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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 29 Mar 2018

Vol. 967 No. 3

Other Questions

Teacher Training Provision

Joan Burton


6. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Minister for Education and Skills the additional initiatives he plans for persons working in science, information technology and STEM that wish to convert to be primary and secondary teachers; the additional costs of conversion for mature students; his further plans to mitigate this; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14420/18]

I want to ask the Minister about the plans his Department has to encourage, support and enable people who may have expertise in STEM subjects, including mathematics and science, and what proposals, if any, his Department has to encourage people who may want to transfer from those areas to becoming primary or secondary teachers. The current requirements mean that people who want to transfer - a number want to do so every year - will face a very high barrier of fees for graduate courses and postgraduate courses to qualify. Does the Minister have any plans in view of the grave shortage of STEM, science and mathematics teachers in our schools?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. Last November, I launched a STEM policy statement and implementation plan which aims to make Ireland the best in Europe in STEM by 2026. The statement focuses on the many strengths in STEM education in Ireland while providing a roadmap to address the areas for development. I recognise that the achievement of our STEM goals will rely greatly on the availability of suitability qualified teachers to meet our schools' needs.

In that regard, the Deputy may be aware that I recently announced, following consultation with the Irish Universities Association, an expansion of the number of places on post-primary teacher education courses at both undergraduate and postgraduate level in priority areas, with specific reservation of many of these extra places for STEM. There will be 280 such additional places at undergraduate level and 100 at postgraduate level.

In addition, earlier this week I convened the first meeting of the teacher supply steering group, which is chaired by the Secretary General of my Department. The group will consider the issues that impact on teacher supply, including the provision of conversion courses for persons working in priority areas such as ICT and STEM, and oversee a programme of actions according to strict timelines and clear deliverables to meet important needs. In undertaking its task, the group will be cognisant of the requirement that all persons wishing to teach in recognised schools must meet the professional registration standards and criteria set by the Teaching Council, which is the professional regulatory body for the teaching profession.

The Deputy should note also that mature students are eligible to apply for a range of financial supports, including under the student grant scheme and the student assistance fund.

Will the Minister tell Members what is his estimate of the likely annual cost for a person to transfer from a job in STEM and to retrain as a teacher for primary or secondary education? How many years is that likely to take? How long must the person wait to get on a course? At the moment the indicative cost of postgraduate courses, I understand, is €5,000 to €6,000 a year. Can the Minister confirm that? Can he suggest how people are meant to give up well-paying jobs in STEM to follow a career in teaching that they really want to go into? These people are desperately needed. In fact, a significant element of our whole economy in regard to IT could hit the rocks if we do not have enough people qualified in this area.

The situation is as the Deputy says. Postgraduates have fees of the order of €5,000, depending on the college, and it is now a two-year course, as the Deputy knows. This is one of the areas that will be examined by this group. I would point out that undergraduate access to post-primary teaching is now as large a source of supply and, with the new increase of 280 places at undergraduate level, it will become a significantly larger source of supply. We are ensuring young people can enter post-primary STEM education through an undergraduate route that does not require them to pursue a masters degree.

In reference to people who want to switch careers, that is one of the areas which I have asked the group to look at specifically, in particular the ways in which this can be better facilitated. The reply did point out, of course, that it is the Teaching Council which set the requirement of two years. There may be ways to be more flexible in the approach within that two years in order to encourage and support people who are switching careers. I take the Deputy's point that it is a good source of people to look to, in addition to the new entrants at undergraduate level.

For many working-class students who go to college and take up STEM careers, and then find they want to transfer and become teachers, as the Minister has acknowledged, it will cost them €5,000 a year in fees alone for at least two years. He seems perfectly happy with that idea. Does he understand what it costs to leave a job, or maybe hold on to some element of a part-time job, perhaps when people have emerging family commitments, as well as issues around housing? Yet, the Minister says that, in order to do this, they will have to find €5,000 a year in fees alone at a time when they will also have to put clothes on their backs, keep a roof over their heads and pay for their keep and perhaps that of their families. I believe the Minister does not understand the struggle it will be for many people who would otherwise transfer. The economics of what he, as an economist, has just laid out for us is fine in economic terms but does he realise it is almost impossible to do what he is suggesting they do? Finding a spare €5,000 a year is fine if a person is well off but not for an ordinary working person.

