Priority Questions

School Staff

Thomas Byrne

Question:

53. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills if there has been engagement with teaching principals on easing their workload; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29603/18]

In light of the increased workload for teaching principals, has the Minister for Education and Skills had any engagement with the Irish Primary Principals Network, IPPN, or the new organisation set up in response to this crisis, the forum for teaching principals in primary schools? What they are saying is not fake news, despite what the Government might want to believe.

I have discussed with teaching principals a range of their concerns and have had more formal engagement with the relevant stakeholders, including the IPPN and the INTO. I have also been in correspondence with the forum for teaching principals in primary schools on the issue.

The education system has certain characteristics, particularly the relatively large number of small schools, which have influenced the evolution of the principal’s role. In the case of principals in smaller schools, while management and administrative duties may be smaller in scale than those of larger schools, they must be undertaken in addition to their full-time teaching duties.

I am committed to increasing investment in leadership across the school system. The creation of the centre for school leadership, the new approach to middle management and the fostering of innovation across school clusters will all help support teaching principals in their work.

This year I am funding almost 4,600 additional release days for teaching principals in primary schools. This will see an increase in the number of release days available to teaching principals in the 2018-19 school year to 17, 23 or 29 days, depending on the size of the school, an increase of two to four days, respectively.

I also commenced the restoration of middle management posts as part of an agreed distributed leadership model to reduce the workload of principals, including teaching principals, which will see a new assistant principal post in most smaller schools. I announced up to 50 principal release cluster posts which will be put in place from the start of the next academic year. This measure will assist teaching principals to plan their release days more effectively for the benefit of the school.

Any additional increase in the number of release days will be considered as part of the next annual budgetary process, alongside the many other demands from the education sector.

I acknowledge a little bit of progress has been made on this issue. However, many teaching principals in small schools feel they are at breaking point. The Government is very much focused on Dublin with its recent announcement on schools necessary in the growing commuting areas. It is key, however, that it remembers the thousands of small schools around the country which have teaching principals. They are the lifeblood of their communities, providing the same education the larger schools, prioritised by the Government, do.

I have met with teaching principals - I am sure the Minister has even met some from time to time - who feel they cannot continue to absorb the stress and overload associated with the work and the administration they must do. I met one principal yesterday who is in a four-teacher school, yet manages a staff of 23, including part-time staff. The school has a large autism spectrum disorder, ASD unit, special education teachers and a large number of special needs assistants, SNAs, who all have to be managed. It is not possible to manage such a number with the particular teaching workload the principal in question has. Some regard needs to be given to the realities on the ground. It is not just the number of teachers in the school but the whole school community that the teacher principal has to manage.

I acknowledge this. I had a useful discussion in County Meath recently with teaching principals about exactly these points. It was at a similar meeting in Donegal where the idea of expanding the clusters, a small initiative in the past, to 50 this year was developed. I am glad we have been able to develop and implement it. It means teaching principals have a single person who acts as a substitute teacher to a range of principals so they can plan their work more effectively. We are expanding the release days to ensure principals with teaching duties can plan more effectively. We are increasing the resource in areas, such as special education, to ensure children are supported appropriately.

Besides the points referred to in my reply, we are investing in helping school principals to develop their leadership roles. This year up to 1,000 school principals will get mentoring, coaching or an opportunity to participate in a third level course in order that they can better manage this area. I acknowledge this is an area where we need to do better. It will have a significant impact on the quality of learning in schools. Leadership is key and I recognise that for teaching principals this is a particular challenge.

The exclusion of special education teachers when calculating teaching principals' salaries is unfair as well. The way it is set up acts as a disincentive to principals who wish to set up ASD units in their schools. It leads to a significant amount of extra management, as well as dealing with extra crises which sometimes occur with challenging behaviour from pupils in such units.

