We are a little behind time and I ask for co-operation as we move on to Private Members' business. It is late and we are all getting tired.
Future of School Education: Motion [Private Members]
That Dáil Éireann:
— schools have been closed for over 130 days and the new school year is due to start in just over four weeks;
— the closure of school buildings brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic has had a very negative impact on the education of a generation of Irish children, despite the considerable efforts of parents, teachers and school staff;
— this negative impact has been felt particularly severely by vulnerable students, including children with special educational needs, children and young adults who have limited access to technology or high quality Wi-Fi, and young people are at risk of becoming detached from education;
— the delivery of Summer Provision 2020 for children with special educational needs has fallen far short of Government announcements, which callously raised the expectations of parents of children with special educational needs only to dash them; and
— the experience of parents trying to combine home schooling with working from home has been demanding and exhausting, and that the burden of this was particularly heavily felt by women;
— achieving a safe and full return to school has been made particularly challenging in this State due to having among the highest class sizes in the European Union (EU), and due to successive Governments, who have underfunded and understaffed education;
— the shared objective of all involved in education is a full and safe return to schools in line with public health advice, and that this can only be delivered by way of significant and large scale investment in hygiene and personal protective equipment, staffing, funding for schools and significantly increased capacity; and
— already, parents must spend far too much each year on the return to school, and that in the context of high unemployment and uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, any additional costs must be met by the Government and not passed on to parents; and
calls on the Government to:
— immediately begin the process of drastically reducing class sizes, with the objective of achieving a pupil teacher ratio in line with the EU average of 20:1 within the lifetime of the Government, and ensure that class sizes of 30 students and above are abolished and never return;
— develop a dedicated strategy to prioritise those who have lost out most, including additional support for special education, special education teachers, Special Needs Assistants, as well as investment in the Home School Community Liaison Scheme, Guidance Counsellors and the School Completion Programme; and
— develop a well-being strategy for students, and staff, in response to the challenges of the pandemic by the National Educational Psychology Service
The reality is that the planning for the return of schools was made more difficult because we have an education system that is grossly underfunded and understaffed.
Is the Minister present? She was here a minute ago. I ask the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for her patience as it would be important to have the Minister present for the debate so I will pause until her arrival.
One in every five children, and one in every four children in the Minister's constituency of Kerry, are in classes of more than 30. Many are in classes much larger than this. There are not enough teachers and there is not enough space. This has made trying to achieve social distancing and a safe return much harder than it is in other jurisdictions. For example, in Denmark they have been able to split classes into groups of ten and in France classes are capped at 15.
There is no doubt that children need to be back in school. All parents and staff worked hard over recent months trying to keep things on the road between projects, art, essays, baking, Zoom classes, exercise with Joe Wicks and all the rest of it. There is no doubt that people made an enormous effort. However, we all know it is not the ideal way to get an education. In spite of everyone's best efforts, there is no question that many children fell behind.
For months, we have been calling for a roadmap for education that is significantly funded and has the package required. I am glad the Government finally responded to the pressure coming from the Opposition, parents and the public as a whole and released the plan yesterday evening. I am concerned, however, that the roadmap fails to deliver in crucial areas and leaves parents and teachers with an incredibly short time frame to bring these plans to fruition.
The new school year is to start in just over four weeks. There are just four weeks for schools to plan, recruit staff, adjust classrooms and, in some instances, build or find additional space. We were given the roadmap and it contains diagrams of classrooms of 60 sq. m and 80 sq. m for primary schools but the Minister and I know there are many primary schools, such as Christian Brothers' primary schools that were built in the 1950s or 1960s, where the classrooms are much smaller than this. They might be in areas of high population and they will struggle to find space, whether through converting corridors, halls or anything at all, and it will be a real challenge for them.
The implementation of the roadmap would clearly have been a lot more realistic if it had been published on 12 June as promised, or even a fortnight afterwards that as was subsequently promised. I am also quite concerned about substitution. Much concern has been raised about this throughout the State. Last year, 500 posts a day were not being replaced. Now, there are 200 additional substitutes. That was not enough to meet what was required last year much less this year in the context of Covid-19.
The roadmap, while welcome, is not a sticking plaster for the fact we have the highest pupil-teacher ratio, PTR, in the EU. I note the Minister's amendment, which is the Government giving itself a great big clap on the back, but it does not address the fundamental point, which is disappointing, especially given that reducing the PTR and investing in schools are meant to be programme for Government commitments. They are not even commented on, which draws into question whether the Government is truly committed to transforming the education system. While no one could have predicted the scale and manner of the pandemic, we have to acknowledge the failure to invest in our schools has put them in a particularly vulnerable position, which meant that ever before Covid they were stretched to breaking point.
I believe the Minister must confront this. It must be an absolute priority. We have left our school system vulnerable, but it does not have to be this way. In fact, tackling the PTR at primary level in the first instance can be cost neutral over the coming years because of the demographic shift. All the Minister needs to do is hold firm against anyone in the Department who wishes to reduce the Department's workforce. If the Minister retains teachers at primary level, she can reduce the pupil-teacher ratio at no additional cost. It is incredible that in the midst of a pandemic, when social distancing is such a crucial issue and given the impact it has had on education, that there is no commitment in the plan to reduce the ratio and the overcrowded classes. That is very disappointing. It was already necessary to begin the process of tackling the oversized classes because it has an enormous impact on education.
