I ask Members to indicate at the commencement of their contributions if they intend to try to elicit answers from the Minister, if they intend to allow time to do so, if they are sharing time and how that time is to be divided.
Reopening of Schools and Summer Provision 2020: Statements
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chathaoirleach agus leis na Teachtaí uilig as an seans labhairt leo arís inniu ar chúrsaí oideachais agus na dúshláin atá ann ina leith.
I take this opportunity to provide an update on the planned summer provision and the preparatory work towards reopening our schools. When I was last in the House I advised that I would bring a report on both subjects to Cabinet on 12 June. I will now update Deputies on the position since I brought that report to Cabinet.
I have previously stated that it was a priority to have summer provision this year. Since my last appearance in this Chamber, I have launched Summer Provision 2020 - Reconnecting with Education, which comprises a number of summer programmes focusing on children with special educational needs and those at greatest risk of educational disadvantage. Since the launch last Friday week, we have had a very strong response. Two hundred schools have registered to run the school-based summer education programme and 36 schools, 35 of which will also run the school-based programme, have registered to participate in the HSE-led programme of support for children with complex needs. It is estimated that 3,400 children will benefit from this school-based programme. Almost 9,200 children are registered for the home-based programme.
On the DEIS summer programme, 210 primary schools have expressed an interest in participating, which is an increase on the 72 schools which were already signed up for summer camps. At post-primary level, 14 schools have registered, with a number of others considering participating in this new programme. In addition, over 230 SNAs are working with families as part of their temporary assignment to the HSE. This level of response is welcome. It is a real demonstration of the commitment of local schools to their local communities. The willingness of principals, teachers and SNAs to answer the call to support their students following what has been an unprecedented period of uncertainty for these students and their families is fantastic. I am sure Deputies will have examples from within their own constituencies of schools rising to this challenge. I note the leadership at Scoil Íosagáin in Buncrana where 70% of the students are signed up to the programme and where there is a maximum return of SNAs and teachers bar one because of health considerations. There is also a willingness on the part of teachers within that school but outside of special educational needs who want to participate to help reconnect the students.
The Government gave the go ahead for the summer provision last Friday week. Since the announcement was made, my Department has had positive engagement with colleagues in the health sector and with the education partners to develop the guidance. Today, I am announcing that further guidance for primary schools involved in delivering summer provision 2020 will be published tomorrow. This follows guidance to primary schools published yesterday on issues such as planning and preparing on returning to school, advice on preventing the spread of the virus, control measures, and dealing with a suspected case. The detailed guidance will support schools in planning and preparing for the programme to support students with disabilities and students attending DEIS summer camps. Many schools had initially sought guidance from my Department before confirming their participation in the schemes. I can confirm that a template for a school Covid-19 response plan has been developed for use by schools in preparing for running the summer programme. This was provided to schools earlier this week. The template can be adapted by schools as their own Covid-19 response plan in the context of reopening for summer provision. The school Covid-19 response plan contains useful information on issues, including planning and preparing for return to school, general advice to prevent the spread of the virus, including handwashing, respiratory hygiene and physical distancing, control measures, including cleaning and use of personal protective equipment, and what to do in respect of a suspected case of Covid-19.
The Covid-19 response plan details the policies and practices necessary for a school to meet the Government's return to work safely protocol, the Department of Education and Skills plan for schools reopening and measures to prevent Covid-19 in the school environment. A helpline has been put in place to assist families of children with special educational needs, provide information on the programmes and help guide them to useful supports. As Deputies are aware, it is my strong preference, the Government's intention and my Department's focus, as well as that of stakeholders with whom we are engaging, to see a full return to school in late August-early September in line with individual schools' usual timetable. I know of schools that have already communicated to parents and students the date of return after the summer holidays, albeit noting that this will be subject to appropriate arrangements and guidelines which are currently being worked on. It is worth reiterating that we are between nine and ten weeks from the scheduled reopening of schools. This gives us time to continue to consult the public health experts to develop and plan appropriate guidance. It is my ambition, and that of my officials, to work with the education partners to minimise the work involved at an individual school level. Where we can, we will provide centralised support and guidance to schools to enable them to reopen in a safe manner in the new school term.
As a country, we have made real progress in getting the virus under control. We have learned and taken the precautions necessary to protect ourselves, our families, our colleagues and everyone in society. The knowledge about and understanding of the virus is growing all of the time and experience available from each phase of the roadmap as well as what is happening in other countries will help us to get it right for reopening our schools.
The report I brought to Cabinet on 12 June outlines the ambition of the Department to develop a sustainable plan to reopen schools, the overriding objective of which is to protect the health of staff and students while promoting the educational and development needs of the nation's children. The key activities under way include public health advice, which will inform the guidance to be issued tomorrow to support schools that will operate summer provision, and interim public health advice, which will be kept under review to ensure it is informed by the latest evidence on Covid in advance of the reopening of the schools at the end of August. In addition, guidance and templates to enable schools to comply with the requirements of the national return to work safely protocol are being developed centrally in consultation with education partners. There are regular meetings of the primary and post-primary stakeholders to ensure stakeholder views can inform the guidance documents. Meetings are taking place on this every week. There will be further engagement tomorrow with stakeholders.
Guidance on online training modules, webinars, etc., are being developed centrally and will be available for use by schools, parents and students. Resources for return to school will be made available for schools operating a summer programme. Additional resources will be provided to schools to enable enhanced cleaning. The existing handwashing facilities in some schools are not designed for the enhanced level of handwashing envisaged as necessary in the Covid-19 environment without significantly impacting on educational class time. A drawdown framework will be established by the Department to enable schools to purchase hand sanitisers for use in schools and classrooms. The procurement process for this framework is under way and it will also deal with any other potential PPE requirements. It is not envisaged that significant PPE will be required in school settings. Details on funding will be provided in due course. Principals who used their initiative and purchased equipment in the last couple of weeks will be reimbursed in that regard. There will be a strong focus on supporting the mental health and well-being of students and staff in the reopening of schools. Central guidance will be provided. The Department is working with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, the inspectorate and other experts to tailor teaching and learning appropriately to the needs of students as they re-engage with school.
Notwithstanding our overall objective, planning for a blended learning approach online and in school will be a feature of our plan to reopen schools, as there may be circumstances where schools will have to have the necessary agility to respond quickly to changed circumstances at local or regional level. My Department continues to engage closely with education partners and other key stakeholders on the development of guidance and supports for the reopening of schools. A dedicated web page will be provided to enable the sharing of information and updates in an open and transparent manner.
Physical distancing requirements are a function of public health advice intended to reduce the risk of infection at particular times and current guidelines are being kept under review. We have seen the roadmap to reopening society reviewed and in some cases accelerated as that public health advice has evolved. Consideration of other mitigating factors in a school setting and emerging evidence of low infection transmission by children may also mitigate some of the risks considered as part of broader public health advice. We also have to be cognisant that maintaining physical distancing in all situations is not possible or appropriate. In particular, it may not be practical for children who are quite young or have special educational needs. In these situations we need to ensure there are appropriate measures in place to protect children and school staff.
In relation to summer provision, there will not be a requirement for strict social distancing for children with special educational needs as this would be neither practical nor possible. Given the limited number of students attending camps in DEIS schools as part of summer provision in 2020, the requirement for physical distancing should be maintained but this should have no impact on the running of the programme in schools.
We move on to the Fianna Fáil spokesperson, Deputy Thomas Byrne, who is sharing time.
I would have been happy to let the Minister continue because some of the stuff is important for parents to hear but that is the decision.
Who is the Deputy sharing his time with?
Tá mé ag roinnt mo chuid ama leis na Teachtaí Browne agus McAuliffe. The issue of social distancing in school, which the Minister has addressed, is obviously a key issue and a key determinant of what happens physically in schools when children go back. The second issue, about which we have not heard a huge amount and about which we need to hear more in general, concerns the long-term implications of school closures. The third issue concerns some aspects of the summer education scheme.
I welcome the publication of information by the Minister and his announcements today. It was in the newspapers before it came into the Dáil and not all of the speech made it onto the record due to the time that we have allowed. I agree with the Department in its stated aim to open schools in accordance with the normal start of the new school year to the fullest extent, while minimising the risk from the public health perspective. I and Fianna Fáil share this objective.
I do not intend to go into the 1 m versus 2 m in schools question, which has been given attention and is important. It is relevant, though, that the public health advice does not allow the Department to achieve its stated aim later on in the summer. The Minister has been clear on what social distancing would mean in schools and we have a lot of time, as he has said, to deal with this issue over the next few weeks.
I wish to raise a very important issue in terms of education. I might give the Minister a brief opportunity to answer, if that is okay. Is that the format today?
It is up to the Deputy.
Yes. I have asked previously that good-quality expert academic research be done on the learning losses, which I see and that we all know of anecdotally, over the last number of weeks and months in order that teachers and the State know in September what is the position regarding children. Most people would say there has been a learning loss. I believe it is obvious. While some people suggest that children's learning is enhanced by e-learning, I cannot see how that could be possible in the middle of a pandemic when the thing has not been planned or organised properly. I do not say that to oppose e-learning or blended learning but it happened in an emergency. There has been some research in the UK and I believe the ESRI is publishing research this week. Has the Department of Education and Skills commissioned research on the learning losses and on what is needed from schools and for children in the new year and in the future? Can the Minister answer that question briefly?
I thank the Deputy for his contribution. One of the obvious gaps was in relation to special needs, so there was regression. That is anecdotal and measured through contact and interaction between our inspectorate and schools in terms of where the gaps were. One clear message right across the sector, whether tertiary, post-primary or primary, is that computers cannot replace teachers. Computers and digital technology can enable processes but they will never replace teachers. One of the big gaps identified is to ensure that we get back into the classroom. I take the Deputy's point as to whether there is a need for research into this. Not to talk about programmes for Government today, but I know there was a lot of focus in the talks on having a research focus within the Department and there will be plenty of time in the future to do research on this important matter.
It should be a primary function of the Department to carry out this research fairly urgently. We have had limited research but I know that it is being carried out by some people. The emerging evidence from the UK is that pupils working from home are doing a lot less learning than was previously thought. That is despite the best efforts of all involved: teachers, parents and children themselves. In the UK, they reckon that children have learned for an average of two and a half hours a day. There are limited data already available in Ireland and the play and learning in early years survey indicates that the vast majority of respondents engage in two hours or less of learning per day between the ages of six and ten. We know that in the UK, this is worse for pupils from lower-income areas. My time is nearly up but that is really important.
The July provision scheme has been expanded to include pupils with Down's syndrome and there was legal action last year about that, but not for second level. Some people got the impression from the last time the Minister spoke that this would be approved for second level and it has not.
I had understood that there was a big expansion of July provision this year. I think we had 10,500 participants last year and the Minister now says we have 9,200, together with the additional ones on the health side. Perhaps the Minister could clarify if it is not an expansion, as we were led to believe.