The position is that this has been the approach to getting a masters or other postgraduate qualification for people who have done either a primary degree or who are coming from outside the sector into the teaching profession. While that decision was made before my time, I recognise this is creating obstacles, specifically for our ambition to expand teaching in the STEM area. I have actively addressed it in providing new routes for people to get into the teaching of STEM. I have also set up a group to look specifically at what is implicit in the Deputy's suggestion, namely, that we need to make it easier for people to take that postgraduate route who have perhaps worked elsewhere and for whom the fees would be a financial obstacle. We are looking specifically at that. The inference that in some way I am ignoring it or do not understand it is inaccurate.

Speech and Language Therapy

Thomas Byrne


7. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills when in-school speech and language therapy teams will be in place; and the nature of the service that will be provided. [14451/18]

The question asks that the Minister would flesh out the information on what exactly he is proposing in regard to in-school speech and language therapy. It was to be a pilot project but the language was changed subsequently to a study or a study project, which concerned people. What is the Minister's vision in this regard?

It is an important, interesting and valuable area which we will be piloting. The programme for Government commits that a new model of in-school speech and language therapy will be established. This year's budget provided an additional €2 million to introduce a demonstration project for in-school therapy services in 2018. It is intended that the project should commence in schools from September 2018 and proceed over the course of the 2018-19 school year.

The demonstration project will develop and test a model for the delivery of in-school speech and language and occupational therapy support in a defined regional area, across a range of schools, in conjunction with the Health Service Executive, HSE, and supplementing existing HSE therapy services. The demonstration model will focus on developing greater linkages between educational and therapy supports. It will provide for in-school therapy services and professional support, training and guidance for school staff and parents. It will seek to assist schools to develop their capacity to support children with speech and language needs in schools, while also focusing on early identification and intervention.

An interdepartmental working group, including representatives from my Department, the National Council for Special Education, the Department of Health, the HSE and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, has been appointed to develop the pilot-demonstration model for in-school therapy services.

I think the Minister has let the cat out of the bag. This is not what I had been envisaging. The Minister referred to a "demonstration project", which is certainly a change from the programme for Government. He has not said in which schools it will take place or where it will take place. Moreover, the model that seems to be envisaged is not a replacement for the health service or therapy for children, but instead seems to be the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, model, whereby NEPS comes in and gives advice to teachers as to how to deal with children, rather than giving the therapy itself.

If that is what the Minister is envisaging for speech and language therapy, we will not be supporting it in schools. What we want is a vision of a model for speech and language therapy in a school setting, not a model where professionals come in and train teachers in how to identify problems. That is not what we had in mind when we put this in our manifesto, when we raised questions about it and when we saw it in the programme for Government and were happy with that. That is not it at all. The Minister is seriously barking up the wrong tree on this one if that is what is envisaged. It is not acceptable.

Will the Minister supply us with the figures, because what he has just announced really is news? I and I am sure every other Deputy can take the Minister to children who are on the autism spectrum or have behavioural issues, many of whom have parents who are teachers.

We understood that their speech and language therapy was to be delivered locally in the school using the model that has been mentioned. As such, what the Minister has just announced is a major deviation from the understanding of parents who, as he knows, have often been waiting for a long time. I am shocked.

The Deputies will have to wait to see the full details, but this will provide in-school therapy services as well as professional support and guidance for school staff and parents. It will provide a direct service - speech and language therapists will be allocated specifically to the pilot schools - and support schools to build their capacity to deal with children who have-----

That is not what the model was.

-----special needs in terms of speech and language. This is a way of getting a win-win outcome. The evidence has been that having speech and language therapy solely available on a referral basis, which will continue, has not been adequate. We need to build the capacity within the education system to support schools directly and to build the capability of teachers, SNAs and school leaders to integrate speech and language therapy into their offerings.

