Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh (Atógáil) - Priority Questions (Resumed)

I welcome the new Minister for Education and Skills to the Chamber.

Thank you very much, a Chathaoirligh.

I invite Deputy Thomas Byrne to introduce his question. I remind Members that they have 30 seconds to put the question. The Minister has two minutes to reply, then there is a supplementary from the Deputy, a reply from the Minister, a final supplementary from the Deputy for one minute and then a final minute for the Minister. I will strictly ensure that those time slots are adhered to in order that we get in as many questions as possible.

Site Acquisitions

Thomas Byrne

Question:

45. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills the rationale for the purchase price of a stadium (details supplied); the process by which a purchase price was agreed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42509/18]

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire ina phost nua. Chuir mé fáilte roimhe ag an gcoiste Oireachtais ar maidin freisin. Leanfaidh mé leis an gceist.

The Department of Education and Skills bought land at Harold's Cross last year from the Irish Greyhound Board to build much needed schools in the area. I understand it is intended to provide permanent accommodation to Shellybanks Educate Together school and the South City Educate Together secondary school at the site. The sum of €23 million was paid for the site and I want to know the rationale for paying that amount.

I thank the Deputy for his kind words this morning. My Department's decision to acquire the site was taken in the context of a review of demographics of the area which demonstrated a substantial projected growth in enrolment, known limited land availability and the impending sale. From a school provision perspective, this site is well located to serve south Dublin city.

In March 2017 my Department requested of the Irish Greyhound Board, that the DPER Circular 11/15: Protocols for the Transfer and Sharing of State Property Assets be followed to advance the acquisition.

This circular requires the Valuation Office to provide a determination of market value of the property to be disposed which is binding on both the disposing and acquiring Government Department or State body. The Valuation Office is an independent office which provides independent and impartial market valuations. It is staffed by civil servants. The Valuation Office completed its valuation on the Harold's Cross site in April 2017 in accordance with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors Valuation professional standards and international valuation standards. The valuation took into account, among other things, an analysis of the existing market, the property's zoning relative to residential values and the need to clear the site of existing structures. The Valuation Office report concluded that the site had a market value of €23 million. In May 2017, a formal offer was made by my Department to the Irish Greyhound Board for the site in line with this binding valuation. The acquisition was completed in May 2018.

In the interests of transparency I have arranged for the Valuation Office report and an update from the office related to that valuation that was received by my Department earlier this week to be published on my Department's website.

It is clear that there is a demand for school places in the area. We supported the acquisition of the site at the time. In fact, my colleague in the constituency, Deputy Jim O'Callaghan, recommended it as a possible solution. The Minister said the price of €23 million was based on market value, but the figure has been questioned by a number of sources. The vendor, the Irish Greyhound Board, had the site valued by the reputable estate agent, Savills, at only €12 million if used for housing and only €6 million if the land was rezoned for recreation.

I accept the valuation the Minister received is from the Valuation Office and nobody can blame him for what happened in recent years, but does it concern him that it appears that the valuation of €23 million was almost twice the valuation of the site received by the Irish Greyhound Board? It appears as if all its Christmases had come at once when this valuation was proposed. Has the Minister asked for a review or an explanation from the Valuation Office?

The first question I asked when I was briefed on the issue yesterday was if there were any property value comparisons in the area because I wanted to get my head around it. The sum of €23 million for 6 acres is big money. The Valuation Office concluded in April 2017 that the appropriate market valuation for the site was €23 million, which breaks down to €3.8 million an acre. To place the valuation in context, subsequent to the valuation report I understand that a 3.43 acre site on Harold's Cross Road, about 1 km from the site, achieved a price in excess of €15 million, or more than €4.367 million an acre, in mid-2017. That is only one example which provides a context.

I reiterate what Deputy Byrne said about transparency and the independence of the Valuation Office, which is made up of civil servants. I know the Deputy is not questioning the office's valuation, but he does raise a very important issue in the context of the overall bundle of money that is available that the sum of €23 million is sizeable.

In his final contribution could the Minister clarify when the document will be on the website?

The Minister needs to ask for a review and I wonder whether he will agree to do that. The issue is that the purchase price of €23 million almost coincides with the debt of Bord na gCon. I am not making a case against anybody. I agree with the Minister that the Valuation Office is professional. However, two facts have emerged. The first is that the sale price is almost the same as the debt and the sale price was almost double what Bord na gCon believed the site was worth if it was sold for residential development. Is there any correspondence in the Department on the debt of Bord nag Con? Is that a matter that ever appeared on the files of the Department of Education and Skills?

Will the Minister order a review of the transaction in light of the fact that the overall value of the bundle available for expenditure on school sites was €28 million, so this would have taken a more significant amount of the overall budget for sites than the Department would have expected? Will the Minister seek a review of the procedures in the case outlined?

I am happy to ask the officials to look at the matter again. There has been ongoing engagement on the site going back to 2016. I hope the information which will be provided on the website tomorrow morning will be comprehensive but if Deputy Thomas Byrne needs further information I will be happy to work him. The issue is new to me as of yesterday and I have been briefing myself on it. One thing I have learned is that when there is a sale from one State body to another they are removed from the equation and that is the reason it was so important to set up the Valuation Office, which is an important bridge in that regard. I can ask one of my officials to phone the Deputy if needs be.

The information will be on the website tomorrow morning.

School Transport Provision

Kathleen Funchion

Question:

46. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Education and Skills the reason a number of children from County Kilkenny, specifically Paulstown, Gowran and Ballyhale, have no school transport and cannot get to school; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42127/18]

I was not at the Joint Committee on Education and Skills this morning and so I wish to take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister on his new role and post. I wish him every success with it. I always believe in working constructively with people and I look forward to doing that in future.

My question is exactly as set out. Will the Minister explain the reason several children in my constituency in Kilkenny – specifically, they are from the Paulstown, Gowran and Ballyhale areas - are having serious difficulties with school transport? This was raised some weeks ago at the Joint Committee on Education and Skills. Unfortunately, they are still experiencing those difficulties. I am keen to get the Minister's response.

I thank the Deputy and I look forward to working with her. I will reiterate what I said at the committee this morning. I see the committee providing a key role in my roadmapping and in how I perform my duties as Minister. I am certain about the knowledge the committee has built up during the past two and a half years. I want to continue with the conversation and bring it in to the construct that we are trying to put together for 2019. We want to work on a plan for 2019 but I want to have a more defined three-year action plan as well. I look forward to working with Deputy Funchion in that regard.

School transport is a significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department. Bus Éireann is required to apply the rules of the scheme equitably in the interests of all those using the service and in delivering value for money.

The purpose of the school transport scheme is, having regard to available resources, to support the transport to and from school of children who reside in remote areas from their nearest school. In the 2017-18 school year in excess of 117,000 children, including more than 12,000 children with special educational needs, were transported in more than 4,500 vehicles every day to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country covering in excess of 100 million km annually at a total cost of almost €190 million in 2017. The scheme is under significant financial pressure arising from growing demographics and the increasing numbers of children with special educational needs seeking transport.

Children are eligible for school transport if they satisfy the distance criteria, if they are attending their nearest school and if it is economically feasible to provide a service. In the latter case, children are eligible for a remote area grant to assist with transport. Children who are eligible for school transport and who have completed the application process on time have been accommodated on school transport services for the current school year where such services are in operation.

Children who are not eligible for school transport can be facilitated where spare seats are available after eligible children have been accommodated. Where the number of ineligible children exceeds the number of spare seats available Bus Éireann allocates tickets for the spare seats on the basis of an agreed selection process.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The terms of the scheme, which are regularly communicated, make it clear that concessionary places are not guaranteed and are allocated year to year. It is understood that the cases referred to by the Deputy relate to children who are not eligible under the rules of the scheme or who failed to complete the application process on time.

