Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Education Policy

Peter Burke

Question:

6. Deputy Peter Burke asked the Minister for Education and Skills the steps he will take to support small schools and the communities they serve. [42607/19]

What steps will the Minister take to support small schools and the communities they serve?

I thank the Deputy for the question. Rural schools make up the majority of our primary school sector, with almost 2,000 out of just over 3,100 schools. As such, I fully recognise their value to communities throughout the country. They provide a vital link to local heritage and history, help sustain rural populations and often act as a link for sports and social activity.

The majority of rural schools, more than 1,200 of them, are classed as small, having four or fewer teachers. While facing the challenges and opportunities that all schools do, this particular group of schools has specific challenges. I will continue to listen to our partners on this and discuss what we can do to support small schools and ensure they have a sustainable future. The programme for Government makes a commitment not to close any small school without the consent of parents and I am honouring this partnership approach as I examine the issue.

I have spoken to international colleagues to hear their perspective and, together with my colleague, the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, I hosted a symposium on small schools. I want to engage actively with the people and organisations who work in and with small schools and who understand the value and opportunities they offer their communities.

Already, we as a Government have shown that we are listening and I was pleased to announced additional supports for small schools in budget 2020. Improved teacher staffing levels will be introduced for small schools with four teachers or fewer. The one-point reduction in the staffing schedule will help ensure better teacher retention in schools with up to four teachers by ensuring that one less pupil is required to retain and recruit a teacher. To be clear, we are dropping the retention and recruitment figure by one simultaneously. More than 1,300 schools will benefit from the pupil-teacher ratio reduction.

One additional release day will be provided for primary school teaching principals. The extra time to carry out administrative duties will apply to 1,760 schools with fewer than seven teachers. The work now under way on small schools seeks to build on this in a sustainable way.

Between now and next March, I will continue to engage with the main partners through the primary education forum and the Department's small schools steering group to develop a new policy of supports for small schools and feed into the Estimates process for 2021.

I acknowledge the work the Minister is doing at the Department and the work in securing an increase in the Department's budget by 3.4% on 2019 levels to €11.1 billion. This will enhance the opportunities for young people and adults to access education and give them an equal chance and opportunities to achieve what they can in life. It is very important that the Minister outlines the commitment in the programme for a minority partnership Government not to close rural schools. As he reflected in his statement, they make up 64% of our school network.

The one-point reduction in the staffing schedule, together with the announcement made, will assist them. I commend the work the Minister is doing through joined-up thinking with the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, on the hot meals programme, which was piloted this year. Ballymore in County Westmeath in my constituency is benefiting from it. It is a brilliant initiative to ensure everyone gets an equal chance, and this is what education is about.

The Deputy used the phrase "joined-up thinking". Obviously, this has to happen at an interdepartmental level, which is why I was anxious to have the Minister, Deputy Ring, at the symposium on small schools. When we speak about rural development and regional development, it is important that we have somebody of his stature in the equation. Small schools, whether they are in urban or rural communities, are the lifeblood and heartbeat of those communities, as the Acting Chairman knows from his constituency of Roscommon. Many communities might have nothing except a school.

Boards of management work on a voluntary basis. Nobody has contradicted my belief that the biggest voluntary organisation in the country comprises the boards of management in primary and post-primary schools. There must be more numbers involved and it must be more expansive than even the GAA. It is a big thing. It is good to have community engagement, and something that boards of management do a lot of is fundraising. I know this is because of pressures in capitation and, as I have said, the budget is not reflective of where I want to be as the Minister for Education and Skills, but the increase of 2.5% is indicative of where I want to go. We need to make gains on this the next time.

I thank the Minister for his response. It is very important that we listen to the voice of the community. We can see the Minister is reflecting this and doing it in his daily work. He Minister took advice on the subject of history, stress-tested it against the voice of the community, and made a decision. It is very important that we have Ministers who respect the community, equally respect the advice that has been given, stress-test it appropriately, and then make a decision. Essentially, this is what Ministers are there for. I thank the Minister for the work he is doing for the small school network. As I have said, they make up 64% of the school network. It is very important to see the programme for Government acknowledge these schools are not being closed, that they are supported and that we make changes to ensure our small school network will flourish. I note the Minister's acknowledgement of boards of management and the work they do in the community to ensure schools are run well and the fundraising element of their role. I thank the Minister for his ongoing work and for securing such a budget for the Department for 2020 in the backdrop of Brexit.

