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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 29 Mar 2018

Vol. 967 No. 3

Priority Questions

Schools Building Projects

Thomas Byrne


1. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills the action being taken to address the need for additional schools infrastructure and staffing in areas of rapidly growing population and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14681/18]

Could the Minister for Education and Skills tell me the position with regard to rapidly growing areas? I am not convinced that enough is being done in the Department to make sure the supply of schools and school places is sufficient.

I thank the Deputy for his question. I know we had a discussion on the issue last night. Ireland has experienced a significant bulge in pupil enrolments going through our schools. This has seen a significant expansion in the rate of provision of new school places and this puts a high demand on the Department's capital budgets. Since 2011, some 340 major school projects and over 120,000 new and replacement places have been provided and 8,718 additional teachers have been employed.

My Department's capital investment programme 2016 to 2021 continues to address the challenges posed by a rapidly increasing school population. The programme details the school projects that are being progressed through the architectural planning process. It also provides for devolved funding for additional classrooms for schools where an immediate enrolment need has been identified.

In order to plan for school provision and analyse the relevant demographic data, my Department divides the country into 314 school planning areas and uses a geographical information system using data from a range of sources to identify where the pressure for school places across the country will arise. In this regard, nationwide demographic exercises involving all school planning areas at primary and post-primary level, which will determine where additional school accommodation will be needed in the future, is ongoing at the moment and it is anticipated that decisions based on these exercises will be announced in the coming weeks.

My Department is included among the prescribed bodies to whom local authorities are statutorily obliged to send draft development and local area plans or proposed variations to development plans for comment and observations. This information is factored into the Department's planning process. It also enables local authorities to reserve future school sites in areas designated for proposed housing development.

With regard to staffing, the criteria used for the allocation of teaching posts is published annually on the Department's website. The key factor for determining the level of staffing resources provided at individual school level is the staffing schedule for the relevant school year and pupil enrolments on the previous 30 September. The staffing schedule includes the provision where schools experiencing rapid increases in enrolment can apply for additional permanent mainstream posts on developing grounds.

We are building more schools and providing more additional school places than ever before. This reflects the priority which this Government is putting on education and is underpinned by the €8.6 billion investment for school buildings that is set out in the national development plan 2018 to 2027.

I am glad to see that some action is being taken in the Department on foot of concerns that I hope the Minister's officials have raised with him because I have certainly raised them with the officials over the past year or two. I would like to know when the decision to carry out this exercise was taken because we have been told over the past number of years that everything was in hand in the Department and that the list published in 2015 was what we would need. In fact, many of them are not yet built. The Minister is now the Minister who is bringing back prefabs. He is doing that because there was no forward planning in the Department and he has been left holding that particular baby because forward planning seemed to have been abolished until some of us started to raise it in this House.

I raised the example of a site in Ashbourne privately with the Minister and I know his officials are looking at it. This site is owned by the Department. I hope some of it will be used for a public park but the vast bulk of it was designated by the Department and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government as suitable for housing despite the fact that anybody who drove through Ashbourne would see the houses that were being built and the families moving into the area and see that undoubtedly a school would be needed there at some point in the future. However, the Department of Education and Skills saw fit to put this forward for housing.

Is it the case that the only information sought from local authorities about housing developments concerned the local infrastructure housing activation fund, LIHAF, scheme, which the Minister mentioned yesterday, rather than all the housing developments that are happening, the vast majority of which are not LIHAF?

We are going through a unique period of population expansion at school level. In the past seven or eight years, there have been almost 60,000 extra pupils at primary level and almost 50,000 extra pupils at second level so it is an unprecedented level of demand. The Department undertakes these demographic studies on a regular basis. This has been done before and it is deemed timely with the new population trends. On foot of this, there will no doubt be the indication of areas where new schools have been planned. Since 2011, some 61 new schools have been opened. By and large, they start in prefabs as a later project for building the school would occur but that is part of an efficient use of the capital resources we have to ensure that we meet demand as it arises.

Obviously, we are very closely allied with the local authorities and we use them to identify sites. It is not for the Department to decide whether a local authority designates an area for a school site but, of course, we would notify the local authority of the implications of population development for school needs. We have regular access to local authority information. Certainly LIHAF, large projects or significant infrastructural acceleration projects would be a major input but we also receive information from local authorities on other developments they have in mind or expect.