Under the terms of the scheme, routes will not be extended or altered, additional vehicles will not be introduced, and larger vehicles or extra trips using existing vehicles will not be provided to cater for ineligible children. Making exceptions to this would effectively create an open-ended scheme with unquantified exposure to the Exchequer and the taxpayer for the resulting cost. Such an approach would not be in the public interest.

I appreciate that the Minister is new to the role. My difficulty is that we always get a stock answer about the school transport scheme. With the greatest of respect, I am aware of the school transport scheme and how it works. My own two children get the school bus every day.

My question is about these children in Kilkenny. They number approximately 20 in total in three localities in Kilkenny. They are having difficulty getting to school. Parents have had to try to make alternative arrangements and have had to take time off work. There are spaces on the bus. My difficulty is that any time I raise the matter with those responsible, they do not address any of the issues I am raising. We say to them that there are definitely 12 seats free on the Paulstown route. They come back and say no seats are free. Given that other children and parents have been able to see that 12 seats are free on that bus every say since 1 September, can the matter not even be investigated or looked into? I have raised the matter several times but I have got only one response thus far from Bus Éireann – that is it. The company says the same thing and refers to the school transport scheme and concessionary and non-concessionary tickets. I am calling on Bus Éireann to look at the specific situation in these three villages and come up with a solution rather than simply telling us the rules of the scheme.

I appreciate the frustration of Deputy Funchion on this issue. I realise we are well into the first term. I can understand how frustrating this can be for parents.

I will provide some background for the three areas in question. I will suggest something then that Deputy Funchion may decide for or against. Currently, three school transport services operate from the Paulstown and Gowran areas to Kilkenny city post-primary centre. Bus Éireann has confirmed that six children who are eligible for school transport did not submit payment details by the deadline. A total of 14 children who are not eligible for school transport were unsuccessful in obtaining seats for the 2018-19 school year. In Ballyhale there are two school transport services operating in the national school in Ballyhale. Bus Éireann has confirmed that three of the children who were eligible for school transport did not submit payment details by the deadline. A total of 12 children who are not eligible for school transport were unsuccessful in obtaining seats for the 2018-19 school year. However, under one of the transport services there are two trips in the afternoon: one at 2 p.m. and one at 3 p.m. A total of 11 of the 12 ineligible children have received tickets on the afternoon service only.

The Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Halligan, has been working on this issue in several locations throughout the country. He is open to engaging with communities. He is not in the country at the moment but I will certainly ask him to meet Deputy Funchion to establish if there is any way that a local solution can be found to this important matter.

I appreciate that the Minister has said the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, is open to engagement. He certainly has not been open to engagement thus far in respect of these three villages. The parents concerned will testify to that. If he is willing to meet, that would certainly be a welcome development.

I know the Minister is from a rural area and, therefore, he has some understanding of rural communities. He will know how difficult it can be and how sometimes city-based people simply do not have an understanding of that. This has been the source of much of the frustration as well.

We are talking about children going to school in a situation where there is no other transport option unless parents give up their jobs to get their children to school. It really is frustrating. One of the major problems is that we have not being getting responses aside from stock responses. I will keep raising this issue and talking about it until someone sits down with us and says, for example, that there are definitely seats on the Paulstown bus and agrees to try to come up with a local solution. I would appreciate if the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, would meet us and if we could have a timeframe for that as well.

I am happy to speak to the Minister of State. I know several of my colleagues have contacted me on the matter as well. Maybe we can have a cross-party group meeting with the Minister of State to see if, as Deputy Funchion pointed out, there is a local solution. That is something I would be happy to pursue.

Schools Site Acquisitions

Thomas Byrne

Question:

47. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills the status of the 42 schools which were announced in April 2018; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42510/18]

This question is about the 42 new schools announced last April. I acknowledge an update was given to the Joint Committee on Education and Skills last week. I am concerned about the position of these schools, 17 of which are due to open next September. Parents have little information about them and those responsible need to let parents know what is happening, where these schools will be, how they can enrol their children and who the patrons will be.

As the Deputy has pointed out, my Department provided a comprehensive update to the Joint Committee on Education and Skills, of which he is a member, on 30 September last and has committed to providing updates regularly on the status of the 42 new schools to be provided over the next four years from 2019 to 2022.

The current focus for my Department is to prioritise the 17 schools opening in 2019 so that patrons can be appointed and accommodation solutions can be put in place as soon as possible. My Department has appointed a project manager to assist this work, and potential interim accommodation solution options have been identified for the majority of the 17 schools.

My Department's design and build programme will be the main delivery mechanism for providing permanent accommodation for the 42 new schools. A procurement process is under way to facilitate the appointment of a project manager who will assist my Department in the provision of permanent accommodation for the new schools to be established from 2020 onwards.

A patronage process is ongoing in respect of the four post-primary schools due to open in 2019 and I expect to make an announcement shortly in this regard. A patronage process for the primary schools due to open in 2019 will commence shortly thereafter.

I have several questions that require clarity. Only two of the 17 sites have permanent accommodation earmarked. There are at least two that do not even have temporary accommodation either.

As I understand it, the Minister does not have contracts signed, sealed and delivered for all other sites where the need for temporary accommodation for schools has been identified. When will the results of the patronage process be announced for the four schools which the Minister referred for consideration? Parents took part in a vote during the summer and do not know who the patrons of the schools will be, where they will be located or where they should apply to enrol their children in them. When will the patronage process start for the other schools that are due to open next September? My daughter, Sineád, is at home celebrating her 11th birthday. We are going around second level schools with a view to deciding which one she will attend. Parents are asking me where the new secondary school will be located in the Drogheda-Laytown catchment area. I do not know the answer to that question and I am the Opposition spokesperson on education. I do not know the answer because the Government has not given the answer to it. The same applies to the new primary school in Dunshaughlin which is due to open next September and on which there is no information available. Regardless of what is happening in the background, the Minister needs to get much more information out to parents on these schools.

Parents like certainty when it comes to knowing which school their children will attend. It is something I take very seriously. On ways by which the system can be improved, I will be making an announcement shortly. I am saying this publicly as the Deputy needs that certainty. There are five post-primary schools, namely, those in Donaghamede, Howth, Galway city, Laytown and Wicklow, included in the 2019 bundle, but we also have the other 17. The Deputy also asked when the process to decide the patronage of the other schools would start. I will initiate a conversation with my officials in that regard to set the process in place.

I should note, with reference to the school in the Drogheda-Laytown catchment area, that there is considerable disappointment in Duleek, County Meath. There was a campaign within the Drogheda catchment area and there is considerable disappointment that the Minister's predecessor decided not to locate a secondary school at that location. He gave the reasons, but it is the largest town in County Meath without a secondary school and I cannot overstate the disappointment felt at the decision made. Also, the schools will start on a fledgling basis. Many of them are medium-term prospects and may not necessarily be needed in every area next year, but they will have an impact on existing schools. For example, I am concerned that the Sacred Heart school in Drogheda which serves a huge catchment area covering Drogheda, south Louth and east Meath seems to have moved into the slow lane in having some relatively minor building works for which it is waiting carried out. They are minor compared to the works involved in some other projects, but essentially the school is waiting for science laboratories and other accommodation to be provided. Is the school being impacted on by the decision to locate another school in the catchment area? Is this something that will feature throughout the country?