The other concern I wish to raise is children with special educational needs. A question has arisen since yesterday and it was brought into further light by the circular supplied today, which seems to suggest that special education teachers can be moved to cover absences and to work on remote teaching. I will return to this in my concluding remarks, but children with special educational needs are among those who have lost most in the past few months. They must be the priority and must not be undermined by their resources being allocated elsewhere.
I welcome the roadmap for returning to school. I doubt there is anybody who does not wish to see a full return to school at the end of August or the beginning of September. However, it is very late considering that the schools have been closed for more than four months. It has put unfair pressure on everybody affected, such as those responsible for preparing the timetable. Most post-primary schools would usually have the timetable prepared in June. Now we have principals or deputy principals trying to prepare a timetable within weeks, having finally received some clarity on class size. They are also faced with trying to recruit additional teachers at this late stage.
I welcome that class sizes are to be reduced, but it is unfortunate that it took a pandemic to bring this about. I hope the reduction in class size is permanent and is not just while the threat from Covid remains. The 1,080 additional teachers for post-primary schools is welcome, but I wonder how the figure was devised. There are 723 post-primary schools and this equates to approximately 1.5 teachers per school. If teachers are being advised not to attend work if they have flu-like symptoms, that figure will not be enough. While I welcome the additional posts, are there sufficient teachers in the country to fill the posts? Teachers of Irish, French and mathematics, for example, were extremely difficult to source for the past number of years so has any data been gathered on the number of teachers available for employment at present?
The roadmap does not address procedures for staff and students with underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to Covid-19. How will children's educational needs be met if they are unable to attend school? That has not been dealt with sufficiently in the document. Children with special needs, especially autism spectrum disorder, ASD, will find returning to school after over five months off extremely difficult. These students need to be reassured. They need routine and as little change as possible. A great deal of preparation is, therefore, required before returning to school. However, again, it is so late in the day for these students and families that there is pressure on them to ensure they do not end up with school refusals.
I hope that primary schools that are due to lose a teacher this September will have that decision deferred for at least a year. The document also refers to additional psychologists being employed. Where will they come from? The National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, could not recruit enough psychologists to fill the vacancies it had last year. While the roadmap is welcome, it is aspirational and late in the day. The only thing that saves it is that there is a strong willingness among all concerned to see schools open again.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion and I commend my colleague, Deputy Ó Laoghaire, on bringing it forward. I will focus on the rural perspective when it comes to reopening schools post-Covid-19. A glaringly obvious issue with the plan for reopening schools that the Minister has brought forward is the fact that there is no recruitment of primary school teachers in it. This is a problem because schools faced issues getting substitute teachers long before we ever heard of Covid-19. There are particular issues for rural schools. Many newly qualified teachers are gone from those areas. Before Covid-19, teaching principals in primary schools had great difficulty getting substitute teachers for various days. Sometimes they just could not get them and other plans had to be put in place. That is going to be a major issue.
Is there a plan B in that regard, particularly in rural schools and with regard to the forming of panels? How will those panels be put together if the teachers simply are not available? Again, this will be difficult in rural areas. The pilot project for the panels was mentioned as being successful, but I heard a teacher from Meath on the radio in the past few days say that the pilot in that teacher's area was unsuccessful. That has to be looked at again. The additional one day per week for principals is very welcome and has long been sought. However, how will that work with regard to getting a substitute teacher in once a week every week? Will that teacher move between schools in rural areas?
Regarding the aid that will be made available to schools, could student teachers be employed? They will have missed out on some placements and it would be a great experience for them. Could they be employed between now and the schools reopening to assist teachers and schools in reopening? I refer to special educational needs teachers moving from one school to another, especially in rural areas. How will that work and how will safety be ensured in those cases?
I also wish to mention school transport. It is an absolute nightmare for many parents throughout the country and particularly in rural areas. There is a real need for discretion regarding those applying for school transport.
I have good reason to focus my time on classroom sizes in Meath, as we have the highest in Ireland in Ashbourne, or on school buildings. Lismullen national school, for example, is one of the oldest and in the most urgent need of address. However, I wish to focus my comments on access. The future of education has to be one of public and active transport. That must the way of the future as it makes sense with or without Covid-19. We must get children walking or cycling or on the bus and out of cars. That said, there are areas that urgently need to be addressed. Many schools have no footpath access to the front door. One in five reported this to be the case in a recent Green-Schools survey.
It is clear that we must support and expand our school transport system. I urge the Minister to meet representatives of the school bus transport sector. They were out in droves protesting today. They have been treated very badly during the pandemic. Many were left without any State supports and they are on their knees. The Government's back-to-school roadmap did not contain enough detail for them. The operators I spoke to today still have a range of questions. They want to know what obligations will be placed on them with regard to loading and unloading buses. For example, will it be left to them to police the proposed compulsory seating arrangements? In terms of the funding announced, there is very little detail about how the €11 million will be allocated. Time is precious as we only have four weeks.
It is clear that a comprehensive, long-term strategy for school transport is long overdue. The service has been eroded over the years. I refer to what is happening with concessionary passes, for example. The service has been hollowed out and this must stop. We must address it and a step change is needed now.
I commend my colleague, Deputy Ó Laoghaire, not just on bringing the motion forward but also on the work he has done on education, particularly over the past few months. I hope we will see a far more proactive approach from the Minister on the issues in the education sector. It is not just Covid-19. There are serious issues throughout education and we need to see leadership from her on them.