This is an exciting project-----

Some €2 million.

-----and it will make a significant difference to schools' capacity to provide in this area.

This is the most shocked I have been in the Dáil in many years. According to the Minister, this will expand the capacity of teachers and SNAs-----

And the parents.

----to provide speech and language therapy and occupational therapy.

The Deputy is trying to-----

If we are somehow going to land teachers and SNAs with those therapist roles and train them in how to deal with issues, the Minister might as well stop this now because I imagine it will not be acceptable to the Dáil. If that is what he has in mind, it worries me greatly. I am glad that I asked this question now. Providing speech and language therapy in schools sounds fantastic in a programme for Government, but the reality of what the Minister has just described gives rise to concern. It is not what we envisaged and it is not what parents want. I am not a medical professional or a therapist, but I suspect it is not what children need either.

Does the Minister have a list of the pilot schools and how can others get into the pilot if that is their wish?

The Deputy just seems to want a speech and language therapist sitting inside the school gate-----

Yes. That is what the-----

-----without integrating in any way with the school, its capacity, parents or teachers.

That is actually what we thought it might be.

This is about ensuring that teachers and SNAs have the capacity to identify early children who have such needs and that children have direct access to speech and language therapists who are directly assigned to support their schools and provide a service. This is about building the capacity of the system to identify early, to support children with special speech and language needs and to do so within the school context where the maximum advantage can be secured. This is an exciting direction in which to go and it is an indication of how we can ensure that children who come to school with special needs do not just get teaching and SNAs within our schools, but also access to the other services that will allow them to fulfil their potential. This is a win-win and I do not agree with the Deputies' criticism of what has been proposed.

Questions Nos. 8 and 9 replied to with Written Answers.

Public Private Partnerships

Joan Burton


10. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Minister for Education and Skills the status of his Department’s action in dealing with the fallout from the collapse of a company (details supplied) and contracts undertaken by Departments with the company; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13416/18]

This question relates to the collapse of a company involved in public private partnerships, PPPs, and the affected Capita and Carillion contracts, some of which are with the Department of Education and Skills. Will the Minister make a statement on the current situation?

InspiredSpaces is the special purpose vehicle, SPV, that was set up to deliver the schools bundle 5 PPP project, which involves the construction and operation of five school buildings and one further education college across four sites in Bray, Wexford, Kells and Carlow.

Carillion Private Finance is a 50% shareholder in InspiredSpaces, together with the Dutch Infrastructure Fund, DIF. The construction subcontract was with Carillion Construction Limited while the services subcontract was with Carillion (Ambs) Limited. As both Carillion Construction Limited and Carillion (Ambs) Limited have entered liquidation, the construction and services agreements relating to the project have been terminated and must now be replaced.

In accordance with the terms of the PPP contract, it falls to InspiredSpaces in the first instance to put in place the necessary rectification measures to ensure delivery and operation of the school buildings. Although Carillion Private Finance is not in liquidation, its directors have mandated DIF to act on behalf of InspiredSpaces in putting in place the rectification plan in consultation with the project funders. DIF has indicated that a number of contractors and service providers have been invited to quote for finishing the works outstanding on the relevant buildings and for the provision of facilities management services over the 25-year lifetime of the project. It expects to receive final bids from tenderers, with whom it has already had extensive engagement, by early April.

Based on this, the expected timeframe for the evaluation of tenders and the appointment and mobilisation of the successful contractor and facilities management company, DIF is targeting all six buildings to be operational for the beginning of the coming school year, with the most advanced schools to be delivered earlier in the summer.

The National Development Finance Agency, NDFA, is continuing to engage actively with DIF as the rectification plan is implemented. DIF has confirmed that, in conjunction with its lenders, it will deploy all necessary resources towards achieving the target dates outlined.

Officials from my Department and the NDFA most recently met representatives of all affected schools on 14 March in Tullamore. A senior DIF representative also attended that meeting in order to provide a full update on its plan to secure delivery and operation of the six facilities as soon as possible.

I am not aware of any contract undertaken by other Departments with Carillion.