A strong case has been made by many of the teaching principals that one release day a week is a point which should be examined. Is the Minister considering it? I accept it has to be considered within the country’s financial constraints. However, we have to look at the constraints the principals have too. They are doing fantastic work but are not getting recognition for it. It is important we give them that recognition and allow them to fulfil their management and teaching roles. There has to be a better balance between the two.

The Minister should introduce a pathway for principals to be appointed on a temporary contract basis. For example, a school could offer a principal a contract for six or ten years. After that time, the principal could then step back into the workforce in the school. That should be examined for dealing with this issue, as well as a way of dealing with teaching supply.

I take the Deputy's point. A principal in a school with one or two mainstream teachers will get 17 release days. By contrast, a principal with five or six mainstream teachers will get 29 release days. The proposal would be to go to 36 for everyone without that grading across the different sizes of school. Whether that is a justifiable approach will need to be assessed. It will cost approximately €12 million across all schools. As there are 1,750 teaching principals, it would not be an insignificant cost.

All of these concerns will be factored into our work as we approach the budget.

School Curriculum

Kathleen Funchion

Question:

54. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Education and Skills if consideration has been given to a provision which would enable students to complete junior cycle music with an approved tutor external to the school setting in view of the fact that it is not a subject offered in all schools. [29605/18]

This question is on music and the junior certificate cycle. Has any consideration been given to a provision whereby students could complete junior cycle music with an approved tutor external to the school setting given that it is not a subject offered in all schools?

I thank the Deputy for the question. The framework for the junior cycle presents a dual approach to assessment and it supports student learning over the three years of the cycle. It measures achievement at the end of those three years. This dual approach reduces the focus on one externally assessed examination as a means of assessing students and increases the prominence given to classroom-based assessment and formative assessment, providing a more rounded assessment of the education of each young person. This change of emphasis arises from an acknowledgement that students learn best when teachers provide feedback that helps students to understand how their learning can be improved. As part of the phasing in of the new framework for the junior cycle, the new junior cycle music specification will be introduced to schools from September 2018.

The junior cycle profile of achievement is a school-based award issued by schools that draws upon and reports on achievement across a wide range of assessments, including classroom-based assessments by teachers, as well as State examinations marked by the State Examinations Commission. The assessment of a number of practical subjects, including music, for the purpose of the junior cycle profile of achievement will comprise two classroom-based assessments undertaken in recognised schools, a practical examination and a written examination.

Where students take extra subjects outside of their school setting, these subjects cannot satisfy the requirements for classroom-based assessments by recognised schools and cannot, therefore, be included as part of the profile of achievement. Students who wish to study additional subjects, such as music, outside their school have a number of other certification avenues open to them.

I welcome the changes that allow for more classroom-based assessment and more continuous assessment. I am a great advocate of these. They should be introduced at leaving certificate level also. I often talk about this. We should not have so much emphasis on one or two examinations, bearing in mind the pressure they bring.

Music is a particular and unique subject. Many smaller schools, particularly in rural areas, do not offer it because they do not have the resources or teachers, yet the Department's primary school curriculum document acknowledges music offers lifelong opportunities for the development of imagination, sensitivity, inventiveness, risk-taking, enjoyment, creativity and self-esteem. So many people have such talent in this area that it would be a shame not to look outside the box a little where a school cannot offer music to determine whether the subject could be offered by external tutors. The reality is that most students taking music in a school that offers it will be getting additional help from an outside tutor in any case. Perhaps this is something we could consider.

Music is offered in just short of 600 post-primary schools out of a total of 711. Therefore, the vast majority offer it. When the National Council for Curriculum Assessment developed the curriculum, the question of students studying the subject on an external basis was discussed but it was agreed, through the development process and subsequent consultation, that the specification and its assessment, particularly as the latter featured the new school-based classroom assessment, should be designed for study within the school in the first instance. It was felt there is an intricate connection. It was felt it was appropriate to have the teacher carry out the classroom-based assessment and the teaching in a school setting that is also an examination centre for the written examination.

