The Minister has 20 minutes to make her statement. Members can use their time in an interactive manner with questions and answers.
Estimates for Public Services 2020
I move the following Revised Estimates:
Vote 26 — Education and Skills (Revised)
That a sum not exceeding €10,133,218,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 2020, for the salaries and expenses of the Office of the Minister for Education and Skills, for certain services administered by that Office, and for the payments of certain grants.
Tá áthas orm a bheith anseo os comhair Dáil Éireann inniu chun labhairt faoi Mheastacháin athbhreithnithe mo Roinne do 2020. Tá obair thábhachtach á déanamh ag mo Roinn san earnáil oideachais agus tá mé ag tnúth go mór leis an dúshlán atá romhainn. Liom inniu, tá an tAire, an Teachta Harris, atá anois mar Aire le cúraimí don ardoideachas agus don bhreisoideachas, agus an tAire Stáit ag an Roinn Oideachais agus Scileanna, an Teachta Niall Collins. I mo theannta freisin, tá an tAire Stáit ag an Roinn Oideachais agus Scileanna, an Teachta Madigan, atá cúraimí ar leith uirthi maidir le oideachas speisialta. Tá oifigigh ó mo Roinn anseo freisin.
It is a great honour to present the Revised Estimates 2020 for the Department of Education and Skills to the Dáil. This is a challenging time for Ireland's society and economy and particularly for the education sector, which has been massively impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Students at all levels have had their education dramatically affected. However, through the efforts of all concerned we are coming through this crisis. Currently, the first priority for me, my Department and the wider school sector is to reopen our schools as fully, normally and safely as possible at the start of the new school year. This is an issue to which I will return later.
I will begin by explaining that the Revised Estimates do not reflect the decision announced by the Taoiseach on 27 June last to establish a new Department of further and higher education, research, innovation and science. As such, the Revised Estimates are for Vote 26, which has been the overall Vote for education and skills to date. Work is under way on the establishment of the new Department under the Minister, Deputy Harris. This work will involve the separation of significant elements of Vote 26 into a new Vote for that Department. When the work on allocating those parts of Vote 26 into the separate Vote for the Department of further and higher education, research, innovation and science is complete, I will return to the House with further Revised Estimates for the Vote of the Department of Education and Skills. I look forward to working with the new Minister for further and higher education, research, innovation and science and the Minister of State with responsibility for further education and skills, Deputy Niall Collins, as our two Departments co-operate on their complementary work in the education and skills sector.
The further Revised Estimates Volume will also reflect the inclusion in the responsibilities of my Department of the area of educational welfare and the school completion programme. These are currently under the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and work is also under way to progress the transfer of these functions to my Department. The allocation of the relevant funds will be included in the further Revised Estimates in the autumn.
The Covid-19 crisis has impacted deeply on the education sector. Its impact on school and college students has been profound. While schools and teachers did their best to teach remotely and while home schooling became the norm for many parents and their children, that was no substitute for the classroom.
Vital opportunities for social interaction, so important to our younger students, were lost for a number of months.
We all know the impact of the crisis on those due to undertake State examinations this summer. Trojan efforts have been made by all concerned to put in place alternative arrangements for this year that will ensure students receive calculated grades on a fair an equitable basis and thereby proceed to enter college or to pursue other career paths in the normal manner. I wish to take this opportunity to express my heartfelt appreciation to all those across the sector who have worked tirelessly to lessen the impact of the pandemic on our students. They have succeeded in putting in place alternative arrangements for those wishing to progress to and within tertiary education and in planning for the reopening of our schools and colleges in completely unprecedented circumstances. This includes teachers, school principals, school managers, special needs assistants, SNAs, school secretaries, school caretakers and indeed the entire school community. In addition, I pay tribute to the work of parents, who have worked so hard to support home schooling since March of this year. Above all, I commend the students and pupils themselves on their patience and flexibility in adapting to very changed circumstances for the delivery of their education.
As I mentioned earlier, I am absolutely committed to the goal of reopening our primary and post-primary schools as normal at the end of the summer. My officials are working closely with all stakeholders to achieve this goal, which is so important for all our students. There are a number of components to school reopening. As Deputies will be aware, I recently published interim public health advice, which was provided to my Department by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre. This advice is informing the development of clear guidelines for implementation in schools. We all want to support the education system in order that we can welcome our pupils and staff across our school communities back into a safe environment. We will continue to work with the public health experts over the summer to update the interim advice as necessary. In my engagement with stakeholders since my appointment I have been struck by everyone's commitment to providing the best possible experience for the entire school community to return to school as fully, normally and safely as possible.
A number of challenges arise in reopening schools. These challenges include physical distancing arrangements, the need for enhanced cleaning and hygiene routines and issues relating to school transport. Once schools reopen, however, the challenge will be to prevent Covid-19 from getting into schools in order that they can remain open. This will call for a joint effort on the part of all involved, with those who have symptoms or suspect they have the virus staying out of schools, best hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette practice being maintained in schools, and minimising social contacts and respecting physical distancing practices where practical to do so. There are well-being aspects and curricular challenges to be identified and addressed. I assure the House that all these matters are receiving appropriate attention. I reiterate that it is my utmost priority that student and staff safety and well-being should be to the forefront of all this planning.
These Estimates were drawn up in late 2019 as part of the 2020 budgetary process. Much has changed since then, and I will return to the House for approval of additional costs associated with Covid-19 measures needed to reopen schools for what will by then be the Department of education, with the appropriate funds reallocated to the newly established Department of further and higher education, research, innovation and science.
The gross voted allocation for the Department of Education and Skills in 2020 is €10.569 billion. This breaks down to approximately €9.647 billion in current expenditure and €922 million in capital expenditure. When the appropriations-in-aid income of €435 million is taken into account, the net voted allocation for the Department is €10.13 billion. The non-voted National Training Fund, NTF, has an allocation of €623 million, resulting in a total gross allocation for the Department of nearly €11.2 billion. This represents an increase of nearly €325 million, which is 3% above the Department's allocation for 2019.
The Department of Education and Skills Vote comprises three programmes: programme A, first, second and early years education; programme B, skills development; and programme C, higher education. A significant proportion of this Vote is expended on pay and pensions, with some of the almost €7.9 billion included in the Vote for these purposes and a further €236 million in pay being included in the NTF allocation. Some 113,000 public servants and 50,000 public service pensioners are paid out of these funds.
Other significant expenditure areas include capital infrastructure, non-pay grants to State agencies, school transport, capitation grants and student supports. The additional allocation in 2020 will deliver a range of measures in the education and training system. It will support an additional 1,600 posts in schools, including approximately 1,000 SNA posts and approximately 580 net additional teacher posts, catering for demographics and additional special classes. These investments will ensure more than 1,300 new special class places.
Schools will receive a 2.5% increase in capitation from September 2020, with an increase of €4.8 million in school funding in a full year. A €1 million investment fund for a new pilot that aims to provide free schoolbooks is now available to more than 100 primary schools that are part of the delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, programme.
Special education is a particular focus of these Estimates, with more than €1.9 billion, or one fifth, of this budget to be spent on recruiting additional SNAs and teachers to work in our special schools and mainstream schools. As a result of this investment, there will be 17,000 SNAs in our schools in the coming school year. This is a record level of resources to be allocated to this area, and I look forward to working with my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, as we ensure that these resources are used to ensure that all pupils, whatever their special needs, are able to access the education that allows them to reach their full potential.
Support for small schools is to be provided for in the Estimates, with improved teacher staffing levels for schools with four or fewer teachers. A one-point reduction in the staffing schedule will help ensure better teacher retention in smaller schools. The improved schedule will apply in two, three and four-teacher schools and ensure one fewer pupil is required to retain or recruit a teacher.
School leadership will continue to be supported, with one additional release day being provided for primary school teaching principals. The additional time to carry out administrative duties will apply to some 1,760 schools with fewer than seven teachers. A significant capital budget of €922 million is being provided for in 2020 and will contribute to the development of new, bigger and more energy-efficient school buildings and third level facilities. Of this provision, almost €748 million will be invested in schools, including investment in ICT, and some €174 million is being invested in the tertiary education and training system. This investment will deliver more than 30,000 school places and build on the work that has seen €3 billion invested in these building projects since 2016.
The Department's allocation includes a package of nearly €99 million in measures in the tertiary education system. This includes almost €70 million in funding arising from an increase in the NTF levy, which is non-voted expenditure. Supports aimed at providing more third level opportunities are also being provided, with a fund worth €60 million being made available for higher education institutions that seek to create new and diverse courses to expand the number of student places while preparing young people for a fast-changing world of work. This investment is part of the five-year €300 million human capital initiative established from within the NTF surplus and will add capacity across higher education to meet priority skills needs for enterprise, drive regional jobs growth and development and support key economic sectors in responding to the challenges of Brexit.
Turning to apprenticeships and skills, these Estimates include a major funding package utilising the resources of the NTF to increase significantly workplace and employer-led training, boost apprenticeship numbers and help address Brexit-related issues. An additional €27 million is being made available for apprenticeships. It will support more than 7,000 new apprenticeship registrations in 2020 and a range of new apprenticeship programmes. By the end of 2020, more than 20,000 apprentices are expected to be in training. Upskilling is also being supported, with almost €8 million in additional funding for Skillnet Ireland and an additional €6 million for employee skills development initiatives. This will be particularly important in the context of a response to the changes arising in the labour market from the Covid-19 pandemic.