The schools in question are the Loreto college in Wexford, Coláiste Ráithín and St. Philomena's primary school in Bray, Eureka secondary school in Kells, and Tyndall college and the Institute of Further Education in Carlow. When does the Minister expect these projects to be completed, available to the school communities to be taken over and opened? In the case of two of the schools, which are almost complete, I understand that it will be early or mid-summer before it is possible to take them over. Is the Minister giving a commitment that the other projects will be available for the start of the new school year in September? Given that the cost of these projects is significantly higher than had the Government borrowed the money and paid for them directly, will the Minister indicate whether there will be changes in their cost profiles or will any increase in costs be covered by the PPP project's insurance?

DIF is targeting all six buildings to be operational by the beginning of the coming school year. We will work with the schools to ensure that, if this target is not being fulfilled, contingency plans are in place. We do not control the issuing of tenders and so on but, under the contract, DIF is standing this out of its money. Other than a small sum of €4 million in respect of site clearance, it has not received any money from this contract. The financial arrangements are such that DIF does not get any payment until the schools are handed over. In that context, the costs are not changed and our commitment remains as it was. Any cost implication is borne by the contractor involved - DIF - if the contracts come in at a different tender price than it intended.

As to selecting PPPs, we ensure that there is a balanced mix. PPPs have been used for a small proportion of our plan rather than a large one. It is prudent that there be a mixed and balanced portfolio of construction approaches.

I understand that the tenders are due back by early April. When will that be?

Clearly DIF is the Dutch Infrastructure Fund. When does he expect work to recommence to complete the projects? His reply implied all the schools would open in September whereas the understanding that has been given is that in the two projects that are pretty much complete, the school authorities could take possession of the buildings by the end of May. Is the Minister implying that is changing as well?

I reiterate my original reply. DIF is targeting all six buildings to be operational for the beginning of the coming school year, with the most advanced schools to be delivered earlier in the summer. The fund, not the Department, is receiving the tenders and it expects to receive final bids from the tenderers with whom it has had extensive engagement by early April. DIF is handling the tenders but we are keeping a close eye on this through the NDFA and the Department. We regularly meet DIF representatives. The fund is receiving and adjudicating on the tenders, not the Department. Breaching those arrangements would expose the State. It is only on the handover of the schools that the State will begin to make payments. That provides protection and ensures that the pressure is on DIF to meet the timeline.

Will that be early April for the tenders?

Question No. 11 replied to with Written Answers.

Technological Universities Data

Pat Deering


12. Deputy Pat Deering asked the Minister for Education and Skills the financial supports available from his Department and or the Higher Education Authority to encourage the formation and development of technological university consortia; the measures by which such supports will be considered successful; the anticipated impacts of same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14364/18]

What financial supports will be available from the Department to encourage the formation and development of technological university consortia? The Technological Universities Bill 2015 was signed into law by the President in the past number of weeks, which is good news. I compliment the Minister of State and the Minister on the work they have done to bring it to this stage. What financial incentives will be available to move it to the next stage?

I thank the Deputy for the interest he has shown in the technological university, TU, for the south east. He has been a great supporter for that designation. I also thank all the stakeholders for the work they have done so far and the work that is being done in the application process now for TU designation.

The development of TUs is a key priority of the Government. Once operational, they will be drivers of regional jobs growth.  Currently, four consortia of institutes of technology are engaged in the development process seeking to become designated as TUs.

The reforms we are introducing require investment and that is why funding is provided to support consortia engaged in implementing reform of the higher education landscape. Between 2013 and 2017, some €10 million in Exchequer funding was provided to the four consortia seeking to develop TUs.

A further €10 million was provided in budget 2018 for landscape restructuring, including TU consortia development. The HEA recently issued a call for further funding submissions to TU development consortia. The final allocation of the 2018 funding call will be dependent on the type and quality of bids received from higher education institutions and subject to demonstrated progress in agreed project plans.

Allocations of €8 million are also being provided for in the Department’s indicative Estimates for 2019 and 2020 for TU development and other landscape higher education restructuring projects.