Before I get to that point, interim measures, an issue the Deputy raised in his first question, will also be needed. It should be noted that, where necessary, an initial start-up phase is envisaged for the new schools. It will typically involve the use of interim accommodation as part of my Department's forward planning. This is the first time the requirement for new schools has been set out over a four-year horizon. It will provide for a better lead-in period in the planning and delivery of permanent accommodation solutions.

To return to the question of patronage which is important in the context of the lead-in time, parents' choices and delivering certainty, an online patronage processing system has been developed by the Department to provide objective information for all parents which will allow them to make informed choices about their preferred model of patronage for their child's education. Parental preferences were previously collected based on direct engagement with patron bodies. I take the Deputy's point about lead-in times and the mechanisms involved. They are matters on which I will be happy to work with him.

Schools Site Acquisitions

Joan Burton

Question:

48. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Minister for Education and Skills the progress made in identifying a site for the new regionally based secondary school for Carpenterstown, Castleknock; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42126/18]

I congratulate the Minister on his appointment and wish him well. What progress, if any, has been made in identifying a site for the new regionally based secondary school for Carpenterstown, Castleknock? Can the Minister tell parents who are suffering major anxiety where exactly the school will be located?

As the Deputy is aware, the school to which she refers is included in my Department’s six-year construction programme. The acquisition of a suitable site is required to facilitate the project. With the assistance of officials in Fingal County Council under the memorandum of understanding for the acquisition of school sites, a number of site options were identified. They were comprehensively assessed and a preferred site option has been identified. Negotiations with the landowner on the proposed acquisition of the site are ongoing. The Deputy will appreciate that negotiations on school site acquisitions can be complex and price is only one of multiple aspects which need to be agreed. Nonetheless, officials are working to bring matters to a conclusion at the earliest possible date. Owing to commercial sensitivities in site acquisitions generally, the Deputy will appreciate that I am not in a position to provide further details at this time, but I can confirm that the school patron is being kept apprised of developments in the site acquisition process. In the interim, since September the school has been based on a temporary basis at the former Institute of Horology property on Mill Road, Blanchardstown, Dublin 15.

I have raised this school site issue with the Minister's predecessor repeatedly in the past two years and, essentially, he has given me the same explanation again, namely, that it is all secret because of the negotiations taking place. Parents are very anxious. Those involved in the feeder schools in the area, including the staff and the boards of management, are also very anxious and deserve a better answer than what the Minister's officials have given him today. To quote his Department, this new secondary school was identified as a regional solution in second level provision in Dublin West. That meant that two school planning areas were combined, namely, Carpenterstown and Castleknock, in providing an additional much-needed second level school. It is a huge area which stretches from the Phoenix Park to the border with County Meath and County Kildare. The selected patron is the Edmund Rice Trust. The new Edmund Rice Trust co-educational college is now in its second year of operation in premises at the old watchmaker school - the Institute of Horology - located beside Connolly hospital. It was hosted last year by Le Chéile secondary school and now has 60 students. Without progress in identifying a permanent site and location for the school, it may be inhibited in its development.

Unfortunately, as the Deputy rightly pointed out, I am not in a position to offer the clarity the parents want. However, we have a new system in place under a memorandum of understanding between the Department and local authorities which act on behalf of the Department in negotiations. I have no doubt that that the Deputy raising the matter publicly in the House will focus the minds of officials in Fingal to ensure a speedy resolution of this matter. I reiterate that the local authorities act on behalf of the Department in negotiations on the acquisition and purchase of land.

I again emphasise that provision of the school is very welcome. It will be a very good school. I have met many of the first-year students and know many of the students who have enrolled in second year. By and large, the parents would like the school to be located in Castleknock. We know that there is a site which was earmarked originally for the provision of a primary school at the old Phoenix Park race course. There are potential sites in other parts of Castleknock. The population of the area is expanding rapidly. Therefore, this is a critical issue for parents.

As the principal outlined to me, the number of applications received for next year has increased dramatically compared with the first two years. If this were to continue, we would have to seriously restrict numbers for 2020 if the school was still on the institute of horology site on the Mill Road beside Connolly Hospital in Blanchardstown. This school was created to ease the numbers situation in Dublin 15 for secondary schools. We just need to get on with it.

I am sorry for repeating myself but the site acquisition process is complex, as the Deputy knows. It is subject to completion of successful negotiation and conveyancing processes. Given the complexities involved, I am not able to give a timeframe for the completion of acquisition today and I would be disingenuous in doing so. I and my officials will endeavour to bring the process to a conclusion as soon as possible. I understand the frustration on the part of parents, young teenagers and younger children who are looking forward to a new school. This is something that I am very conscious of.

Special Educational Needs Staff

Margaret Murphy O'Mahony

Question:

49. Deputy Margaret Murphy O'Mahony asked the Minister for Education and Skills the proposals he will make for improving working conditions for special needs assistants; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42511/18]

I sincerely congratulate the Minister and wish him well in his role. The day I first landed in Leinster House in 2016, the Minister was the first person I met so he will always have a special place in my heart.

As the Minister knows, special needs assistants, SNAs, play a major role in our schools. I wish to acknowledge that role today. What plans does the Minister have to improve the working conditions of SNAs in our schools?

I thank the Deputy. I remember that day very well and also the Deputy quoting Mark Twain. I think the quote was about the two most important times in our lives being the day we are born and the day we find out why we were born. I will not say what the Deputy told me about that second day but she may tell her constituents in private. She did not say she was born to meet me, to be clear - she gave a different reason.

I agree with the Deputy that this is a really important area. The special needs assistant scheme has been a major factor in ensuring the successful integration of children with special educational needs into mainstream education and the provision of support to pupils enrolled in special schools and classes. This support is very much valued by students, parents and schools, as they provide an indispensable service. Increased investment has allowed the Government to increase the number of SNAs by 42%, from 10,575 in 2011 to 15,000 by the end of this year. A further 950 SNA posts are being made available for allocation in budget 2019, increasing employment opportunities in this important field of employment.

The current public service collective industrial relations agreement, known as the public service stability agreement, PSSA, was reached with the public service trade unions in June 2017 and is due to run until 31 December 2020. The pay benefits of the PSSA range progressively from 7.2% to 6.2% over the three years from 2018 to 2020. At the end of the agreement, FEMPI pay cuts will have been restored in full to 90% of all public servants. With regard to the issue of new entrant pay, the measures recently agreed between the parties to the PSSA provide a credible pathway to addressing new entrant pay and represent a fair and reasonable outcome for the approximately 5,000 new entrant SNA recruits since January 2011.

My Department has put in place supplementary assignment arrangements for SNAs on foot of proposals brought forward by the Labour Relations Commission. These arrangements give priority to serving special needs assistants when work is being allocated and enhance the SNAs’ working conditions. The arrangement has been demonstrated to work effectively for SNAs and schools.

In 2016, the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, was requested to lead a comprehensive review of the SNA scheme. The review set out to ensure that the scheme is achieving the best outcomes possible for children with special educational needs, supported by the special needs assistants. The review was published on 30 May 2018.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

One of the review’s recommendations is for a new allocation model which would front-load supports into schools. Such a model would remove the existing need for assessments for many students and ensure the support is available to them as soon as they arrive in school. If implemented, it would also substantially further improve job security for SNAs in schools, ensuring greater certainty for them regarding their employment status.

The review also recommends ongoing professional development options for SNAs be provided. The training and development recommendations made by the NCSE review are in recognition of the fundamental importance of building schools’ capacity to meet additional care needs of students. These and other recommendations of the review are currently under consideration. I am committed to the continued effective operation of the SNA scheme in consultation with education partners.

As I have said many times in this Chamber, I have a personal interest in the area of children with special needs and in special needs assistants. It is extremely important that these children and their assistants are treated fairly. It is also important that the policy put in place by my party, Fianna Fáil, in 1998 is made available to every child with extra needs without hesitation and that stakeholders are confident in the system.