I want to raise the issue of the importance of the July provision programme, which cannot be underestimated. I have been contacted by numerous parents of children with moderate and severe intellectual disabilities, attending both St. Patrick's special school, Enniscorthy, and Our Lady of Fatima, Wexford town, on the issue of transport. A lot of parents are finding it difficult to accept that they will not be able to get transport to get their kids to the school in order that they can get to the supports they need and take advantage of July provision. Many of these parents are exhausted. They have been absolutely worn out by the last few months. They need that respite and in a lot of cases, the children are starting to regress because they have not been able to get the key supports they need. Can the Minister address the issue of school transport to get those kids to the schools? County Wexford has a very large catchment area and some parents who are now expected to go back to work are finding this situation very difficult.
That is a very good question and I thank the Deputy for raising it. One thing that we did not have on our side, and I will probably be accused of not getting guidelines in quickly enough, was that schools were allowed to open as recently as last Friday week. We have been working on this for two weeks. We are working continually on the school transport issue with a focus on August and September. The solution that we have come up with for the interim is that we will give a grant to parents. I acknowledge that will not be a solution for every parent. The Deputy mentioned children with severe and potentially profound intellectual disabilities, who normally have an escort on the bus. It was a challenge to come up with a potential solution in such a short time but we are giving a grant directly to parents to use in whatever way is possible for them. We are monitoring this as well.
This is the first opportunity I have had as the parent of two children to acknowledge the work that many principals, teachers and special needs assistants, SNAs, have done during the pandemic. In many cases it was done without the assistance of a national online learning platform, which is something we need to look at very speedily. We also need to look at the issue of the digital divide, particularly in DEIS and disadvantaged areas.
On the issue of July provision, I fear that this summer, many parents may yet be told that there is not a place or a facility available for their child. I am not clear, even after the Minister's contribution, as to the exact number of teachers and SNAs who have signed up for the scheme and whether he believes that number is sufficient to meet the need.
SNAs' pay is just 40% of teachers' pay, and while I accept the difference in skill sets between the two, given that they are doing one-on-one work and home tuition I do not think that does anything to encourage the recruitment of SNAs for that need.
I am very pleased about the DEIS programme and I have seen its impact in my area for nearly ten years. However, some school principals are being told that the DEIS programme must follow the special needs provision and that they must provide it in the last two weeks in August, which will be a really busy time for the return to school. I ask the Minister to look at that issue.
Do children with Williams syndrome and other genetic disorders also qualify for the July provision and will it be possible to appeal a decision by the school principal on the matter? Deputy Byrne has already mentioned the issue of second level Down's syndrome students, and I echo his remarks.
My final question relates to external candidates for the leaving certificate and predicted grades. At this point it is still not clear what the process will be for external candidates who are not availing of tuition to secure their leaving certificate in subjects like Irish or maths. We really need to give them an answer on that.
My question relates to the July provision. Ordinarily, when children are enrolled in a unit or special school where they would be starting in the last week of August or first week of September 2020, they would have had an induction in the school in the last week of June or the last school week of the year. They would normally have had an induction in June of this year but because they did not and have not yet started in the school itself, they are now outside the July provision. I ask the Minister to take back that decision, as I know he is making decisions tomorrow. It would be extremely beneficial for those kids who would be starting school in a special unit on 1 September or in the last week of August to be accommodated in the July provision because they would have access to the school and could get acquainted with it rather than having issues in the first week of September or the last week of August. I will leave that with the Minister to take back to his officials to reflect on it and see if there is anything that can be done for those kids. Many parents have been on to me looking for that clarification.
I have three concise questions and I will leave time for the Minister to answer them if possible. The Department sought expressions of interest from schools for the July provision programme, and despite numerous schools applying, certain schools within my constituency are now being informed that only special educational schools or schools with special educational classrooms can participate. One wonders why the Department opened the applications to all if this restriction was going to be in place. Will the Minister give a guarantee that all children who are eligible for July provision will be accommodated this year?
Second, I refer to the announcement earlier in the summer regarding the redeployment of SNAs. Has that proposal been shelved or scrapped, or where does it stand at the moment? There is huge confusion for SNAs as they do not know what the future holds for them. Perhaps the Minister could use this opportunity to enlighten them.
Finally, all schools are set to reopen in September, which is very welcome. However, I want to ask the Minister about one school in particular, namely, Holy Family national school in Mullingar. It was to open in September two years ago, but because of problems with the contractor, it is now 24 months behind. The Minister is aware of it and visited the site in advance of the local elections last year. At that stage, we thought it would open last September. We are 24 months behind schedule and there is anxiety and concern about this. A lot of work is going on between Westmeath and officials from the Department. Will the Minister give assurances that, after two years of delay in the contract, the children, staff and parents can look forward to the opening up of Holy Family national school in September of this year?
I thank the Deputy for his questions. I am sorry that I will not get to the other pertinent questions from the other Deputies but I will try to answer these three as quickly as possible. In a normal year, 650 schools are eligible for July provision, including up to 126 special schools, as well as schools with special educational needs, SEN, based tuition. It was always 650 schools. Last year more than 200 schools applied and this year 200 did. I am absolutely delighted with the level of response and positivity coming from the sector in a very challenging year.
The Deputy asked about eligible students. Any student with autism, Down's syndrome, severe, profound or moderate intellectual disabilities will qualify for the July provision.
The Deputy also asked about the HSE redeployment. Some 230 SNAs have signed up to the redeployment schemes. They are working under HSE contracts at the moment and I thank each and every one of them for doing so because they are doing really important work.
As regards schools reopening, we are all working to get them reopened. I am well aware of Holy Family national school. As the Deputy knows, there were local factors involved in the time delays and he knows what the issues are at local level. However, we have been working through them and we hope we are in a position to open that school in time for the new cohort of students.
Is Deputy Ó Laoghaire sharing time?
Tá, leis na Teachtaí Martin Browne agus Patricia Ryan.
Does the Deputy want answers to his questions?
Yes. I will speak in one passage and the Minister can then respond.
Before I begin on my main topics of the reopening of schools and provision, I want to touch briefly on two other issues. The first is external candidates. I have written to the Minister in the past week giving him two very tough examples of students who will likely not get calculated grades. I echo Deputy McAuliffe's point about answers, but we need more than answers. There needs to be an alternative as well. Inevitably, some students will not get a calculated grade, and while for some that might not make a huge difference as their other subjects would allow them to access a third level place, for others that will not be the case. The two students to whom I spoke are good examples of people who are very concerned that they will lose out on a third level place. They will have to wait until next year or they may not get the opportunity at all. These people need an alternative and that needs to be looked at. I urge the Minister to do so because if this is not resolved it would be a gross injustice. It may only affect a small category of students but it is no less gross because of that.
The other issue I wanted to note is special educational places, which I have raised previously with the Minister. There is a severe shortage in Cork, which needs action, but I want to bring the Minister's attention to another letter I wrote to him regarding a school that wants to open a unit and has so far not been successful with the Department. I hope the Minister will give that his attention. There is also an ongoing campaign for an autism-specific school in Dublin 12 which he might consider as well.
I will deal with summer provision first. It is clear from listening to what the Minister has said so far that his ambition now is already quite different from the ambition of last Friday when he suggested doubling the number of students to 20,000. The plan now seems quite different from that and I am not surprised because I raised queries about whether there was any attempt to gauge the capacity or whether there was any capacity planning going on. There did not seem to be any attempt to figure out how many teachers and SNAs were available or how many schools would sign up before any announcement was made.
There are other issues as well. I am aware that a document went out yesterday and I had sight of it. I know that further documentation will be going out but some issues still need to be clarified. I welcome some of what was in yesterday's document, although much of it is the kind of stuff that we discussed when the Minister said he could not communicate with schools at the minute. A lot of that could have been done regardless of the science or the public health advice, such as return to work forms, training, and so on, which did not necessarily depend on the public health advice regarding 1 m or 2 m or anything like that. Much of that could have been done before now, and while it has been done now, there are more issues that need to clarified.
There are issues with insurance as well. Schools are unsure if they will be able to get insurance to run the programme and there is reluctance because of that.
There are also issues with transport and many parents of children with Down's syndrome in mainstream secondary schools were very disappointed about that.
It is a growing cohort. Children transitioning from early years to mainstream primary education make up a sizeable cohort as well. How many children does the Minister predict will take up the summer provision programme?
On the return to schools, the objective is and should be a full return, and this aim is shared by everybody. I caution the Minister and the Department about this. In other jurisdictions, such as Britain, there has been an attempt to have the relevant department or secretary step back while trying to pin the blame on schools, teachers and teaching staff. That cannot happen under any circumstances as everyone has a shared objective of delivering a full return to school. It is the same for teaching staff.
It is unfortunate that special needs assistants feel they have suffered a loss of respect in recent months. The communication on redeployment was significant and there was a feeling that there was a lack of recognition of the fact that they were still working. It was not the case that they were not working; many were still working with children. They are only getting 40% of the rate for the home-based programme of summer provision and this must be worked on. We must begin to show much more respect to special needs assistants.
On the return to school, we were expecting a roadmap last Friday but that has not arrived. When will we get it? We got an outline of something none of us would like to see, which is a child returning to school one day per week, and the Minister effectively ruled that out. That created confusion. When will we see the publication of the full roadmap? I agree with the objective of a full return to school but I am conscious that as well as a desire from parents to have children return to school, there are people who are nervous about the effects on children. This relates to children who might be immunocompromised or who have parents who are immunocompromised. This also applies to school staff. What planning is in place to ensure the education of these children will continue?
My ambition is clear as I want to facilitate as many children with special needs as possible in summer provision. Traditionally, 70% of students go for home-based tuition and I cited 24,000 as the maximum number that could apply. Currently, we have nearly 10,000 and another 2,300 have been signed up to the Health Service Executive programme. I am still confident that more could sign up as the days go on.
Let us be very clear. The Deputy stood up in this House and said only four or five schools would sign up. That type of messaging coming from this House does not help.
It is not what I said. The Minister can check the record.
Approximately 200 schools have registered for this and I thank every one of those schools for the work done. It is correct that they need the proper information and the guidelines must be right with respect to student and teacher safety.
Last year, a grant was awarded directly to people with Down's syndrome for primary and post-primary education. This year, we have included primary education in the summer programme and we are engaging with Down Syndrome Ireland to ensure every post-primary student with Down's syndrome is facilitated as well. That is really important. As the Deputy knows, most of the summer provision is at a primary level.
The Deputy indicated he was confused about my statement last week on schools reopening. I said last week that my clear intention and the goal both of the Government and the entire education sector was to have a full reopening of all schools for all children at the end of August and into September. There was no ambiguity there.