To answer the second part of the Deputy's question, the submissions are required to set out progress to date, expected costs and milestones for each phase of the proposed project, along with an overall cost and expected completion date, to demonstrate a long-term strategic approach to reform.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. The signing of the Bill into law in the past number of weeks is an important first step. The next stages are equally important. It is essential that the process moves on at pace in the south east, to which she alluded, now that the initial legislative roadblock has been removed. She outlined funding streams. Does she have a specific timescale in mind for the drawdown of the funding? Is funding available for specific projects? She mentioned that there are four consortia. Will they have to go through a competitive process or will there be a specific budget for each consortium?

We have a pot of money for 2018 and I outlined the indicative budget for 2019. However, the drawdown will depend on the progress the consortia make. Some are ahead of others. I will invite all the consortia to meet departmental and HEA officials to help them make successful applications. The Minister and I, and the Department, want the TU applications to be successful. As they progress, the consortia will be able to draw down the pot of money.

I thank the Minister of State for her clarification of that matter. I accept her point that some consortia are ahead of others for one reason or another. However, if a consortium gets left behind, will funding still be available to it even if the others have drawn down money?

No, we are committed as a Government to the four consortia coming together to form four TUs. There will be money but there will not be as much money if a consortium falls behind. Money will be available in 2019 and 2020. These are long-term projects and we want them to succeed. They will change the landscape for students and for regional development.

Schools Site Acquisitions

Charlie McConalogue


13. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Education and Skills when a site is expected to be purchased to accommodate the three-school campus in Buncrana, County Donegal; the timeline of works to ensure that this school campus is completed as soon as possible; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14259/18]

When is a site expected to be purchased to accommodate the three-school campus in Buncrana, County Donegal? What is the timeline of works to ensure that this school campus is completed as soon as possible?

I thank the Deputy for raising this. We had a meeting on this not so long ago. The project in respect of the education campus in Buncrana is included in my Department's capital programme.

The Department is working closely with Donegal County Council in relation to the proposed site acquisition. The site acquisition process to date has been protracted.

A number of options are available to progress the site acquisition process and these options are being thoroughly appraised to ensure value for money for the State. Officials in my Department are working with council officials to determine the most appropriate next steps and the school authorities will be kept informed of developments.

I recently met representatives of the schools concerned and I can assure the Deputy that every effort is being made to expedite the site acquisition process.

Once the site acquisition is complete, the project can progress to architectural planning stage.

I thank the Minister for his response. The campus will accommodate Crana College secondary school, Gaelscoil Buncrana primary school and Gaelcholáiste Chineál Eoghain secondary school. The school authorities are at their wit's end because of the delays in, first, acquiring a site and, second, moving the process forward to the construction of new schools to accommodate their needs. The premises they are in currently are not suitable. Crana College students are cramped in a number of prefabs with no more space available while Gaelcholáiste Chineál Eoghain is based in Tullyarvan Mill, which is not ideal.

Gaelscoil Buncrana is accommodated in Buncrana Youth Club, which is not an ideal premises for a school. That school badly needs a new premises.

It is long past time that the dilly dallying by the Department stopped. This site acquisition has been badly mishandled in recent years and no progress has been made on it to date. The process cannot move forward without a site being acquisitioned. I acknowledge the Minister met representatives of the schools together with the education and training board, ETB, at its request. He would have met the chairperson of the ETB, Councillor Rena Donaghey, who is from Buncrana and pushing hard for this to progress. Can the Minister give a timeline and a commitment that he will prioritise the purchasing of a site and that we will at last see progress on this project?

The Deputy will be aware that we had a meeting in Donegal and I took that opportunity to meet those concerned about this matter. It is not fair to say that considerable effort has not been put into this. A number of site options were explored by the local authority on our behalf. Negotiations were initiated with the only landowner who was willing to negotiate. They have proven unsuccessful. There is continuing work under way to see if we can find a solution and every option will be considered. The local authority has undertaken work even since that meeting in Donegal to see if we can find a route to a solution on this matter. It is a difficult one. I fully acknowledge the frustration of those involved but I can assure the Deputy there is an absolute determination to push on with this, but we will have to do so on the basis of the best advice. We are obtaining the information necessary for that.