I refer to the impact Covid-19 has had on the Vote so far this year. The pandemic has impacted all aspects of the education and skills sector, with schools, colleges and training facilities closing on 13 March. The junior certificate examinations did not proceed this year, while the leaving certificate examinations were postponed, with students offered the option of receiving calculated grades and the choice to take the exams at a later date when it is safe to do so. Education did not come to a halt, of course, with most schools and colleges making the transition to online learning, with significant support and input from parents. Great credit is due to everyone involved: teachers, school management, parents and the students. I appreciate that this transition may not have fully met the needs of every student, and I know that it was difficult for many, including those in exam years, those leaving primary school and students with additional needs.
I should explain that the Revised Estimate presented today does not include any provision in relation to Covid-19 at this stage. Officials at the Department and I have been working with stakeholders on how to open schools safely. There will be costs associated with reopening. These costs will arise in relation to hand sanitation and other such cleaning and hygiene requirements but also in terms of teacher and SNA substitution and support for our school leaders. Officials are actively engaging with officials in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in regard to the financial support that will be necessary. I am also discussing the matter with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.
I recognise there is likely to be a need for additional funding to address these costs arising and it is my intention that the exceptional funding requirements of the education and skills sector for this year and other expenditure pressures will need to be addressed as part of the Supplementary Estimates process. This will allow a clear picture as to the scale of the investment needed in the sector to ensure that it is adequately funded to respond to the unprecedented challenges that currently exist in our schools and colleges.
Some savings are likely to arise due to lower than anticipated expenditure in certain areas due to Covid-19 while additional and more substantial costs are likely to arise in areas relating to the reopening of schools and colleges. While costs associated with the State Examinations Commission will be lower due to the State examinations not going ahead as normal, the costs of the calculated grades have also to be factored in. In addition, there will be costs associated with running the exams at a later time. The capital allocation in the Vote is likely to be fully expended. While most construction projects were halted for a number of weeks, they have now resumed. Any capital expenditure savings arising from Covid-related delays will be required to alleviate budgetary pressures predating Covid-19.
The departmental restructuring announced by the Taoiseach recently will result in the establishment of the Department of further and higher education, research, innovation and science. This will lead to a split of this Vote in due course, with two of its three programmes being allocated to the new Department, namely, skills development and higher education, together with the NTF and an element of central administration cost. These areas account for expenditure of some €2.9 billion of the funds provided for in this Estimate, including €2.3 billion in voted moneys. The tertiary education sector is going through a major transformation and will aim to build on the incredible base of scientific research which has developed in the past two decades and has played a central role in our economy and our ability to respond to the pandemic.
I look forward to working with the Minister, Deputy Harris, in the months ahead on the establishment of the new Department and beyond. Functions will also be assigned to the new Department from other Departments with associated voted funds being allocated, while funding for educational welfare and school completion services will be assigned to the Department of Education and Skills from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. The programme for Government agreed between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party sets out ambitious goals for all areas of the education sector. The commitments in the programme will be founded on the principles of excellence, inclusion and sustainability. The programme calls for additional investment in the sector. It seeks to address the cost of education, which is a barrier to participation. It seeks also to be more inclusive. Plurality and choice will continue to be expanded while the Irish language and culture will be actively encouraged and promoted. The importance of higher and further education and redress is emphasised. A key decision of the Taoiseach was to set up a new Department to oversee this sector. In the months ahead, I will be developing proposals to give effect to the commitments that are relevant to the Department of Education and Skills and such proposals will be costed in the normal manner with due regard to budgetary considerations.
In conclusion, this Vote represents a record budget for the Department of Education and Skills of more than €11.2 billion. Of this allocation, some €10.13 billion represents the net Voted amount requiring the approval of the House. I thank the House for the opportunity to present this Revised Estimate and I look forward to engaging with the Deputies.
This is my first debate with the Minister and, therefore, I take this opportunity to wish her well in her new role and likewise the Minister, Deputy Harris.
We are here to discuss Revised Estimates for the Department of Education and Skills. The news for education is that the net allocation sought for education and skills is unchanged from before the pandemic. I know that the Minister has spoken about this but this reflects a Department that has failed to get to grips with the impact of the pandemic and that is shown in any number of ways. While it is not the main story on the news every day, I am sure the Minister knows that for countless families across the State the return to school is one of the biggest topics discussed and I include my own in that. In my view, the core objective here needs to be a full and safe return to school. That is the core objective of everyone involved in education. I recognise the huge effort of parents, children, teachers and school staff but, despite the best efforts of all concerned, children have fallen behind, especially children with special educational needs and those from a background of disadvantage.
To reopen safely requires significant investment but there is not a single extra penny in the Revised Estimates to deal with that. It is farcical. The Government is trying to give the impression that it is on top of reopening schools. There is hardly a day that I am not contacted by a parent at their wits' end and completely in the dark. The same goes for teachers and school staff. Will their children be going back to school three, four or five days a week? How many children will be in a pod? Will children have to wear masks on buses? Will there be temperature checks? What are immunocompromised children, parents or teachers supposed to do? Where do they fit in?
The Minister gave an interview in the Sunday Independent last weekend and none of those questions was answered. That has been a trend in the Department of Education of Skills from before the Minister's time. There has been confusion and mixed messages from the start. There was one weekend in May when the then Minister of Education and Skills gave one message early on a Saturday, the Taoiseach gave a different message later that afternoon and a different message again the next day. Schools have now been closed for four months and are due to reopen in six weeks. Initial discussions began in late May, two and a half months after schools closed.
We were promised a roadmap on 12 June. It was put off and now seems to have disappeared from the agenda. We have a roadmap that governs restaurants, clubs, sports, pubs and a million other things but no roadmap for education. The closest thing we have is the detailed document on what the Government would not do. One cannot call that a roadmap. It has been farcical and unacceptable.
The Minister needs to resolve this and clarify the situation as soon as possible. We need a roadmap that details how schools will reopen, how children will be kept safe and the contingency plan if the rate of infection increases significantly or there are local outbreaks. We need investment. In my view, we need a stimulus into education. There will clearly be the need for a much stricter hygiene regime. Many schools that do not have a full-time cleaner will need one. Many schools that do not have hot water, which is a scandal in itself, will need that to be addressed. There is a need for additional personal protective equipment, partitions and signage to ensure the return is safe. It must also include any additional refuse costs. Where is the €25 million for that?
The fact is that the Department is behind the curve and that is why we are in this situation today with an Estimate that has no additional Covid money. The Government must ensure that all additional costs are met by the Department and not by parents through an increase in already costly voluntary contributions. School transport will have to work differently and will need additional funding. Where is that funding? There will be a need for additional staff. We will need more substitutes. In the event that a teacher becomes unwell, there must be a panel of available substitutes for schools to ensure quick arrangements can be made. No school should be worse off for staff numbers than they were last year.
In secondary schools, substitutes are not available for some subjects so we need solutions. It might mean additional funding for existing teachers to teach more classes or perhaps second year Professional Master of Education students or final year students could be part of the solution. We need additional release days for teaching principals to allow them to focus on making their school safe. We need more secretarial supports and schools need return-to-school aides, similar to examination aides.
The Department is way behind the curve on all of these badly needed actions.
In regard to online learning and the digital divide, the Government spent €60 million on ICT infrastructure for the academic year 2019-20. While that funding was welcome, it was not enough to provide sufficiently for students during normal times, let alone during the lockdown, when online learning became the norm. Many children were left behind. Any approach that advocates for continued online learning without providing the tools required for all pupils to participate will simply exacerbate the educational disadvantage that has come to the surface in recent months. All of these issues must be addressed but none of the funding is in place to do it. That is not good enough.
The other issue I want to raise is one that arises every year but may be of even greater severity this year, namely, that parents have to fork out hundreds of euro, in some instances well over €1,000, to cover their children's return to school. The reason for this is that our schools are drastically underfunded. It is crazy that schools have to fundraise and ask for voluntary contributions so that they can pay their energy bills and keep the lights on. It is crazy how much parents have to spend on schoolbooks in schools where there is no book rental scheme. I urge the Minister to deal with this issue. I have been in contact with many parents about this, one of whom gave me that figure of €1,000 as the cost of sending three children to secondary school in the autumn. That is simply unacceptable and it puts parents under incredible pressure. My fear is that if the Government does not provide enough funding to schools to ensure they are safe and Covid-ready, the schools will have no other option but to pass the cost on to parents. Parents cannot bear the cost of the additional hygiene and staffing measures and, in many cases, this means, in effect, that the schools will not be able to afford to implement them.
Finally, I take the opportunity to raise again the question of how out-of-school learners will be dealt with as part of the leaving certificate calculated grades process. I appreciate that the situation facing the Department was complicated and every solution was going to be difficult, but these particular students have been ignored and neglected and no plan B has been put in place for them. I urge the Minister to meet with the affected students. The numbers involved are not large but the injustice they are facing is very grave and needs to be addressed. I ask the Minister to agree to some kind of arrangement or plan B to ensure they do not lose out on admittance to the third-level courses they would have chosen in normal circumstances.