My information is that the Department received that information from the local authority but it was not requested by the Department of Education and Skills regarding the non-large-scale developments, which is all Ashbourne has. There would not be any under the new planning process or indeed under LIHAF but the area is still growing rapidly. I am afraid the spin unit is rubbing off a bit on the Minister regarding prefabs. He said it was understandable that prefabs would be used in respect of schools started since 2011 and that this was an efficient use of resources, but the truth is that the number of prefabs increased by 25% from 2016 to 2017 under his watch - nobody's else's watch. This is why I make the charge that he is the Minister who is bringing back prefabs. This is all over the country. A 25% increase is one of the largest increases in prefabs on record under the Minister's watch. It has happened because of the lack of planning in the Department and because it is fire-fighting. From everything the Minister says, it seems to me that he has refused to ask for more capital money for the here and now. We have plenty of promises for the future but there needs to be more for the here and now.

I am surprised that the national development plan shows the number of primary-level schoolchildren falling off a cliff and yet the Government has not done its demographic analysis. I am beginning to think the figures do not add up.

I wish to reassure the Deputy that there has been a substantial expansion in the capital budget. It has increased by €192 million since 2012 and that expansion continues. The Deputy is right to say that over the next three years a further €200 million - at €70 million per year - will be added to the schools capital programme. We continue to have very strong ambitions. It has, however, been a very difficult period, with well over 100,000 additional children entering our schools in a very short time. We have had to respond to that as flexibly as possible at a time when, as we all know, capital has been constrained. The Department has done it in an efficient way. Unlike most Departments, we never return money unspent. We have a very good planning process that identifies a pipeline of projects and we met the demands in that regard. The evidence is there, with 120,000 extra places provided in the period in question.

Special Educational Needs Service Provision

Kathleen Funchion


2. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Education and Skills the timeframe for the review of autism spectrum disorder, ASD, places available to children in both primary and post-primary schools in counties Carlow and Kilkenny, as promised on 1 February 2018. [14557/18]

What is the timeframe for the review of ASD places available to children in primary and post-primary schools in my constituency, Carlow-Kilkenny? On the previous occasion on which he took questions, the Minister promised a review in the area and I want to know the progress made in respect of it.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue, which is of particular concern to parents throughout the country. As advised in my response on 1 February, special class provision across the country is expanding very rapidly and I am satisfied that, based on the advice of the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, we are matching the needs as they emerge.

I have asked the NCSE to look at emerging needs in counties Carlow and Kilkenny and to make provision to match the emerging needs.

In response, the NCSE has advised my Department that there are sufficient special class placements for the 2018-2019 school year for the children known to it. Of course, it continues to plan for additional special class placements in order that there will be capacity to meet the needs of children who have yet to be identified as needing such a placement.

On specific provision, my Department has approved a grant to St. Lachtain's in Freshford to construct a two-classroom ASD unit and to upgrade an existing classroom to facilitate the operation of a third ASD class. I understand that a further application for funding for associated works has recently been submitted and my officials are considering this application.

The NCSE has also sanctioned another primary class in St. John's junior school in Kilkenny and accommodation issues are now under consideration. The NCSE will continue to engage with schools in the area with a view to ensuring there is sufficient special class provision in the coming school years.

The number of special classes in Carlow and Kilkenny increased from 11 in 2011 to 48 today, which is evidence of very rapid expansion of provision.

I accept that there has been an increase. When I contacted the Minister regarding one or two specific cases, those places were resolved, which was very welcome for the families involved. Knowing exactly where their children will go to school in September takes the pressure off. They have a place either in a special school or in an ASD unit. However, all the schools with ASD units maintain that they have waiting lists. I am surprised that the NCSE claims that there are adequate places in the Carlow-Kilkenny constituency. If there were adequate places, surely there would be no waiting lists. While I have raised one or two specific cases with the Minister and they have been resolved, I am aware of other instances where people are awaiting places in ASD units in September and have still not got them. I think there is a breakdown in communications somewhere. It is not possible to have adequate places and still have children on waiting lists. I would like to tease that out more and to get a more detailed response from the NCSE.

I will certainly get a response for the Deputy. Over 60% of children with ASD go into mainstream classes, approximately 20% go into ASD units and a further 20% go to special schools. The decision on whether a child's needs would be best met in a mainstream class or a special class is made on a case-by-case basis. The indication when additional ASD units are needed is when the NCSE identifies that there is likely to be a stream of children whose needs will not be met by mainstream classes. Mainstream classes have the support of both resource teaching and special needs assistants, SNAs, to allow it to occur.

Different issues may give rise to waiting lists such as, for example, multiple applications to individual schools in cases where parents consider a number of schools. The NCSE obviously goes through the assessments of needs and the capacity of schools each year. It is satisfied at this point. I understand that it is hard for a parent to navigate the process because it is only after a child has been assessed that the direction that would best suit him or her can be identified. I will seek additional explanation of how the process works for the Deputy.