This country has some of the largest class sizes in Europe, yet instead of taking the opportunity to address this issue now, nothing is being done about it. This issue is not new; it is years old. One of the first public meetings I attended in 2007 was on class sizes, yet we are still talking about it now. What plans will be in place for children with underlying health conditions or with parents who have underlying health conditions and where they do not feel it is safe for them to return to the classroom? I hope they will not be left isolated and abandoned and that there is a plan for them. There are also children with additional needs who have experienced a delay in their diagnosis, particularly of autism.
It might be clear to everyone that these children need ASD class places, but they just do not have it written down on paper because of the delays due to Covid. What will happen to these children? Where will they return to in September? Will there be any option for them? Every single year we have the same two issues: the lack of school places, whether at primary or secondary level; and school transport. Will the Department please look at areas that have been highlighted time and time again? A few weeks ago I highlighted with the Minister's predecessor the issue of the lack of secondary school places for boys in Kilkenny city. I only received a reply last week, and it leaves a lot to be desired. There is clearly an issue - it has been raised time and time again - with secondary school places in the area. Will the Department look at this, given that it knows there are capacity issues, actually do something about it and work with those of us who want to do something about it? Similarly, it may be a different town or village, but every single year there are areas in people's constituencies that do not have access to school transport. We know these issues exist, so will the Department please start being a bit proactive and look at long-term solutions? Every single year there is stress, worry and anxiety for students and parents that can be avoided if we are to look at long-term solutions to these issues.
I also commend my colleague, Deputy Ó Laoghaire, on bringing this motion before the House. Let us be honest: it is one of the most pressing issues at present. Many parents have now faced over 137 days since the schools were closed and they have waited and waited for the Government's announcement on the reopening of schools. Being a mother of five children, I know from experience how difficult it can be to homeschool children while trying to keep some bit of normality in our day-to-day lives. I take this opportunity to commend all parents, in particular lone parents, who have been going through this very strange situation over the past four months, especially as their eager children have sought answers that the parents just did not have.
I welcome the announcement from the Government last night on the roadmap to reopening schools, and I am sure it will be warmly welcomed by parents and pupils alike, but let us be straight: this roadmap is late. We in Sinn Féin have been calling for the roadmap for some time, but here we are, just four weeks out from schools reopening, and we get this announcement only now. This timeline does not allow schools enough time to get capital projects under way and completed in time. For example, Clonmoney national school, in Newmarket on Fergus, County Clare, has been looking for a new extension for some time, but this project and many others seem to be caught up in a pile of red tape. If this has been the case all along with building works, I cannot see how this will change in the next four weeks.
There is also a lack of commitment to special education hours for schools when they reopen. One group in our society that has been severely impacted by Covid is our people with disabilities. For them we need to ensure that when schools reopen there are more resource hours coupled with smaller class sizes. These are essential, first, to reopen schools safely and, second, to ensure that pupils and teachers can effectively pick up where they left off back in March. Ireland is way above the EU average when it comes to class sizes, and that is simply not good enough.
I wish to mention the difficult situation faced by pupils who now have to transition from primary school and secondary school. I wish them all the very best.
Like the previous speakers, I welcome the fact that we finally have the roadmap. It is late but we have it now. I thank Deputy Ó Laoghaire for tabling the motion.
While the roadmap deals with the immediate issue of the Covid crisis, I also wish to raise the need for new school buildings in Laois and Offaly, some of which are pressing issues, and more pressing now, given the demands on the system. The plan the Government has presented includes 1,080 new secondary teaching posts to be filled, 200 substitute staff positions and €75 million in capital grants, but all this is to be done within four weeks. That is a huge task, and it is debatable whether it can be achieved. Meeting social distancing guidelines will be very difficult, considering how overcrowded many of our classrooms are. Many of them are small, and in a lot of them across my constituency, Laois-Offaly, it would just not be possible to achieve social distancing of 1 m, let alone 2 m. For years Sinn Féin has been calling for the EU average of 20 students to each teacher. If we had that now, we would be in a much better position. According to the INTO, 17.2% of children in Laois are in classrooms of more than 30 pupils, and 17.1% of children in Offaly are in a similar situation. Decades of underdevelopment in our education system have left many of our schools run-down and not fit for purpose. As I mentioned, two schools in particular are in real difficulty. Trying to achieve social distancing in them will be nearly impossible due to the inadequate, unfit, cramped conditions of their buildings. Scoil Mhuire, in Abbeyleix, which has more than 300 pupils, urgently needs extensive work carried out. While work is planned to stop the water from coming in through the roof, which has been caught in plastic containers and buckets for nearly a year now, work is also needed on the plumbing, sewerage system and electrics in the school. That is in the short term. What they really need is a new school. There are 2 acres of vacant land at the rear owned by the parish which can be used for this. Coláiste Íosagáin, in Portarlington, is also badly in need of a new building. This secondary school currently accommodates more than 1,000 pupils in almost 30 prefab accommodation classrooms. It is not fit for purpose. They need a new school.