I note that budget 2019 provides €4.75 million in funding that will be made available to commence the implementation of a comprehensive review of the special needs assistant scheme, which is intended to support a new school inclusion model to deliver the right supports at the right time to students with additional care needs. Of course, the devil is in the detail and I note that a more detailed announcement regarding the implementation of the review will be made in due course. The NCSE proposals whereby a greater range of supports would be offered via the special needs assistants makes absolute sense. They have a unique relationship with the child and it stands to reason that their intervention would benefit the child. From speaking with special needs assistants, I know they are willing to learn and are anxious to see their students progress.

I thank the Deputy for her observations about the importance of SNAs in schools. I know we talk about the broader global figures, which will exceed 15,000 in 2019, but I place a high value on the work SNAs do and have gained insight into how they contribute to the overall running of the schools. They play a vital role. We need to provide them with certainty and ensure that they have proper conditions. That is why the review published on 30 May 2018 was so important. Once we publish a review there is a series of recommendations so the hard work of choices starts now. These and other recommendations of the review are under consideration. There are a couple of elements to highlight, such as continuing professional development options for SNAs and ensuring that we substantially improve job security for SNAs in schools, providing greater certainty in respect of their employment status.

I also raise another matter publicly today, one which I raised with my officials on my first morning on the job. There are issues and weaknesses in every organisation. One area which I highlighted when in opposition, and on which I will be happy to work with colleagues across the House, is the position of secretaries in primary schools. Their contracts stop at the end of the school term, as do their pension entitlements. This issue, which I have been aware of since I was first elected to the House in 2007, has not been addressed either. I do not want to create expectations that it will be addressed but I will say that primary school secretaries, as well as SNAs, perform an integral role in schools. I want to work on this issue and I would be happy to hear my colleagues' opinions on it in the time ahead.

I thank the Minister for acknowledging the important role SNAs have in schools. I agree with him on the important role played by secretaries. They are often overlooked and they play a pivotal role in the schools.

It is well known that early intervention is key and SNAs are integral to a child's progress, as is the relationship between the teacher and the SNA. Additional training is vital to equip the SNAs in this regard. It is also vital that SNAs have security and good job protection going forward. It is also imperative that we have school buildings in place. I am aware that building projects for some schools that were to commence in 2016 and 2017 are yet to materialise, as other Deputies have already pointed out. When a child's future is at stake, political spin must be put aside. I call on the Minister to rectify the matter without further delay.

The recommendations are under consideration and in the meetings and briefing sessions - my head is about to explode with all the briefing sessions I have had between yesterday and today - SNAs were a subject of those conversations. We will give the recommendations in-depth analysis and ensure they are given proper and adequate consideration.

Schools Building Projects Status

Robert Troy

Question:

50. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Education and Skills the status of an application for school building works for a college (details supplied). [42073/18]

What is the status of an application by St. Cremin's national school in Multifarnham for additional accommodation? I hope the Minister comes bearing good news after receiving such good news himself earlier in the week.

Minister, follow that.

No pressure.

I thank the Deputy for raising the question. I confirm that the school to which the Deputy referred was approved for funding in 2017 to provide a mainstream classroom, two resource rooms and a WC for assisted users. The project is devolved to the school authority for delivery. This means that the school itself engages a design team to bring the project through the design stages and on to construction.

The school authority recently submitted its stage 2b report to my Department for approval. This is the detailed design stage of the architectural planning process. The contents would be expected to be in line with the accommodation approved.

However, in this instance, the accommodation outlined in the report exceeds that originally approved by my Department. This has a consequential impact on funding. I understand that the school is offering to make some of its own funding available to offset the additional cost.

The stage 2b report will be fully examined by my Department. Given that the accommodation approved does not coincide with that outlined in the report, this will also now require a review of the schools long-term accommodation needs. This will be done as quickly as possible and a decision will issue directly to the school authority as soon as it is available.

The Minister is spot on. In 2017 the Department gave approval which was welcome. However, part of the planning conditions required an upgrade to the sewage-treatment facility. Obviously in order to meet the planning conditions the school had to go back and seek additional works. It also needed to address a leaking flat roof for which it got approval. The Department advised the school to put that in as part of the overall tender.

The school sought some additional space, an extra special educational room, an increase in the library space and the secretarial office. However, the board of management and the parents' council are prepared to bear those costs. In reality there are no additional cost implications on the Department. The school is hoping this can be accelerated. It is ready to go to tender. As the Minister knows, going on eTenders takes a month, followed by the wait to get the contractor in place. The school needs to be in a position to commence the works early next year so that when the school enrolment increases in the next school year, it will be able to facilitate that increase. I ask the Minister to accelerate the process.

The really important piece of work is the reassessment of the school's long-term accommodation needs. It will be required to ascertain the merit or otherwise of the school's proposal. As the Deputy will be aware, over recent years decisions on the location of schools have been based on demographic analysis. The 42 new schools announced earlier this year point to increasing pressures and population demand. It is important that the decision is made promptly. I will certainly speak to my officials to ensure this happens. A decision will issue directly to the school as soon as this process has been completed.

I reiterate the point that we are talking about an increase because of a planning condition the school must meet. I think the Minister will agree with that. It is seeking additional accommodation to increase its library, secretarial office and one special educational room, a total of 27 m2. We are not talking about a huge extension or anything like that. The board of management and the parents' council will absorb that additional cost. The school has an enrolment of 193 pupils which will increase to 205. There is no question over the need here. All the school now needs is for the Department to follow through on its 2017 commitment and enable the school to go to tender. I guarantee that the school will deliver the project within the budget allocated and it will be ready for the increased enrolment in September 2019. I would appreciate if the Minister could use his good offices to ensure this is accelerated.

The Deputy has made suggestions and I will certainly relay them back to my officials. I am happy to do that.

Questions Nos. 51 and 52 replied to with Written Answers.

Schools Building Projects

Thomas Byrne

Question:

53. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills his views on whether the capital allocation provided in 2019 will allow for the completion of all schools earmarked for completion in 2019; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42085/18]

Does the Minister believe the capital allocation provided in the budget for 2019 will allow for the completion of all schools earmarked for completion in 2019? I ask him to make a statement on the matter. I am concerned that despite a large increase in the capital budget for next year, items already programmed into it, such as the summer works scheme, the minor works grant and existing third level capital commitments, will eat up most of that increase.

My Department’s capital allocation for the school building purposes is €540 million in 2018 and this will increase by 15.2% in 2019 to €622 million.

This is facilitating an ambitious schools building programme. Construction activity in 2018 and 2019 will involve over 130 large-scale projects and about 280 smaller-scale projects under the additional accommodation scheme. These projects will deliver about 40,000 additional and replacement school places; the replacement of more than 600 prefabs which is a key element of our prefab-replacement programme; enhanced sports facilities through the construction and modernisation of 48 physical education halls at post-primary level and 82 general purpose rooms at primary level. The enhancement and modernisation of physical education, PE, facilities in schools will also facilitate community usage of these facilities; and more than 200 modern science laboratories which will support the delivery of the reformed science curricula and the roll-out of computer science as a leaving certificate subject.

As part of the significantly expanded building programme, the current design and build programme to cater for urgent accommodation needs is being ramped up. In the past this programme delivered an average of 12 new schools per year. The current programme involves 27 projects in design that are scheduled to commence construction before the end of 2019.

The Government remains committed to delivering on existing projects in the school building programme as soon as possible. I am satisfied that the €8.4 billion investment available under the National Development Plan 2018-2027 will enable us to modernise and transform our school infrastructure in 2019 and in the years ahead.