My colleague, Deputy Ó Laoghaire, has laid out exactly what needs to be done to address the issues facing schools at this time. I commend parents on their efforts during the lockdown period. I also commend school staff, including teachers, principals, SNAs, caretakers and cleaners, all of whom put in all the work that was necessary to mitigate what was a really stressful and difficult time for children and parents. The main problem we have now, six weeks before schools reopen, is that people have suffered through a period of serious pressure. I cannot say that I have done my fair share in terms homeschooling but I know many parents who put themselves under severe pressure and played an absolute blinder in this regard. I thank the teachers who engaged in online learning and all the rest of it. However, from this point on, we need to focus on ensuring schools can reopen after the summer.
We have already talked about the fact that the moneys allocated to this area are insufficient. We must ensure the money is there for any alterations that need to be made to buildings and to provide schools with the infection control and hygiene paraphernalia and materials that will be required. Schools cannot afford to make up any additional funding shortfalls in this regard along with all the other shortfalls they are making up. I have a particular worry in regard to testing and tracing facilities, an issue I will be bringing up directly with the Minister for Health. Those facilities must be in place across the board, particularly as we open up our schools. The Minister, Deputy Foley, has said she will put everything in place to ensure that schools can not only reopen but stay open. I hope that will be done. We heard this week that a nursing home in Dundalk which, over the past few weeks, was able to get testing turned around in four or five hours, has had two cases during the week where the turnaround time was closer to 48 hours. That issue must be monitored. We all accept that there are extra difficulties to deal with at the moment, but we need to ensure, as schools and other parts of society reopen, that we have adequate testing and tracing procedures in place. That is an absolute necessity if we are to shut down problems as they arise and identify suspected cases quickly and move on. I hope the Minister will chase this matter up and ensure the necessary testing capacity is made available to schools. I will engage with the Minister for Health to ensure the problem is sorted in respect of nursing homes. I referred to a specific nursing home, the Dealgan home in Dundalk, which has a very tragic history. Fortunately, the test results that came back this week were not positive for Covid, but it could have been a lot different. We need to ensure we have all the capacity necessary to safeguard all our citizens, from the youngest to the oldest.
My colleagues and I speak all the time about the need for moneys to be put into particular initiatives such as school completion projects, school breakfast programmes and family interventions and training programmes that are required by both parents and children. These sorts of necessary interventions may be somewhat costly to fund now, but it will cost a lot more in the long run if we fail to do so. If that funding is not available, we will not be able to provide children and their families with the supports they require into the future. These initiatives are vital for children who come from particularly disadvantaged backgrounds and children from families where there is no tradition of going on to apprenticeships or third level. We must give them all the supports that are necessary to enable them to make the journey that will bring benefits for themselves, their families and the wider society. That is an absolute necessity.
Deputy Ó Laoghaire spoke about the digital divide, which was particularly obvious for children who are disadvantaged because of poverty or geography. Even if they had access to the Internet, they did not necessarily have the laptops, iPads or other technology that was required. There were major failings in this regard and they must be addressed if we are to have a level playing field for everybody. If we fail to deliver on this, we will all pay for it in the long run. The divide we are seeing is absolutely unfair.
First and foremost, we must ensure schools can open at the end of August or the beginning of September and that they can stay open. We need clarity in this regard as soon as possible from the Minister and any agencies with which she is dealing. The lack of clarity currently cannot continue. Many parents are at the end of their tether and they would have hoped at this point to have seen exactly what the situation will be in regard to school transport, when their children will be returning to school and how the school day will operate. They need that certainty in order to get on with the rest of their lives in terms of work and all the other things that are impacted by the current situation. For our society to operate properly, we need our schools to be open. I cannot implore the Minister strongly enough to ensure that all the protocols and information people need are provided as quickly as possible. That has been a failing during this period. While many things have been done properly, there has also been a lack of clarity. We must ensure that parents know how and when the schools will reopen. We must have clarity that children will be able to engage in the necessary education in which many of them have fallen behind.
I again commend the parents and the school staff. If not for them, all of this would have been much worse.
Glaoim anois ar Pháirtí an Lucht Oibre. An bhfuil aon duine anseo ón bpáirtí sin? No. We will move on to the Social Democrats. I call Deputy Gannon.
I do not blame the Labour Party for not showing up for this session. We are here to discuss Estimates but what we have before us is no reflection of what schools will look like when they open up in September. I welcome the Minister to her new role and wish her the best in that regard. However, I cannot understand why we are discussing Estimates that have no bearing on what education will look like in September. I do not accept that we might have the budget in a few weeks or that it could not have been presented as part of this particular Estimate. An interesting aspect of having a multitude of spokesperson roles is that one gets to see how other Departments behave. For example, the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht provided its Estimates last week and included some additional Estimates for what the arts sector would look like over the next few months. I cannot for the life of me understand why that could not have been done for this set of Estimates as well. There are six weeks left until schools reopen and a number of questions remain to be answered. In the absence of any real information I will continue to do my job by asking questions and hopefully I will get some answers to them.
I hope the Minister watched some sessions of the Covid committee because we have had some fascinating presentations on education over the last few weeks. The three teachers' unions, parents' associations from both primary and post-primary level and school principals all came before the committee and all their themes were fairly similar. They talked about resources, an absence of guidelines and how low morale currently is for both students and teachers. I will touch on some of those issues.
No resource will be more fundamental in September than staff, taking teachers into account. Does the Minister expect to have a larger panel of substitute teachers ready to step in all over the country should teacher absenteeism increase? Teachers may have to withdraw themselves from schools because of a re-emergence of the virus or for a plethora of other reasons that might result in absenteeism. Will we have more substitute teacher panels ready to go?
I know the Minister places huge value on SNAs because I heard her talk about them several times before she became Minister. SNAs are and always have been hugely important but they will be even more so in the age of Covid-19 due to all the difficulties that will entail for students with special educational needs. Does the Minister anticipate hiring more SNA staff? Doing so will create a challenge with Garda vetting, which is very necessary. While teachers are vetted by the Teaching Council, it is up to schools to vet each individual SNA. If we reopen schools in the autumn and some SNAs who work very closely with students have to withdraw themselves from the school because of proximity to the virus, will there be other SNAs ready to step in? Who is going to take on the responsibility of Garda vetting those SNAs? The schools cannot take that on because they would be overburdened. It would be better if we had a substitute panel of SNAs who could go to a multitude of different schools.
Cleaning staff are going to be absolutely essential. Most of the schools I have worked in are allocated only two hours of cleaning staff a day. That will not be acceptable. Will schools have the money in their bank accounts in mid-August to hire more cleaning staff? That is absolutely essential. Currently, staff do their jobs and the schools apply to the Department for funding but we are going to have to turn that on its head. Is that going to happen?
One of the school principals who spoke to the Covid committee talked about the need for Covid leaders in each school who understand the roles and responsibilities regarding social distancing and other measures. Who will be the Covid leaders in schools? Will it be the deputy principals and if so, can we increase their hours? Will it be teachers? That would create its own issues. Will it be other non-teaching staff?
Infrastructural changes are going to be massively important in schools. We already have one of the largest class sizes in Europe with a pupil-teacher ratio of 26:1. That was already a problem for students but in the age of Covid-19 it is actually going to impact their health. What sort of investment in infrastructural changes does the Minister envision and how much will that cost? It was hugely disappointing that the Minister's first big announcement was of investment in a school in her own area. While I am happy for the students in Dromclough national school, there are 405 other schools around the country in similar need of emergency investment. I ask that we continue that investment in Kerry while bringing it to the rest of the country as well.
The tech void is already a problem but it will be a substantial one if we have to withdraw students from school again, given the issues students had with laptops and access to data. I ask the Minister to address that and how much she is going to invest in it.
Perhaps the Minister will answer those questions and then I will come back in with some more.
I thank the Deputies for their engagement and questions, some of which were repeated. I want to be absolutely unequivocal regarding the reopening of schools. My first engagement on appointment was meeting with a wide variety of valued stakeholders in education, including parents, teachers, students, managerial bodies, principals and deputy principals. Following those consultations, I was very pleased that there is an absolute collective agenda to reopen the schools fully in the next number of weeks, at the end of August or early September. That is a common and shared objective. There is no ambiguity, question mark or difficulty around that. It is a common agenda to reopen the schools fully and safely at the appropriate time, which is the end of August or start of September, depending on the norm.
Questions have been raised about the return to school budget not being evident in these Estimates. This Revised Estimate relates to what was brought before the House late last year. There is most certainly going to be a further requirement relating to the Covid-19 reopening of schools. I am very conscious of that. Previous speakers highlighted some of the issues that would be addressed in a budget of that nature, such as personal protective equipment, PPE, sanitisation, cleaning regimes, and so on. My Department and officials are currently working through that and we are in discussion with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. All the necessary funding to make the opening of schools possible will be put in place and I assure Deputies that I will be returning to them with a fully itemised budget so they will know exactly where the money was spent and how. For me to come in at this stage, when schools have not yet reopened, would be short-sighted and would not allow me to present Deputies with a full picture, as is my obligation to them. I assure Deputies that the budget is currently being worked through, and engagement and discussion with the stakeholders who have particular issues and challenges to raise with me and my Department is ongoing. All those financial measures are being included, specifically-----
When can we expect the announcement of that budget and when will the Minister bring it to us? Will it be next week or the week after?
I anticipate that announcements on the reopening of schools will come at the end of this month. I imagine that the costs will be available at that time, though perhaps not all of them will be. It would be premature at this stage to put any figures before the House because discussions are still ongoing.