While I welcome the roadmap, I call on the Minister to include these two schools and to prioritise them for funding in the new capital programme for schools.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words following “Dáil Éireann” and insert the following:
— the Minister for Education and Skills has obtained Government approval for a comprehensive range of measures to support the full reopening of schools in time for the start of the new school year;
— these measures and the financial support to underpin the measures are necessary to:
— enable schools to prepare for reopening, including making adjustments to the physical arrangements and layout of classrooms as necessary;
— implement enhanced cleaning and hygiene measures in line with public health requirements in all schools;
— recruit additional staffing resources to support the safe and sustained reopening of schools in a Covid-19 context; and
— support school leaders to implement Covid-19 measures;
— the Roadmap for the Return to Schools has now been published alongside the details of the financial supports of more than €370 million with further funding for sanitisation and personal protective equipment (PPE) to be available for reopening schools in accordance with previous commitments given in the House to do so by the end of this month;
— significant additional funding has been secured to specifically provide at primary level for:
— an enhanced Minor Works Grant to support full implementation of Covid-19 response plans;
— the employment of an aide to help with the school reopening logistics;
— increased management support for schools, to allow for additional release days for principals and deputy principals;
— the extension of the current pilot supply panel for substitute teachers on a nationwide basis; and
— additional financial supports to provide for additional cleaning, hand hygiene and PPE costs under the Covid-19 response plans;
— significant additional funding has also been secured to specifically provide at postprimary level for:
— a new Minor Works Grant to post-primary schools to support full implementation of Covid-19 response plans;
— the employment of an aide to help with the school reopening logistics;
— 1,080 additional teaching posts, including 120 guidance posts;
— enhanced supervision supports; and
— additional financial supports for schools to cover additional cleaning, hand hygiene and PPE costs under Covid-19 response plans;
— the Minister for Education and Skills plans a communication campaign during August for students, parents and the school community to support the safe reopening of schools; and
— the Minister recognises that promoting the wellbeing of our school communities is a fundamental element of the overall plan to ensure a successful return to school and which will include the restoration of guidance supports in schools by providing 120 guidance posts and an increase in the number of National Educational Psychological Service psychologists to support schools; and
— that in preparing the Roadmap for the Return to School the engagement with stakeholders, which had been ongoing since the closure of schools in March, intensified and focused on plans for reopening schools following receipt of the ‘Interim Recommendations for the reopening of schools and educational facilities’ from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre which was published on 1st July, and which allowed the Department of Education and Skills, working in conjunction with bodies representing school management, staff, student and parents, to develop consistent plans, advice, protocols and guidance across the system to allow schools and staff to return as safely as possible;
— the successful delivery of an enhanced summer programme of educational support to children with the greatest needs with:
— 245 schools participating in the summer-based programme for children with complex needs, benefiting 3,900 students;
— 10,604 parents registering for the home-based summer programme, benefiting 11,350 students;
— 231 schools participating in the Literacy and Numeracy Summer Camp in Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) primary schools, benefiting an expected 7,600 students; and
— 81 schools participating in the DEIS post-primary summer-based programme, benefiting an expected 2,700 students; and
— that these programmes are providing a crucial stepping stone in rebuilding the connection between students and their schools before they return more fully in the autumn as there is a particular focus on re-establishing relationships, building connections, meeting emotional needs and re-engaging in routines to support participation and learning.”
I am happy to be here to address directly the motion put forward by Sinn Féin as it gives me another opportunity to highlight the comprehensive plan, the roadmap to the reopening of our schools, which I published yesterday, following Cabinet approval. The interests of students and their families as well as the safety of the staff in the sector have been the paramount considerations throughout as the challenges before us from Covid-19 have been worked through. Coming from an education sector background, and as a regular contributor to the debates on education in the Dáil before becoming Minister for Education, I was keenly aware of the interest in education but also the concerns and at times the anxieties of students, their families, their school communities and, more generally, how those challenges were being addressed.
Since my appointment as Minister, the number one priority for me, the Government, my Department and the wider schools sector has been to reopen our schools fully and safely at the start of the new school year. We said that in reopening our schools we would be guided by the available public health advice and comprehensive engagement with stakeholders, including the school management bodies and staff representatives, as well as students and parents. There has never been any doubt but that I as Minister, my Department, school leaders and staff all want to see schools reopen as normal in the new school year in late August and into September based on their normal timeframes.
Yesterday I brought proposals to Cabinet which outlined a comprehensive funding package and plan to provide the necessary supports and clear guidance for primary and post-primary schools to return safely in the new term. I also sought approval to publish a roadmap for the full return to schools, described yesterday by An Taoiseach as the most comprehensive and detailed sectoral plan he has seen. Cabinet agreed to both, and I was able to publish the roadmap yesterday together with details of the €375 million-plus in additional funding necessary to support the roadmap.
The motion from Sinn Féin before the House calls for a roadmap. We have delivered the roadmap. The Deputies were aware that it was my intention to publish such a roadmap by the end of this month. That has been the intention for the last number of weeks. My colleagues in government and I have always recognised that schools would need to be supported to reopen. The roadmap I published outlines a comprehensive range of measures being provided to support the full reopening of schools in time for the start of the new school year in late August, early September. The roadmap was developed following intensive engagement with stakeholders from the education sector, including staff unions of teachers, SNAs, school caretakers and secretaries, representatives of principals and deputy principals, school management bodies and representatives of parents and post-primary students.
The roadmap and the funding package recognise the challenges faced by schools in ensuring the safe return of more than 1 million students and approximately 100,000 staff in 4,000 schools in the context of Covid-19. It sets out clear plans and practical guidance on the measures schools will need to take to operate safely and minimise the risk of the introduction and spread of infection in schools.
The roadmap and its accompanying documentation provides schools with guidance on training, checklists for schools on preparing for reopening and guidance for operating schools safely in a Covid context. It advises on areas across logistics, curriculum, teaching, managing school activities, supporting pupils with additional needs, administration and well-being. In other words, it is a comprehensive plan.