I thank the Deputy for his comments. Something that is very helpful in ongoing discussions in the primary sector is the primary forum, where all of the stakeholders are around the table. It is very important and it is a forum I certainly value. It is a model that we must continue to use, and we must ensure we keep the communication lines with it open.

Politicians get things wrong and sometimes get them right. The mention of stress-testing made me think about the primary forum which is a forum to stress-test many things within the primary sector. I acknowledge my team of officials who have been working proactively in this regard. The stakeholders themselves are central and fundamental because they value the forum and their contributions are paramount to any future change.

Question No. 7 replied to with Written Answers.

I call Deputy Burton next. I ask all Deputies and the Minister to stick to the time limits because we are running behind.

Schools Building Projects Status

Joan Burton

Question:

8. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Minister for Education and Skills the progress on the acquisition by the Louth and Meath Education and Training Board of a permanent site for a school (details supplied); if his attention has been drawn to the lack of further education facilities in the County Meath area; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42581/19]

I ask the Minister for Education and Skills if he can explain to the Dáil and the staff and students of the Dunboyne College of Further Education, which is an excellent college with 900 students on the outskirts of Dunboyne, why the college is still waiting for a permanent site on which to build a permanent school. This is a fine educational institution, but to progress further, it really needs to get a permanent site. For the life of me, I cannot understand why the school has not been facilitated.

As the Deputy is aware, Dunboyne College of Further Education is currently located in a number of rented buildings and prefab accommodation at Dunboyne Business Park. The Department approved stand-alone status to the college in 2015. It has 800 students.

Prior to achieving stand-alone status, the college was considered part of St. Peter’s College post-primary school. Louth Meath Education and Training Board, LMETB, as patron of Dunboyne College of Further Education, was requested by my Department to identify potential suitable site options. In response to this request the education and training board, ETB, has proposed one site option of significant scale and cost. As the Deputy will be aware, the first ever dedicated capital budget for further education and training has been established under Project Ireland 2040. This will see €300 million invested in the period up to 2027 in the development of modern, fit-for-purpose facilities nationally. The site option proposed by the ETB will have to be appraised in a wider context, including in the context of the strategy for the further education and training sector generally.

I thank the Minister for his reply but it is a deeply disappointing one after the recognition of the college and the progress that was made in 2015. I represent the neighbouring constituency of Dublin West which has many students who attend the college, as has the whole of County Meath. The Minister may not be aware that Meath has no third level institution. Students from as far away as Kildare are using Dunboyne College of Further Education as one of the few very large institutions of further education that are available to them.

The college has a track record, which the Minister can inspect, of students going on to study for degrees in DIT, Maynooth University and across the range of third level colleges and options that are open to them. Many of them have gone on to get work directly or set up their own businesses. The lack of a site is hampering the development of the college.

I appreciate that the frustration here is over the timeline. In May 2018, Department officials gave approval to LMETB to advertise to seek expressions of interest for a suitable site to accommodate Dunboyne College of Further Education, requiring that any identified sites be technically appraised and that the reports of the technical appraisal be made available to my Department. In September 2018, the Department approved the appointment of a consultant to support it in the site identification process. In July 2019, LMETB provided details on its preferred site and requested approval to make an offer. The site in question was considerably larger than expected and the anticipated acquisition costs were significant due to its partial residential zoning. The reports of the technical appraisal have not yet been received. On 3 October 2019, LMETB was advised that the Department was not in a position to consider the proposal further until such time as a broader strategy was agreed in respect of further education provision and associated accommodation requirement.

We are not going to come up with a conclusion to this issue today in this House but my message is that I concur with Deputy Burton that we need momentum behind this initiative now. I call on LMETB to engage proactively with my officials to see how we can move this forward. There is a roadblock here on the scale of the development and we need to bang our heads together about this.

I do not mind if Deputy Thomas Byrne wishes to make a contribution.

I thank Deputy Burton for raising this matter. I have a question further down the list of questions about the matter because I do not know if this also applies to other colleges around the country.

The roadblock to which the Minister referred is not in LMETB. The roadblock is a letter that his Department issued on 3 October baldly stating that the Department is not prepared to consider the project further. That is the roadblock. The Minister said that a number of leases are in place. There are 16 separate buildings, 14 leases, and 100 students being bussed to Navan every day. A constituent of mine comes from Ardcath to Dunboyne and then has to get a bus to Navan.