I remind the Minister this is the second occasion on which a site assessment process has been undertaken by his Department. We had one four years ago which was completed by the ETB, where it identified the preferred sites and engaged with the Department with a view to commencing negotiations. The Minister's Department restarted that process and asked Donegal County Council to do the same process, basically going over the same ground again, which meant the process did not go forward.

It is long past time this matter was brought to a head and negotiations were completed with no further delays and standing back from this matter. The Minister indicated all options will be considered and it is important they would be. It was discussed previously with respect to the potential negotiations and exploring whether a compulsory purchase order, CPO, is an option. The preferred option must be an agreement and negotiation with the preferred landowners. It is most important the Department prioritises this matter, engages and brings it to a head, which must happen, and once we have a site secured we can move on to architectural planning and building and developing the schools. Unfortunately, until a site is secured none of that happen. Can the Minister give me a timeline and the utmost assurance the Department will prioritise this matter and ensure the site acquisition process is expedited?

I can assure the Deputy there is no unwillingness to prioritise this matter. I also believe the switch to Donegal County Council - this is a pattern right across the Department's portfolio - is not the cause of the delay in this instance. There are genuine underlying problems that we need to sort out. I share the Deputy's sense of urgency around this but, nonetheless, we have to find a solution, as the Deputy said, and a way in which a suitable site can be procured. The Department will work to achieve that.

Questions Nos. 14 to 17, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Schools Building Projects

Thomas Byrne


18. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills the action he will take to ensure school building projects are completed on time; and if there is enough funding to complete the schools capital programme. [14452/18]

I told the Minister at a committee meeting yesterday that he is fast becoming the Minister presiding over a collapse in the school capital programme. Whatever money was in it has been absorbed by increased building and land costs. I want to get the Minister's response to that.

My Department's capital programme continues to address the challenges posed by the significant bulge in pupil enrolments going through our schools. There has been significant expansion in the rate of provision of new school places. The capital programme details the 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 placing 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 large scale project completions from 25 in 2010 to 50 in 2016 and 46 in 2017. Since 2011, some 340 major school projects and more than 120,000 new and replacement places have been provided.

In addition, there are currently a total of 52 large scale projects under construction while a further 11 major projects with approval to advance to tender and construction are expected to commence on site shortly. A further 22 large scale projects are due to commence tendering over the coming months and are expected to start on site during 2018. That represents a total of 85 projects either under construction or progressing to commence construction in 2018. More than 80% of our school capital allocation has to be expended on the delivery of large scale projects and the additional accommodation scheme.

The Department is managing the school building programme in a manner which ensures that school projects in the architectural planning process are delivered as quickly as possible. There is a number of factors however such as difficulties with acquiring sites and issues arising in the planning process that have impacted on the pace of progress of projects announced. These issues are in the majority of cases outside the Department's control. The Department is in ongoing liaison directly with each of these schools on the ongoing progression of their projects in the architectural and planning process.

Regarding the adequacy of funding, the Department is satisfied that the €8.4 billion investment in the National Development Plan 2018-2027 is sufficient to deliver the necessary school infrastructure over the next decade.

Regardless of what schools are to be built, the problem is that a huge catch up will be required in terms of the school buildings that have not yet started and those that have not been completed. The schools that are only starting to think about their requirements for a new building and which do not appear on any of the lists do not have any chance. I would add to those the schools that will be required because of demographic pressures, and many of them are probably required already. There has been a dramatic drop of 30% in the number of small classroom extensions delivered at primary level in recent years. There has been a smaller drop in the number of small extensions and extra classrooms delivered at second level. However, there has been a dramatic increase of 25% in the provision of prefabs in 2016 to 2017 under the Minister's watch and no one else's watch. He is fast becoming the Minister for prefabs, the Minister who cannot secure the school capital budget. I appeal to him, as I do all the time, to go back to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and tell him that land and building costs have shot up, that he needs more money to build schools or we simply will not have the classes required and our children will have to continue to be taught in substandard accommodation.