I will highlight some of the points Deputies have made regarding the reopening of the schools, such as substitution, for example. I recognise that there will be a requirement for substitution to be put in place and that the Department will be footing a bill of that nature.
There was also an issue regarding vulnerable students and how we will cater for them. I am very conscious of children with particular needs as I come from that environment and they will also be catered for in this reopening of schools. Well-being will be a major issue for many children in future but also for the entire school community, and resources in respect of resilience and mental well-being will also be put in place.
There is no confusion. There is a clear agenda to reopen schools fully come late August and early September and the necessary resources will absolutely be put in place to make that happen. Issues were also raised regarding the voluntary contribution. I acknowledge that parents and guardians are under particular stresses regarding voluntary contributions, perhaps now more so than ever. Regarding that issue, in the budget there is a 2.5% increase in capitation fees, and that is on top of the 5% increase from last year. I acknowledge that does not bring us to the pre-2011 level, but it is a recognition of and commitment to the need to put in place resources that will ensure less of a financial burden is being placed on parents. That will be a continuous objective in future.
I thank the Minister. We are coming near the end.
That is fine. I have just one or two other points regarding other issues that were raised. Regarding children with particular needs, I highlight that continuing support is being provided to 890 DEIS schools, catering for more than 180,000 students, and to the school meals programme, etc. All of those resources will be put in place. The ability of students to engage in the education system is an absolute priority. An equal priority is that everyone involved in the school community will have an opportunity to return to school safely at the end of August and early September.
I thank the Minister. We now move to Solidarity-People Before Profit and Deputy Gino Kenny. Is the Deputy sharing time?
I am sharing time with Deputy Boyd Barrett.
That is fine. The Deputies have eight minutes in total.
I wish the new Minister well. We will get the niceties out of the way and then we will get political.
I think we all agree that by comparison with March, the Irish classroom will look very different in September. The last five months have shown us the major fault lines in our public services in health, education etc.. I refer to the statistic that Ireland has one of the highest pupil-teacher ratios in the OECD. In some cases, one in five children is in a class of 30 or more pupils. If that is the case, it will be a gigantic challenge if schools are to look in any way like they were in March. This issue comes down to resources and I have three questions on that issue.
In the area of education, the Government should examine what was done with the Be On Call for Ireland initiative in the health sector. The former Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, is here. I refer to a call for people in education systems abroad to come back to Ireland and lend us their expertise, because this will be a call to arms in September to get our classrooms ready and have the education system that we had in March.
I have three questions that I hope the Minister will be able to address. Will the Department look into recruiting final year students in teacher training courses to work in primary and secondary schools in September? I know this was done with student nurses. Is the Department looking for alternative spaces, particularly around schools, in areas where there are going to be major problems concerning space in classrooms? Is the Department looking for extra space on campuses or near campuses? Will the Department call for a freeze on proposed reductions in teacher numbers in certain schools come September? I ask that because some schools will lose teachers because they might have a slightly different number of pupils than they did last September. It does not make sense for schools to lose teachers, so will the Department put a freeze on that happening? I will be very happy if the Minister can answer those three questions.
I thank the Deputy for his good wishes. I agree with him that the classroom, and indeed all of our world, will be a very different place now than it was prior to the arrival of Covid-19. Regarding the issue of the pupil-teacher ratio, there is a clear acknowledgement in the programme for Government on that issue. In respect of the future, however, it should be acknowledged that there has been improvement in schools with one to four teachers. There has been a points decrease that has improved the situation in those schools.
In the broader picture that the Deputy mentioned concerning allocation, providing teachers and ensuring they get into schools, we are very active in that regard. There has been a very successful teacher supply panel. We are also looking at a mechanism of that nature in future. In addition, we are in discussions with key stakeholders regarding how we will cater for requirements that will be necessary for substitution and provision in schools. It will be catered for, because it is an issue within schools. If teachers are absent, or whatever the case may be, it will be necessary for them to be replaced. We are actively working on that issue through the teacher supply panel.
I am very conscious of the issue of the requirement for extra space in schools. Many schools have on-campus facilities, such as halls, that can be utilised for extra space. In other instances, such spaces will not be available. We are looking at all avenues in areas in proximity to schools in order that these facilities can be utilised if the need arises.
I will follow on from that point, because Deputy Kenny's question prompted a thought. The Department of Education and Skills has buildings which are sitting empty. One such building is the old education and training board building on Eblana Avenue in Dún Laoghaire. It has been sitting empty for the last two or three years, which was an absolute disgrace in and of itself pre-Covid. Given that we now have a desperate need for space, workers should be sent in to refurbish that building so it can be made available for education at second level or third level as a matter of urgency. We should be looking at empty buildings in every locality that could, potentially, be available to give us the extra space we will need for primary, secondary and third level education.
Concerning the July stimulus next week, there is much understandable emphasis on small and medium enterprise and the need to protect and sustain jobs. The stimulus, however, should not just be seen as a private sector thing. In fact, a major area where there needs to be a stimulus is to strengthen and resource our public services, obviously in health but education is another key area and we could say the same about public transport. Those areas are necessary to deal with the current pandemic but they are also an economic and employment stimulus. The Government needs to be aware of that.
My specific question to the Minister, Deputy Harris, concerns the many third-level students who are facing blended learning. They are being told that they will only be doing one day of lectures on campus and then four days online. If that is the case, those students are asking why they should be paying €3,000 in fees for an undergraduate course or €6,000 in fees for a postgraduate course. It is simply not justified. I do not believe those registration fees, which are some of the highest in Europe, are justified at all, even pre-Covid. How will the Minister respond to the call from students who are stating that those fees should be dramatically reduced or abolished, given the diminished lecture hours they will be doing?
I thank Deputy Boyd Barrett for his questions. Regarding the July stimulus, I agree that it has to be two-sided. One side has to concern economic stimulus, but the other side has to be about the individual citizens of our country and how we can help them. I assure the Deputy that there will be a focus in the July stimulus on helping to get people back to learning and into apprenticeships and on the many other ways in which we can help people to get their lives back on track through utilising our public services and including our further education, training and higher education sector.
Turning to the issue of student costs, this is an area that needs significant overhaul and reform. The programme for Government makes very clear commitments to not increasing the costs. Deputy Gannon asked me to confirm that earlier today and I am happy to do so. I want to look at how we can better support students, but my first absolute priority between now and September is getting colleges back up and running and getting students back into learning.
We will then have the budgetary process whereby we can look at how we can further address the costs facing students and the student supports we have in place.
Next is the Regional Group, which has eight minutes.
The Regional Group is here; we are up in the cheap seats at the back. I have a statement on behalf of the Regional Group. There are no specific questions but if the Minister wishes to respond at the end, that is entirely her prerogative. This is my first opportunity to address the Minister in this forum. I wish to extend every best wish to her and her family regarding her recent appointment. I look forward to working with her and the Government in the coming years. It is in the interests of everyone here that she has a successful tenure as Minister for Education and Skills because the stakes are so high in the country at this time.
I thank the Minister for bringing these Revised Estimates before the House. Despite their imperfections, which have been already outlined in the House today and by the parliamentary budgetary office, I remain happy to support their passage through the House in light of the extraordinary times in which we are living.
I have three quick observations to make. The first is that I welcome the formation of the new Department with responsibility for further and higher education, research, innovation and science. Its creation is a positive development and long overdue. As these Estimates show, we are spending a little shy of €3 billion every year in this area. It is only right and proper that these public funds are protected and managed appropriately. Significant funds are available at EU level for research, innovation and science. It is vital that we access these funding streams as effectively as possible in a more co-ordinated way. Our knowledge-based economy needs to be sustained with ongoing creativity and cutting-edge technology to compete internationally. I am pleased to see the Minister without portfolio, Deputy Harris, in the Chamber today. I wish him every success in establishing and leading this new Department.
I am somewhat concerned that there is as of yet no published plan for the reopening of schools in over five weeks' time. I take the points made by the Minister, Deputy Foley. I accept and acknowledge them. However, the Estimates illustrate that we still have some distance to travel. The Department of Education and Skills is still engaged in discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on what financial supports will be required. I would have thought that negotiations would have been well concluded at this stage as the extent of the additional funding required should surely be known at this time. We should know what we need to support and increase the number of substitute teachers and SNAs as well as the hand sanitiser, PPE and professional deep cleaning services that will be required. Clarity in this regard would be certainly helpful. I look forward to the full plan being published as soon as possible.
While I welcome the modest increases in current expenditure for 2020, nevertheless I am concerned at the reduction in capital expenditure for third level institutions in programme C and, most important, the reduction in capital spending for the primary and post-primary sectors in programme A. The schools building programme is particularly important at post-primary level. Many of our school buildings are unable to cope as it is even without the increasing demand projected for student admissions in the coming five years. In my constituency, Kildare South, Coláiste Íosagáin in Portarlington is creaking at the seams. St. Paul's Secondary School in Monasterevin is in dire need of rebuilding and a new post-primary school is urgently required in the Curragh, Newbridge and Athgarvan areas to deal with chronic capacity issues. Aside from the self-evident educational benefits, labour-intensive employment opportunities like school construction are crucial to return the economy to growth. I look forward to the publication by the Government of the three-year capital plan in October which will, I hope, address this problem. Again, I thank the Ministers for coming to the Chamber today. I wish them both the best of luck in the challenging days ahead.