In all cases to date, students who sit the music examination do so in their own school, not in an external location. What the Deputy proposes was ruled out but it is not categorically ruled out for all time. To be a recognised school, a school has to deliver an entire curriculum. Fragmenting the curriculum, with a bit run in a specialist Gaelscoil, a bit in a specialist Irish language centre and another bit in a specialist Irish music centre, for example, would result in the breaking up of the system. It is then harder to deliver a coherent curriculum and have a unified State examination system. That seems to have been the consideration. As this evolves and beds in, it can be reviewed.

I thank the Minister. I am glad he is not completely closed to considering this again. As he said, just a handful of schools are affected. The reason we raise this, however, is that one or two people have come to us about this. What I propose would obviously not be workable for the majority of subjects but music is regarded in a particular way and is unique in that sense. In special education, some people have home tutors who are accredited by the Teaching Council. Something similar could be done with music tutors for students in a school that does not offer music where those students wish to sit the junior certificate music examination. Many people have a talent in this area and want to continue with music. If one has not done music at junior certificate level, it is very difficult to do so at leaving certificate level. There is usually a barrier in that regard.

Where schools do not offer music, I ask the Minister to consider having a system involving external tutors. I agree there could not be external tutors for every single subject but I propose them for music because of its unique nature. There are similar models. The tutors in the home tutor programme in the education system are external tutors but they are accredited by the Teaching Council.

The Deputy probably answered her question. The philosophy is that education is integral and that a school should not have music or another subject as a specialism that is outsourced. The thinking is to have a whole-school approach whereby a child, particularly in the junior cycle, can have a range of experiences delivered in an integrated way and develop his or her own personality. Disintegrating them is not the philosophy behind the junior cycle. As the Deputy said, home tuition would not be regarded as optimal in many situations. Mainstream and integrated education are preferred because education is ultimately a social activity. That is the reason the presumption has been against the model suggested by the Deputy. When the system beds in, all these matters will be re-examined. It is only starting in September so it needs the three-year run. We will see how that evolves.

Student Accommodation

Thomas Byrne

Question:

55. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills his plans to bring forward proposals to improve student accommodation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29604/18]

What is the Minister doing about student accommodation, what proposals he is making and is there a plan? Can he tell students that their rent will be lower? Can he tell them they will have accommodation? Can he tell them what he is doing?

I believed the Minister of State was to answer this question.

The position on student accommodation is that we have developed a programme for the construction of purpose-built units. There is a pipeline of 7,000 student places in construction. Since the programme was started, 2,500 additional places have come on stream. The expectation is that we will match that figure in the coming year, with almost 3,000 in addition coming on stream. The question of the cost of these places has been assessed by the Minister of State along with the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. They are determining the extent to which the rent pressure zones can be considered as a model for dealing with the pressure on student accommodation.

I am sure the Minister of State responsible for higher education has been unavoidably detained but, looking at the delegation order for her powers, I believe the Minister has retained most of the powers for himself. Therefore, I am quite satisfied he knows what is going on with third level accommodation.

The issue of rent pressure zones is one important aspect of the problem. My party and other Opposition parties published legislation in this regard. The solution is as simple as the Minister going to the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and asking him to adopt our legislation. That addresses one part of the problem.

The rents are already very high. Rent pressure zones do not cover new accommodation, which is now being offered at very high prices. It will in the main be offered to very wealthy students coming from abroad. We welcome students coming from abroad — we need them and academics from abroad — but we have to make sure our students have somewhere to stay. Surely part of the university experience is moving away from home, engaging on campus, broadening one's mind and learning and studying while engaging in civic society on campus. Students do that in a variety of ways through organisations, whether related to sport, debating or another activity. They cannot do so if there is no accommodation. There are so many things the Minister could do. We could remove the bar on borrowing for institutes of technology. We could offer some incentives in respect of reducing the rents.

We could also have a capital plan for student accommodation.