I welcome that and I would appreciate getting a more detailed response from the NCSE. One of the schools the Minister mentioned, St. Lachtain's in Freshford, is the only school that provides an ASD preschool. The additional funding it sought was to add an additional room to its preschool. I know the Minister said it, but I missed it. Will that be done by September of this year or is it still in progress?

The reply states that the Department has approved a grant to St. Lachtain's in Freshford to construct a two-classroom ASD unit and to upgrade an existing classroom to facilitate the operation of a third ASD class. As of today, we seem to have two ASD classes in St. Lachtain's. It anticipates that five places will be available in the 2018-2019 enrolments. Obviously, there are places in different units across the two counties. There are about 20 schools with facilities of different scales. There are even more; the list goes on to the next page. There is expansion taking place. I do not know if that is expected to be available by September, but I doubt it.

School Curriculum

Thomas Byrne


3. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills the initiatives being taken to enable greater choice for each gender regarding the school curriculum; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14682/18]

My question probably should have been worded slightly more clearly. I am asking about shared facilities in schools. I recently met a delegation of transition year students from St. Joseph's girls' school in Lucan. They would love to be able to study technical graphics and building construction. They do not have the facilities in their school and they would like to share with a boys' school, and vice versa the boys would like to study home economics in the girls' school.

The prepared reply does not cover that. It deals with how the curriculum is designed to ensure that young people can participate regardless of gender. It also deals with schools going through the first phase of the new leaving certificate course in computer science and how we have ensured a gender mix in participation in those areas. It further deals with the ambitions to expand particularly participation by women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, STEM, subjects through the promotion of co-curricular and out-of-school STEM learning opportunities by girls, and addressing gaps in physical infrastructure in schools as part of the capital plan.

I would be very happy to look at any suggestion that is coming forward about shared facilities. It certainly is a practice that is successful in some areas. It probably offers a rapid way of ensuring access to facilities where perhaps a school a school for historical reasons did not have something such as a physics lab. I do not have specific responses for the Deputy on that. If he has an idea to put forward, I will certainly get a response.

The question does not require an immediate and specific response from the Minister. What I am seeking, I suppose, are sentiments, and the Minister has already expressed sentiments. I was impressed by the young ladies from St. Joseph's school in Lucan who contacted the Minister about a specific case in their area, which I do not propose to address in the Chamber. They raise the important point that their school does not offer either technical graphics, a subject that probably requires the least infrastructure of the specialised subjects, or construction studies, which requires a certain amount of infrastructure. The Minister referred to physics where there has traditionally been a deficit in girls' schools. There has been a deficit in biology in some boys' schools and both these subjects also require facilities.

Will the Minister consider issuing a circular encouraging schools to share facilities? Generally, when an area has a girls' second-level school one will find a boys' second-level school close by. It would be useful for both genders to have access to shared facilities to expand the curriculum. My daughter, who is only ten years old, is good at art and is now looking at house plans. If she attends the local girls' secondary school, it is highly unlikely she will be able to study technical graphics or building and construction. However, the issue could be addressed at local level. It would require the Minister to engage in persuasion and provide a general sense that this would be a good thing to do, rather than issuing directions.

I would be very happy to consider the Deputy's proposal. An implementation group on the STEM strategy was established recently and has held a number of meetings. I will ask the group to consider the possibility of having shared facilities where there is a deficit of the nature described by the Deputy and ascertain whether we can provide a scheme of modest support or encouragement to allow that to happen.

I would be grateful if the Minister would consider the simple suggestion made by the young transition year students to whom I referred. Many transition year students have fantastic ideas such as this one, which would simply require the Minister to issue a circular encouraging schools to share facilities. Such a move would be welcomed by students and probably by schools. My party leader informs me that this type of sharing already occurs in some areas but it needs to become more widespread.

I accept the Deputy's point. I will ask the implementation group to examine the proposal and revert to him.

Schools Building Projects Status

Joan Burton


4. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Minister for Education and Skills the reason for the continuing delay in the rebuild of a school (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14558/18]

I ask the Minister to outline the reason for the exceptionally long delay in rebuilding St. Patrick's senior and junior school in Corduff. I have raised this matter five or six times since the Minister's appointment. The project is going backwards rather than forwards under his tenure. The school was recently informed it will take an additional period to even reach stage 4 of the building process.