It is outrageous that this development was cancelled. This is another result of the Minister and his Department accepting a reduction in the capital budget. This college serves young people from all across my constituency and Deputy Burton's. The Minister goes on about working together. I will work together if the Minister sends out a letter saying the Department is considering the project further. The Department's letter to the contrary is what stopped progress. The Minister must reverse that and I am calling on him to do so.

The Minister should, at a minimum, visit the college, and he would be very welcome to. Alternatively, he should meet the Deputies who represent the areas from which the students who attend the college come.

The Minister has delivered very bad news for the college. What do people have to do? The staff, principal and deputy principal are all working their backs off to give young people, particularly those who are not going the direct route to third level education, a future. For many of those young people in areas like the west side of Dublin West, while the official rate of unemployment is 5%, the real rate in more disadvantaged and rural areas is, in practice, maybe 11% or 12% and, in some cases within council estates, can even reach 20% or 25%. The key to unlocking a future for those people and getting them into employment is to give them opportunities around further education. This will not be money in any way misspent. It will produce a future every year for up to 1,000 people in the areas of Meath, Kildare and the constituency of Dublin West. It is a good investment.

I thank Deputy Burton for raising this matter and appreciate what she is trying to do and how she is trying to move it forward. We in this House can pretend that one plus one equals four. The Deputy can claim that the Government is not committed to further education and training, but there was no capital plan for further education and training when she was in government. There never was. There is a €300 million investment earmarked for projects such as this. I want to see this moving forward. There is a great legacy and tradition of third level training in Meath, although the Deputy is right to point out that the county does not have a university or institute of technology. That notwithstanding, there is Drogheda Institute of Further Education, Dunboyne College of Further Education, and O'Fiaich College in Dundalk.

Deputy Thomas Byrne is saying that we should go ahead with the development no matter the size, scale or cost. On the other hand, his party is telling the Government it is not frugal enough and is overspending. Sometimes I do not know what Deputy Thomas Byrne is asking me to do.

I am asking the Minister to consider the matter further when his Department has said it will not.

Acquisitions of such magnitude must be carefully considered and any curricular requirement for land above what would be typically provided for a further education college must be assessed in the general context of further education.

Teachers' Remuneration

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

Question:

9. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Education and Skills the reason for delays in the payment of teachers salaries; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42541/19]

I am taking this question on behalf of my college, Deputy Ó Laoghaire. It is a fairly straightforward question. We are looking for an explanation as to the reason for delays in the payment of teachers' salaries by the Department of Education and Skills. There is also an issue around the payment of increments for special needs assistants. I do not need to explain to the Minister that these people need their wages. They are doing the work and have submitted the documentation. We want an explanation for the delay.

At a broader level, there are no unnecessary delays for the payment of teachers on payrolls operated by my Department.

Some 120,000 payees are paid fortnightly. The process for the payment of an individual teacher is that the managerial authority of a school submits the application form to my Department to enable payment to be set up. The application form must confirm that a teacher is qualified for the appropriate sector and confirm his or her registration details with the Teaching Council. Once a completed application form has been received, the payment is processed as soon as possible. Normally, payroll closing dates are ten days before the payment date.

Where an application form is not complete or where there are queries about some aspect of the application, the forms will be returned to the schools, which can result in a delay to payment being set up for a teacher. Where a teacher's registration is not active with the Teaching Council, payment cannot be made for the period he or she is unregistered. Where a teacher works on a casual or non-casual basis, school authorities enter details of the employee and the claim for payment into the online claims system, which will transfer to the Department’s payroll, and the employee will be paid according to the payroll schedules.

Schools authorities have details of payroll closing dates. Payments cannot be processed until they are signed off by the school authorities. If the deadline for payrolls is missed, payments will not be made until the following payroll date. If the Deputy conveys to me individual examples of problems in the system, I will be happy to follow up on them.

There are examples. My colleague, Deputy Ó Laoghaire, was contacted by a teacher in his third consecutive year working at a school. He submitted all the required documentation but it was returned to him in June. The man has three children and had to get a loan to pay his rent. He has done the work and submitted the documentation. There are instances where the teacher has done everything he or she was supposed to do but the delay appears to happen at the Department. It is not acceptable to say there is not a delay or that if there is one, it might be the individual's fault. I have outlined one individual who contacted us and we have been contacted by others. It is not acceptable for a young man with three children to have to apply for a loan to pay rent, given that he turns up for work. It is the second time the problem has happened to him.