I will accept written replies as there are a number of matters I wish to raise with the Minister. I ask him for clarity on the reopening of schools. In this crisis parents are trying to balance their household finances with their responsibilities for the health, safety and education of their children. These are just some of the concerns of some of the parents in my constituency in Tipperary, and they do not need uncertainty right now. Unfortunately, uncertainty seems to be the rule rather than exception when it comes to messages being issued by the Department. Will the Minister provide some clarity today on the reopening of schools?
Is the Minister prepared to give a precise date for the reopening? Will he tell parents what criteria are being used to determine that date? Are schools being consulted on the matter? With regard to children returning to school, will the Minister dispense with the uncertainty about social distancing in those settings? Does he intend to implement the recommendations of the State's health experts in this regard or will he act in other ways, as has been indicated recently, taking a political approach by applying different or no social distancing rules in schools? If social distancing is to be implemented, will the Department provide extra staff to schools to help with temperature checks and cleaning of classrooms, common areas, etc.?
Parents and teachers have contacted me with concerns about student mental health issues that arise because they have been out of school for such a long period, as well as the uncertainty that may arise on the return to school. They have raised the issue of the number of counselling hours and pastoral care that schools have. Will the Minister commit to increasing these hours in schools to help students who require such a service?
The mixed messaging must stop and the Minister must be decisive and clear about his plans for the education sector. Parents, teachers and teacher unions demand clarity and I urge the Minister not to let them down. Will he commit to extending the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance to parents who have not met the means testing requirements in the past but have seen a drop in their income or are in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment or a payment under the wage subsidy scheme?
Following the Minister's announcement on 5 June that the July provision programme had been extended to include children with Down's syndrome, I was contacted by a number of parents who are extremely upset and angry because of some of the details the Minister failed to mention. He failed to tell us there would be a distinction between those who are attending preschool, primary school and post-primary school. Parents of children with Down's syndrome were in complete shock when the details of the July provision were released. Why were all children with Down's syndrome not included in the programme? Will the Minister confirm or deny that if these children had been included, it would only have cost an extra €1 million?
Has the Minister seen the recent Economic and Social Research Institute report that suggests longer school days and Saturday schooling for students currently in fifth year? This will put added pressure on students who are already facing an extremely difficult year. What is the view of the Minister and his Department on the report? We all agree that young people are our future and they need certainty. I ask that the Minister give clarity.
What plans has the Minister put in place for children with underlying health conditions who are to return to school in September? We need robust plans shared well in advance so parents can have the confidence to send their children to schools when they reopen in nine weeks. As matters stand, some parents are afraid of the potential consequences of keeping their children at home. We need clarity that no action will be taken against them if their circumstances are genuine. We also need a plan to deliver the educational needs of these children.
I have had many conversations over the past few weeks with parents of children with underlying health conditions. Many of them are worried about their children's health if they return to school in September as normal without a vaccine being available. Many of them are worried about the threat to seriously ill children from children who are well and who may bring the virus home. Some of them fear for their children's lives. Many parents in my constituency are left in the dark every time a phase in the roadmap is published. Decrees allowing travel in a wider radius and larger gatherings both indoors and outdoors really mean nothing to them. The roadmaps have been silent and offer no hope or guidance to those with children who have underlying conditions. I ask that this change.
I am delighted the Minister spoke about children with special needs because, unfortunately, St. Anne's Special School in the Curragh in County Kildare, where I am from, is not included in the provisions. On 9 June, a letter was received indicating the school would lose two teachers because an algorithm had decided they were not required in the school. That is shocking. This is a school that is oversubscribed and it now finds itself having to decide which children get to finish primary education. Those who get to stay will have to be accommodated in a classroom with older children. Some children will now be moved into classes of eight despite being entitled to a class of no more than six.
Why is it that special schools have no right to appeal these decisions? Will the Minister make the necessary changes to enable the basic right of appeal following principles of natural justice? Will he review the decision and the use of the algorithm, which does not take into account the age of children, their specific needs or whether there is room in classrooms that are set up specifically for those with different needs, such as autism and physical disabilities?
That brings me on to July provision. I ask that the Minister would enable SNAs, who do not have the current required criteria, to be allowed to participate in July provision. We need to have a contingency plan in this regard given this year's special circumstances.
I will deal with the last point first in respect of SNAs. I wish to publicly thank the SNAs for their ongoing work over the past months since 12 March. Somebody who spoke earlier was correct in saying that the school buildings may have closed but, like that of the teachers, the work continued. One of the additional features of the summer provision this year compared with July provision is that parents of children with Down's syndrome, autism or severe and profound intellectual disabilities and moderate intellectual disabilities have the choice of availing of an SNA or a teacher as that tutor for the home-based provision. Currently, almost 10,000 are registered. We are relying, first, on the choice of parents to opt for either an SNA or a teacher but, second, we also are operating under a voluntary structure. However, I am confident from the level of enthusiasm and ongoing dedication at a school to student level that we will be in a good place in that regard.
With regard to the reconnection point, teachers get the gaps in that regard. They understand the regression aspect in regard to children with special educational needs. It is about reconnecting with the schools. Another Deputy raised the issue of preschool. That is the reason I added the early intervention year as a feature of summer provision, in terms of that transition. Deputy Michael Moynihan raised the issue of transition from sixth class for children with special educational needs. If there are specific examples around that, I am happy to address that. I will send a formal reply to the Deputy on her other question.
We move now to Fine Gael speakers. I call Deputy Alan Dillon.
I will be sharing my time with Deputies Higgins, Feighan and O'Donnell. The closing of schools has greatly impacted fifth year classes. There is real concern now that there will not be enough time to finish the two-year curriculum by the time examinations are due to begin in summer 2021. Many students and their parents have contacted me to express the legitimate concerns surrounding falling behind on course work, on top of the many challenges students face while learning from home such as limited access to online material due to poor broadband connectivity. A recent survey conducted by SpunOut.ie also found that fifth year students face considerable uncertainty. Those fifth year students understand why the sixth year group were prioritised in the initial response to this crisis. However, now that the Department has found a solution for the leaving certificate students of 2020, will the Minister review the concerns expressed to ensure that next year's leaving certificate students are not adversely affected by school closures resulting from Covid-19?
In addition, I am conscious that the coming months will also create uncertainty for student teachers in terms of their placements. I note the Teaching Council issued a statement last week regarding students who are expected to qualify in 2020 and had yet to complete their final school placement. It is welcome that they will not be adversely affected when it comes to applying for registration with the Teaching Council. Prospective student teachers will require detailed guidance for future school placements in the long term as a result of Covid-19. I note last week's press release highlighted that guidance is now being developed. However, it is important that prospective student teachers would have clarity as soon as possible on what they can expect for the 2020-21 academic year.
Lastly, similar to the Minister's native county of Donegal, Mayo has three populated islands, namely, Clare Island, Inisturk and Inisbiggle. In particular, Inisturk and Clare Island typically send their post-primary students to Sancta Maria College, Louisburgh, on the mainland. I ask that specific clarity be provided for families based in our island communities as their children often reside on the mainland from Mondays to Fridays and that such arrangements can continue.
It must seem like a lifetime ago to the Minister when the decisive and courageous decision to shut schools was made at the beginning of this pandemic. We only need to look to neighbouring countries to see the impact that acting early and quickly has had; speed has indeed trumped perfection. The upheaval to the education system, however, has been massive. Who could ever have imagined that an entire year of students will not sit the leaving certificate examinations? However, decisive actions from the Minister and his officials have meant that those students will not be hindered in their further education or in beginning their careers.
I can only imagine the minefield of issues that arose in overcoming the complex administrative and legal obstacles to enable calculated grades. As we lift restrictions during what are traditionally the summer holidays, minds are naturally beginning to shift towards September. Could the Minister provide clarity to students, teachers and parents on plans to reopen schools in September? Also, what support will be made available to children with special needs who do not have the option of availing of any of the three options within the summer support provision? I am working with a constituent who has two children with profound and complex needs. Their special school, Abacas, Kilbarrack, will not open this summer. The HSE has stated it does not have the resources to provide home-based support to their family and the summer camp their children attended last year, Manor Home Care, will not be opening this summer. What support will be available to families in that situation?
I thank the Minister for asking officials to meet me and representatives of Scoil Chrónáin, Rathcoole, during questions here in the Dáil on 10 June to discuss plans on land that is earmarked for an extension for Scoil Chrónáin. Unfortunately, I have not received an update from his Department on that meeting. Could the Minister arrange that a date is agreed for the meeting by the end of this week if possible?
First, recently, I have noticed an influx of young children with autism being enrolled in smaller rural schools. The principals are very concerned. They want to know if funding is available for extra accommodation and to work with those young children. It is an issue that has happened in the past while.
Second, Scoil Mhuire, Carrick-on-Shannon, is a primary school with more than 460 pupils. I have raised this issue in the Seanad and with the Minister. This county town in Carrick-on-Shannon needs a new school. Does the Minister have any update on that situation?
I ask the Minister for a quick response to this question. St. Gabriel's special needs school, Dooradoyle, Limerick, intends to participate in the school summer provision but it has specific needs. Many of their children are immobile and in wheelchairs and will not be able to meet the normal social distancing requirements. I know the school has been in contact with his Department. I ask that when the guidelines for the summer provision are issued tomorrow, which I welcome, they will take account of the specific needs of special schools like St. Gabriel's. It is only looking to provide over two weeks because that is when it gets access to nursing care from the HSE. The Minister might give me a response to that and indicate that it is something he will take on board.
I will rattle through those questions. Deputy Dillon raised the issue of the fifth year post-primary students. It has been raised a number of times in this House and it is something I am conscious of in terms of their own loss. It was not just about the leaving certificate students of 2020; it was the leaving certificate group of 2021. In terms of what we are doing in that instance and what is ongoing, discussions are taking place between the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and Department of Education and Skills officials in regard to the curriculum and trying to meet the needs of that particular group because not alone did they lose out on class time, they were also disadvantaged even in terms of preparing for practical work and getting important work like that over the line. We are taking that into consideration but there will be a conclusion to those deliberations and I will keep the House informed on that.
The Deputy spoke about prospective student teachers and making sure they have information in time. That will be critical and I will ensure that will happen. He also spoke about the island communities and ensuring that we have provision in respect of the issue he raised.
Deputy Higgins spoke about the profound and complex needs of a constituent.
Unfortunately for some parents, a school will not be available for one reason or another. In some instances, schools have never opened for July provision, and doing so this year would be a big departure. I assure the Deputy and the parents of children with severe or profound complex disabilities that we will try our best to facilitate them. If the Deputy could send on the details of the individual in question, I will ask my officials to look into the case.