The major building project for St. Patrick's junior and senior national schools, Corduff, is at an advanced stage of architectural planning, namely, stage 2(b) - detailed design - which includes the application for statutory approvals and the preparation of tender documents. All statutory approvals have been secured. The design team is in the process of completing a revised stage 2(b) submission which will include a revised mechanical and electrical report; changes to tender documentation needed as a result of the revised report; amendments brought about through changes to the public works contracts; and an updated cost plan for the project. With this revised submission, the project will shortly complete stage 2(b) of the architectural planning process. The design team has indicated it expects to complete and submit the stage 2(b) report by the end May 2018.

Representatives of the schools met officials of my Department in January 2018 and my Department is providing ongoing support to the schools and their design team on the progression of this project. A letter recently issued to the school and its design team outlining the projected timeframe for progression of this project to tender and construction stage and the steps involved. In that context, my Department expects this school building project will proceed through the tender stage in 2018 and commence construction in the first quarter of 2019. The schools responded by email indicating this was very welcome news, they hoped the project would be up and running by the first quarter of 2019 and they looked forward to seeing the buildings commence.

There is some good news for Deputy Burton.

Not long after he was elected, the Taoiseach was in a building adjacent to the school where he gave a commitment to giving some priority to the school. Incidentally, the proposed new school was approved by the Department in 2010. Is the Minister listening?

I am reading some of the supplementary material that could be helpful to the Deputy.

What the school has been told is not delightful but potentially disastrous. It must reapply for planning permission and it has been informed that the costs of the project have increased by 61%. If some of the funding the Government has been lashing around for the strategic communications unit had been spent on schools such as St. Patrick's, the new building would probably have been completed at this stage. Instead, the money has been spent on newspaper advertorials.

As the Minister pointed out, a new date of commencement has been set. The Minister informed me previously that the works would commence early in 2017 but he informed just now that the date has been moved back to 2019. St. Patrick's school, Corduff, is a DEIS school in an area of significant economic difficulty where many parents are out of work. Under the previous Government, of which the Minister and I were members, many schools were built in the area. St. Patrick's school is the only one outstanding and for some reason the Minister has no interest in it.

The Deputy's comments do not become her. This is not a question of not having an interest. The school has a difficult history. As the Deputy stated, a design team was appointed in 2011. During stage 2(a) of the architectural planning, a request was made by the board of management for a brief change from the design team regarding the system. This required a recasting of the project and this caused a delay. Unfortunately, one of the consultants on the design team subsequently had to be replaced, causing a further delay. A new design team has been appointed, with which the Department is working closely. The Department has also indicated a clear timeframe for completing the project. There is no disinterest in this important project. However, as with other badly needed schools, things can go wrong and problems can arise with planning, sites and so forth. In this case, problems arose with the design team and contractual matters. The Department will continue to work closely with the school and has provided a clear timeframe for completing the tender process.

As for the price, we must await the submission of tenders before the price becomes clear.

On his visit to the area last year, the Taoiseach indicated construction would commence shortly. Did that statement not mean anything? Is the Minister aware that the school is located in the area with the highest population growth in Ireland and probably western Europe? Under the previous Government, school after school was built and many of them experienced horrendous difficulties as various companies involved in the construction and design teams went into liquidation as a result of the economic collapse. St. Patrick's school had a similar experience. However, whereas all the other schools have been rebuilt or had new schools provided, in Corduff, which is a DEIS area with high levels of poverty and economic deprivation and a relatively large number of people out of work, the children must look at the beautiful schools built by the previous Government in Dublin 15 realising that their school is not being built. What kind of a message does that send to children and parents?

I will not involve myself in the local political issue the Deputy is raising. The problems that arose in this case were with the design team and had nothing to do with the Department. The school is back on track. The design team will submit a revised mechanical and electrical report and some important changes to the tender document by the end of May. The amendments are designed to ensure public works contracts protect small contractors when tender documents are being drawn up.

That will then allow the case to proceed to tender. The Department has given a timeline on that so the school can know the basis of its planning. This is being handled in the way that every other school is handled. A priority is given to this school because it is an important school but there have been difficulties with it and I recognise that. I think those difficulties are now overcome and we are proceeding with the project.

Schools Mental Health Strategies

James Browne


5. Deputy James Browne asked the Minister for Education and Skills his plans to review mental health guidelines and supports in schools; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14683/18]

I ask the Minister his plans to review mental health guidelines and supports in schools.

I can inform the Deputy that a well-being policy statement is currently being drafted which provides further advice and clarity to schools and centres for education in regard to the implementation of the primary and post-primary well-being guidelines and the junior cycle well-being guidelines of 2017. The well-being policy statement will set out the Department's ambition and vision that by 2023, the promotion of well-being, including mental health promotion, will be at the core of every school's ethos and that all schools in Ireland will be actively engaged in an ongoing, dynamic process of well-being promotion. Through this process, schools will understand, evaluate and reflect on their capacity to provide for key success factors that lead to optimal promotion of well-being and mental health promotion in their own school setting. They will identify priority areas for improvement and will identify and avail of appropriate continuous professional development, support and resources, either provided by the Department of Education and Skills support services, or by external support providers, to achieve their goals.