The fault, as we understand it, lies with the Department in cases where the people concerned have submitted all the relevant documentation and where the school has done its part.

There was a big issue with the payroll at the beginning of the year because the system changed on 1 January. It was a live issue and my officials worked around the clock, including on weekends, to ensure they got it right. If issues remain, I will be more than happy to follow up on the individual submission Deputy Ó Laoghaire received.

What is the Minister's opinion on the payroll division? Does he believe that it is adequately resourced and that there are enough personnel to do the job it is supposed to do? We will convey the details of the cases we have received to the Minister but if they are resolved, will the Minister state it will not recur in the future? Our understanding is that such cases have happened. I appreciate there was a change in the system but the Minister must understand that changes can result in negative impacts for people on the front line, doing the work and delivering the services. Is the Department sufficiently resourced to ensure he can give a commitment it will not happen again?

Yes, I can. With my officials, I have dealt with the issue at first hand. That 120,000 payees are paid fortnightly, including current workers and those on pensions, is a phenomenal exercise and it requires adequate resources, which I am satisfied we have. Nevertheless, I am conscious my Department is responsible for the largest payroll. Of the €11.1 billion budget I have, a total of 80% goes on pay and pensions. It requires an enormous-----

It is a labour-intensive sector.

It certainly is but the people who work in the area are dedicated and able. When there was a transition to the new system on 1 January, there were outstanding issues for temporary teachers, as well as for retired teachers who worked as substitute teachers. We resolved the vast majority of issues but if any remain, I will be happy to follow up on them.

Schools Refurbishment

Aindrias Moynihan

Question:

10. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Education and Skills if the project brief for a school redevelopment project at a school (details supplied) has been finalised; when the brief will proceed to the next stage; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42602/19]

It has been almost four years since the then Government committed to extending Coláiste Ghobnatan in Baile Bhúirne. The school population has continued to grow. As a member of the board of management, I could see there was little apparent progress as we waited for Department approval, although that was until recent days. While approval has been granted, which is a timely and good opportunity to move matters along, time is tight. Will the Minister outline the next steps in the process to bring the extension to fruition?

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta as an cheist. Tuigim go bhfuil an Ghaeilge i gceist sa scoil sin. Bhí muid ag labhairt tríd an Ghaeilge arú inné.

I am pleased to inform the Deputy the building project for the school is in the process of being devolved for delivery to Cork Education and Training Board, CETB. My Department has engaged with the school on developing the project brief. The execution of a service level agreement between my Department and CETB, which is being arranged, will be the last step in finalising the brief. It is also the first step in moving the project into the design phase and can be expected to be completed soon. Once the service level agreement is in place, CETB will procure a design team for the project to design the buildings and obtain the necessary statutory planning permissions. It will then move the project through the design phases to tender and construction in due course.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. Toisc go bhfuil sé thart ar cheithre bhliain ó rinneadh an gealltanas sin, tá an-chuid ama caillte idir an dá linn gan puinn dul chun cinn. Tá breis bhrú ar an scoil. Tá an tinreamh ag fás an t-am ar fad. Feictear i measc an phobail, go háirithe sna bunscoileanna sa cheantar, go bhfuil borradh ar an daonra agus go mbeidh an slua sin ag teacht isteach sa scoil go gairid, thar ceann dhá bhliain. Tá an-chuid acu tagtha cheana féin. An féidir leis an Aire clár ama a leagadh amach don síneadh seo? Cathain a bheidh sé ar fáil? Tá brú ar an scoil cheana féin. An mbeidh sé ullamh nuair a bheidh an slua mór sin tagtha isteach? Cé chomh tapa a tharlóidh sé? Toisc go raibh moill ceithre bhliain ann cheana féin, an féidir é seo a leagadh síos mar cheann de na pointí príomhá agus prioritising a dhéanamh ar Choláiste Ghobnatan chun é a bhrú ar aghaidh go tapa?