My Department has prepared a suite of support materials for schools, including guidance on curriculum, well-being of students, well-being of staff as well as protocols for minimising the risk of spread of infection in schools. In addition, I also published template Covid-19 response plans for schools. These plans provide clear and practical guidance and support to schools on the range of measures that need to be put in place to bring everyone back to school safely.
The funding supports are comprehensive across a wide range of areas. There will be funding for replacement staff for those who cannot come to school as they are at very high risk of Covid-19. This includes teaching staff, special needs assistants and administrative staff. This can occur where staff members who are identified in line with HSE guidance as at very high risk of Covid-19 are advised to cocoon. Funding for additional supply panels at primary level is provided for. This will ensure more certainty around the availability of substitutes for primary schools. Also in the package is funding for more than 1,000 additional teachers at post-primary level to help with physical distancing and class sizes. This will include 120 additional guidance posts. There will be funding to provide release days for teaching principals at primary level to meet the administrative burden arising from the changes and the impacts of Covid-19. This will mean that all teaching principals will have one release day per week and this is something which I am particularly pleased to be able to deliver as I consider it an essential support to reduce the burden on these principals. In addition, there will be some release time for deputy principals in primary schools. Enhanced cleaning and hygiene measures are particularly important and the additional funding being provided will enable schools to have daily cleaning arrangements and to purchase supplies of hand sanitiser and any other personal protective equipment, PPE, necessary. There is also funding for enhanced supervision, which is a key control measure to support schools in minimising interaction of students from different classes, in line with public health advice. Funding will be provided to support school leadership, especially principals, in getting the schools ready. All schools will be able to employ an aide to help get the school ready. As announced in the July stimulus package, funding of €75 million will support minor capital works for all schools.
As I said, reopening schools is a priority for Government and has been my priority since becoming Minister for Education and Skills. In preparing for the reopening of schools, we know that most students, and indeed their families and school staff, will be looking forward to going back, reconnecting with school, reconnecting with staff and friends and settling back into school work. There is a strong emphasis in the roadmap on safety, and on practical arrangements, but also on ensuring the well-being of the students and of the entire staff community.
One of the key elements to ensuring that schools once they reopen can remain open is to prevent the Covid-19 virus from getting into a school in the first instance. This will mean students, their families and staff playing their roles in keeping the virus out of their school by ensuring those who have symptoms or suspect they have the virus stay out of school, by maintaining best practice in terms of hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette in school and by minimising social contacts and respecting physical distancing practices.
Reopening our schools is not just a matter of achieving a certain minimum physical distancing. It is about getting students re-engaged fully with learning and socialising with their peers. For some it will be about preparing for examinations, for others it will involve transitioning to school life or to a different level in terms of moving from primary to post-primary. Students need the support of their families, teachers and school staff in readjusting to school life and physical learning environments again.
It is realistic to predict that all students, parents, teachers and other school staff will experience a broad range of feelings as part of the return to school. This may include a mixture of excitement, happiness and relief but may also include anxiety and fear. This is understandable given these circumstances and there is a response in place to support the well-being of our school communities as part of the planning to return to school.
I can assure the House that there is full engagement with the education stakeholders and that everyone is committed to supporting schools to prepare at a local level for their reopening. There will also be comprehensive communication with students and parents so that they are fully informed over the coming weeks. That information campaign has already commenced. My Department is providing dedicated and direct contact channels to schools so that where issues might arise they can be resolved quickly. Government has provided a comprehensive plan and supports to ensure we can reopen our schools but we must all continue to work together to achieve the goal of seeing our schools reopen.
I am the first to acknowledge the support and engagement of my counterpart in Northern Ireland on matters vitally important to our sectors. However, it is worth noting that, North of the Border, return to school guidance was issued by the Department of Education in Northern Ireland on 24 June setting out plans to reopen on 24 August to certain year groups. It is expected that some schools will only be able to return partially with a minimum standard of blended learning. This will include a minimum 40% face-to-face learning in primary and perhaps 50% in post-primary. No additional funding has yet been committed to support schools in their preparations for reopening. Detailed guidance has yet to issue on curriculum, transport and well-being measures as well as catering, risk assessments and human resources management.
The Sinn Féin motion suggests that the summer programmes have fallen far short of Government announcements. In fact, the number of participating schools and students and the eligibility for those programmes exceeds previous years. Deputies may wish to note that 245 schools are participating in the summer-based programme for children with complex needs, benefiting 3,900 students. These programmes are providing a crucial stepping stone in rebuilding the connection between students and their schools before they return more fully in the autumn as there is a particular focus on re-establishing relationships, building connections, meeting emotional needs and re-engaging in routines to support participation and learning.
As the Taoiseach reiterated today, since coming into office, this Government has been working tirelessly on reopening our society and the reopening of our schools is a vital part of that. Government has committed the necessary supports and funding to the schools sector. Therefore, I ask this House to reject the Sinn Féin motion and to support my countermotion which recognises the work undertaken by Government, my Department and the education partners working in collaboration to develop the roadmap to reopen our schools and over the coming weeks to see it delivered successfully.
As I said in the Seanad earlier today, these are changed times. As a country we have stood up to the challenges before us and we have seen great resilience, tremendous community spirit and a shared responsibility to contribute to the fight against the virus. We are now committed to reopening our society in every sense and the schools sector is now preparing to get our students back into classrooms in the coming weeks. Government is fully committed to supporting that return and has shown the scale of that commitment in the support package announced yesterday. I know Deputies in this House will support our students, our schools and our communities in getting back to school as normal in the coming weeks.