Deputy Feighan keeps raising the issue of Carrick-on-Shannon. I cannot give the House an update today but I will be happy to ask my officials, one of whom is sitting to my right, to follow up on that issue and contact the Deputy and the school directly. Deputy O'Donnell mentioned St. Gabriel's school. He has raised it with my team several times now. The school's management is looking for clarity and public health guidelines to protect students as we open summer provision. Schools will be provided with an update on guidelines. I am confident that when the final public health guidelines on social distancing are published following a meeting with stakeholders tomorrow morning we will be in a position to facilitate the likes of St. Gabriel's school. As I outlined in my speech, social distancing will not be a requirement in the case of children with special educational needs. We have to apply common sense and a real-world understanding of that interaction. Special needs assistants and teachers have very special relationships with children with special educational needs. Sometimes that special relationship manifests itself in a close physical relationship and it is very important that special educational needs are facilitated. That will be made clear in the guidelines tomorrow.
I call Deputy Malcolm Noonan. How will he be using his time?
Beidh am ag an Aire agus cúig nóiméad leis na ceisteanna. I will give the Minister plenty of time to answer.
It is important that schools are to fully reopen. This question has been answered. The impact on children's development is incalculable and palpable, especially for those who do not respond to remote learning and for children with additional needs and disabilities. Through late starter advantage, we can learn how other countries that are weeks ahead of us in easing restrictions are meeting social distancing requirements by using screens or booths, providing testing and temperature checks, operating staggered school shifts, equipping schools with hand sanitisers and requiring extra hand-washing. It is really important that all of the unions, namely, the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO, the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland, ASTI, and the Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI, are on board. Can the Minister reassure students and teachers that his Department will take a clear lead in ensuring that all schools are in a position to fully reopen to all students and staff in a safe and health-managed manner at the start of the new school year?
At the moment, all schools have been left to their own devices to audit needs, plan and procure services and products for safe reopening. Can a centralised procurement system be introduced to allow a consistent approach, reassure parents and ensure that every school is treated equally regardless of sector?
In the context of Covid-19, is the Department willing to actively commit to reducing the pupil-teacher ratio, thereby permanently reducing class sizes? The challenges of Covid-19 have only served to highlight the need for increased capital investment in schools at both primary and post-primary level. Can the Minister assure parents that the decision to move from a 2 m social distancing requirement is based on best health advice and not on a lack of available funds for additional temporary accommodation and staffing?
The reconfiguration of classrooms to accommodate students and children returning in September will be an immense challenge. However, many schools have an untapped resource at their disposal in the form of their outdoor spaces. While not all schools have the luxury of outdoor grounds, those that do could make far better use of passive spaces by converting them to outdoor classrooms. Outdoor spaces can offer a whole new constructive learning environment. School gardens, wildlife areas and school orchards are not just places where the mental health and well-being of young people can be tended to; they are living blackboards into which literacy, numeracy, science and the arts can be incorporated, reflecting every aspect of the primary and secondary school curriculum. A small capital grants programme could help many schools adapt their outdoor spaces using tarpaulin coverings, construct willow features, kit out toolsheds, install raised beds, buy polytunnels or create habitats for wildlife. Interior school space may need to be adapted to the storage of outdoor gear for students. An expansion of the heritage in schools scheme would help to bring in outside expertise while improving the livelihoods of heritage and arts practitioners.
Such exposure to nature on a daily basis would help the mental health and well-being of children and students. Getting out of heated classrooms and getting mucky would also help students' immune systems. If we are to make real inroads in tackling climate change and biodiversity loss, we need a whole new generation of ecologists, entomologists, environmental scientists and climatologists. We need to help our children to develop their ecoliteracy skills and become what the author Richard Louv calls "nature-smart". Mr. Louv has written:
The future will belong to the nature-smart—those individuals, families, businesses, and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world and who balance the virtual with the real. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.
I have volunteered for many years to develop school gardens, orchards and wildlife gardens, and I have seen whole yards of tarmac or hard surfaces broken up to create gardens. Even in inner-city schools where there are no apparent areas to create a garden, space can be found to nurture the lives of our young people through nature as they come to terms with the trauma of Covid-19. Can the Department of Education and Skills initiate a small grants scheme for schools to assist with the conversion of outdoor spaces into active learning spaces in the form of school gardens, orchards and wildlife gardens?
Finally, in light of concerns raised by school bus operators and individual schools, will the Minister outline the steps being taken to ensure the school transport scheme will be able to operate at capacity when schools reopen and will he make a statement on the matter? I have been made aware of one school in Galway which has been informed by the Department that it will have no school transport in September. This is unacceptable. Clarity is needed and a clear commitment to the provision of school transport is a right that must become a default in the system.
I thank the Deputy. His comments included seven questions. My time might be a bit short but I will give it a go.
We are not alone in our ambition to fully open schools. I was on a conference call with ministers from Northern Ireland, France and Denmark yesterday. Their ambition is to fully open schools in the new term. At the end of the day, there will still have to be guidance on how to adapt to the new world of Covid-19. In common with our most senior citizens, young people take social distancing very seriously. They understand it. They are the ones who monitor adults when they stand a bit too close together. There is buy-in there. I am confident that, with the proper instruction, training, advice and guidance for teachers and staff, we will have a new environment in schools. It will be completely different. We will ensure safety through measures like the provision of hand sanitiser outside schools and all the protocols that go with that. The key message I always repeat, and on which my officials are really focusing, is that we have to keep the virus out of schools in the first place. How to do that is the big question. All these measures will be really important.
The Deputy asked for assurance that all schools will open at the end of August or September. That is the plan we are working towards. It is my ambition at this point to ensure that collective engagement with and interaction between the stakeholders, which is now held on a weekly basis, continues to provide us with suitable advice. I do not want to put a timeframe on it, but realistically schools need to be given this advice in July at the latest if they are to prepare.
The Deputy referred to a centralised procurement process for the purchase of sanitisers and whatever cleaning equipment is needed for proper hygiene in schools. There will be a centralised procurement system. The pupil-teacher ratio will be a budgetary decision for whoever ends up in that particular hot seat. I agree that if capital investment is front-loaded, schools must be to the fore. I remember the Labour Party-Fine Gael Government of 2011, when we had all the cutbacks in the world.
One of the areas that was ring-fenced was the capital building programme for schools. That was really important.
The Deputy referred to the question of health advice versus risk assessment. Health advice is paramount because this is about the safety of staff and students, but there also has to be a risk assessment in terms of the loss that is encountered by students by their being out of school potentially for a period of six months. We have to get that balance right.
The Deputy spoke quite passionately about the outdoors and gardens. Something that has been very obvious in the lockdown - my own personal circumstances, as the father of three children, mean I am very aware of it - is that there has been a massive reconnection with nature. Many schools do good work in this area anyway but it has been phenomenal to see people reconnecting with the outdoors. There has been talk about how the world of work is going to be different after this crisis and how our lives in general will be different. Schools will also be different and making the most of the outdoors has to be a permanent feature of that. The Deputy asked about grants for sheds and all sorts of stuff. One never knows, the Deputy might get the call to be Minister for Finance and he will be able to write the cheque himself. We will see what happens if that comes to pass.
Finally, school transport is an area where there have been issues and gaps in provision. There was a change to the criteria in 2010 or 2011 which made it difficult for a lot of rural primary and secondary school students, who now had to go to their closest school if they wished to avail of the scheme. I managed to make a change for the post-primary sector so that the second closest school could be included. We need a complete review of school transport, which is what I called for before Christmas. A review team has been set up and its terms of reference have been created. This is not about rural versus urban but about trying to get the bigger piece together. The Deputy is correct that some parents do not have enough time to get this right and will need an advance warning before their children go back to school.
Tá dhá cheist agam don Aire. Tá sé ríthábhachtach do Theachta McHugh mar Aire, mar pholaiteoir agus mar dhuine go n-osclódh na scoileanna ar fad i mí Mheán Fómhair. Tá sé tábhachtach dúinne, do pháistí agus tuismitheoirí na tíre agus d'achan duine ar fud na tíre. Cén sórt ciste airgeadais a chuirfear ar fáil chun an oscailt mhór seo a chur i gcrích? Ní bheidh sé saor. Beidh tuilleadh áiseanna, agus b'fhéidir tuilleadh múinteoirí, ag teastáil. Cén sórt ciste airgeadais nó tacaíocht airgeadais a bheidh ar fáil ionas go bhféadfaimis na scoileanna ar fad, idir bhunscoileanna agus mheánscoileanna, a oscailt i mí Mheán Fómhair nó mí Lúnasa?
It is a great ambition of the Minister to open all schools in late August or September, and it is something we need to work towards. What financial package will be made available to make it happen? We know from other sectors that when announcements were made, financial packages were brought forward. That is welcome and it is the right thing to do. It is justifiable for us to ask if the Government is serious about opening schools in late August or September and what financial package it will put in place to allow that to happen. It will not be cheap. The schools environment will be under huge scrutiny from parents, teachers and school managers as to how safe it is. Will the Minister tell us what kind of financial measure the Government is putting in place to allow for a safe reopening of schools? He has been very responsive to us and has been here most weeks answering questions. I again put the same question that is put here every week as to what we can do to ensure schools do not suffer because of a lack of staff. Teachers are being lost over the course of the summer and, in many instances, there is going to be a major impact on the ability of schools to open in September in the way they would like to do.
My second question concerns school meals. The Minister will have the ready-made, go-to answer that this is not a matter for his Department, which I appreciate is correct. He mentioned that he has been talking to Ministers in other countries about what they are doing about reopening schools. That type of engagement is what Ministers should do. Every other jurisdiction in these islands has committed to continuing its school meals programme over the summer. The provision has been extended in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and, in the most high-profile case, in England. The authorities in all those jurisdictions have recognised that vulnerable children will go hungry if their respective school meals programmes do not continue over the summer. In fairness to the Government, it recognised this issue at Easter, when the school meals provision was continued over that two-week period. Schools, including their teaching staff and SNAs, rallied around to ensure that could be done. The whole school community made it work. However, when I put in a parliamentary question purely to get clarification that the scheme would continue over the summer, I was surprised and disappointed to discover that it is not the intention or plan to do so.
I wish to elaborate on why this programme is needed. In any economic collapse, as the Minister knows, unemployment rises. We have heard that cases of domestic violence have risen as well as cases of addiction, and there is a huge mental health strain on families. In those circumstances, it is inevitable that where families are under huge pressure, including financial strain, decisions have to be made and children may lose out by going hungry. This is not necessarily a comfortable topic to talk about but it is a fact that children are going hungry in society and we will see more of it this summer. What the school meals programme has done is provide regular, routine and nutritious meals for children who need them. I know the Minister to be a decent politician, as is the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection. This absolutely should not be an Opposition versus Government issue that is thrown over and back like a party political football. What I am asking the Minister to do is to be an ally in the call to extend this provision. I am asking him to commit to meeting with the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection or her officials over the coming days and to make an announcement that the school meals programme will continue into July and August. It would be, at the most, a €10 million decision.