Níl an tiomantas i gceist. Tá dul chun cinn déanta. Táimid ag fanacht anois ar an chéad chéim eile - an togra a bhogadh ar aghaidh go dtí an próiseas pleanála. Is é sin an bhealach is fearr agus is é sin an cloch choirnéil is tábhachtaí ó thaobh an phróisis. Níl mé in ann gealltanas a dhéanamh go mbeidh sé ullamh i Meán Fómhair nó in aon mhí eile, ach tá dul chun cinn déanta. Níl aon deacrachtaí ann faoi láthair. Gabhaim aitheantas don fhoireann uilig i mo Roinn atá ceangailte leis an obair tábhachtach ar an scoil seo. Geallaim inniu go mbeidh mé ag coinneáil an bhrú ar an phróiseas sin. Bhí mo chomhghleacaí, Teachta Creed, i dteagmháil liom faoin togra seo araon leis an Teachta Moynihan. Tá sé i gceist dul ar aghaidh chuig an chéad chéim eile. Is é an próiseas pleanála an rud is tábhachtaí. Tá sé sin socraithe anois. Bogfaimid ar aghaidh ina dhiaidh sin.

Tá sé sin go breá.

Schools Administration

Bobby Aylward

Question:

11. Deputy Bobby Aylward asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he is satisfied the provisions of section 18(1) of the Education Act 1998 do not place an unnecessary administrative financial burden on national schools; if he is satisfied the insistence by an organisation (details supplied) that national schools must submit accounts online via an accountant, as opposed to the school treasurer, thus incurring a significant fee, does not place an unnecessary administrative financial burden on national schools; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42354/19]

Is the Minister satisfied the provisions of section18(1) of the Education Act 1998 do not place an unnecessary administrative financial burden on national schools, and that the insistence by an organisation that national schools must submit accounts online via an accountant, as opposed to the school treasurer, thus incurring a significant fee, does not place an unnecessary administrative financial burden on national schools? Will he make a statement on the matter?

It is important to ensure that appropriate governance arrangements are in place for transparency and accountability in the management of public money. All boards of management of schools, therefore, are obliged to comply with section 18 of the Education Act 1998 and the arrangements set out in my Department’s Circular 0060/2017 and Circular 0002/2018 on the operation of the financial services support unit, FSSU. This includes the submission of accounts to the FSSU by an external accountant or auditor who has a current practising certificate, professional indemnity insurance and is registered with a prescribed accountancy body in the State.

I am satisfied that this is the appropriate mechanism by which schools can comply with the requirement to make their accounts available for inspection by me in accordance with the Education Act 1998.

The independence of an external accountant or auditor provides assurance to the board and the State that the accounts are prepared in line with good accounting practice and standards. Use of the standard templates provided by the financial support services unit, FSSU, will help to reduce costs associated with the employment of an external accountant. These costs may be met from the capitation funding provided by my Department.

In budget 2020, I was pleased to have been able to provide for a further 2.5% increase in standard capitation funding for primary and post-primary schools that will apply from the start of the 2020 to 2021 school year. This is in addition to the 5% increase that applied from the start of the 2019 to 2020 school year.

I have been contacted by a trusted constituent who is a bookkeeper and accountant and has been the treasurer on his local school's board of management for 12 years. The board has always been fully compliant with PAYE and VAT to ensure value for money while keeping costs for parents to a minimum so that children's education costs are as low as possible. However, by its own admission there is one area where the board has not been fully compliant as it does not fully conform to all provisions of the Act referenced in my question.

The reason for this is simple. The school receives around €6,000 in capitation fees. Over the years, the treasurer of this school has made inquiries as to the cost of certification or audit costs. The lowest quote the treasurer could find for certification of the accounts was €350, while audits were in the region of €1,000. This treasurer maintains that spending money on something that is quite simply a box-ticking exercise that produces nothing tangible while running the school on a shoestring budget is a waste of valuable resources. Moreover, getting the accounts audited would require an outlay of 20% of the annual school funding on the audit itself. With these administrative costs, are we placing an undue financial burden on small schools operating on small budgets? I appreciate the need for oversight but there must be some sort of middle ground.

I always value people's ideas and suggestions. The Deputy's constituent has gone through the system and has contacted several public representatives with the same observation. However, transparency and accountability are two very important cornerstones here. The FSSU, is acting in line with the requirements of the Department. The relevant circulars clearly state that it is the responsibility of the board of management to ensure financial accounts are submitted to the FSSU through an external auditor. This would satisfy the requirement for schools to make their accounts available for inspection under section 18 of the Education Act 1998. I understand the Deputy's point about the pressures on capitation funding. There was a reduction of about 11% in 2011. Funding rose by 5% last year and 2.5% this year. That is not where I want it to be. This budget does not reflect where I want capitation to be, and it is something I will continue to pursue.