Faoi mar a bhí riamh, ní neart go cur le chéile.
I am not sure which motion the Minister has read because the Sinn Féin motion does not call for a roadmap. It calls for the reduction of class sizes in line with the European average of 20:1, which she failed to address. She did not use any of her ten minutes to acknowledge that, at primary level, we have the highest class sizes in Europe. Nor did she acknowledge the fact that one in five of our children is in classes of more than 30 pupils and this makes the challenge of returning to school in a safe way all the more challenging for our boards of management, teachers and principals, who will have to see how they can work within the guidelines to ensure what all of us want, which is that children go back to school in late August and September. The reality is that class size in this State is a shameful indictment of successive Governments in relation to the lack of funding and support for primary education. Instead of calling on the House to reject this motion, this was an opportunity for the Minister to commit to dealing with the fact that we have class sizes that are way above what we should have. Does the Minister believe it is appropriate or right that one in five children in Donegal or, on average, across the State is in classes of more than 30 children and that we have some children in classes as big as 35?
Last year, we learned that there were a number of children who were in classes above 40 in number. That is the legacy we are faced with and this is an opportunity to address it, as set out in the Sinn Féin motion.
I welcome the publication of the plan to get our schools reopened in late August or September. However, I am concerned that it is late in the day and I believe the Minister has placed a huge challenge and task on boards of management, teachers and principals to deliver on it. I have no doubt they will move heaven and earth to get their schools equipped and ready in time. My big concern relates to substitute teachers. I say this because the Minister has announced no reduction in class sizes at primary level but is instead proposing to establish supply panels with a total of 200 teachers. These are not additional teachers to go into schools but will be replacing existing vacancies. This is something I welcome and which the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO, was calling for before the pandemic. The problem is that 3,500 substitute teachers, on average, go into our primary schools every single day. As our spokesperson, Deputy Ó Laoghaire, pointed out, 500 vacancies in primary schools cannot be filled by substitute teachers because the numbers are not there. The supply panels of 200 teachers are not going to cut it, particularly given that those teachers will not be able to present at school with a head cold, a runny nose and so on because of infection control measures. I am very concerned that the whole system could unravel.
As someone who comes from a Gaeltacht area, the fact that there is no Gaeltacht supply panel is a huge missed opportunity which needs to be rectified. There are three supply panels indicated for Donegal but none at all serving the Gaeltacht area. This issue is not unique to my county and it must be dealt with wherever it arises throughout the State.
I welcome the publication of yesterday's roadmap for reopening schools. However, it is too little too late and it is light on detail. It is also a missed opportunity to address our spiralling pupil-teacher ratio, which is one of the highest in the OECD. Throughout this pandemic, we have seen the value of front-line workers. It is time for the Government to show its appreciation of them. A clap once a week does not pay the bills and it does not put a roof over their heads. We need to end the two-tier pay system for teachers and provide pay equality for school secretaries. Our pupils and teachers deserve better. We need to engage with teachers on the return to school, consult them and listen to and address their concerns. We need to provide more support for teaching principals in particular. They cannot be expected to project-manage the reopening of schools and keep up with the inevitable avalanche of paperwork while teaching classes four or five days a week. We need to look at how transition year will function in our new normal. We need a specific plan for schools in the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, programme. A total of 25% of schools in my county of Kildare are DEIS schools. We must protect and enhance the extra support provided to those schools.
The plan to return to school mentions using existing space better. Our schools are already at breaking point, with long delays in the schools building programme. St. Paul's school in Monasterevin is long overdue a new building. For more than 20 years, the school management has been doing its best, adding prefab after prefab and using the sports hall to host classes. Eighteen of its 27 classrooms are prefabs. Coláiste Íosagáin in Portarlington has almost 30 prefabs. I spoke in the House a number of weeks ago about St. Anne's special school in the Curragh and how an algorithm had decided it was to lose two teachers. I have been in contact with the Department of Education and Skills to seek a reversal of this cut. Unfortunately, the teachers who were let go have moved on, leaving a deficit of experience that cannot be easily replaced.
I ask the Minister to revisit the back to school plan to ensure the voices of children of different abilities, and their families, are heard. She must liaise with those families because every time there is an announcement, they are left behind. That needs to change. We must fast-track the roll-out of broadband and ensure schools and pupils are provided with the technology required to do things differently. We need to ensure families in direct provision are given the supports they require to make sure they are not left behind.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion brought forward by my colleague, Deputy Ó Laoghaire. The lockdown ended for most of us weeks ago. Lots of people have gone back to work, we can socialise again and some form of normality has returned. However, this is not the case for children who attend special education schools and their families, who are still in lockdown. For these children, school is a lifeline, social outlet and the place where they receive their much-needed support and their education. Children who attend special education facilities often have complex medical needs and disabilities and a one-size-fits-all solution will not work for them. The families of these children are at breaking point. They have struggled for months to look after their children, some of whom need full-time care and attention, while trying to work and look after their other children since schools closed in March. They have endured the heartache of having to watch their children regress in the past few months and to see them frustrated, confused and upset by their situation.