This week, we assume, the current Administration will be going out of office. If it is one of the last decisions it makes to extend the school meals programme, it would be an extremely welcome one. The Minister, Deputy McHugh, and the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection would be congratulated strongly right across the House for making that decision. The Minister has the get-out clause of being able to tell me that this is not a matter for his Department and it is somebody else's responsibility. I would like him to say that the point I am making is a valid one and that what INTO and the Children's Rights Alliance are saying about school meals are valid points. I would like the Minister to say also that he agrees with those valid points and that he will take them and do what he can over the coming days. If he were to say that much, it would be a fair thing for him to say. I think he appreciates the unfairness of a situation, to give an example from his own area, where children in Derry are getting school meals over the summer while children in Donegal are not, even though they are both going through the same pandemic and the same crisis. It does not make any sense.
I am appealing to the Government to make the same decision that has been made in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. None of us wants a situation where families are struggling and having to make decisions on bills and so on which result in children going hungry. I know the Minister will appreciate that there is an absolutely bone-crushing and spirit-crushing humiliation that goes along with hunger. It is not just the lack of a meal but the lack of a future that goes with it. Resentment and anger can build into that and it really has a deeply wounding effect on the child who is hungry. I would appreciate the Minister' support on this issue.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta as an dá cheist. Bhain an chéad cheist leis an chostas agus an buiséad chun na bunscoileanna agus na meánscoileanna a oscailt i mí Mheán Fómhair. Tá an ceart aige. Beidh costas níos airde i gceist. Is é sin an fáth go bhfuil comhrá ar bun idir an Roinn Caiteachais Phoiblí agus Athchóirithe agus mo Roinn féin maidir leis an phlean. Is é sin an chéad bhealach.
Ach is é an dara bealach ná, nuair atá an plean le chéile agus muid ag breathnú ar an reachtaíocht, na pleananna atá againn fá choinne na scoileanna a oscailt i Meán Fómhair - na lámha a ní agus an reachtaíocht atá i gceist fosta. Táim cinnte go n-éireoidh an costas níos airde. Sin an fáth gur inis muid le Teachta Donohoe go mbeidh cinntí móra de dhíth maidir leis na rudaí sin nuair a bhíomar ag caint le mo chomhghleacaithe sa Rialtas an tseachtain seo a chuaigh thart.
The first question the Deputy raised related to the costs. He is right that there will be a massive cost involved in schools returning fully and having the proper guidelines in place and the necessary infrastructure around it to ensure teachers, staff and students are safe also. The engagement is ongoing now between the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. The memo I brought to Government last week outlined very clearly that there will be a decision to be made and approval from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform for this exceptional cost.
I will address the second issue that the Deputy raised in the minute I have left. As he correctly pointed out, the school meals programme kicked into gear at very short notice last Easter and at the time we were very much indebted to the schools for adapting to it so quickly. There was also a big voluntary engagement, some schools used the local GAA club and different voluntary groups and An Post stepped up to the challenge as well. I am having the conversation with the Minister for Social Protection, Regina Doherty. We are looking to do something in this area. I appreciate the Deputy raising it here today as well and something like this is not a political issue to be tossed across the Chamber. I certainly would be interested in hearing Deputy Ó Ríordáin's viewpoints on how we do this. As he is aware, the schools have been under pressure in dealing with the calculated grades process. In the more than 200 schools that have registered for the summer-based provision we will provide school meals, as well as for the DEIS schools involved in the summer camps, so that will be covered anyway. If the Deputy has any ideas or suggestions around how we do this and my instinct is that there is a great capacity out there at a community level as well, whether it is youth groups or community groups, perhaps there could be some sort of support there in trying to distribute the food as well because it is something that I would like to support.
Deputy Gannon is next. How does he propose to use his time?
As I have a statement full of questions, if there is any time at the end I will get to them.
I am conscious that some of the questions in my statement may be addressed in the guidelines that are being issued tomorrow and so I cannot understand why we did not get them in advance. This was also a frustrating aspect of the July and summer provision that was announced last Friday week, in that we had a debate on the Wednesday on the July and summer provision and then the announcement was made on a Friday. I am new to this House but it seems nonsensical to me that we cannot scrutinise these decisions in advance.
In the early days of the pandemic, the mantra that we clung to was that speed trumped perfection. It was a powerful and appropriate message that issued from our own Dr. Michael Ryan in his capacity as the chief executive of the World Health Organization. It was a message that was quickly appropriated by the Government to deflect criticism where actions taken during the pandemic did not meet the standards that were required, be that in testing capacity, in confused messaging around the necessity of PPE or the exclusion of women returning from maternity leave from accessing the temporary wage scheme. We were told that "Speed trumps perfection" and amidst a global pandemic and national crisis, we all attempted to engage constructively and accepted that to be a reasonable justification.
How do I apply that same standard to the Department of Education and Skills, when once again I sit here in this Chamber, in late June, with absolutely no guidance in my hand about what education will look like once the doors open, be that in a couple of weeks' time for the summer provision or else in late August? Decisions taken by the Department to date, enormous as they have been, have been painfully slow. They have contributed to increased anxiety for students and parents. According to the educators and professionals in that sector, which I worked in, it is a consequence of an element of disrespect being shown to the sector. When we talked about closing the schools, we had all the gossip that happened before that. When we talked about cancelling the leaving certificate, every dog on the street knew it was going to be cancelled before it was announced and yet the decision had still not been made at that point. I am conscious that I have ten minutes here to ask questions and receive answers that could bring some degree of clarity to the issue but such is the confusion that reigns in schools about how they should reopen, I do not believe I could achieve that even if the Minister and I had the whole afternoon together. It is absolutely ludicrous that the level of detail that has been provided by the Government is such that I can visualise exactly how pubs are going to open next week and the three weeks after that. I know about the necessity for a €9 meal; I know about the social distancing guidelines. I did not learn that by osmosis, I learned that because those sectoral interest groups had the ear of the Government, whereas schools that are due to reopen are still crying out for information. Maybe it will emerge tomorrow but this has not been the case so far.
I want the Minister to paint me a picture, if possible, of what schools will look like in September and I will approach that by visualising myself walking through a school. Let us imagine any secondary school be it in Dublin, in the Minister's constituency or that of any other Deputy. I imagine walking up to the door of that school in September. Who is going to meet me upon my arrival at that school to ensure that I have disinfected my hands? Will it be the secretary or the deputy principal? If it is to be secretaries, as they have been accessing their own industrial relations mechanisms last year, that might bring up issues. If it is to be the deputy principals, there has been a significant problem with the hours allocated to them. Are we expecting them to spend eight hours every morning - when some schools only have eight hours of deputy principal time - ensuring children disinfect their hands? I was going to ask the Minister where exactly the sanitiser was coming from but I welcome the fact that he has already brought some degree of clarity to that.
As I walk down the corridors, what instructions have been given to the students that I meet along the way? Will instructions be given to them before they start in September as to whether it is a one-way system or whether some students who are immunocompromised might need to have PPE and who precisely will provide that to students who may need it? Some would argue all students will need it but those who are themselves immunocompromised or whose family members at home are immunocompromised certainly will need it. Will that responsibility fall on the school, the Department or the student's family?
As I walk into the classroom, I am very conscious of what it will look like. In particular, will teachers and SNAs be required to wear PPE? The Minister has suggested this will not be the case but I do not know how we can make that determination now, particularly if the virus were to re-emerge over the next couple of months. It has been said that we may not need access to that much PPE but I do not accept that. If a teacher or SNA is immunocompromised, surely they should have as much PPE as they need. I am conscious also of the role of the SNA in the classroom. In any classroom I have been in, SNAs sit really close to their students, they whisper constantly to them. Will instructions be given to SNAs about the proximity at which they can engage with their students? In my experience, it is a very close proximity. However, as some of those students may themselves be in difficulty or have challenges related to their immune systems, what guidelines will be in place?
Furthermore, how many students are even going to be in the classroom? I was appalled over the weekend - I hope it was not another kite being flown - when a statement from the ESRI suggested that we might have to stagger classroom times, that perhaps there will only be half of the students in a class. I absolutely hope that that is not going to be the case. If it is however, where does the Department expect the rest of the students to be? I hope the answer to that is not that they will be at home because if so, it will have a devastating impact on families generally but particularly on those most vulnerable who will be expected to leave their jobs to provide care. I am thinking especially of one-parent families, the vast majority of whom are women at the greatest risk of poverty and deprivation. The Department has a responsibility to provide education and we simply cannot abdicate it. I am in no way suggesting that the Minister has done so but I wanted to reaffirm that statement.
If I leave the classroom and walk to the staffroom, what measures and advice will I find on the noticeboard there? Education is always a challenge emotionally for teachers who must deal with young people experiencing the various different anxieties that come with being a young person. In the age of this pandemic, however, young people have had to be in their rooms or have not had exercise, or have had challenges with their living environment.
We are facing a wave of emotion and teachers will be on the front line of it. Friends of mine and others I have spoken to who are teachers are genuinely concerned about being burned out by Christmas from having to deal with that. It is a challenge that they are willing to accept but it should not be one that we force on them. What supports will be offered to teachers, particularly mental health supports? There are also practical questions, for example, with regard to cleaning staff in schools. I note that the report yesterday stated that teachers will be expected to clean their own cups, which is fine. Most teachers do that anyway. Who will clean the canteens? Most schools have cleaning staff for two hours a day. We will need many more than that. Will the Department hire more cleaners to help teachers? Where the virus may re-emerge, it would make sense for the Department to take on more contingency staff in the event that teachers have to cocoon or remove themselves if they are sick. Will we hire more staff to step in and fill those gaps?
The class of 2021 has been discussed on various occasions. I do not think it will be possible for the class of 2021 to sit the traditional leaving certificate examination, as has happened previously. We need a quick decision to be made about that. Students should not go back to school in September still whispering about what examination will be taken. Let us avoid that. I know the Minister said that people are working on it, which is great. When does he anticipate getting some clarity on that? Will it be before September? I know I asked many questions and there is no expectation that the Minister will answer them all, but if he could let us know that some clarity will be forthcoming, I would be grateful.
I am happy to do so. The Deputy raised a number of issues and asked why we do not have the guidelines today. We do not have them today because the engagement with stakeholders is happening tomorrow. A central ingredient in this process, whether it relates to the junior cycle, cancelling written examinations or calculated grades, was to get buy-in from stakeholders. It has been an incredibly positive process which will continue, and it is the only way that we will get to the other side for September. The Deputy is correct that the decisions can be slow. If he considers, however, that we cancelled the leaving certificate in their 95th year and then, within a few weeks, came up with an entirely new system of calculated grades for which we secured buy-in from teachers and schools, he will agree that while it is not the perfect system, we were not slow. I know in the real world of politics that we can work on an hour to hour or day to day basis, but the reason the decision on the cancellation of the leaving certificate examinations was slow was quite evident. One does not announce the cancellation of the leaving certificate examinations without having a proper alternative plan. That is why it was important that the day the stakeholders agreed to cancel the examinations, they also had to be walked through the calculated grades system.