As a final comment, and while I appreciate what the Minister is saying, all I am saying is that this is an extra cost for small schools, particularly in rural Ireland, that may have two or three teachers. The Minister said it already. They receive a capitation grant of €6,000. A proper audit costs a minimum of €1,200. That is 20% of the €6,000. There is a qualified accountant on the board of this school who is willing to do the books free of charge and submit them to the Department. Could that not be considered? This is not a fly-by-night auditor. I agree with the Minister on accountability. Everything must be accounted for and money has to be well spent. However in this case a school could save a cost of €1,200 just to get a stamp on a request. There is already an accountant doing voluntary work who is willing to send it in. Could some system be put in place to make use of this? Maybe the Department could have an audit every five years to check on these accounts. No one is talking about deviousness with money or anything like that. This is about saving money for local schools that are under pressure.

The Deputy would not be raising this if he thought there was no value in doing so. There is value in raising a matter that will take pressure off individual schools. I am going to say something that is not policy. I am saying it as a Minister. I am looking at the future. I refer to the collection of small primary schools that are found even within one parish. The small school symposium will look at ways to run schools more effectively in the future. As the Deputy says, each of these individual schools currently has to submit accounts to the Department. It costs every single school the same amount. This is what we need from politics. We must be big enough and mature enough as a political system to say that if there are better, more competent and more proactive ways of doing things that will allow savings for schools that have to fill their tanks, pay for the gas, or look after the bread-and-butter issues, they will be discussed at the small schools symposium. I ask the Deputy to contact me formally on this issue if he would like it to be raised in that forum.

I am going to attempt to break all records and accommodate the three Deputies who are here, so I will ask the three Deputies to co-operate.

School Closures

Brendan Smith

Question:

12. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Education and Skills the analysis his Department undertook of detailed submissions forwarded by community groups about the proposed closure of two second level schools (details supplied); if the analysis by his Department was brought to his attention; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42594/19]

Through correspondence and parliamentary questions I have raised with the Minister the total opposition of local communities in west Cavan to the proposal by Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board to close St. Bricin's College in Belturbet and St. Mogue's College in Bawnboy. Local committees did exceptionally good work in seeking the views of the local communities on the future of second level education in north-west Cavan. They made detailed submissions to the Minister's Department outlining very clearly the people's desire to retain those schools. Unfortunately, not only did those submissions get no reply, they did not get an acknowledgement.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. As he is aware, the decision-making authority for any amalgamation is the patron or trustees of the schools, subject to the approval of my Department. Any proposed change involves extensive negotiations at local level and must be well planned and managed in a manner that accommodates the interests of students, parents, teachers and local communities and contributes to an inclusive education system. My Department was not involved in these negotiations.

I can confirm to the Deputy that the report received by my Department, dated 11 July 2019, from Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board, which sets out the proposal to amalgamate both schools, was analysed by officials in my Department along with submissions from the groups referred to by the Deputy. In addition to considering the submissions received, officials in my Department’s planning and building unit carried out an analysis of the current enrolment trends, intake patterns, future demographic demands and the current curriculum provision. The outcome of this analysis concluded that the best outcome in the interests of all stakeholders was the approval of a new school building to facilitate the amalgamation of the two existing schools.

The two schools due to amalgamate will continue to operate from the existing school sites until a new school building is provided. It is envisaged that the construction phase for the new amalgamated school will be facilitated with investment available during the second half of the national development plan running from 2018 to 2027.

The new amalgamated school will be built to the highest standards and will be compliant with Part L of the 2017 building regulations. This will also provide the opportunity for the school to have a fully equipped PE hall with a fitness suite as well as accommodation to meet special educational needs at post-primary level in west Cavan.

I thank the Minister for his reply but I must say it is most disappointing. It is literally a rehash of what I have received in written replies to parliamentary questions in recent months. I doubt the veracity and provenance of the Department's analysis of the submissions that were made to it. Those detailed submissions from committees representative of the school communities of St. Mogue's College in Bawnboy and St. Bricin's College in Belturbet were not even acknowledged, either by the Minister's office or his Department. How can I accept that they were analysed in detail when they were not even acknowledged? I had an understanding with the Minister that he would meet the group. Unfortunately that commitment was not honoured. When those groups corresponded with the Minister's office to seek a meeting, they said that if it was not possible to meet his good self due to time constraints, they could meet a senior official or officials. Those requests were not even acknowledged.