We know that 17 new schools are to open next year, only two of which have a permanent home that we know about. We also know that there are about 350 schools in the schools building programme. This comes to approximately 1,000 when schools that are trying to get into that programme are added in. Does the Minister have enough money? I have raised this issue repeatedly. I am glad to see next year's increase. I am not talking about the capital plan; I am talking about next year's budget. If the summer works programme and the minor works grant are to be paid next year, they will take out a lot of the budget because they were not paid out or dealt with this year.

In talking about the capital plan, when people hear the Minister talking about the number of PE halls to be built, the number of prefabs to be replaced, the number of general purpose rooms and the number of schools, they want to know what the delivery on the ground will be. Do we need to put up with schools that are falling apart and schools with very high energy bills because of bad structures or will we see actual delivery on the ground?

There will be a summer works programme next year. From speaking to principals and school boards of management, I know they need a good run-in time. That announcement will need to happen sooner rather than later. There will also be a minor works programme, for which there will be a good enough lead-in time. I know there is no application process involved there.

The Deputy is correct in what he says about existing schools. In particular many secondary schools were built back in the late 1970s and 1980s and we need to consider retrofitting them. I have already raised that issue with my officials and I hope to progress it. Even though we have 42 new schools, many of them were chosen on the basis of demographics. We cannot allow existing school accommodation not to get infrastructure enhancement. The Deputy's suggestion of looking at the economics of a school building in terms of heating and retrofitting is important.

I will pick up on one point, the minor works grant. This is normally paid out in November every year, although it was not paid in one year, 2012, at the bottom of the recession. This year, according to the figures the Minister has produced, it is not likely to be paid and there is a concern the schools will not get it in November, as they have in the past, and that it will be pushed forward to January. While that might only seem a short period to wait, the truth is the Government will not have paid it in 2018 at a time when the economy is rising, and that will make it one of two exceptional years when it has not been paid. It is also the case that schools have come to depend on the minor works grant for cash flow and for planning the school year. They get particular grants of money at different times of the school year and this is one that comes in at a good time, that is, at the end of the calendar year. Is there any way it can be paid out in November? We in Fianna Fáil want to make it a statutory obligation of the Department of Education and Skills to pay it out in November. Will the Minister confirm it will be paid in November or will schools have to wait until January?

It is an issue I have already raised with my officials. The timing is very important. School principals are under enough pressure without delayed funding. I have asked my officials to ensure that money for minor works grants is paid at the end of this year, not in January. If we can do it in November, that will be great, but I cannot commit to that here today. One thing I can commit to is that I want this paid out before Christmas.

Schools Building Projects Status

Robert Troy

Question:

54. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Education and Skills the completion date for a school (details supplied). [42072/18]

The question relates to a school building project that is under way, namely, the relocation of Curraghmore national school to the Ardmore Road in Mullingar, which was due to be completed in September but is far from completed. I would like an update on the project and an outline of what role the Department can play in ensuring this contractor lives up to the timeframe stipulated in the contract that was awarded.

I have been made aware of the building project for the school to which the Deputy is referring. Delays have, unfortunately, been experienced in delivering this project. These arose because the contractor encountered unforeseen bad ground conditions, together with severe weather events, which we will all remember from earlier this year. The project had been scheduled for completion for September 2018 but, in view of the issues met by the contractor, the likely completion date is now April 2019.

I know how disappointing this is for the school and I understand how difficult it is for it to manage a growing enrolment until its new building is in place. It is, however, in the nature of any building project, whether it is a school, an office block or a house, that unforeseen issues can arise. The objective is always to deal with these as efficiently as possible to minimise delay.

The project is being delivered by the local county council, which is continuing to pursue the contractor for as speedy a delivery of the project as possible. The council has the full support of my Department in its efforts to achieve this without compromising the integrity of the building being delivered. To ensure the school is kept fully up to date with progress on the project, the county council will be providing the board of management with monthly updates. The intention is that this approach will provide accurate and precise information to help the school to plan and manage its needs until its permanent accommodation is available.

The Minister is right in some respects. This school was promised a new building in 2013 and it has been waiting a hell of a long time. It is currently working out of very substandard accommodation. Despite that, it is fortunate to have excellent teachers and the quality of education has not been diminished. However, it is not right and not fair for the students and the teachers to have to put up with the facilities they are operating from.

There was an absolute logjam in September because, at the Department's request, the school took in an additional junior infants class and the traffic was serious. I compliment the school authorities for staggering the opening hours to facilitate better access. While I accept there has been bad weather and unforeseen circumstances, and the council has allowed the contractor a one-month extension, we are now talking about a completion date of April of next year, which is much longer than a month. Unforeseen circumstances are understandable but having a skeleton staff working on the development is not unforeseen circumstances. We need to bring pressure on this contractor to accelerate the effort to get these pupils into their new school without further delay.

While the Deputy will be aware of the status of the project, for the purposes of the public record, I point out the contractor is on programme to complete the development in line with its construction programme by April 2019. More than 90% of the blockwork is complete overall, with 100% of the structural blockwork complete to roof level. Concrete roof beams are almost complete and the roof steel is due on site next week. Over 45% of the mechanical installation is complete on the ground floor and over 85% of site drainage works are complete. Works have commenced on the provision of the staff car park and the set-down area, including internal roads and the foundations for the boundary wall. In preparation for the opening of the new school, phase one works to upgrade the footpaths on the road extraneous to the site are completed and the county council reports this has made a great improvement to the safety of this road for motorists and pedestrians. Nonetheless, I take the Deputy's point in terms of the frustrations. People want to see progress, particularly parents and students.

The Minister is right. I drive by the school a couple of times a week and I can see that progress has been made in recent weeks, so full compliments to Westmeath County Council for sitting on this contractor. However, it is no secret that for weeks and months a skeleton staff was operating there. It was not the weather because there were no staff there on good days, or very few staff. I want to know what penalties will be imposed. It is simply not good enough that somebody who was awarded a lucrative State contract to provide a much-needed, long overdue service can delay like this, for whatever reason. Maybe he is trying to keep two jobs going - I do not know - but he signed up to a contract and he is not honouring that commitment. He got a small extension, not an extension until April of next year. We need to send out a clear message that if we want to provide infrastructure and services for the community at taxpayers' expense, there have to be consequences for the contractors who fail to deliver that. I want the Minister to make a commitment today that those like this contractor will face consequences for not fulfilling their contractual obligations.

A number of issues have arisen on the project, as the Deputy will be aware from hearing it anecdotally on the ground, and these have been referred to conciliation in accordance with the contract. Conciliation is confidential as it deals with contractual issues. While I cannot give the specifics of the issue in this conciliation case, I take on board that the Deputy has raised this issue with a view to getting this project across the line as quickly as possible.

Third Level Costs

Kathleen Funchion

Question:

55. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Education and Skills the measures taken in 2018 to reduce high costs for students accessing further education or towards tackling the rental and living costs they are faced with. [42119/18]

The question concerns the costs of further education. It seeks that the Minister would outline the measures taken in 2018 to reduce high costs for students accessing further education or towards tackling the rental and living costs they are faced with.

In 2018 my Department will spend some €450 million on access measures for further and higher education students. This includes approximately €380 million on student grants and related activities, which is expected to benefit approximately 78,000 further and higher education students. Some 16,000 students are expected to be assisted in 2018 through the student assistance fund at a cost of €9 million. In addition, 12,000 students are expected to be assisted through the fund for students with disabilities at a cost of €10 million.