I appreciate the comments and thank Deputy Berry for his good wishes. The Deputy asked about clarity around the reopening of the schools. I have no wish to repeat myself again. I want to make it clear that there is no ambiguity on this issue. Importantly, from my point of view, there should be full and frank engagement with all stakeholders. There are many constituents in education and they must be consulted and be part of the process. That is where we are at. There is a clear objective. The schools will reopen at the end of August or early September as per normal. The finer details and the challenges that may have to be ironed out are currently being ironed out. There is no ambiguity whatsoever in that regard.
The guidelines for the reopening of schools have been issued to primary schools already. They are in the public domain. The schools are working through them. The guidelines at second level are currently being prepared.
Reference was made to the budget and issues around the budget not being met. I wish to confirm unequivocally and make it 100% clear that any issues with regard to the reopening of schools in terms of costs are being covered and will be covered. The final figures will be brought before the House once again when they are available. There is no question in terms of the requirements, whether cleaning, provision of hand sanitiser or additional substitution or whatever. This will be fully resourced to allow the schools to fully reopen.
I am sharing time with Deputy Michael Collins, Deputy Carol Nolan and Deputy Michael Healy-Rae. Ar an gcéad dul síos ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a dhéanamh leis an Aire, an Teachta Foley, agus leis an Aire, an Teachta Harris, freisin.
I wish to compliment, and say how delighted I am to see, the Minister, Deputy Foley, in her new role. I am also pleased to see the Minister without portfolio, Deputy Harris, in a new role and out of where he was. I know he left the children's hospital in a black hole so I hope we will have a better relationship in this Department.
I accept the Minister has repeated herself and said there will be funding. However, I cannot believe we are bringing the Estimates today - I am not blaming the Minister - and that there is no funding announced and no idea of the Covid-19 costs. Children and families from playschool, national school, secondary school, third level, fourth level and further education have been scattered to the winds. It has been a trying time for teachers, families and the students. This is concerning. We need to have surety. I heard the Minister say there will be funding for the schools. I have served on school boards of management. They are run on a shoestring. They need to know that money is available if they spend it on getting hot water into the toilets, which is a basic necessity. If they spend money on the yard or in the classroom and putting up Perspex it will be costly. They need to know they have it. They fundraise using draws and everything else. I know the Minister is keenly aware of that.
I thank the Minister and her Department for engaging with Cahir Boys National School and Our Lady of Mercy Primary School. The project has been going on for more than 30 years. It went to tender last November. I thank the Minister for coming back to me on it. I thank the Sisters of Mercy and Bishop Phonsie Cullinan, the patron, for giving the site. I compliment all involved, including those on board of management, past and present, the parents council and everyone. We want to see the machines moving in and the sod turned for this new building. A builder has been appointed but we are afraid that with Covid-19 and everything it might fall off the cart again.
I congratulate both Ministers on their appointments. From my involvement in a school board of management I know first-hand of the difficulty schools are experiencing. Their greatest worry is the worry of not knowing. We have had Zoom meetings and round-table meetings during the past few weeks. They do not know if they are going to get an extra cleaning grant to pay for extra hours required so that cleaning can happen. The boards of management and parents associations cannot be expected to fundraise as they have been doing for years. This time it cannot be done. They do not know if the capitation grant will be raised this year, although it needs to happen. Is there a transport plan or clarification on extra school buses being approved or provided? What about the seating plans on the buses? Will the children have to wear face masks? Overall, is there a plan in place? Is it still being figured out? Many schools are concerned that emergency grants and additional accommodation grants will not materialise. Will they be available? Will they be cut this year?
Schools have sought these grants. I thank the Minister and her Department for the funds granted recently to Dreeny national school in Skibbereen and Scoil Mhuire na nGrást in Belgooly. These funds were needed for urgent works to be carried out. The green light for funding was given, and the schools have asked me to convey their thanks to the Department for that.
I visited Rath national school in Baltimore, west Cork, last week which needs urgent funds. The process has been dragging on for two years and I urge the Minister to consider this case. I asked that the revised budget for education accommodate this school.
Ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a dhéanamh leis an Aire agus guím gach rath ar an mbeirt Airí sna róil nua atá acu.
I will be very brief. I want to focus on why the Revised Estimates do not include provision for school staff numbers despite the fact that we are here to make provision for an unchanged net allocation of over €10.1 billion. The gross allocation sought is €10.6 billion. As the Secretary General of the Department has acknowledged, there will be a need to employ additional staff and it has recently been accepted that we will have to free up leadership time that will have to be covered. We will need to examine different ways of providing substitution for teachers and SNAs because we want to minimise the number of schools substitute teachers will be in. We may be able to create more full-time posts.
Schools in my constituency are losing valuable and much needed teachers because of the current pupil-teacher ratios. I am aware that schools in my constituency are on split sites and I have written to the Minister about one such national school in Ferbane which is facing the removal of a teacher because it is five children short of the target needed to retain the teacher. This is unfair and wholly unacceptable, given that we are in the middle of a pandemic. Is there any room for a full moratorium on teacher losses while the Covid-19 emergency remains with us? I raised this issue with the Minister's predecessor, but I would appreciate if some attention could be given to it because there will be chaos in our schools in September.
Schools' leadership is faced with a great deal of responsibility. Those involved have to ensure that children will be adequately spaced and that there will be supervision in halls and other areas of schools. It is something that should be followed through on.
I thank the Ministers, Deputies Foley and Harris. I get great personal satisfaction from the fact that for the first time ever I am addressing a Minister with responsibility for education who is from Kerry. I am very glad that is the case.
What we are asked to debate here today is very unusual because we are talking about Revised Estimates, which involve a lot of money, while at the same time there is a high level of uncertainty and chaos in the education system. Principals of national and secondary schools, people in third level education, bus operators who take people to school and those seeking accommodation for the new academic year all face awful uncertainty. I ask the Ministers to help these people.
I want to relay the details of a phone call I had in the past two hours. A mother told me she is being asked to pay €3,859 for student accommodation between now and Christmas, and to pay the same amount at Christmas in order to secure accommodation for her young student going into third level education. They do not know how many days per week the student will be attending college, how many hours of lectures will take place in college, how many nights they will need accommodation for or what they will require for the new academic year. This uncertainty is creating chaos.
We cannot have a situation whereby schools have to fundraise to provide for basic essentials, such as repairing windows or a roof. There should be plenty of money in the system to carry out such necessary works. Schools with temporary accommodation, such as old-style Portakabins, should get permanent accommodation as quickly as possible.
I ask the Ministers to please remove the uncertainty from the education system. Earlier, we debated when the pubs will or will not reopen. I ask the Ministers to bring certainty to parents and students and help them at a time when there is total chaos because of a lack of information. Do the Ministers know the answers? If they do, I ask them to impart that knowledge to the people of Ireland.
It would not be fair to the Ministers to expect them to answer comprehensively the questions that were raised. If it is acceptable, I ask each Minister to communicate with Deputies on the questions they have raised. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I wish to share time. Ghabh mé comhghairdeas leis an Aire nua roimhe seo agus guím gach rath ar an triúr eile, an tAire, an Teachta Harris, agus na hAirí Stáit, an Teachta Niall Collins agus an Teachta Madigan. Go n-éirí leo sna róil nua atá acu. I welcome the opportunity to briefly speak on the Revised Estimates. I thank the Parliamentary Budget Office for its work and for producing a very good paper. It has raised many good and not so good issues. It points out that, in particular, the pattern of little or no information being provided on performance for the spending of vast sums of money is far from best practice and, even in challenging circumstances, that needs to be addressed. That does not apply only to this Department, it applies to all of them.
It is unfortunate that we are discussing the Revised Estimates with no provision for Covid-19. The Ministers stated they will come back on this, and I welcome that they have indicated that there will be no shortage of money and that funding will be provided. I am still not entirely clear on when the Ministers will come back to us. I presume schools will have opened and the Minister will come before us at that point.
The issue of school transport has arisen in the context of a special school in Galway. I am sure it is not confined to Galway or the July provision. This problem will arise in September. What analysis or research has been carried out by the Department on this matter? Is it in a position to provide such an analysis? Does it have sufficient staff to carry out this type of analysis? Will the Department examine the July provision to determine how many children were excluded and how the system can be improved for next year? Does it have that type of resources? If not, why not and what is it going to do about it?
We are constantly told that we need to make decisions based on evidence. I know for a fact that children in Galway are being excluded from the July provision because of the failure to provide school transport. Related to that is, of course, climate change. We have no choice but to embrace school transport. What provisions are being made by the Department for comprehensive school transport that will deal with our climate change obligations?
Additional space has been mentioned, and it is something I would like the Minister to reflect on. Schools have been forced to use space for private car parking in order to provide additional income. This is very bad because it uses public space for car parking, something which is obviously essential in a place like Galway. We need a different way of looking at this in light of our climate change obligations and the fact that, I presume, there will be a reduction in the use of private cars in the future. This came into acute focus for me recently when there was a difficulty with a market that had to be spaced out. Space had to be bought from a school that provided car parking in its yard for years. These decisions have follow on consequences.
I cannot deal with the transport issue, but I can tell the Deputy about the July provision. If there has been an issue with a constituent in Galway, I ask her to give me the details in order that I can look into it. This year, 243 schools and a total of 24,000 children across the country, an increase of 9,000, have availed of the July provision. Many of these children have complex needs, including autism, Down's syndrome and other severe, moderate or difficult behavioural issues. The latter is something I have been fully aware of since I took over this role.