The current provision of purpose-built student accommodation exceeds the target set in the plan published shortly after the housing plan. We are meeting and exceeding the targets. The application of the rent control regime to the student accommodation sector is a little more difficult than the Deputy suggests in that rent arrangements in student accommodation are by way of a licence, not a traditional tenancy. There is not the same tenancy security provided in student accommodation, which is part year and often involves fairly short tenancies and fresh lettings. The issue that needs to be examined is whether this alternative model, which is built around licences and short-term lettings, can be adapted with the same sort of evidence base to apply the rent pressure zones as has been the case in ordinary housing tenancies. This work is under way between the two Departments. I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy English, will report progress in that regard soon.

The issue of licence distinction is one of the first things one learns when studying law in college and it is a red herring in regard to this particular issue. There is no reason that the rent pressure zone regime cannot be applied to this sector. It is simply a matter of drafting the provision in the appropriate way. We can restrict price increases for licences. We have done so in respect of leases even though we were told there were legal difficulties with doing so. We were told that could not be done and it would be unconstitutional but it was done. There was a messy compromise involved but it was done. It has not been perfect and it needed to be stronger. There was massive resistance to it from Government. We were told at the time that if we did not accept what was on offer we would be throwing tenants to the wolves and so on. Some progress has been made, but much more is needed. Let us not get bogged down in the issue of legal distinctions. Let us instead put a proper plan together because the targets set are not sufficient and students on the ground cannot access accommodation. We need a much wider take-up of the ability to provide student accommodation, particularly by institutes of technology and the technological universities that are soon to be established.

I accept the Deputy's point that we need to look at introducing a scheme of a similar nature, but the nature of the student market is different. We have all learned about the law of unintended consequences. It is important that we allow the work being done between the two Departments to continue rather than try to cobble together something that would not work. There is a degree of focus on this matter which matches the level of concern expressed by the Deputy.

Schools Property

Bríd Smith

Question:

56. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Education and Skills if a school (details supplied) will be established on a site in Dublin 10; his plans for the site; if discussions have been held with interested parties; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29556/18]

I hope the Minister will not fob me off and say the closure of the De La Salle school in Ballyfermot is a private matter and there is nothing he can do about it. This school, which is due to close at the end of this summer - and may already have closed - is quite famous and has been used in many movies, including "Rocky Road to Dublin". It is a massive complex. Will the Minister consider acquiring this complex with a view to it being used to provide Educate Together and Gaelscoil facilities for the Dublin 10 area?

On the school property to which the Deputy refers, the school patron has informed my Department that the school currently operating at this property will close on 30 June 2019, when the last group of pupils will have completed sixth class. The school patron has been working with the four Catholic schools under its patronage in Ballyfermot in regard to reorganising these schools. I understand the outcome of this interaction undertaken by the patron is that three of the four schools, other than the school referred to by the Deputy which is a senior boys' primary school, have changed to co-educational status following consultation with the parents, staff and boards of management.

On the Deputy’s query as to whether a school under a different patron body will be established at the school property, there are no plans in that regard.  The property is not in my ownership, nor, according to Department records, does my Department hold any other legal interest, such as a charging lease, over the property. In that context, the plans for the property are a matter for the school trustees, as owner, and it is my understanding that it is their intention to sell the property.

I understood the school was to close this September but I note from the Minister's reply that it will close in June when the last group of pupils has completed sixth class. The remaining children have been relocated to the St. Michael's Dominican campus, where there are three other schools. All of these schools are full, as is St. Ultan's school in Cherry Orchard. This area is one of the few areas in Dublin where social housing is being built and, as such, demand for school places will increase.

This property should not be sold. It belongs to a religious order that is indebted to the State under the redress deal agreed under former Minister, Michael Woods, and to the people of Ballyfermot, Cherry Orchard and Dublin 10 generally. It should be sold to the Department at a reduced rate or taken over by the Department to provide Educate Together and-or Gaelscoil facilities for the area, neither of which exist in this heavily populated area.