The picture in September will be the picture in September. We hope to be in a much stronger position if the country continues to have such a positive outcome of keeping Covid at a low level. We want to continue to move but we are monitoring countries such as Denmark, which is saying it wants everybody back in the classroom in September. It is the same in France and Northern Ireland. There will have to be close collaboration to ensure that we get to that point. If the Deputy wants me to paint a picture, I am confident that, in September, we will have all students back in class, studying and preparing for the year ahead.
Is the Minister aware of how frustrated and annoyed teachers and parents are about the lack of clarity regarding the reopening of schools in September? He needs to be. Every primary school knows or learns quickly that one cannot put a square peg into a round hole, but it seems that the Minister and the Government think one can and are determined to try to put a square peg into a round hole. The square peg in this instance is the Minister's determination to reopen schools as normal and the round hole is, pre-Covid, the most overcrowded classes and most underfunded education system in Europe, and now on top of that is the requirement for social distancing. One does not fit into the other and everybody knows that is the case. The round hole becomes even less able to take the square peg when, in the framework document that the Minister produced on 12 June, he categorically ruled out the thing that could resolve this conundrum by stating, "It is also not feasible to consider the wholesale splitting of classes and recruiting extra teachers – given that there are significant teacher supply issues currently." If that is the case, we are banjaxed. The Minister can insist he is going to put the square peg into the round hole, but it cannot be done.
It does not matter whether the Minister talks about pods or bubbles because, as one teacher put it, we already have pods and bubbles, and they are called classes. To give the Minister an idea of what those classes look like, in one DEIS band 2 school, a teacher who I will not name has 30 children in sixth class. She says that almost all of the kids in that class are taller than she is. How will that class be turned into bubbles and pods with social distancing and isolation when somebody has symptoms? Where will that person be placed? Who will look after the room in which someone is isolated? It does not work unless we have extensive recruitment of teachers and significantly expand the capacity of our system, providing the necessary funding and resources. The Minister is ruling that out. Many cleaners would need to be recruited for the necessary sanitisation of the classrooms to try to manage this. Even in the best case scenario, I know that this is difficult, but the Minister seems to be insisting that he is not doing the one thing that could possibly point the way to resolving this conundrum.
I put it to the Minister that this cannot and will not work. It is reliant on blind optimism about what the Minister hopes might happen in September. Even then, is it compliant with what NPHET and the expert advisory group say about social distancing? I do not see how it could be unless they say that no social distancing is necessary in schools. Will the Minister please resolve that conundrum? I put it to him that what is necessary is a call for Ireland, but a better one than we had for healthcare workers. We need a call for Ireland to appeal for people who are qualified and for cleaners and so on who will be offered proper, paid jobs in education to give us the smaller class sizes where the bubbles and pods are possible. Recruit all the school secretaries. Are they expected to sign on for the dole again this summer after all the work they have done? Can we treat special needs assistants with respect and pay them properly too? They are angry about how they have been treated.
I have two questions, the first of which flows from what Deputy Boyd Barrett was saying. For parents, students and teachers, there is a significant desire to have schools fully reopened in September. People know that children's education and development are being damaged, as is their emotional well-being. They need to be back in school, learning, socialising and processing the times that we have been through. There has been a worrying attempt to pit students and parents against teachers and to turn parents against teachers' unions, which are rightly seeking to ensure that the reopening of schools is done safely. The real issue is the attempt to reopen schools cheaply, putting children, teachers, their families and the wider community in danger. The Minister referred to the case of Denmark where schools opened two months ago with a strict 2 m limit and class sizes of ten students.
They have taken over sports halls and other spaces to give the physical space to allow reopening to be safe. That is what we need to do here, that is what the science demands, and that is the logic. We have to do that, and that means getting the space but also the staff. It does not mean jamming 30 or more students into cramped classrooms, piling more responsibilities onto overworked teachers, calling them pods, bubbles or whatever, and expecting that is going to keep the virus away.
This is our chance to bring down class sizes, improve education and give children the extra support they need. Bring in the thousands of substitute teachers and employ them immediately, and employ more SNAs. We need to do that now in the context of the coronavirus and we need to do it into the future in respect of improving our education system. I would like the Minister to answer that question now, and then I will come back in.
What was the question?
Will the Minister agree to employ the staff we need to enable safe reopening and will he also get the space?
Regarding the safe reopening of schools, at the heart of any decision will be the fact that the advice is clear. The advice we get from NPHET, and the advice we have always been getting, has been based on the safety of our citizens. It will be no different for schools. It will have to be safe and no Minister is going to make a decision that would put students or teaching staff in jeopardy. That is not the case. Ambition is important, as is hope. Deputy Boyd Barrett referred to creating hope. We have to hope that we will be in a better position to ensure we have the full reopening of schools.
We are no different from any other country in Europe that shares that ambition. Some countries have done this differently. Sweden has never closed its schools. Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England kept their schools open for the children of front-line workers. France opened on a partial basis, and Deputy Murphy is correct about Denmark also opening on a partial basis, as did the Czech Republic and Greece. We are learning from those partial reopenings, but the ambition of those countries now is to work to a full reopening of schools in September.
It is only right that we have the same line of purpose and ambition for our students, because if we do not get this right, if we do not have all of our children back in schools in September, they will have been out of school for six months. We have seen the gaps regarding regression in respect of special educational needs students. That is only one category, but other students and children have lost out and that has to remain the focus.
I want to ask about Firhouse Educate Together secondary school. I previously submitted a written question about this issue. To cut a very long story for those parents short, there had been an agreement to start in September in Firhouse, where the school is located. What is being said now by the Department is that, because of the coronavirus, they will have to go to Citywest. I had an answer from the Minister to my parliamentary question today stating that the "Department is in on-going communication with the Patron Bodies concerned regarding all options". It is simply not an option for the parents in Firhouse to be asked to trek across to Citywest. There are many testimonies from families, such as the McGahons, stating it simply will not work for them. They currently walk to school in ten minutes and they will be asked now to drive to school in 30 minutes, in a situation where many students have special needs etc.
Does the Deputy want an answer?
The Deputy has raised an important issue, and it is one on which I have had representation from the Acting Chairman, Deputy Lahart, as well as my party colleague, Deputy Brophy. I have asked my officials to give priority to this issue. The Deputy is correct to state that there are ongoing discussions to look at a potential solution. We are still in that space, but I am happy to go back again to my officials today after this issue has been raised, because it is an important matter.
I call Deputy Richard O'Donoghue. I am sorry, I call Deputy Tóibín. I ask the Deputy to forgive me. He is next.
That is the second time.
I hope that short level of bias does not display future Government relations.
I am the last man to ask about that, Deputy.
Many leaving certificate students have gone through fiercely difficult times in recent months. Many have been cut off from their social circles and many have gone through Covid-19 themselves and lost loved ones. Many are also going through serious economic difficulties brought on by the economic crisis caused by Covid-19. On 24 June, many of them still have many questions. I hope the Minister will be able to answer some of the questions I ask. This may be the last ministerial question time for Deputy McHugh while he is the Minister for Education and Skills. If it is not, I wish him luck with continuing with this work into the future.
Will the Minister tell students, who want to know, when the written leaving certificate will take place this year? What schooling, tuition and support will be afforded to students in advance to help them prepare? In addition, if the predicted results are in, they could be published by July, and that would allow for students to sit their written leaving certificate, if they wished, in August. That would mean they could gain access to third level education this year, and that is important because one of the biggest negative side effects of choosing to sit the leaving certificate this year is the threat that such students will not be able to achieve a college place this year.
My final question regarding third level education concerns the many calls I have got from parents and students who are in drastically different economic situations this year compared with last year in respect of SUSI grants. Will the Minister guarantee that people who find themselves in that different economic situation will achieve a SUSI grant this year?
I want to move on to July provision. I have been talking to teachers and parents, and there is significant worry regarding July provision. There is again a blinding lack of detail regarding this area. It is a week from July and no social distancing guidelines have been given to teachers. I spoke to a principal as late as ten minutes before this session started, and I understand that one of the insurance companies is now not willing to give employee cover to schools due to the lack of guidelines from the Minister. It was stated by that company that it does not know the parameters of the teaching services that will be provided and, as a result, it cannot give employee insurance. I understand as well that, as a result, many schools - maybe even a majority - will not go ahead and apply for July provision this year. There are two ways for the Minister to fix the situation. He could give clear guidelines regarding social distancing to these principals and teachers, or his Department could provide insurance for schools that hope to provide July provision. Will the Minister do that?
Regarding the return to school, and it does not give me any pleasure to say this, the truth of the matter is that some of the utterances that have come from the Minister and his Department recently have scared the living daylights out of parents throughout the country. There is the phenomenal level of speculation concerning how many kids can attend a school, for how long, and for how many days during each week. That speculation has done no justice and has not been of any help to parents throughout the country. That speculation and the lack of decision-making means that the Department and perhaps the Minister have been bounced into decisions at a really late stage, as happened with the leaving certificate.
We are two months from the reopening of schools and I understand there are no guidelines regarding a return to school. There are no guidelines regarding what to do with vulnerable staff and students, the wearing of personal protective equipment, PPE, school buses, after-school clubs, making schools available after hours for community groups, what to do if there is a case of Covid-19 in a school, the cleaning regime, access by parents to schools, non-contact drop-off and pick-up of children at schools, learning supports, and special needs assistants, SNAs, who move from class to class or even, in some cases, from school to school. There is also the question of what to do if a child who is sick arrives at a school. The biggest question affecting teachers and principals right now, however, is what to do in the case of the need for substitute teachers in the case of teacher absences. This is a major problem anyway in schools due to the lack of teachers currently in the system, and more so in regard to Gaelscoileanna and the lack of teachers in that system. How will it be possible to cover classes where teachers are absent?
The last issue I wish to touch upon is that of children with Down's syndrome and their experience transitioning from preschool to primary school. I am going to share with the Minister a letter I received from a distressed parent.
Our daughter Sinéad is five years old and has Down Syndrome. Like every child in the country she has been at home since March 12th. This has meant that she has missed out on the following;
- All the preparations carried out in preschool around the transition to ‘big school’.
- The classroom visit and stay, usually carried out by every primary school in this country in June, to introduce children to their school and where possible their class teacher.
- As Sinéad has level 7 AIM support in preschool there should have been an Access and Inclusion Model transition booklet completed to aid her move to primary school. There was no opportunity for her AIM transition booklet to be completed due to lockdown.
- She has also missed the support and preparation provided by her home tutor (funded by our branch of DSI).
- School readiness workshops provided by Enable Ireland have also been cancelled.
All of this, not to mention the structure, routine, socialising and learning missed through this unprecedented event.