Under the National Access Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education 2015-2019, my predecessor as Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, created a new funding stream called the programme for access to higher education, PATH. To date, the Minister, Deputy Bruton, and the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor, who has responsibility in this area, have secured over €16 million for the roll-out of three strands of the PATH programme aimed at increasing participation from under-represented groups in initial teacher education, a new 1916 bursary fund supporting 600 students over three years, and new initiatives to attract an additional 2,000 students from under-represented groups into higher education. A further 850 students will benefit from the provision of scholarships and bursaries to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The block grant paid to higher education institutions includes a specific weighting to promote access to higher education. This involves an additional premium for all eligible access students and takes account of the additional costs of recruiting and retaining students from under-represented backgrounds. For those from targeted socio-economic groups and mature students, this is applied for the first two years of course duration. For people with disabilities, a further weighting is applied for the entire length of the course.

Regarding other steps, the national student accommodation strategy was published in July 2017 to promote and enhance the supply of student accommodation in line with the timescale envisaged in Rebuilding Ireland. It sets a target of 7,000 additional purpose-built student accommodation bed spaces to be delivered by the end of 2019 and the construction of at least 21,000 propose-built student accommodation bed spaces by 2024. This initial target will be exceeded with over 10,000 bed spaces completed or on site as of October 2018. Price is ultimately a function of supply and demand and the national student accommodation strategy is explicitly aimed at increasing the supply of accommodation available to students.

I raise the issue because the cost of going to third level has moved beyond the reach of many people. In the first instance, fees are at the €3,000 mark while many people fail to qualify for the SUSI grant. While I appreciate that there is a Minister of State with responsibility for higher education who is not the Minister, we need to look at the SUSI system and how grants are given out. A great deal of reform of SUSI is required because it can be difficult just to access and deal with the body. The rules around how far one has to be from a college are very rigid which impacts students from rural areas more than those who can travel to college from home on a daily basis. That brings me to the matter of rental costs for students. Many students are now forced to commute or may end up giving college because they cannot afford the cost of living along with rent and fees. We have a good record of higher education that we are at risk of damaging due to increasing fees and costs of living. While a promise is there for 7,000 units, we need to see a lot more being done a lot faster to provide student accommodation. Otherwise we will slip behind in our record on third level education.

I take the point on the wider constraints facing students and, in most instances, parents given those costs. Since the launch of the strategy, 18,729 bed spaces have been completed or are in the planning process. The figure is broken down as follows: 5,500 bed spaces have been completed; 4,800 bed spaces are under construction; planning has been approved for nearly 8,000 bed spaces and a further 472 bed spaces are in the planning process awaiting a final decision. Student accommodation and the affordability of rent are issues we need to tackle together on a cross-Government basis. I have not yet sat down with my colleague, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to discuss that but I will certainly do so very shortly.

I welcome what the Minister says about parents. At a time when a parent is letting a child fly the nest, it is very worrying to be unsure about what accommodation is available, whether it is up to standard and where exactly it is located. That is what is so good about purpose-built and on-campus accommodation. It gives students, in particular first years, and their parents the reassurance they need that they are somewhere safe and known. I appreciate that the Minister is new in the role but this is something we need to continue to work on, including in the education committee. There are many studies on this. Credit unions have produced a study showing how many people are nearly being forced to use money lenders. They have got to the stage where they have borrowed to put one child through college and a second child comes along before the first has graduated. People are getting to the stage of nearly having to go to money lenders because they want their children to move on to further education. That is unacceptable in this day and age and it is a matter we must address. That is why I refer to the need to reform SUSI. Not everything is black and white and not everyone fits into the same category. The system we used to have meant one could call to a local VEC office regarding a grant but that is all gone now. It is now just a person on the phone and one either fits the category or one does not. There is no room for any sort of discretion, which is not necessarily a good thing. Perhaps we can look at reform of SUSI in further discussions.

I am happy to work with the committee on that. I will also be working closely with my colleague, Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor, in this regard. I am happy to take on board Deputy Funchion's suggestion that we work collectively on this matter.

Schools Building Projects Status

Martin Heydon

Question:

56. Deputy Martin Heydon asked the Minister for Education and Skills the status of progress on secondary school extensions in south County Kildare to deal with increased demand at second level in the area; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42106/18]

Martin Heydon

Question:

57. Deputy Martin Heydon asked the Minister for Education and Skills the status of the ongoing review of secondary school provision in south County Kildare; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42107/18]

The first of my questions is on progress on secondary school extensions. I take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister, Deputy McHugh, who I consider a good friend, on his elevation to a full Cabinet position. It is a position he is well capable of handling from his experience in the House. It is a great honour for him and his family and a testament to the work he has done as a Deputy representing Donegal. I look forward to working with the Minister and making him very aware of all the challenges we face in south Kildare in the education area.

I thank the Deputy whose kind words I appreciate. I look forward to working with him on a number of important education matters. No doubt, the Ceann Comhairle will be very interested in a number of these issues also.

The Minister had better believe it.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 56 and 57 together.

The Department is currently advancing building projects in a number of post-primary schools in the south Kildare school planning area and these projects will, when completed, provide additional capacity in the region of 1,700 school places. The current status of each of these projects is as follows. At St. Conleth's community college, Newbridge, the project is on site and is due to be completed shortly. At Athy community college, the project brief has been completed and the project has been devolved to Kildare and Wicklow ETB for delivery. At Cross and Passion secondary school, Kilcullen, the project is at project brief stage. At Patrician College, Newbridge, the project is at project brief stage and at St. Paul's secondary school, Monasterevin, the project is at stage 2(b), detailed design stage. Recently, my predecessor, Deputy Richard Bruton, announced plans for the establishment of 42 new schools over the next four years, 2019 to 2022. In addition to the new schools announced, there will be a need for further school accommodation in other areas in the future.

While the announcement did not include a new post-primary school in the south Kildare school planning areas, a review of provision at post-primary school level across the school planning areas in south Kildare is now well advanced and the outcome will be made available by the end of October. The review will include an assessment of the extent to which projected needs in the area will be met from the additional capacity being provided by the projects already approved and how any specific additional needs will be best catered for, recognising the importance of maintaining a balance between existing and any additional school provision.

I thank the Minister for his response. Given that the questions are grouped, I have a fair number of points to make. I will stick to the matter of school extensions in this first supplementary contribution. As the Ceann Comhairle knows well, the project at St. Paul's school in Monasterevin has been beset by numerous delays, not all of which were caused by the Department of Education and Skills. While the project is at pre-qualification of contractors stage, we must ensure there is no delay in moving to tender. I reassured parents this week that the change of Minister would not have any impact on that and that the Department will stand ready. I will stay in touch with the Minister on that one as, I am sure, will the Ceann Comhairle. Athy community college has been devolved and a service-level agreement has been established with Kildare and Wicklow ETB. There are now 440 pupils in that school but it was built for 400 and needs to be extended to accommodate 1,000 pupils. There are prefabricated buildings on site and more are coming while the school is under significant pressure. We cannot have a delay there. I am delighted to see the project for Patrician College in Newbridge go to the NDFA. The next step is planning and design and we must keep pushing because there is significant pressure on school places in the Newbridge-Kildare area.

There has been a delay in the opening of the extension to St. Conleth's and that has had a particular impact on six pupils with mild to moderate intellectual and special educational needs. This is causing serious distress. Officials in the Department made the point previously that they would stand with the parents if there were any delays.

The Ceann Comhairle and other public representatives in the area have worked on this matter as well. What the parents have been offered to date, namely, home tuition, whereby they must find tutors, is not sufficient. Huge distress has been caused to those parents who thought they would have places in September. In fairness to the principal of the school, it is not her fault. She is doing her best to manage a very difficult situation. I ask that the special education section of the Department give every support to these parents and that we try to get these six pupils into their special accommodation as soon as possible.