The summer provision plan proved to be a major disappointment for many families because the Government failed to plan for increased capacity, which meant many children could not be accommodated. The reopening plan provides very limited detail on special education facilities. It is vague and does not address the specific challenges in those schools. I am very concerned that it could lead to a situation where children with special educational needs are left behind. We need plans to deal with the unique orientation challenge that will face them when they return. We need a plan to deal with situations where children are too vulnerable to return to school for medical reasons. We need an additional, dedicated strategy for these schools to provide clarity on how they will reopen and stay open and to ensure no child is left behind. Will the Minister clarify whether she will publish a dedicated strategy for special education schools?
There is no doubt that the lockdown and the disruption to the education of children from preschool to secondary school will have had an impact of the capacity of those children to learn. The impact will be greater for children with special learning requirements and children who are marginalised or from vulnerable or disadvantaged sections of society. The fear is that the longer such children are out of school, there is a real possibility that many may not return to education. For vulnerable and disadvantaged children, prolonged closures will also have a significant negative impact on their well-being because of the disruption to essential school-based services they often depend on, such as breakfast clubs, school meals and mental health supports, which will cause additional stress and anxiety for them. Children with disabilities or special needs will also be seriously impacted by the lockdown. They already face an uphill struggle in the education system and the problems thrown up by Covid will add to the already heavy burden on them.
It is important that the reopening of schools is done safely and consistent with Covid-19 health guidelines. It is vital that measures are taken to protect students, staff, teachers and their families to ensure a full and safe return to school. Irish primary school classes have an average of 25 students, compared with an EU average of 20 and an OECD average of 21. Sinn Féin is looking to bring class sizes in line with the European average. According to the INTO, studies have shown that students in disadvantaged areas do better in smaller classes. However, we should also ensure, particularly in the current environment, that facilities such as toilets, cloakrooms, etc., are suitable and adhere to the Covid health and safety guidelines. Parents, students and teachers are looking for proper guidance going forward as schools reopen. So far, the Government's response has been confusing and inconsistent.
Our grandparents' generation, particularly our grandmothers, used to say that education was no burden. Some 80 or 90 years ago, a child might well have come to the kitchen table at age 12, 13 or 14 to tell of an offer of a job in a factory or on the docks, which was a chance to leave school and go into employment.
The mothers of those families - our grandmothers - would say that education is no burden. Not only is it not a burden, but is also the great liberator which saves families from poverty and young people from disadvantage. It gives them the life chance they need to maximise their potential. The tragedy of education is that so many people fall through its cracks. In Ireland, one third of primary school children in disadvantaged schools leave with basic reading problems, and 17.9% of our adult population is functionally illiterate. If one compares two three year olds, one from a disadvantaged family and one from an advantaged or regular family, the disadvantaged three year old has one third of the oral language capacity of the advantaged one. That is 400 words versus 1,200 words, before they come anywhere near a school gate. In America, where the prison system has been privatised, the prisons predict how much spare capacity and prison cells they will need in 15 years by looking at the literacy rates of ten year olds in their districts.
Education is absolutely the great liberator. The most powerful thing in the world, which can change not just a village or a family but an entire country, is a girl with a book. That is why it is so infuriating, dispiriting and upsetting to see education and those who work and believe in it being so disrespected in the last number of months. SNAs had to endure a bungled redeployment programme. Teachers, principals and parents listened to Minister after Minister giving different advice and sound bites about the potential for reopening schools. We had the spectre of blended learning hanging over us for the entire summer. Then we had the leaving certificate and student representatives hearing about the delay in leaving certificate results in the media.
The package the Minister has produced is welcome. All of us have a responsibility to speak positively about the potential for this package to open schools because if we do not open them next month or in September, we are going to lose an entire generation of vulnerable young people who are not legally required to be in school if they are over 16 years of age. Schools and teachers have been much maligned by people writing columns in newspapers who do not have a cat's clue what it is like to work in a school or with a vulnerable young person. Teachers are holding schools, and sometimes families, together by their fingernails and often ensure that young people do not make the wrong choice at the wrong time. They have been holding on to a whole generation of 16 and 17 year olds while they have been out of the school buildings and hoping, praying and encouraging them to come back in September. If we lose that generation, we will most likely lose them forever. That is a burden on them, and on all of us.
This package has to work and we want it to, but we have grave problems with some of its elements, which we hope the Minister can address over the next few weeks. The lateness of the package is not the Minister's fault and I would not necessarily blame Fianna Fáil for it either because it has only been in office for a few weeks. However, myself, Deputies Ó Laoghaire and Gannon, representatives from other political parties and members of the Covid-19 committee have been calling for a package for months. We asked for it in April, May and June and we asked again this month. It has arrived and it is substantial. However, principals have said to me that it should have come with a magic wand because they need to magic up some teachers and school buildings that do not exist. It is our collective responsibility as politicians to show a little bit of leadership, to provide some certainty, and to suggest to the Irish people that this can work and that we can open schools. It is not just about opening schools, but ensuring they stay open as well.
I spoke earlier about disrespect and how SNAs, teachers, parents and education have been disrespected. This package suggests that special educational needs teachers will be used as substitutes. That is not just disrespectful to the profession they lead and the work they do keeping vulnerable students in touch and connected with education, but it is also disrespectful to those young people who need the individual attention and special educational expertise those teachers provide. Suggesting that they can just be shifted over to a substitute position is unfair and disrespectful and it cannot work.
As regards the transport situation, I understand that parents have to apply for school transport for their children by this Friday. Some 120,000 children and young people, 14,200 of whom have special educational needs, use this service. However, the school transport operators are in no position to make a firm commitment this week or by this Friday on whether they can do the job. The least we can do is delay the date by which parents have to apply for that transport scheme. That is another practical suggestion for the Minister.