Does the Minister stand over that type of governance and maladministration on the part of his Department? It is deplorable. Volunteers carried out excellent research through public meetings, online information gathering and questionnaires. They outlined that information and presented it in a comprehensive fashion to the Department and it was not even acknowledged. I do not accept that it was properly analysed if it was not even acknowledged.

It is very important to put on the record of the House that my Department does not and did not make that decision. It was a responsibility of the patron.

The patron advised that an invitation to consultation meetings was forwarded to the boards of management of both schools in question and to all representative groups identified in both communities. Eleven groups were identified and meetings were arranged between February and July 2019. The patron advised that the majority of the meetings proceeded and the majority of views were taken into consideration. A small number of meetings were cancelled by the groups or associations concerned and did not proceed.

Following the Deputy's intervention, we had informal conversations on the issue. I acknowledge his bona fides and take his representations seriously. There was urgency over reaching a decision on the matter. I asked for this not to happen. We had conversations in January, February and March of this year. Following the Deputy's intervention, I spoke to my officials to ensure that time was given for consultation, but it was consultation through the patron, not my Department. Obviously, once that letter came in, a decision had to be made.

This is not about closing schools but about the amalgamation and strengthening of a school. It is also trying to ensure that students in west Cavan stay in west Cavan rather than going to other schools.

The Minister has now admitted that the Department made the decision before the new ETB met. That is the suspicion in the local community and the Minister has confirmed that now. The decision was made at the end of August, just days before the new ETB was about to meet, at which point it might have had a different opinion. The consultations the Minister mentioned took place after the ETB made its decision; there was no proper consultation. I ask the Minister to stand over not implementing the recommendations of the Action Plan for Education 2019, which states:

To protect the sustainability and viability of rural communities we will not close any small school without the consent of parents. Existing support schemes will remain open for new infrastructural investment in schools.

In response to a Topical Issue I raised, the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, stated:

...any proposed changes must be well planned and managed in a manner that accommodates the interests of parents, teachers and local communities and contributes to an inclusive education system. If I may add, students' views must also be taken into account. Any proposals are then subject to the approval of the Department of Education and Skills.

That modus operandi of how amalgamations should take place is laid down in successive departmental policy statements and strategies. That policy has not been adhered to in this decision coming from the ETB and approved by the Minister. It is not acceptable and the two local school communities will not accept the decision that has been made.

It is my understanding that representatives of St. Mogue's College parents association were due to meet the patron in February 2019. This meeting was cancelled at the request of the parents association-----

The decision was made in November 2018.

-----until an architectural assessment of the building was carried out. Following this assessment, another meeting was scheduled for the end of June 2019. I understand this meeting was subsequently cancelled by the parents association on 24 June. Meetings were scheduled for the end of June 2019 and early July 2019 with both Belturbet and Bawnboy community groups. I understand both of these meetings were cancelled by the community groups. However, I believe both groups submitted to the patron a written response to the architectural assessment. I again emphasise that the patron makes the decision and not the Department.

Further Education and Training Programmes Places

Joan Burton

Question:

13. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Minister for Education and Skills if his attention has been drawn to the lack of provision for further education and the limited number of post-leaving certificate, PLC, courses available to those in the Dublin 15 and Dunboyne areas; if his attention has been further drawn to the number of young persons who lack opportunities to progress to third level; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42579/19]

What does the Minister propose to do for the many thousands of young people aged under 25 who are unemployed, sitting at home aimless and purposeless owing to insufficient further education places or post-leaving certificate, PLC, courses being available. I cite my area of Dublin 15 where, despite major community efforts to make PLC places available, the Department appears to have an extremely negative attitude to the further development of PLC courses. It is the only opportunity for these young people to get into education, and get a career and employment.

The further education and training sector provides a broad range of options to meet the needs of over 300,000 learners. The PLC programme is the largest of the full-time further education and training, FET, programmes with up to 30,000 PLC places available annually. Each ETB determines how best to distribute and plan the programmes to meet the needs of their area.

This year, 2,697 PLC places were allocated to Dublin-Dún Laoghaire Education and Training Board, which is responsible for FET in Dublin 15. As part of a plan to establish PLC provision in this area, Dublin and Dún Laoghaire Education and Training Board has been working with two local community schools to start PLC courses in September 2019. Unfortunately, the lack of uptake for these courses has meant they were unable to commence as planned. The education and training board will continue to work with my Department and the schools in Dublin 15 to support the establishment of PLC provision in 2020.