The evidence is there. We have increased our capital budgets by 56% since 2013. In the mid-term review I secured an additional commitment of more than €200 million for 2019 to 2021. In the long-term capital programme we have €8.4 billion assigned to the school building programme. There is no doubt during the past seven or eight years there has been a unique expansion at both primary and secondary level, with an additional 50,000 to 60,000 pupils at primary level and an additional 50,000 pupils at second level. That has put a strain on capital budgets. As the Deputy said, it has meant there has been a squeeze in other areas where we would have liked to have been making capital provision, but we have to commit to the priority of making sure there are school places for everyone who is attending. That has been a priority. It has put pressure on us but, nonetheless, we have met all those requirements with a 120,000 additional school places being provided.

We have a system that ensures that every euro allocated to us is spent effectively. We have been very experimental in our approach using the NDFA, the Office of Public Works, the ETBs and rapid build to ensure the approach we take is flexible and effective. The Department building unit has done a good job. I know the Deputy is critical of its planning but that planning process has ensured that in recent years 61 additional new schools have opened.

A pattern has developed such that if we say anything about the Government or a Department, we are accused of criticising civil servants. The Minister is the one who is held to account in this Dáil. I am holding him to account and nobody else when I ask questions in this Dáil, not civil servants. We had this with the strategic communications unit, SCU, and every time we mentioned it, the response was "those poor civil servants". We are holding Ministers to account, not civil servants.

The civil servants do their job, as we expect, in a non-partisan way. The Minister, however, is not doing his job in giving direction to civil servants as to what to do. That is where the accountability is. I feel that is not happening in respect of developing areas when I specifically question the Minister as to his requests for budget for the capital programme. It is all very well to have fantastic plans for the next ten years to build schools but the demand is there today. All of my colleagues will have questions tabled on a daily basis about specific school projects, as will the Minister's own colleagues. There is nothing the Minister can say. We think about the schools which I raised in a parliamentary question this week. These seven schools, including two in my own constituency in Whitecross and Lismullen, have had to apply for planning permission more than once because the permissions ran out. That is a real difficulty which is adding extra costs. There are various reasons but, certainly in Meath, I would put it down to the lack of money in the Department. The money was not available and these schools' planning permissions ran out. That is going to happen more and more.

When the Deputy's party was last in government we were building 9,000 places. We are now doubling that and are building 18,000 places. We are meeting those commitments and delivering a very expansive programme. We have great ambitions for the future and we have set aside €8.8 billion for school capital for the coming years. This shows a huge commitment in the area of school building, which is matched by the commitment of the Minister of State, Mary Mitchell O'Connor, to investment at third level. This is a unique investment in the talent of this country. We have a strong record of delivering quality projects. I have had the opportunity to visit some of those schools. Those 200 new schools which have been built up and down the country either to replace old schools or as entirely brand new schools represent a quality environment which we are delivering and we are delivering these schools according to need.

School Accommodation Provision

Bernard Durkan


19. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Education and Skills the extent to which the prefab replacement programme to which his Department has committed is on track and meeting the targets on time and in line with the expectations as expressed by the relevant school management authorities at primary and second level throughout the country and in County Kildare; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14456/18]

This question is similar to the last and relates to the extent to which the programme to replace prefabs is ongoing throughout the country, especially in County Kildare.

As the Deputy is aware, it is my intention to replace all purchased temporary accommodation with permanent accommodation, where the need is established, over the lifetime of my Department's capital programme from 2016 to 2021. To enable this development, my Department will be carrying out an assessment of the number of prefabs being used in schools to deliver the curriculum. This will also determine whether or not individual prefabs need to be replaced in the context of the long-term accommodation needs of each individual school. When completed, this assessment will quantify the number of prefabs to be replaced. It is intended that this assessment, when finalised, will enable the replacement of such prefabs to commence in 2019. A funding provision of €180 million is being made available from 2019 for this initiative in the programme.