The Deputy asked if the Department envisages a need for an additional school in the area. I am told that while there is some house-building taking place in the area and an increase in enrolments is expected, there is significant capacity in a number of the existing primary schools in the area. The outcome of the demographic exercises indicate a surplus of available accommodation over the next four years across the school planning area. This was not an area wherein the Department identified a need for an additional school.

On the issue of diversification, we have two initiatives in place, namely, the divestment procedure established by former Minister, Ruairí Quinn, and the live transfer, which have just initiated. In neither instance do we have a prospect of an offer being made of property to an incoming new patron.

On the issue of paying redress, I agree with the Deputy that we need to see additional payment from the religious orders. The indemnity arrangement which she mentioned limited the amount they contributed but it has always been the Government view that 50% of the cost should be contributed by the religious orders. We would welcome contributions from the sale of sites or otherwise towards the substantial cost that has been incurred in this area.

It is clear that although the Minister believes in divestment and agrees that the costs in this area should be shared on a 50:50 basis, the Government is prepared to do very little to insist this happens. We have moved on. The Taoiseach said recently that he is in favour of the separation of church and State. I am not asking for that. Rather, I am asking that the Department investigate the possibility of negotiating with the De La Salle Trust the acquisition of this very important site for use by the community of Dublin 10 and its environs for Educate Together and-or Gaelscoil provision, neither of which are available in this highly populated area. The Minister mentioned that he has been told there is significant capacity in the other three schools. That is not true. I know from talking to principals, teachers and parents that the other schools are at capacity and additional places will be required when the new housing in the area is completed. We need a definitive approach from the Minister to all of these lands and facilities that are in the possession of the church, which is indebted to this State. It is not sufficient for the Minister to say he does not believe that will happen. He needs to be much more proactive and ensure it does happen.

The Department has never acquired new buildings where it already has existing capacity. The Department's demographic process, which is based on the very best information available from local authorities, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, the census and so on, is applied evenly and equitably to all areas. Where it is identified that a new school is required, these are the schools we seek to establish, 42 of which were recently announced. There is a separate process for transfer of patronage.

There is a survey going on in all 16 education and training boards, ETBs, to establish locations where we could seek a transfer of patronage. I refer to a live transfer, as it is described, not requiring closure and a transfer of property. That, unfortunately, has made the Ruairí Quinn approach difficult. The truth is that in the vast majority of cases where we have been able to open a school under that previous process, they have been in other State properties. They have not been in properties released by the majority patron. That system has not been successful because of various legal constraints.

Education Policy

Maureen O'Sullivan

Question:

57. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Education and Skills the way in which outstanding issues relating to primary education here, that is, class sizes, grants and ending pay inequality, for example, will be progressed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29221/18]

I am asking the Minister how he plans to progress outstanding issues in primary education. I refer to class sizes, grants and ending pay inequality.

The Action Plan for Education outlines a series of actions to be taken to make the Irish education and training service the best in Europe. Since May 2016, we have cut the pupil teacher ratio at primary level twice, provided for 3,000 special needs assistants and more than 5,000 new teaching posts, with an additional 1,280 posts for the coming school year as a result of budget 2018. We have also provided 1,300 new middle management positions at primary level, 1,300 at post-primary level and provided summer works and minor works grants worth €125 million.

On pay equity, any further negotiation on new entrant pay is a cross-sectoral issue and not just an issue for the education sector. The Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020 contains a commitment to consider the issue of newly qualified pay within 12 months of the agreement’s commencement, and that process has started with all the teaching unions involved. The Public Service Pay and Pensions Act 2017 provides that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform will lay a report before the Oireachtas on the cost of, and a plan to deal with, pay equalisation for new entrants within three months of the passing of the Act.

I have been able to win substantial extra resources for primary education in the past two years, and it is through the annual budgetary process each year and in future budgets that further progress will be made. I also draw the Deputy's attention to the recently published national development plan which provided €8.8 billion in investment in school buildings over the coming ten years. I will be seeking additional resources in this autumn's budget and it is the overall resources available to the Government, divided across all Departments, that will determine the scope of the improvements I will be able to make.