There are a number of schools in the area. I will say one thing about the ongoing building programme and capital plan. In my very short time in the job, I have learned that I cannot walk from one end of a corridor to the other without meeting a Deputy or Senator who is looking for information on a project in the capital plan. In fairness, the previous Minister, Deputy Bruton, introduced a communication system whereby the website shows the different stages at which the projects stand. It is important that we can communicate any changes in this regard.

As for the specific schools to which the Deputy refers, if any further information is needed or if the Deputy's colleagues in the Kildare South constituency need to sit down with one of the officials in the building unit, I would be happy to organise that.

I thank the Minister. This is our opening shot in a process whereby I will make him familiar with the schools in south Kildare. We will continue to brief him on the impact of pressures relating to places as they develop. I welcome his original response regarding a review of the overall demographics of Kildare and pressure on places. I welcome the fact that we are very close to a final announcement on the need for increased provision beyond these extensions.

The South Kildare Educate Together campaign was established in 2014. Since then, we have had meetings with two taoisigh, two Ministers for Education and Skills and departmental officials. Deputy McHugh is the third Minister in the job and we still have not gone away. There is huge demand from parents in Kildare South who have children at primary level for improved provision of choice at second level as well. The Department should not be surprised by this demand. Two Educate Together primary schools were opened a number of years ago in south Kildare. The Educate Together primary school in Kildare town this year has a sixth class for the first time. The parents involved travelled to Portlaoise to look at a second-level Educate Together school because they do not have that option in Kildare south, and this need to be addressed.

The provision of a new school would require all the decisions on the patronage process to be made and site selection and acquisition would take a long time. The review in the Department will show that we do not have much time. Two years ago I stated that one very good fit to work with the Educate Together campaign and to address these issues of pressure on spaces would be to look at the Curragh post-primary school, which absolutely deserves a new building. There are great staff and students working in very difficult circumstances. A partnership or joint patronage process with Educate Together and a new school building for the Curragh could deliver increased capacity in an area between two very big towns, Kildare and Newbridge, that are at bursting point. It could attract pupils from primary schools such as those in Athgarvan, Ballysax and Suncroft and many more in the area that all feed into those towns at present. This would rejuvenate the area. It would be a very overdue shot in the arm for the staff and students of that school. Irrespective of the location of the site and whether the Department of Defence works with us on the provision of a new site on the camp or whether we have a new site outside of the Curragh but in the surrounding area, this is probably the most common-sense approach that would give us that increased capacity as quickly as possible.

I have no doubt that the most recent figures the Minister's officials possess - these were compiled at the end of September - show that the pressure the Ceann Comhairle and I and other public representatives have indicated exists in the constituency of Kildare South is very real and will not be offset solely by the extensions that are proposed.

The Deputy's observation on the review of the provision of post-primary schools in the general school planning areas of south Kildare is important. It is well advanced and I will certainly make it available by the end of October. Demographics is the research tool used to prioritise accommodation need. If we go back to 2011, when Ruairí Quinn was in office and developing his plan for the period 2016 to 2021, the measurement was to ask where the population pressures lay. My predecessor, Deputy Bruton, oversaw the capital programme starting in 2016. We are still in that 2016-2021 period but we do have a trajectory now over ten years and an €8.4 billion capital fund, which is double the size of that for the ten years prior to the national development plan timeframe we are envisaging. I will keep the Deputy updated and ensure that the commitment given today, that the review will be made available at the end of October, will be honoured.

School Curriculum

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

58. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Education and Skills the reason the circular of February 2018 from his Department to State-run non-religious schools run by local education and training boards and community schools which outlined that alternative subject choices should be offered to students who did not wish to study religion seems to have been reversed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42051/18]

On 19 February, the Department of Education and Skills issued a circular to State second-level schools stating that they must offer alternative subject choices to students who do not want to study religion. This instruction applied to State-run non-religious schools run by local education and training boards and community schools. It was a very good instruction and was welcomed by those who want to see a separation of church and State and choice for people who do not hold certain religious views in terms of the education system and those who want to end discrimination and stigma. Incredibly, at the beginning of this month, the Department issued a new circular essentially capitulating on all this. In the intervening period, there was clearly a lot of lobbying by the Catholic Church and its representatives, and now the alternative choice subject is not to be offered to people who choose to opt out of religion. Can the Minister explain this?

I know that we are tight on time and that Deputy Catherine Martin wants to get in but I wish to take this opportunity, as a former member of the Business Committee, to thank Deputy Boyd Barrett for his collegiality and co-operation at that committee and the Ceann Comhairle and his team for a wonderful experience in how consensus politics can work in getting things done. I just wanted to put that on the public record.

In February 2018, my Department published Circular 0013/2018, which set out an approach to the arrangements that were to be made for religious instruction and worship in education and training board and post-primary community schools. This arose as a result of concerns that multidenominational education and training board, ETB, schools were requiring attendance at classes with Catholic religious instruction.

Section 4 of the circular provided that the school is required to ascertain parental wishes in respect of the child's attendance at such religious instruction. Where a parent did not want his or her child to receive religious instruction, the school was required to provide an alternative subject. Where there was any practice of combining or including religious instruction and formation or worship in the same class time as the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, religious education syllabus, parents were made aware of this fact in order that they could make an informed decision to withdraw their children from that class if this was their wish.

The newly published circular to which the Deputy referred clarifies in section 3 that withdrawal with an offer of an alternative subject does not arise in respect of the NCCA religious syllabus where there is no religious instruction or faith formation.

Religious education is an examinable subject just like history or geography, for example. It aims to develop students' ability to examine questions of meaning, purpose and relationships, to help students understand, respect and appreciate people's expression of their beliefs and to facilitate dialogue and reflection on the diversity of beliefs and values that inform responsible decision-making and ways of living. Crucially, it is not delivered from any one religious perspective.

The second important clarification is that where a school intends to provide religious instruction classes, parents must give consent before admission to the class. This means that the issue of opting out does not arise because the parent has requested a place in the religious instruction class.

This circular has no impact on the right of parents under the Education Act or the Constitution to opt out of any subject for reason of conscience.

We need clarification here. I am aware, on foot of a report by Emma O'Kelly of RTÉ and freedom of information, FOI, requests that were submitted in respect of this matter, that there was very considerable lobbying by the Catholic bishops, the Association of Trustees of Catholic Schools, former heads of County Dublin vocational education committees, VECs. These bodies were clearly unhappy with the initial circular, a positive document which stated that people have the right to opt out of religious education and have alternative subject choices.

It is not clear from the Minister's reply whether that still stands. Do people have the right to opt out and have alternative subject choices in line with what was stated in the first circular? I absolutely believe that they should have such a right. People should not be forced to have religious education or instruction imposed on them. To be honest, the sort of distinction that is being drawn between religious education and religious instruction is a bit bogus. Can we get clarity on this matter?

Yes, we can try if the Deputy will let the Minister answer.

I will. By the way, I thank the Minister for his words. I share the sentiments he expressed about the Business Committee. I wish him good luck with his new portfolio.

I forced the Deputy to wish me good luck.

I had to reciprocate.

I will ensure that I get proper clarification. I will direct my officials to do that.