We know Covid-19 has created major disruption for children. Those of us who are parents know how difficult it is to look after children during this period, not to speak of children with additional needs. The July provision has been very much welcomed. If there is an issue, I can revert to the Deputy on it.
Deputy Harkin is up in the gods. I could not locate her.
Please do not forget about me. I congratulate the three new Ministers, Deputies Foley, Harris and Madigan, on their appointments and wish them all the very best.
I echo the words of my colleague, Deputy Connolly. As I have said in previous debates, value for money needs to be part of the discussion. For now, however, I will leave that aside.
I fully support the Minister, Deputy Foley, on the principle of reopening our schools. Many parents and teachers have contacted me and for all of them, the continuing education of children is an absolute priority. The Minister spoke of some of the components that will allow this to happen. She spoke of employing more teachers and specifically mentioned small schools. I agree but we must also ensure larger schools get support. I wrote to the Minister about a relatively large school that had the numbers to employ an extra teacher in 2021 but it is not able to employ this teacher this year. It is going to end up with 33 junior infants in a class and an empty classroom. In such circumstances, schools should be able to employ an extra teacher.
As I mentioned to the previous Minister, many community and voluntary groups have community centres and other suitable premises available to them. Language schools, for example, have space that could be used by primary or post-primary schools. I ask the Minister to consider that.
To address the Minister with responsibility for further and higher education, Deputy Harris, the development of the Connacht-Ulster technological university, TU, must be prioritised. Everybody talks about balanced regional development. An essential component of that is third level facilities where creativity and excellence can flourish. The three colleges that would make up the Connacht-Ulster technological university are the National University of Ireland Galway, NUIG, Institute of Technology Sligo and Letterkenny Institute of Technology, LYIT. Two of the three can meet the criteria but the issue is whether all three will meet them by the end of the year. The guidelines allow two of the three colleges to proceed ahead and the third to join afterwards. While I hope all three can meet the criteria, if that is not the case, it is absolutely essential that the two which can meet them proceed. I will give the Minister one statistic that shocked me when I heard it. The south and east, as the Minister will be aware, is mentioned twice in the programme for Government. When all of the technological universities are in place, we will have five third level colleges in the southern part of the country, eight in Dublin and two in Connacht-Ulster. That is only if the Connacht-Ulster technological university goes ahead. I ask for an absolute commitment from the Minister, while the window of opportunity is available, to work with the three colleges in question and if two of them can go ahead, to ensure the new technological university is in place by the end of the year.
The Ministers will have to correspond with the Deputy.
I sincerely congratulate the new Ministers, Deputies Foley, Harris, Niall Collins and Madigan, on their appointment. It is unprecedented to have four Ministers working in the area of education. This shows the value the Government places on education, which will be key in all sectors as the economy gets back on its feet.
I will begin where the previous speaker left off, namely, with school reopening. I was a schoolteacher until 11 or 12 weeks ago so this issue matters a great deal to me. My eldest son, Sam, will start junior infants in September. Beyond the mechanics of getting back to school, my wife and I do not want to disappoint him by telling him on 31 August that he might be home for another few weeks during which we would have to try to entertain him. As the Minister, Deputy Madigan, said, this is fun but it has its challenges. I am hopeful the two education Departments can collectively offer clarification on that issue in the next week or two in order that parents and schools will be able to plan effectively.
The main issue I wish to raise is that of third level education, specifically third level accommodation. With the new academic year nearly upon us, most third level students are unaware if the majority of their tuition from September onwards will take place via distance learning, Zoom lectures and, webinars or will whether they will be in lecture halls on a rostered basis. How they will learn is not as crucial a concern as where they will live. Parents are unsure whether they should commit to expensive tenancy agreements for on-campus or off-campus accommodation or if a more ad hoc accommodation, such as short-term Airbnb lettings, would be more suitable if students will be on and off campus a lot. I ask the Minister, Deputy Harris, to expressly offer some clarity on the matter in order that parents and students can make informed decisions in this regard.
St. Aidan's national school in Shannon, County Clare, is one of those schools with supersized classrooms. In one particular classroom there will be 37 pupils sitting behind desks in September. Social distancing, as we know it, will not be possible in that environment. The school has applied for an additional teacher but has been unsuccessful in that regard. It has corresponded with the Department of Education and Skills and I am hopeful the Minister, Deputy Foley, will revisit the case of that particular school.
I raise the issue of school bus transport for a number of second level students from the small village of Crusheen in County Clare. In total, 13 children from the village attend St. Joseph's secondary school in Tulla. They have been told by Bus Éireann that buses cannot be routed for their daily collection and drop-off because they are marginally closer to the CBS school in Ennis. It was also suggested that they consider attending Gort community school in south County Galway. The rules relating to school bus transport are convoluted, as everyone knows. There is an ideal opportunity to review them as we come to the second half of the summer and people prepare to book tickets for school transport. Parents have submitted a petition to the Department and I ask that it be looked at by the relevant Minister.
The Department approved new classrooms for Clonmoney national school in County Clare last year. However, everything is at a standstill. The stage 2a report the school submitted shows that the cost will exceed the funding sanctioned by the Department by approximately 10%. The school needs departmental approval to move to the planning and tender stage. On top of this immediate problem, the school's board of management has an acute worry that one mainstream classroom and one special education teacher room will be grossly inadequate to meet the school's short-term and medium-term needs. Will the Minister, Deputy Foley, ask senior officials from her Department's building unit to directly engage with the school's principal, Mr.David McCormack?
St. Enda's national school in Lisdoonvarna currently has 130 pupils enrolled, of which 26, or 20% of the school population, live in the local direct provision centre. One fifth of the school population do not speak English as their first language. While they are learning and making huge inroads, as one can imagine, this places a strain on teaching resources and it is difficult for the school to meet the needs of those who are fluent in the English language and those who are acquiring it as a brand new language. The school desperately needs to have a reduced pupil-teacher ratio in order that the needs of all pupils can be met.
I ask that the Department look at special cases like St. Enda's national school in Lisdoonvarna. Overnight, this small village had a direct provision centre with none of the ancillary services that go with that. I am aware that the Minister, Deputy Foley, is familiar with this issue from her own constituency. A possible solution would be to automatically grant DEIS band 1 status to such schools, thereby giving them access to a whole range of supports. Perhaps there is a tailor-made solution for schools with this kind of acute need.
I know the issue of Limerick Institute of Technology, LIT, is close to the heart of the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins. As a previous speaker stated, there are movements all around the country to have regional technological universities. LIT has fantastic links not only in its native city of Limerick but also through a campus in Tipperary and an impressive campus in Ennis in my home county of Clare.
There is a need to look at ways of advancing that. It would go down well in the mid-west.
I have covered all the issues. I thank the Ministers and wish them well. It is great to see a teacher leading up the Department of Education and Skills. Deputy Foley will have a direct hands-on approach to this. She knows from her front-line experience of only a few weeks ago. Like myself, she was in the books and red-pen territory. I have every belief that all four Ministers and Ministers of State will adjust well to their new roles. I hope they can deliver on all the issues I have highlighted today.
I too wish the Ministers and Ministers of State well. As they know, education is so important in these times. Given the concerns that we have, it is so important to have such good people in education. I wish them well. I want a lot of work done for Carlow, just so as we start on the record first.
There is much concern about the return to school in September. There are parents out there afraid to buy schoolbooks and uniforms because they are not convinced their children can return to school.
Every year, the summer works scheme provides funding to individual school authorities to undertake small-scale building works which ideally can be carried out during the summer months or at other times that avoid disrupting the operation of the school. This was an ideal time to have carried out these works with schools off and construction resumed before anyone was on-site. A number of schools in County Carlow have not heard back about the grants they have applied for. Instead, there was a very small number of grants given under the emergency school grant scheme.
As we have heard, it is the Minister's firm intention that children are to return to school. In cases of schools which were overcrowded already, school authorities are looking around to see where they can make space to bring children back and comply with social distancing. Why were these schools not given funding to increase their accommodation? I was so upset over the summer. I had been working with people in a school who are getting a new school building. They had been given a commitment that they would get a prefab for a year or so until the school was ready to start the build. They got word a few weeks back that they could not get that prefab because there was no money for it. I do not know whether there are prefabs available. Maybe the Minister can come back to me on that. However, I now have a school principal in Carlow who does not know where she will put all her young students because she has been told by the Department that there is no prefab there for her. If there is no funding for these projects and if there is not enough money to give sufficient funding to repair a roof, for example, how can schools expect that there will be funding to return to school?
We need clarification on this. I welcome what the Minister stated earlier on. Are parents to be asked to supply funding for PPE, cleaning and extra staffing? Parents have suffered enough, having had to educate their children for the best part of this year.
Where will the children who could not fit already in these small rural schools go in September? Is the Minister looking at halls and football clubhouses? We need the roadmap. We need clarification. I listened to the Minister's brief. Can we have a copy of the Minister's statement? That would be important. We did not get a copy of it today. Even for us, for clarification, it would be important to get a copy of what the Minister said today.
Other Deputies have spoken about school transport. This scheme was not fit for purpose previously. With restrictions on public transport now, what are we doing for schoolchildren? Is there a roadmap for that? It is only six or seven weeks until school returns. Can we get information because that is so important?