I hope those additional resources will make a difference. From my own experience teaching at second level and chairing a board of management at primary level, I know the hard work and commitment of teachers. They enjoy their work in the vast majority of cases and I think that is reflected in the way young people also enjoy school. Like many others here, however, I attended the most recent briefing from the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO, in the National Museum of Ireland. The message coming across was that they feel undervalued by the Department. The progress made in class size was acknowledged but we still have a way to go with that.

On capitation grants, there is a major disparity between primary and second level. Teachers and their classes enjoy fundraising for causes outside of the school but they are now fundraising to pay some of the bills in school. The inequity of losing tax relief on their union subscriptions, while the relief remained for some in business and for farmers, was also mentioned. Another point relating to middle management is the extent of the paperwork required. How is that contributing to the quality of teaching? On retention and recruitment, does the Minister have any idea of the numbers that have applied for career breaks this year?

There are many questions there. On class sizes, from 2018 we will have the lowest class sizes in primary schools ever in the history of the State. It is a significant first and it was welcomed across the House. In prioritising resources, we have to look at where the boot is pinching most. This year, there was €550 million to be allocated right across the education sector and half of that went in restoring pay. The remainder went to improving services. I outlined the types of things that we have done. We redesigned the model for allocating resources to children with special needs and it is a better model involving more resources going into special needs assistants and teaching resources.

We have extended the delivering equality of opportunities in schools, DEIS, to an additional 110 schools and we have strengthened leadership in the schools to help them manage better with paperwork. It is paperwork but much of it is designed to protect our children better and keep them safe by implementing rules that apply throughout our whole system such as vetting of teachers and implementing data protection, which is important for the confidentiality and privacy of citizens. I acknowledge that many of these things are challenges but we have to manage them rather than pretend they can go away. That is why I am investing in leadership across the areas with the greatest priorities and I recognise that capitation is an area of pressure.

Teachers are all policied and planned out. There is a limit to what they can deal with. I was in the audiovisual room yesterday and I heard part of the Minister's reply to Deputy Thomas Byrne about teaching principals. It was disturbing to learn of a survey they had done. One aspect of it found that 89% of teaching principals feel adversely affected by the stress of the workload, the increasing mountain of paper and the onslaught of legislative and curricular change. That was what they said. They also mentioned there were 84 circulars last year alone. Teaching principals are caught between the two roles of working as a teacher and as a principal. They have to leave their class to do the work of the principal, the class is being left behind and then there are problems with parents who do not like that. They also earn less than deputy principals in schools with administrative principals. Teaching principals need release time and is that something that can be addressed?

As I said to Deputy Thomas Byrne, I did increase the release time to teaching principals. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan mentioned the onslaught of curricular change but many others would say that we are reforming a curricular system that was not serving pupils as well as it should. Much work has gone into improving the reading programme at primary level and we are seeing the impact. Our ten year olds now have the best reading standards in Europe, and that is the result of implementation of curricular change and changing the way that material is taught in classrooms. That requires release for continuing professional development training of teachers to look at the new way of doing things.

We are seeing more use of data, and even in education there is a concentration on data to see how things are going and how things are being done better. These are not all unnecessary requirements and that is the point that must be made. Perhaps we can take out unnecessary requirements but the things that have been done, such as child protection and better curriculums, have been done after talking to experts on how we could best improve outcomes for children and then seeking to work with principals to implement it. That is other side of why we are doing some of these things, and we do recognise the pressure of continual change.

Before we go into the other questions, I point out that six and half minutes are allocated to each question. There are 30 seconds to put a question, two minutes for a response, and one minute each for a supplementary, a response, a second supplementary and a second response. I ask everybody to stick to their times as much as they can because, as I always say, the more we go over, the more people are left out at the end. I hope we will try to keep to those times.