Also this year, 2,438 PLC places were allocated to Louth-Meath Education and Training Board, an increase of over 40%. This increase gives scope for further expansion in PLC enrolment in the future, including for Dunboyne.

Opportunity to progress to third level is a national priority for the Government and my Department. A review of the National Access Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education 2015 to 2019 was published in December 2018. The review acknowledges significant developments in implementation, including increased investment in new access initiatives.

We have a serious problem. The construction industry cannot build enough houses because it does not have enough skilled people. As Professor John FitzGerald said this morning on RTÉ and also at a public meeting that I sponsored a short while ago in Dublin 15, we do not have the skills to do the evaluation of how householders can spend their money wisely to retrofit their homes.

There is a demand with people interested in taking up further education for personal development, but no PLC places are available in Dublin 15. PLC places are available in Dún Laoghaire but very few people in Dublin 15 or the rest of Fingal can travel to Dún Laoghaire to access a PLC place. What does the Minister propose to do?

I got a great insight into the benefits of PLC courses in Letterkenny a number of weeks ago. Looking at the transition and progression, people who finish a PLC course after two years are going on to do electronic engineering in Technical University Dublin, TUD, getting into access courses, and getting into first and second year to do degree courses in Letterkenny Institute of Technology, LIT. Obviously, there is a capacity issue and we need to provide the courses. When the courses are not taken up we need to ask why. In respect of the current leaving certificate review the big issue is progression. It is not necessarily about points and getting into higher level education or universities. This is about creating new pathways through apprenticeships and PLCs. I see the value in them and we need to continue to work on the matter. I am happy to follow up on any capacity issues in Dublin 15.

As we speak today, many young people are sitting at home looking at the four walls in their house without having any possibility of a career path to qualification, employment and potentially setting up their own business. The Government is missing a great opportunity for young people by leaving significant areas of the Dublin region without any PLC opportunity. The Minister is talking about the future and putting it out for another four or five years. That will do nothing for the people sitting at home unemployed at the moment. The official unemployment figure is about 5%. In areas of disadvantage and certain rural areas the unemployment figure, particularly for many younger people, stands at between 9% and 11% and it is even higher in areas of deep disadvantage. Without the PLC option, there is very little future for these people other than sitting at home.

I acknowledge the work of the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, in this area. We are driving towards extra apprenticeships and opportunities. Various institutes of technology are looking at building apprenticeships into their course offerings. However, now - not in four years - we need to ensure that pathways and progression and not points are central to our education system.

We have to get away from the hang-up that, in the context of the leaving certificate, it is a race to an endgame of points. Our education system has to embrace the fact that there are different outlets, options and opportunities for different people. We are all different, we are all equal and we have to acknowledge that. Central in this regard is the realisation that it is about pathways not points. That is why apprenticeships have to be at the heart of the conversation.

Question No. 14 replied to with Written Answers.

Schools Building Projects Status

Aindrias Moynihan

Question:

15. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Education and Skills the status of the brief for a redevelopment project at a school (details supplied); the most recent contacts with the school patron in this regard; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42601/19]

A commitment was given to provide a new school for Coachford college almost four years ago. As a member of the board of management, I am in a position to state that there has been little progress as we have waited for the Department to give a further approval along the way. The population in the area has continued to grow and all we have seen are plans to put in place temporary accommodation that would be classroom-based. This is despite the fact that there is a high demand for practical subjects at Coachford college and that laboratories, woodwork rooms and so on would be require as a result. A solution involving temporary accommodation will not relieve the significant pressure that exists. Given that there has been such a long delay, can the Minister prioritise Coachford college? Will he outline where the project stands and what the next steps will be in order that we can get on to building the new school?

Can we have a 30-second reply from the Minister?

We are into injury time, extra time and, possibly, penalties. I am pleased to inform the Deputy that the building project for the school to which he refers is being devolved for delivery to Cork Education and Training Board, CETB.

My Department has been in ongoing contact with the patron of the school in question relating to the proposed building project and the brief for same. The most recent contact took place last week in that respect.

The execution of a service level agreement, SLA, between my Department and CETB, which is currently being arranged, will be the next and last step in finalising this brief. Once the SLA is in place, the ETB will procure a design team for the project to design the buildings, obtain the necessary statutory planning permissions, and move the project onward to tender and construction in due course.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas Website.