The other area I have been working on for the past few years is DEIS schools. The Minister said that a fund to provide free schoolbooks is now available to more than 100 DEIS schools and I welcome that. However, I have been working for years for two schools in Tullow that have requested DEIS status. The system of DEIS and how one applies needs to be looked at. These are schools that should be in DEIS. They fit all the criteria, but we are told they are not getting DEIS status. I will give the Minister the names of the schools. I will talk to her about it because I have other schools that I firmly believe should get DEIS status.
The other area I want to talk about and that the Minister spoke about is apprenticeships. I would welcome if we could get the numbers on that.
I welcome the investment in SNAs the Minister spoke about. This is the highest number ever - 17,000. We will do so much. I believe we need to do so because this is a different time for schools and for teaching. My daughter is a teacher. She sees the challenges she is facing in the school she is in.
What I will say to the Minister, Deputy Harris, is that I, as a Carlow woman, would be always promoting the technological university for the south east. The south-east Deputies have had a good few meetings. We have met the president of Institute of Technology Carlow, Dr. Patricia Mulcahy, and the president of Waterford Institute of Technology, Professor Willie Donnelly. We are fully supporting it. I believe the Minister met the presidents last week. Technological university status is so important for the south east, and particularly for Carlow, my home town. I know we can deliver so much there. It is a great school, like all the others. They are all doing their best. What I want to know from the Minister is whether there is funding. Can he guarantee that? What is the timeframe? In the Seanad, in 2018, we passed the legislation providing for technological university status. In particular, I need to ask the Minister today whether he can confirm the timeframe for the south-east technological university.
That is the bulk of my questions. The Ministers, Deputies Foley and Harris, might come back with some answers. I wish them well. I believe they have many challenges going forward. I would ask that we get clarification and information to the parents because there are concerns out there. We all heard on the news the other night that we could have another surge. Hopefully, we will not. Parents are concerned for their children. It is important that we give as much information as possible to the schools but also to the parents who are trying to know what is best to do.
To Deputy Crowe, I say well done. He raised quite a number of schools in his locality and I appreciate that. I recognise that the demands in schools can be as individual as they can be universal. The Deputy specifically named individual schools and I assure him my officials will engage. I will revert to the Deputy in due course with an update on those schools.
Equally, I appreciate the point that Deputy Murnane O'Connor raised in terms of emergency works. They are by their name emergency works. Occasionally, schools might not qualify because they are not deemed to be an emergency. Be that as it may, if the Deputy wants to bring the specific cases she raised to my attention, my officials will engage with her. On a point of information, and it has been raised by previous speakers, we have applied through the July stimulus for a minor works programme which, I believe, has the potential to be hugely significant going forward for schools. These will be works that will enable schools to carry out measures that will improve school buildings as we journey through Covid, but in the main will improve them in general as well. We are looking for that enhanced minor works grant. Current grant costs are approximately €30 million and we anticipate that we should be able to raise that to €50 million. That would be positive news for schools. We hope that will come next week.
I reiterate that parents will not be footing the bill for the reopening of schools. There is absolute clarification on that.
There are 890 DEIS schools serving 180,000 pupils. I appreciate that this is being reviewed since 2017. On the applications for new schools to come on board, I will revert to Deputy Murnane O'Connor on the specific ones she has mentioned.
Specific guidelines have been issued in relation to school transport. We are currently working through those guidelines with Bus Éireann. We are confident that the school bus service will be available as normal for students to take up. The Deputy specifically raised face coverings and masks, etc. Children under 13 will not be required to wear them. It is advisable for those over 13, but the intricacies of it are currently being worked through. It is my intention that all of the information will be available and everything will be in the public domain as regards the return to school by the end of this month.
There is a short time left.
On the DEIS schools-----
Give the Ministers time to reply. The time has expired.
I apologise; there are two more slots left. I was ahead of myself. One gets confused in this place, especially with the lights. The next slot is Fine Gael's. Deputies Carroll MacNeill and Alan Farrell have 15 minutes.
Thank you, a Chathaoirligh. We were worried for a moment. Deputy Carroll MacNeill will speak first.
I congratulate my colleague from the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response, Deputy Foley, who is now Minister for Education and Skills. I wish her the very best with the work of her Department. I also congratulate the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Ministers of State, Deputies Madigan and Niall Collins. There is a lot of work to be done and I wish them the best.
We have talked a lot today about Covid and the return to schools. I will raise a longer-term issue which I believe must be raised now to ensure it is planned for when it arises 12 months from now. I refer to the issue of relationships and sexuality education. One measure that is very important to me is an ongoing education programme that aims to protect young people as they go into adulthood by educating them on domestic abuse, gender and sexual violence, and coercive control. Tremendous work has been done by the Department, the various stakeholders and the Oireachtas committee led by the now Senator Fiona O'Loughlin of Fianna Fáil, on a relationships and sexuality education programme that teaches about boundary management, consent, mental health supports, emotional well-being and respect for the self from the earliest stage and throughout the school programme.
In order for this to be on the curriculum 14 months from now in September 2021, an awful lot of work needs to be done with regard to training teachers, who have expressed interest in the programme and a desire for further and better training, and with regard to the regulation of any external providers. On the occasion of this Estimate, I want to ask the Minister whether the funding is available. Has the planning been done to account for the necessary training in advance of the stakeholder consultation, which is due to finish shortly, and the anticipated and hoped for roll-out of the programme in September 2021?
First, I congratulate all four new Ministers, particularly Deputy Foley, who is taking on a very considerable Department, despite the creation of the new Department for higher education and research under the Minister, Deputy Harris. While this new Department will be equally as important as the Minister's last Department, I imagine it will be somewhat less frenetic. I wish him well in that.
We do not need to spend too much time talking about the profound impact of the events of recent months on the children of Ireland. It is really important to note the disruption to the education system, which has really challenged children in every county on the island. We have all learned, however, that there is strength in unity with regard to our response and what we can achieve when we work together. That is why it is important to note the remarks of a number of speakers with regard to a collaborative and co-operative approach with the Department of Education and Skills, and the new Department responsible for higher education, in respect of how we respond to the pandemic and how we improve the education of our children and young adults.
Of course, we are all aware that as a matter of urgency, the Department must provide parents and third level institution students with clarity as to how schools will be safely reopened. We are all aware the current situation as regards the virus is quite volatile. Indeed, we have already seen changes made to our roadmap. In a relatively short period, however, that could change back. We should not lose heart but, at the same time and has been said by a number of Members, it is incredibly important that we provide clarity to parents up and down the country in order that they can make the choices and decisions they need to make early in the month of August as regards the upcoming school year. The education system is, of course, of paramount importance to any functioning and progressive state. Education will be even more important than it was a decade ago in responding to the economic challenges that will arise as a result of Covid-19. We must ensure that no opportunities are lost in educating our children.
As we know, a child's development in the first 13 years of life will form lifelong habits and characteristics which will affect their later life profoundly. We owe the children of Ireland a coherent and practicable plan to deliver the quality education they deserve. As such, we really do need to seek to address all of the concerns of parents and professionals with regard to the guidelines on staggering of school drop-off times, locations, and analysis of existing school infrastructure with particular regard to bathroom and hand-washing facilities. Parents should be provided with information even on something as simple as alterations of sleeve lengths for younger students who will be using sanitiser or washing their hands more frequently so that they and the students themselves can get used to it.
As we learn more about the virus, it becomes clearer that interactions with others and sufficient air ventilation can prove the difference between preventing and facilitating its spread. Supporting schools in obtaining the necessary equipment to enhance air ventilation is important as we reopen schools.
Providing a clear and effective path in a timely manner will achieve the fundamental goal of giving confidence to parents and teachers. When a parent leaves a child at school, he or she will know that the child will be taken care of, as always, but will also be protected in a safe and healthy environment with regard to the eradication of Covid-19 from our society.
A number of issues have already been raised by Members with regard to the point the Minister has repeatedly made, that is, that parents will not have to pay for the preparation of schools to prevent the spread of Covid-19. I will also say on behalf of the teachers that it is important that they do not have to foot the bill for their own personal protective equipment in circumstances where it is appropriate or recommended by NPHET that they use it. That information needs to be put into the public domain in order that people will know precisely what is going to occur this coming September.
Covid-19 has transformed Irish society over recent months. Few would have thought possible the profound changes we have witnessed over such a short period. This crisis, however, has shown the strength of Irish people and the ability of our people and communities to pull together and to overcome significant challenges, hardships and heartbreak. This provides us with an opportunity to reimagine our approach to future crises and challenges, as we acted with clarity and confidence as a people. This extends to every Department and every policy, and education is no exception.
It is my hope that we will embark on a serious attempt to improve a number of areas within the Irish education system in the lifetime of this Dáil, including reinvigorating our approach to special education, supporting gifted children and talented youth, expanding accessibility of the summer provision programme and improving aspects of higher education in Ireland. I was particularly heartened the day before yesterday to see the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, whom I congratulate on her new role, meeting Colm O'Reilly of the Centre for Talented Youth. We, as Parliament, and Ministers, as members of the Government, must evaluate on a more regular basis how we can support gifted children. It is often the case that gifted children have other educational needs and require educational supports. That is something we need to evaluate. I heard the Minister reference this area already. I appreciate that.