July Provision is the only opportunity left to provide structured transition supports to our daughter, however we were informed yesterday by the Special Education Section of your Department that only children transitioning from a preschool into a special class or special school will qualify for July Provision.
It is our contention that this amounts to discrimination. Based on the school we have chosen for our daughter; a decision we put a lot of thought and research into. Her diagnosis, which has created many barriers for her, which she has tackled, is also somehow now hindering the Government's provision of support to her.
Discrimination has and will continue to challenge Sinéad, throughout her life. However the idea that the departments responsible for supporting, protecting, educating and providing for her, are where our energy is spent, challenging and fighting for her rights is shameful.
Will the Minister guarantee that this family, and any other family in the State in a similar circumstance, will receive July provision?
I thank the Deputy for asking these specific questions. His asked when the written leaving certificate examinations will be held. They will be held this year and the earliest possible date for that is November. I stated publicly that I would like those examinations to be held during the Hallowe'en break in October. They cannot be held in August because the calculated grades will not be out until then. There is an enormous process now to be gone through. The opt-in option for people who are engaging in the calculated grades will arise in a few weeks' time and out-of-school learners will also have an opportunity to opt in. There will then be a process of standardisation. It is, therefore, a complicated process.
I publicly stated my ambition to have the results out as near to the traditional date as possible. As the Deputy knows, that traditional date is in mid-August. There are no guarantees that will happen but once we move to the next phase of the opting in, we will be in a better position to see where we will be in August.
The answer to the Deputy's question about the SUSI grant is "Yes". While SUSI grants are based on 2019 income streams, there will be an option for parents and students to look at changed circumstances in 2020.
The Deputy raised the issue of the parameters for social distancing during summer provision. Guidelines and advice on social distancing have been given. As the Deputy will be aware, schools were informed of the guidelines two days ago and are awaiting the specific guideline on social distancing. That has not been published yet because there will be a meeting with stakeholders tomorrow. Once that meeting has taken place, we will be in a better position to publish the guidelines.
On the issue of school returning, let us face it, we were given the green light to open schools by public health officials last Friday week. Our schools were closed on 12 March and we were given the go-ahead to open them last Friday week. Since then, we have been prioritising summer provision and the rules, guidelines and guidance for teachers and principals. I get the frustration. There is no question but that people are frustrated because a principal has the goodwill of special needs assistants and teachers to go ahead with July provision but is still awaiting the guidance. We will be in a better position tomorrow.
I am over time but I will respond to the last question the Deputy asked about the support of children with Down's syndrome. I expanded the scheme. The scheme was specifically for children with autism and severe and profound intellectually disability. We expanded it to include children with moderate cases of disability and Down's syndrome. We also expanded it to include early intervention classes but students who are not in those early intervention classes are not included. Nobody feels more than I do for the parent whom the Deputy talked about but, unfortunately in this instance, only early intervention classes will be included.
I realise that the Department has had a difficult time trying to work out a programme for schools in September and the transition from the pre-Covid period to now. It is safe to say that schools cannot eliminate the risk of infection but will try to mitigate it in line with whatever guidelines are given to them. Schools are awaiting the issuance of the new template. The one issue about which they are concerned is what monetary allowance is being given to schools to make them Covid ready.
A number of my constituents have been in contact with me in emotional states regarding adults and children with special needs who are in their care. These constituents have not received any guidelines as to when their loved ones will go back to their schools. They have stated that every other organisation has a roadmap whereas they have nothing.
July provision is welcomed by many of my constituents. However, there are several children who have fallen between the cracks. It is difficult. Parents have taken time off work to care for their children and are looking forward to availing of July provision. I know of one case where a child got the go-ahead for July provision from the school but now has no transport to get there.
Will the Minister establish next week a dedicated phone line for different areas to help get July provision to run as smoothly as possible for all concerned? It would help people if there were a dedicated phone line for each area that parents could ring to get the guidelines and the support they need and to help July provision to run smoothly.
Deputy Tóibín referred to the SUSI grant. I was delighted to hear the Minister say that SUSI grants will be based on 2019 income. I have an issue with the SUSI grant. Fine Gael has entered into discussions to form a Government with the Green Party and Fianna Fáil. To avail of a SUSI grant, a student must live 45 km from the school or college where he or she studies. To measure that distance, the Department takes the shortest distance from place to place on Google. That measurement could include roads on which even Deputy Eamon Ryan would not cycle. I have people coming to me who live less than 500 m from the N20. The measurements are forcing those people to take routes to a particular school and they are then disqualified from receiving the SUSI grant because they are short by 400 m. All grants should be calculated using the main routes to college. The Department is using the routes through the city of Limerick to make its measurements so we have congested traffic again to get people to schools. There are link roads around Limerick. Anyone who is going to college should use the main routes. It should not be the case that the Department tells applicants that the guidelines mean they have to go via this road or that road, and that therefore an applicant does not qualify for a grant. That does not work.
There has been much talk about infrastructure. The Government put infrastructure in place and is now using it to stop people qualifying for the SUSI grant. I am asking the Minister to let people use the main routes to get to their colleges and work on that. I know people who qualified for the grant last year but do not qualify this year because the guidelines have changed and one has to use the direct route. I am asking the Minister to intervene. I am looking for a dedicated phone line and for main routes to be used in the measurement for the SUSI grant.
The first matter the Deputy raised was on monetary guarantees. There is going to be a cost involved but I reassure the Deputy that discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform are ongoing and before there is any conclusion as to how school reopening will look in September, there will have to be financial commitments from that Department.
That will happen. I take the Deputy's point on the special needs issue. It has been difficult. The last three months have been difficult for people in different sectors, for people losing jobs and front-line workers and all the different pressure points. However, the area we are all thinking of is that of people with children with special educational needs. That is why I really wanted this programme to go ahead. I wanted to expand it and what a year to try to do it with all the unknowns, constraints and uncertainty. One thing is for sure and the Deputy will be hearing it in his own constituency in Limerick. The goodwill, enthusiasm and solidarity within the education community to make this happen is going to make it happen. Unfortunately there are going to be deficits such as school transport but I reassure the Deputy that parents will get a grant. The SUSI grant will be looked at in the context of new deliberations.
The Minister has answered some of the questions I had. I want to ask him especially about the special needs children and the Down's syndrome children. They have been left out. After the July provision, there is uncertainty and people do not know. I could mention class sizes and the figure the Government quotes. I have a granddaughter in a classroom of 34 students to one teacher. They are the real figures behind what is going on. Boards of management and principals are under enormous pressure. There is another cohort that I worry about greatly, namely the school bus tickets. We have bedlam every year. The Minister of State, Mr. John Halligan, was dealing with it last year and there was absolute bedlam. This year a strong cohort of the bus operators are private operators who are not contracted to Bus Éireann and now they are out there penniless. They have to maintain their buses. They have to do the DoE test, have them insured and get all the different certifications and they are willing to do that. They have not got a cent. Thankfully the operators with Bus Éireann are getting 50% of payments but these people are being discriminated against. What is going on is deplorable and nobody is taking any interest, neither the Minister, Mr. Ross, nor the Minister, Deputy McHugh. Someone needs to grasp that because if they do not have those buses in September to bring children back to school, there will be a further problem.
I salute the staff in SUSI. Ger in my office deals with them a lot. They are working very hard. We had serious issues with SUSI when it came out first a number of years ago but it has been streamlined. Deputy O'Donoghue is right about the guidelines on the distance of 45 km. The way it is worked out you would think they were flying to school. They have to go around roads, avoid traffic and whatever. Surely there must be flexibility, not a huge amount but a little flexibility that they can avoid certain roads. We do not have the roads that Eamon Ryan has around Dublin or the network of buses and DART and everything else. If he has his way we will not have them either. If Fine Gael has its way with him, we will not have them either.
Those issues are very concerning, particularly in respect of special needs. We need clarity. I refer to the students unions and indeed the secondary schools. I praise Ciara Fanning, a girl from my own county who is doing great work. The Minister mentioned that there is a meeting of stakeholders tomorrow. They are finding that when they have a meeting with the Minister, announcements are made before the meetings are over. It is only tokenism that is being shown to them and that is not fair. Ní neart go cur le chéile. Everybody needs to be supported in this and everybody is doing their best.
The other issue is this. Many communities have excellent community centres now. Some schools have gone ahead and organised these themselves. There should be some programme or incentive put out by the Minister for the finest of the community centres that are out there put there by the people, the enablers of the communities as I call them. Many of them got grants from the State and manage the upkeep themselves. Those fabulous community halls need to be used. They could have been used for the exams too, if there had been a bit of intrigue and intuition in the Department, a bit of planning. The Department is stale and the officials are just stuck in pigeon holes and cannot think outside the box. That is what was wrong. The Department mandarins will love this new Government because we will have Ministers changing every couple of months and they will love that situation.
I can assure the Deputy that the Department is not stale. There are 1,300 people working there and over the last three months they have been faced with unprecedented challenges. They showed amazing resilience and had the ability to be creative as well.
On the issue the Deputy raised in respect of operators outside the Bus Éireann contract, he is correct that it is the Bus Éireann-contracted private operators who get the 50%. There was an issue and I know it was raised in my own county. We have a contract as a Department with Bus Éireann and it is specifically with Bus Éireann. On school bus tickets, the Deputy is right that we are faced with this conundrum every summer. It is unnecessary pressure for parents at times because it is a difficult one to get right. On the new guidelines that were introduced in 2011-12 for the nearest school, I managed to change the criteria for post-primary whereby the second closest school could be included. We still have issues for primary school. That is why I have set up a review for the school transport sector and it is really important that it is not just going through the motions. I have the terms of reference and we have a group set up internally in the Department. No doubt the House will be kept up to date on it. The student representative body of the secondary school students played a phenomenal role during the debate on the leaving certificate. Their voice was critical and crucial. The Deputy mentioned Ciara Fanning from his own county. She was so articulate and so on the ball in representing the pressure and stress on students at that time. I acknowledge that.
The matter concerning external students for whom predictive grades are not appropriate has been raised already and we need clarity. I ask the Minister to give clarity on that as soon as possible. On practical students, I tabled a Dáil question and asked the Minister about this on the last occasion. I did not expect him to know then but we need clarification, for example, in respect of the National College of Art and Design and the practical subjects there, whether it will happen during the summer. The students have been left in limbo.
I thank the Minister for his speech. It is detailed and confirms that there will be extra resources for cleaning schools, which will be absolutely essential. There is a framework for drawing down money in respect of the sanitisers. The Minister also addressed mental health and well-being, which is awfully important. I suggest that one of the best ways of doing that is to leave the schools with a sufficient number of teachers. A lot of schools are now facing losing a teacher over losing one or two pupils. It is totally unacceptable in the year we have had. If the Minister is seriously interested in mental health that is one practical way of doing it.
