cohort of teachers who are starting on a lower salary than their colleagues started on, which means that, over the course of their teaching career, they will be substantially penalised as a result. There is a significant sense that younger teachers who have come in are being less favourably treated and this is simply not fair. There is also a strong sense on the part of members of teacher unions that they cannot continue to tolerate a situation where they are working alongside younger teachers who are very clearly being discriminated against. There is now a strong sense of solidarity among the teaching profession and that sense is not going to change. There is a strong sense that people have been badly treated and left behind, which is having a very negative impact on morale. The Minister needs to take action on this earlier than he has set out.

To repeat what I said in my reply, the public service pay agreement has embraced this issue and it has put in place a process which has not been left for 12 months, as was provided for in the agreement, because the process has already started on 12 October 2017. This issue is being taken seriously. It is worth reflecting on how this came about. Back in the midst of the crisis, there was an agreement to continue recruiting teachers at a time when the State was under huge financial pressure. The deal that then emerged was to recruit at lower pay. As the Deputy rightly said, that has given rise to anomalies. Many teachers were recruited in those difficult years who are on those lower scales but we have used the flexibility of the agreement to negotiate substantial improvements for them and a process is now in place. When it came to the recent agreements, where some €900 million was on the table to be negotiated as a settlement with the public service unions, the negotiations resulted in an agreement that did not address this particular way immediately but, instead, put this process together. That was openly negotiated between the two parties. I appreciate the teacher unions are not happy with the outcome but we have a process in place and I hope the unions will engage actively with it because in time, it hopefully will make progress.

It is causing a severe problem with recruitment.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.