Delivering high-quality special needs education and supporting the children and families who rely on such services should be a priority of the Minister and the Department. Affording all children equal opportunity to obtain the support and education they need to excel in their later life is a moral responsibility of the State. I hope the Minister will pursue this goal and will engage with families, schools and experts as to how to achieve it. I also hope the voice of the children themselves will be listened to during such a process. On seven or eight occasions, I heard the former Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, say that the voice of the child needs to be heard. As outgoing chair of the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, on which I worked with colleagues, I know that was a key aspect of the process emphasised by the Department of the former Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone, the committee and Tusla.
It is heartening to hear the Minister, the former Minister and the Department focus on what is an important aspect of the learning process the Department has to undertake on an annual basis. Listening to the child is an extremely important part of that process.
An increasing number of special needs assistants, 17,000 in total, are being provided for this coming September. That is welcome but there is a clear issue with regard to how the evaluation is made. Although great strides have been made, there is always room for improvement. As has been echoed by our colleague, having a Minister who is herself a former practitioner of education, may provide additional light as to how we can streamline the SNA allocation process to support both schools and children. By doing just that, we can achieve greater strengthening of special needs classes in mainstream schools and support the vital work carried out by special needs assistants. There has been significant progress in this field since 2011 and I hope the present Ministers will work to improve it further.
Gifted children should have the opportunity to reach their potential according to their talent and passion rather than their age. They should be encouraged and developed by the Department. For too many years Ireland has not met such students with the sort of support that is required. The system has been described as rigid and bureaucratic from time to time, which can lead to unintended consequences and lost opportunities when it comes to the progress of students. I believe we have a golden opportunity now to commence the process of creating a more flexible and adaptive system that supports students who can kick-start the sort of changes that were mentioned earlier in developing a child throughout his or her educational career.
Likewise, I am pleased that the July provision has been expanded to include students with Down's syndrome who were previously omitted from this programme. The programme is relied upon by approximately 10,000 students every year. However, the aspects of this programme can be of benefit to even more students. Expanding the accessibility of the programme to a greater number of students with different abilities can be achieved should the goal be adopted by the Minister. Any such review of the programme should consider the extensive paperwork burden placed on parents applying for the programme and the implementation of a streamlined user-friendly approach to accessing this hugely important and progressive programme. I cannot emphasise that enough. The sort of paperwork that parents are required to complete is burdensome. The Minister would know that, as would all of our colleagues in the Seanad who are approached to assist parents with filling out paperwork, in particular when it applies to the Department of Education and Skills. If we are being inundated, there is always more, and I believe we should attempt to do our best to streamline it. Moreover, the Minister may consider reviewing the process of schools that choose to opt out of the programme despite having children enrolled who would qualify and benefit from participation in it, as well as examining the creation of a more integrated system of registration for both parents and tutors. That is an issue. Every school in the country will have children who would ordinarily qualify, and while in this scenario there are home-based programmes available, it is not always possible to secure a tutor and, therefore, children miss out. We should use this process to evaluate that.
I have only 90 seconds remaining. I would very much appreciate a written response if that is possible. Many changes in Irish society have their roots in the opening up, accessibility and progression of our education system. This has led to economic, social and cultural benefits for our people. Enhancing this approach to our education system should be an important part of the Department's future policies. I am therefore pleased that the programme for Government has committed to a review of the national action plan on bullying, which will specifically aim to include guidelines for tackling gender-identity bullying. Recent surveys and studies of bullying in schools, highlight that LGBT students are disproportionately affected by bullying in Irish schools. While welcome, the review should form part of a wider review of how LGBT issues are approached in schools with the express aim of creating a safer and more welcoming environment for young people struggling with their orientation and identity.
I will conclude on those remarks. I will finish by reiterating what I said at the start, which is to wish all four new Ministers all the very best. I did not name the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, and I wish to do so. In the absence of the line committees this debate provides an opportunity for all of us to make constructive contributions to the Minister but it would be worthwhile for the Ministers to start pushing for the committee structures to be established so that we can get that process started. As the Minister for Education and Skills in particular would know, as the decisions are made perhaps towards the middle or end of this month when the Dáil might not be in session, there will no doubt be calls for the return of the Dáil so that the education system can be debated in this Chamber. We need to be wise to that. We have one to two weeks remaining of the Dáil sitting before our very short summer break and it is an opportunity for the Ministers to collectively call for those committees to be established.
I thank the Minister for her statement. I congratulate the Ministers, Deputies Foley, Harris, Madigan and Collins, and I wish them collectively well.
With respect to their short time in office, I respectfully ask the following three questions. I have broken them down into two three-minute questions and one two-minute question. Upskilling the construction sector workforce with retrofitting skills will be part of the just transition to create a circular economy and a fairer, sustainable future. The Government has committed to this. Retrofitting will help us reach the 2030 and 2050 climate reduction targets. It also gives us the chance to create secure jobs in the construction sector for years to come. Not only that, but retrofitting houses will lift people out of fuel poverty and protect the nation's most vulnerable. Has capacity for upskilling been assessed and when will these skills programmes be initiated? Is the revised funding in place, relative to the promised legislation in the programme for Government?
I am best placed to answer that. I thank the Deputy very much. He is correct in that the climate agenda is immense. The commitments in that regard are very clear in the programme for Government, but it is not just for the benefit of climate change, as it is also a crucial time to get people back to work, as there are significant job creation opportunities here and in terms of career pathways.
The Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, and I published the Government's new strategy for further education and training. What is clear in that are the commitments regarding climate change and the skills required for retrofitting being priorities. What will now happen is that the implementation plans will be put in place for the delivery of that strategy.
The second point relates to the July stimulus. I do not wish to get ahead of myself, but in the discussions the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, and I are having with Government colleagues, I am very hopeful that additional funding will be provided for upskilling places and apprenticeship places. I foresee a very core role for those courses to be aimed exactly at the area the Deputy talks about.
I thank the Minister. I also have questions on school buses. While both of these questions relate to local issues, I am sure they are repeated across the country. The Minister might be aware that the Firhouse Educate Together students would prefer to temporarily locate within their community to the Stocking Lane site, which was previously considered by the Department but disregarded due to costs. Currently, they are being asked to commute across south Dublin, which gives rise to various problems. Many of these children have special needs and using a bus to commute is not compatible for them. I know this is an ongoing issue and I ask the Minister to intervene here for the well-being of the children and their families.
I also have a question from the students of St. Paul's secondary school, which is also in my constituency. They have lost the private contract from Dublin Bus to their and neighbouring schools and although an alternative public route has recently become available, this is not sufficient for many students.
What actions can the Department take, together with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, to reinstate this service and ensure others like it throughout the country are not lost?
I acknowledge that the Deputy has previously raised the issue of Firhouse Educate Together school and I have referred it to the relevant officials. I appreciate the difficulties there are for all concerned and I am very aware of the preferences of the parents and young people, which the Deputy outlined. I guarantee that my officials will revert to the Deputy on that.
On St. Paul's secondary school, this is a matter for Dublin Bus. It is not a school transport issue. I confirm to the Deputy that I will refer the matter to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and ask him to revert directly to the Deputy.
This is my last question and it has been asked quite a bit today. Considering the limited amount of time the Minister has been in office, what measures are in place for the safe return to school in September? Many parents and children are waiting patiently for some clarity so I would be grateful for the Minister's direction on the matter.
I again confirm, absolutely and unequivocally, that I am hugely committed to the safe reopening of schools. I acknowledge once again that there has been complete buy-in from all of the stakeholders, including parents, teachers, students, managerial bodies and the entire school community to ensure that what is now an objective will be a reality at the end of August, early September, or whatever the normal time is for schools to reopen at. That is absolutely the intention, and I look forward to it being the realisation.
Deputy Ó Ríordáin is next. We have very little time left but he may wish to make a brief contribution.
I have a number of comments to make. I wish the various Ministers well and hope to work with them.
I feel very strongly about access to education and educational disadvantage and I congratulate the Minister on announcing a new free book scheme. A pilot scheme was included in the budget last year, proposed in the programme for Government, and has now been delivered upon. A total of 102 schools will avail of a free book scheme in September, and that is the kind of initiative on which the Labour Party wants to work with the Government to roll out throughout the country. I congratulate the Minister on that.
I want to ask a very direct question. It has come to my attention that the Department has now conceded that the leaving certificate results will not now be announced until the first week in September. Is the Minister in a position to confirm this? If that is the situation, what preparations is the Department making for this eventuality? The assumption heretofore was that the leaving certificate results would become available on pretty much the same date as they always have. However, if it is to happen in the first week of September, if that is the situation, and if the Department is working towards that end, what impact is that going to have on third level institutions, apart from the mental health strain on the young people going through this process who have already been extremely challenged? If that is the situation, will the Minister clarify that and give a commitment that, one hopes, that is not the case and that the leaving certificate results will be published at the same time as was expected, in mid-August?
We are just out of time but the Minister may respond.
I appreciate the Deputy's acknowledgement of the free books scheme. It is a great achievement and one that we hope to roll out on a wider basis going forward.
On the issue the Deputy raised of the release of the leaving certificate results, the next step is that students will re-engage with the portal regarding their desire to receive calculated grades. At that time also, the date for receipt of leaving certificate results will also be revealed. I acknowledge that this is very much a joined-up approach with third level colleges. Whatever announcements are made and arrangements put in place, this will be very much a joined-up approach and no student will be disadvantaged in any shape or form.
I thank the Minister. That concludes our debate on the Revised Estimates for public services - Vote 26 for the year ending 31 December 2020.