On the summer provision, fáiltím roimh an éacht atá déanta ag an Aire. Gabhaim buíochas leis as ucht a chuid oibre, ach is mór an trua agus an náire é go raibh orainne mar Theachtaí Dála scéalta pearsanta, a bhí chomh truamhéalach sin, a léamh amach sa Dáil chun brú a chur ar an gcóras agus chun cinnteacht a fháil maidir leis an scéim seo. Níl sé sin ceart ná cóir agus ba chóir go mbeadh an scéim sin ar fáil mar cheart do dhaoine. I have no reservation in thanking the Minister for his efforts. However, it is a reflection on all of us that we had to come in here and read out personal statements of the serious situation at home that parents find themselves in with, more importantly, their children struggling to cope. We have voices for the vintners and for the hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation, and rightly so, but we had no voices for those children and parents who struggled. There was certainly no voice for them on NPHET. Finally we have confirmation that the July provision is going ahead. No system is good where we have to depend on reading out personal statements. Deputy Byrne made a point about what research is being done by the Department. I agree totally with him. It should be research based and it should be proactive from the Department. What resources do they need to do that, so that they can be visionary and analyse the problems on the ground? What is it that they need so they can provide these services? Have they told us? Has the Minister asked them?
On the actual provision of the scheme, it really highlights how we have let children down. We are now catering for a certain group, which is good, and we have expanded it to children with Down's syndrome, which I welcome. However, we have highlighted those falling between the gaps. We have a school in County Galway where there are ten children with special needs. Four teachers came forward and the school came forward, and they have been told by the Department that they could only have the home-based system and could not do it in the school. Then we have the transition incidents which were mentioned already, somebody going from primary into secondary school. Then we have somebody going into an ordinary school with special needs and they are not catered for at all in this provision because it is not a special school. I have another letter here, as all Deputies have, from teachers in secondary schools with children with special needs not being provided for at all. The Minister has done great, he has confirmed that it is going ahead and is being extended, but surely it is time, if we can give billions out in packages.
Surely it is time to analyse the need on the ground, preschool, primary and secondary, among children with special needs. What do we need to do during the summer and every summer? Surely it should not take Covid and stories being read in the Dáil to tell us what is necessary for a civilised society. These parents are saving the State a fortune. We are providing a minimal service during the summer. Surely it is time to leave a legacy. The Minister has started the expansion, let us look at expanding it further to meet the needs on the ground.
Down Syndrome Ireland has written to all of us. There was an expectation that children in secondary school with Down's syndrome would qualify under the scheme and unfortunately they do not. Perhaps it is too late for this year or maybe it is not. Perhaps the Minister could look at it on a case by case basis. Where schools have come forward and are willing to do it such as the school in Galway, surely they should be allowed if the teachers are willing.
There are packages for schools. Some weeks ago I mentioned a school in Galway which incurred extra cost from postage. Surely there is a way that the school can get some help on that.
The Minister and I have had conversations across the House regularly in the last weeks. I thank him for his attendance and his answers. I will fly through my questions to give the Minister time to reply. I put down a question on external candidates. I know one who is working, registered in her own school to do higher level Irish to access primary school teaching. She contacted the State Examinations Commission, the Minister's office and everybody. She said that people are very nice but nobody can give her an answer. I am not exaggerating when I say she has sent dozens of emails and made phone calls. She still does not know what will happen. The Minister's office did come back with a response, namely, that out of school learners would be contacted, but I want to know when. This young woman has been studying for the past year and needs to know now what will happen. If someone has attended grinds with a registered teacher - I do not refer to this specific case, but generally - could that be seen as credible satisfactory evidence for predicted grades?
There are two parts to my second question. Several Members have raised small rural schools which are about to lose a teacher. I have asked the Minister if he would consider being flexible about that this year. If schools go from three teachers to two, or two to one, it puts huge responsibility on those left to manage Covid. Maintaining the current levels would also help with social distancing. Deputy Mattie McGrath suggested using local community centres and so on, as have I. School transport was raised. The Minister responded to Deputy Noonan that there is now flexibility around the nearest or second nearest school. Have any decisions been taken to cease existing school routes where the issue of those attending the nearest or second nearest school does not apply?
Finally, on devices, the Department has provided schools with resources to help students who do not have access to resources, in some cases purchasing them. However, there is a question of some teachers not having access but using their own devices. There is a question of GDPR. Has the Minister any advice to teachers on this and are there any requirements on teachers using their own devices?
The Minister has two minutes on Deputy Harkin's question and then I will give him a few minutes to conclude.
The matter of external candidates has been raised by several Deputies. External candidates will be asked to opt in. That will be in about two weeks. I advise those candidates that as part of the process of opting in they will have to register an account of how they were being taught, who was teaching them and as much detail as possible as part of opting in. That will feed into the calculated grade and how the student progresses. The Deputy asked about a grind school with a registered teacher. Absolutely, if a registered teacher is providing that tuition-----
It is actually private grinds.
Yes, but if it is a registered teacher or a retired teacher, for example, whose registration may have lapsed, they will be in the position. The person will also have to provide data on when the tuition was provided and over what period. Hopefully that is of some help.
Many Deputies have raised the retention of teachers. This was a year for the schools to hold onto the teachers but when the teachers know that the numbers are not going to be there for a given year, they move on and many of them have been reappointed at this stage. Where we have teachers looking for work on a substitute basis or on the supplementary panel or there is any availability of teachers, there will be demand in September. I want to make that clear. I have been contacted by a few teachers who have concerns and were given advice because they are immunocompromised or because of their health needs they cannot go into the classrooms themselves so we need to have substitute teachers ready for that.
Whether existing bus routes are extinguished all depends on the level of demand. If the students are there, and they were there last year, there has been no change in policy. The only change in policy that I introduced last year was to include the second closest school for post-primary. There is still an issue with primary but there might be common sense about where we are going with school transport as part of the review.
Maidir leis na daoine agus na daltaí scoile speisialta, aontaím leis an Teachta go bhfuil dúshlán agus dualgas orainn faoin treo is fearr dóibh. B’fhéidir go mbeidh deiseanna ann tríd an samhradh nó tríd an bhliain chun tacaíocht nó cuidiú a thabhairt do na tuismitheoirí uile. Tá siadsan faoi bhrú maidir leis an mbearna thar an 12 lá i Márta agus táim cinnte agus dóchasach go mbeimid ag breathnú ar scéim don samhradh atá ag teacht taobh istigh de chúpla seachtain. B’fhéidir go mbeimid ag bogadh ar aghaidh leis an scéim sin agus má tá deiseanna nó buntáistí á bhaint amach as an scéim, b’fhéidir go mbeimid ag tabhairt tacaíochta amach anseo sa bhliain seo chugainn.
The Minister did not complete his opening remarks earlier. There was something in it about calculated grades if he would like to return to it as there would be a great deal of interest in the matter. I will give him a further minute or two.
I thank the Acting Chairman for his indulgence. I covered much of it in subsequent interventions. I did attend a virtual meeting of European Ministers for education yesterday where we shared the latest updates and plans for reopening across Europe and the things learned and experienced in other jurisdictions continue to shape the development of our own detailed guidance. We are now beginning to see how the public health guidance is starting to evolve in other jurisdictions as progress is made in suppressing the Covid-19 virus. This is enabling these countries to bring more students safely back to the classrooms so they can get their schools operating at or close to normal levels.
I am particularly conscious of the ongoing need to have regard to the situation in Northern Ireland. Last Friday guidance on reopening schools from 24 August was published. The Northern Ireland Executive has an objective to see a return to school for all pupils as soon as possible. It is envisaged that the refinement of the social distancing arrangements and maximising use of space within school buildings will enable class sizes to return to near normal levels. The experience from countries across Europe shows us that the journey to bring schools back close to or near normality is evolving based on careful consideration of risks.
Given that the response to the pandemic must adjust and adapt to the circumstances prevailing in the country at the time, the guidance issued this week to schools in the summer programme will be updated further in the coming weeks in preparation for the return to school at the start of the next school year. This will ensure that the best advice, based on the most likely situation that will apply for the next school year, can be given.
There is also significant collaborative work ongoing in the tertiary sector to prepare for reopening. The diversity of provision in tertiary education means that situations of specific response within the overall roadmap are necessary. My Department is working closely with the sector to develop an adaptation framework, which will provide a shared structure for Government sectors, institutions and providers to use in preparing their plans, in continuing to adapt in response to changes in public health advice and in ensuring that consistently high-quality standards can be achieved in an inclusive way. A tertiary education roadmap is also being developed which provides information on what can be expected from a tertiary education experience for programmes that will continue through summer 2020 and for the 2020-21 academic year.
Before concluding, Chairman, I want to update the House on developments in the calculated grades process. Deputies will be aware that we had asked schools to return schools-level data, made up of school-aligned estimated marks by earlier this week. The calculated grades executive office in my Department will be examining the data submitted to first ensure that it is complete, and then to move on to the next steps in the process. The calculated grades on the student portal will reopen in a number of weeks, at which point students will be invited to opt in to receive calculated grades. The executive office will also issue guidance to out-of-school learners in the coming days. A great amount of work has gone into the process to ensure that every effort will be made to provide a grade. I urge all out-of-school learners to carefully study the guidance which will be issued in the coming days and to engage with the process outlined.
In conclusion, this is my sixth time to be before this House since 23 April. Each time I have set out openly the work that is being done across the education sector. The sessions here in the House have focused on this year’s leaving certificate, the provision of a summer programme and the reopening of the sector. Deputies, in turn, have raised a number of issues of concern to them, students and their families. The education sector and in particular the local school is at the core of much that we as a country strive to achieve. We want the best for our young people and learners right across the board. We all want our learners to be given the best opportunity possible to reach their full potential. We have seen school communities, principals, teachers, SNAs, other staff and secretaries, as well as parents and pupils themselves standing up and facing the challenges brought about by the virus. We in government, officials in my Department, and the representative bodies that have engaged us, have all been working hard through these challenges as well. Great spirit, resilience and leadership have been shown and together we all have a role to play in getting our country and every sector back to normal. Children and young people need their education and all children need to be able to access their education.
I thank all of the teaching staff who have engaged and continue to reach out to their students over the past period. Much of the work has gone on behind the radar and behind the scenes and those teachers, principals and leaders who stayed connected to their students and the SNAs who also stayed connected with their students have all done a phenomenal service. Yes, there have been gaps and issues but as I re-emphasise and reiterate here today, computers will not replace our teachers. It is invaluable to have that resource, that backup and that technology as an additionality to the capacity we have within the system but I say thanks again to everybody, to the Chairman and to my colleagues in this House for their courtesy, as always.
I thank the Minister. That concludes the statements by the Minister for Education and Skills on the reopening of schools and summer provision. We will take a break now and suspend for 20 minutes before proceeding with the statement from the Minister for Justice and Equality on measures to protect victims of domestic violence during the Covid-19 outbreak.