As the Deputy will be aware, it can be necessary to make use of temporary rented accommodation to meet the accommodation needs of schools when an immediate or short-term need arises.  For example, a school may require a temporary building in circumstances where a major school construction project is planned. Such temporary accommodation is removed when the major project concerned is completed.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Can I further inquire as to whether particular or specific criteria are to be applied with a view, in the first instance, to taking out the prefabs which are in the worst condition? Is there a plan in place to do that? Will schools whose entire student populations are in prefabs get priority treatment?

Obviously this assessment will be based on prioritising need. It will look at the cases where there is the greatest urgency, but it will also look to ensure that the population requirement will continue to justify permanent construction. It has to make sure that the decision made in each case is the best economic decision for the long term. That will the basis for the prioritisation. As I said, the funding commitment is there, but from 2019 onwards. This year we are continuing to focus on getting additional accommodation to meet the growth in population.

To refer to a school the Minister will know well, Newtown school in Enfield, the entire pupil body of that school is in prefab accommodation and has been for some years. Will it be possible to identify such schools with a view to treating them with particular urgency, because the degree to which prefabs can deteriorate over a very short time brings an urgency of its own?

I will have to get the Deputy a report on Newtown school. I am not familiar with the particular needs there but I will get the Deputy a report on it.

Question No. 20 replied to with Written Answers.

Student Grant Scheme Administration

Aindrias Moynihan


21. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Education and Skills the way in which the distances for adjacent and non-adjacent third level grants were arrived at; his plans to reform the calculation of distances to one of a mean average for the journey; his further plans to address the issue of the calculation via the shortest distance using rural roads in poor repair; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14426/18]

The way in which SUSI calculates the distance from a student's home to the college he or she attends does not necessarily reflect the reality on the ground. It does not take into account unsuitable roads, one-way streets and, for example, an off-ramp on the N40. We need to see if there is a way of taking such issues into consideration and whether the Minister of State can take them into account by reviewing the way in which SUSI calculates those distances.

I thank Deputy Aindrias Moynihan for the question. SUSI uses Google Maps. We can certainly take on board what the Deputy has just said. Budget 2011 provided for a number of student grant measures which came into effect for 2011-12. These included the change in the assessment of the qualifying distance criterion for the non-adjacent rate of grant from 24 km to 45 km. The 24 km criterion was originally set in 1968 and had not been updated in more than 40 years. Since then, significant improvements have taken place in the road and rail network and it is considered that the revised distance criterion is more consistent with the type of distances that students may legitimately be expected to commute to college. I hear what the Deputy has asked about how we measure the distance but it is done using Google Maps and not by using a postcode.

I thank the Minister of State. These distances need to reflect the situation on the ground, as distinct from what can be seen from a desktop exercise, in cases where roads are unsuitable for travelling. For example students attending Cork Institute of Technology, CIT, would come in on the N40. While there is an off-ramp for them to take, Rossa Avenue is a one-way street and students are forced to go in through estates. However, when students are leaving the college they cannot get back onto the motorway in the same way. They have to take a different route. Those kinds of distances need to be taken into consideration. They are only small distances but for people on the edge it makes a significant difference to the level of grant they receive. Furthermore, the way the distance is calculated means that if a distance arrives out at 44.9 km, for example, it will rounded down to 44 km and not up to 45 km. It should be rounded to the nearest kilometre.

There are also roads that are unsuitable for travelling. For example in winter there are roads that are salted and roads that are not salted. People will travel the most suitable road. It will not necessarily be the mountain road that has the very poor quality surface as identified by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. These issues need to be taken into consideration. When would the Minister of State envisage a review being conducted on this issue?

We have looked at it and we believe that it is a transparent process. I hear the Deputy's comments but the process does indicate the shortest distance from A to B. As I said, we use Google Maps. I hear the Deputy's argument, but at the moment there is no review under way.

Can the Minister of State initiate a review or can these types of issue be taken into consideration for the purposes of appeals? We are only dealing with a handful of people along the edge. If there is no review for several months, can these issues be considered for appeal purposes? Can the Minister of State initiate a review on this as quickly as possible?

There is an appeals system in place and we have specialist equipment to check the shortest distance.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.