A well-being practice framework to support schools in the implementation of the policy is also in development. This framework will provide practical support and information in an easily navigable format. It will be made available to support schools and centres for education to engage in a coherent and meaningful well-being promotion process. The well-being practice framework will complement and support the existing implementation of relevant curricula and policy and in particular the well-being in post-primary and primary schools and the junior cycle well-being guidelines at post-primary level. The well-being practice framework will be published as a draft document and will be further developed following engagement through consultation with partners in education and trial use in schools and centres for education.

My question is on the Minister's plans to review mental health guidelines and supports in schools. The Minister will be aware that there is a very real, justifiable concern about the evidence that this Government as a whole is not prioritising children, whether record levels of homelessness, appalling waiting lists for hospital appointments, over 6,000 children waiting for primary care psychology appointments, with at least one county now refusing emergency appointments, and a similar situation prevailing in child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, all which add to mental health pressures on young people. As a result of the lack of supports external to schools, increasingly, school principals and teachers find that they are on the front line of young people's mental health issues. This is at a time when children as young as four, five and six are presenting with anxiety, stress, depression and other mental health stresses not seen in previous generations at such a young age. Social media is no doubt playing a huge part of this. They are becoming aware and exposed to psychologically damaging information at a shockingly young age. My fundamental question is what specifically the Minister will do to help with these young people and their mental health situations in schools.

The answer is very specific things. This is part of the confidence and supply agreement. We have now restored 500 of the 600 guidance counsellors who were in our schools. We have expanded the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, recruited additional staff and focused them specifically on delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS. In September, we introduced a well-being programme for children, specifically well-being at junior cycle, that is, in those early teen years. That seeks to ensure that the schools will have the policies, the curricular content, the relationship building and referral mechanisms in place to ensure that children who might be experiencing difficulty will have support in the school where appropriate and the capacity for referral to appropriate services elsewhere. The Deputy is absolutely right that the well-being of children is becoming an increasingly important part of a school's work. The expansion of provision in this area has been a very significant part of what we have done in recent years with the extra resources. I think there are now good practice guidelines set out and schools are very enthusiastically adopting it. We are putting in the professional development support and NEPS developing materials to ensure that the schools have both the curricular content and also the know-how and good practices to support children who might be having difficulties.

I talk to primary school principals on a regular basis and I am the chair of a board of management of a primary school myself. An idea I particularly want to highlight is that, increasingly, teachers and principals are meeting young children who have physically and intellectually nothing wrong with them, but who are presenting with speech and language developmental issues and social developmental issues. They are simply not getting the exposure they need before they come to school. This is adding to the pressure on principals and increasingly to comorbidity and multi-complex needs, both between disability and mental health needs. All this is putting intolerable pressure on school principals and teachers, especially when they are presenting at such a young age. I ask that two practical things be done in the short term. In particular for small primary schools, there should be an increase in the number of release days for school principals so they can attend for mental health training. Very small primary schools have limited release days and tell me that they find they have difficulty in getting the days away to get the necessary training to do the courses, some of which are quite good and available. Second, I ask for an increase in the flexibility of the appeals process. Certain primary schools may have three, four or five students starting this year, but their hours are set for special needs assistants, SNAs, and support hours from the previous year, but they may not have lost any children from sixth class who perhaps had support. In other words, they find a pinch point where they are under very real pressure. I think those are two practical things that could be done in the short term.

On the issue of resource teaching and SNAs, we have increased the provision by over 40% so it is a very rapidly expanding area. The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, recently undertook a study to make sure that the approach to such supports would be a whole-school approach, particularly with regard to resource teaching. That has been successful and there were extra resources to put in to make sure that would be effective. On the issue of release days for training, we will certainly look at that. Where CPD, as they call it, continuous professional development, is provided to schools in support of curricular content, there are release provisions in certain cases and I will get the Deputy a briefing on that. With regard to speech and language, we recognise that there is scope to look at in-school speech and language delivery and we will be initiating a pilot project this year to see if a better approach can be developed. If that pilot is successful - I believe it will be - I think we would look to expand services so speech and language could be accessed in the classroom. Mental health has been recognised as a cross-government issue, not just for education. There is a task force on youth mental health and it is one of what are described as pathfinder projects where cross-government collaboration is actively being pursued.