I have some additional information that I hope will be helpful. As a former philosophy student at Maynooth University, I agree with the idea that space should be provided within the curriculum for people to address many of the difficult questions we all face on a day-to-day basis. That does not mean instruction. There is no religious-specific instruction within the religious education syllabus. As part of its normal inspection processes, the Department's inspectorate will inspect whether the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment's religious education subject is being delivered in schools in accordance with the requirements of the circular that was published recently. Schools have discretion in the context of religious education. They may choose not to offer the subject at all. If religious education is to be mandatory or optional in any particular class, group or year, it is to be treated the same as all other subjects, such as history or geography, for these purposes. It is subject to inspection. I reiterate that religious education is a separate subject. It does not involve instruction in any one faith or another. It probably provides an opportunity to broaden the discussion regarding well-being at a time when children and young people have different anxieties and pressures that teachers are dealing with. At this morning's meeting of the joint committee, we discussed how to make progress in the area of well-being. I certainly think there is value in this approach.

To be honest, the Minister has not provided the clarity I am seeking. Do people still have the right to opt out of religious education in favour of alternative subject choices? The Minister's failure to give me a clear answer suggests they do not have that right in some instances. I was also a philosophy student. At my first philosophy lecture in UCD, a priest who was a member of Opus Dei - there were many of them in the UCD philosophy department - said that before he and his colleagues started to teach us about all the great philosophers, he wanted us to know that Karl Marx, Nietzsche and a whole load of other secular radical philosophers were not philosophers. He said that St. Thomas Aquinas was a philosopher. That was the start of our philosophical education. It was informed by the Catholic religion through and through and that is how it followed. We cannot have that.

It must not have worked on the Deputy.

It absolutely did not work on me. That kind of approach is not acceptable. The approach we are advocating needs to be absolutely clear. This subject should be changed from religious education to philosophy and should include other world views that have nothing to do with religion. We should look at religious views in the context of all views of the world, but that is not what we are getting. People should have the right to opt out of religious education.

I repeat that it is the prerogative of each school to decide whether to offer this subject. My information tells me that instruction from the perspective of any individual religion is not part of this. I am happy to continue the conversation on philosophy because I think young people need space to reflect. As a convent boy who was educated in a Loreto secondary school, I value the philosophy and the caring and compassionate ethos that is espoused by the Loreto order. That is my perspective. It is not coming from the Department of Education and Skills.

One can get that from Karl Marx as well, by the way.

I was more of a Descartes fan in philosophy. We have to be very clear about what happens when schools make decisions. My philosophy and vision for my new job is that schools should be empowered to make their own choices.

Capitation Grants

Catherine Martin

Question:

59. Deputy Catherine Martin asked the Minister for Education and Skills his plans to restore the schools capitation grant to 2010 levels; the timeline for same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42111/18]

Ba mhaith liom gach rath a ghuí ar an Aire ina ról nua. I wish the Minister well in his new role and thank him for engaging so positively with the joint committee earlier on the important topic of mental health promotion in our schools. This question relates to the capitation grant, which was increased by 5% in the recent budget. The primary and secondary school capitation grant is still well below the 2010 level. Does the Minister intend to restore the grant fully in line with the commitment in the 2016-19 action plan for education? If so, what is the timeline for that?

The Deputy will be aware of the many pressing demands in education which my predecessor and his predecessors, including Ruairí Quinn, have had to consider in recent years. Important changes have been made. Provision for children with special educational needs has been resourced and reformed, junior cycle reform has been rolled out, school leadership has been strengthened, primary class sizes have been reduced, guidance teachers have been restored, provision has been made for extra students at all levels and provision has been made for new skills needs in apprenticeships, traineeships and higher education. I fully recognise the need to improve capitation funding for schools. I was pleased that my predecessor, Deputy Bruton, was able to provide for a 5% increase in capitation funding for primary and post-primary schools. This will apply from the start of the 2019-20 school year. I must be prudent in the context of ongoing budgetary pressures. As it is not possible to do everything I would like to do in the education sector in one year, especially in the light of increasing enrolments, I have to prioritise. To answer the Deputy's question in as black-and-white a manner as possible, I intend to seek funding for further capitation increases in future budgets.

I appreciate that the previous Minister, Deputy Bruton, had to consider which of the many issues he faced he should prioritise. Schools have been pleading for capitation increases for many years. The increase in the recent budget was something, but it was very small. Capitation grant funding is still well below where it was in 2010. It is hardly surprising that the INTO has described it as a "pittance", given that it equates to just 4.6 cent per student per day. As the ASTI has stated, the increase will merely keep up with growing student numbers. It is simply not adequate for the real costs of running schools in Ireland today. Principals are under huge financial stress as they seek to make the money stretch. School costs in my constituency of Dublin Rathdown can be higher, but principals have the same amount of money per student to work with as principals in every other part of the country. Schools are buckling under this weight. We spoke at the joint committee about relieving the stress that is being experienced by teachers and principals. The stress in this area could be relieved by means of proper restoration of the capitation grant. According to the action plan, this was supposed to begin in 2017 and was to happen over three years. However, it now appears that the first sign of an increase will be in 2019. What is the clear timeline on which principals, parents and teachers can rely?

I know from my travels around my constituency in recent years that the capitation grant always comes up when I speak with principals of primary and secondary schools. The grant is a lifeline for many schools as they seek to meet their running costs. There was a massive reduction of 11% in 2009. We have increased it by 5% this year. Annual funding would need to increase further by approximately €25.5 million if grants are to be restored to pre-2011 levels. I will not give the Deputy a false picture of how we can get there in a specific period. However, I can give her a commitment that we will have conversations on this matter when we look at our 2019 programme. I have no doubt that it will be discussed at the joint committee. I want the committee to feed into the three-year strategic plan so that we can ascertain how to get there as quickly as possible.

I appreciate the Minister's commitment. Along with my colleagues on the joint committee, I will hold him to it because actions speak louder than words. The committee held a specific summer school on school costs in September. The impacts of diminished capitation grants are twofold.

First, principals are continually stretched beyond the beyond in order to make the most of the money they receive. This is complicated by the minor works grant being announced later each year. It appears that there will be no grant for 2018 and that it will instead come in 2019. That is a major stress on schools when they are trying to work out where everything goes. Second, the pressure placed on parents to cover the gap through voluntary contributions was emphasised at the summer school. We are burdening parents not just with the increasing costs of sending their children to school, with uniforms, books, etc., but also with trying to keep the schools afloat. That is not acceptable. Parents receive an annual letter from schools seeking voluntary contributions, but these are far from voluntary.

I need to see action soon. What our principals need now are fewer of the circulars like those to which Deputy Boyd Barrett referred and more investment in schools.

Deputy Thomas Byrne wishes to ask a supplementary question on this matter.

I was disappointed with the budget allocation for capitation. It was something that my party leader prioritised and numbered among the range of issues in the negotiations. While the Minister was not involved, there seemed to be a major reaction against giving something significant in the capitation grant, perhaps because Fianna Fáil was seeking it. That was a dreadful way to approach not only children's needs but also the commitment in the programme for Government to ensure an increase in the capitation grant, in which respect nothing has been done. It was a major disappointment for schools that the grant was not increased. They will continue to struggle for money and come to the Minister seeking emergency works when proper works could have been done at the right time if the necessary money had been available.

This is an issue and it is one of a number of priorities I raised with my officials yesterday. I made the point that we have to find a pathway in the short-to-medium term to put extra revenue into capitation. I have committed to that. I look forward to working with the Deputies on establishing a consensus regarding how to reach to that point.

Having met a number of officials from my Department - I have not met them all because there are 1,300 in total working hard in Athlone, Tullamore and Dublin - I get a sense that they are heeding the importance of long-term planning for schools. Deputy Catherine Martin mentioned the minor works scheme. That money needs to be announced this side of Christmas, as does the funding for the summer works programme. We need to consider giving schools more lead-in time. They face enough pressures and have a great deal on their plate. There are principals who are teaching, performing administrative tasks and carrying heavy loads. The overall issue is something that I will be very conscious of in my role.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.