I refer again to education being no burden and being a great liberator. Education is a life chance for young people to be everything they can possibly be and we, as a collective and an Oireachtas, cannot get this wrong. When the Government holds its Citizens' Assembly on education, which we support and want to be constructive within, we have to deal with the disrespect that has been shown to education down through the generations. We must also address the fact that it is not funded enough, that our class sizes are some of the highest in Europe, that our literacy rates are a national scandal and that we could do so much more if we realised the eternal power of education.
I commend Deputy Ó Laoghaire on bringing forward the motion. It is appropriate and the right time for us to have a discussion about classroom sizes. One of the interesting aspects of having been a local authority representative and coming from that background into the Dáil Chamber is that when a motion is on the clár for a local authority, it is taken very seriously. It is necessary to know what will be said regarding the actions that will ensue if the motion passes and there is a suggestion that the implications of that motion will be seen at some point in the near future. In this House, however, it seems that when a motion is put forward on something important that the Government changes it, takes the spirit out of it and, rather than dealing with the substance of what the motion asks for, the Government uses it as a chance to clap itself on the back and state that everything is grand and we will keep on going as we are, even though that makes no sense.
Education is phenomenally important. The question we have all been asking ourselves in recent months, throughout the pandemic, is what does it take for us to value education. Does it take a pandemic? Does it take the health risks associated with large classroom sizes, rather than the educational inequality of that situation, for us to invest in our schools? Does it take 130 days of school buildings being closed for us to recognise the role of our schools, not only as sites for learning but also for socialisation and well-being? Does it take parents assisting with students learning at home for us to recognise the expertise and dedication of our teachers and our special needs assistants? Does it take a digital divide for us to realise that material inequality affects educational chances?
I note that we talk about the digital divide, because that one seems easy and solvable. I promise the House, however, that for the vast majority of kids on the receiving end of the digital divide there is also an inability to access a table on which to do their homework. They are waking up in conditions of overcrowding and they are sometimes stepping in as caregivers to younger siblings as their parents went off to work in retail. We can talk about the digital divide, therefore, but what we are actually talking about, and we do not say it, is the poverty being experienced in households throughout Dublin and Ireland which is impacting upon educational chances.
I am disappointed that it has taken a global pandemic for lessons to be learned. The notorious underfunding and understaffing of our schools have compounded the issues concerning the reopening of schools and we cannot ignore it anymore. All we have seen in recent months is a crystallisation of realities that existed long before then. We cannot continue to expect education to solve societal ills, to provide opportunity and to be a magic bullet, if we continuously underfund it, pass the costs on to families and then just leave it and pretend everything is okay.
I acknowledge the recent work by the previous Government to reduce classroom sizes, but let us look at the facts. We have gone from an average in our primary classrooms of 24.9 pupils in 2014-15 to 24.3 pupils in 2018-19. We still fall drastically short of the OECD average of 21 and the EU average of 20, with one in five primary school classroom sizes having over 30 pupils and 45% of all 3,000 plus primary schools having at least one classroom with more than 30 pupils. It is impossible to teach in a classroom with more than 30 pupils. It is doubly impossible to learn in a classroom with more than 30 pupils. It is not good enough and it has never been good enough.
This is lost in the new narrative of getting back to normal that has taken root in recent months. I refer to the narrative of reopening the schools and getting back to normal. There is no normal in our education system. Our classroom sizes, the highest in Europe, were not normal pre-Covid-19. Pay differences between workers with the same qualifications and performing the same work is not normal. This was a point made, laughably, by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, earlier this week when he was commenting on the pay rise for Ministers of State and stating that it was not normal for people doing the same job to be paid differently. Imagine being a young teacher in a school listening to that statement from the Minister for Finance? It would be laughable if it was not so serious and did not have such an impact on our educators.
The poor investment in education compared with our overall gross domestic product is not normal and while our teachers may be the highest paid in Europe, the reality is that they are also the hardest working. Primary school teachers teach an average of 905 hours each year, compared with the EU average of 754 hours, according to the OECD report, Education at a Glance 2019, and this is within the most underfunded of school environments. That is not a platitude to teachers, who do immense amounts of work; it is the reality and that cannot be said enough.
Normal has meant that our schools have been forced to self-fundraise and to rely on relationships with local businesses to make crucial improvements and source necessary tools. It is not normal that when a school wants to pay for its heating or have hot water, it is sending the purse around to parents who are also struggling. That is not normal. How many times during the school closures did we hear stories of schools needing digital tools and working with local businesses to meet those needs? Schools cannot be expected to continue pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, completely unsupported by the Department of Education and Skills and instead supported and relying on families already overburdened by the cost of living.
There is no normal in how schools were operating pre-Covid-19. It was the reality and they have managed because they have had to, but we cannot allow schools to go back to that perverse sense of normality. The priority of reducing teacher-pupil ratios cannot be overstated and that is work that needs to be expedited. We need to make an absolute commitment, as this motion calls for, to dramatically and immediately reduce classroom sizes in Ireland and abolish class sizes of over 30 pupils. We need to facilitate teachers to do their jobs, have better learning and teaching experiences for students, particularly for those from more vulnerable backgrounds, and these smaller classroom sizes need to be maintained beyond the pandemic. The Government finally needs to fall in line with the standard EU average. We do not stand with our educators and students unless we meet those minimum goals.
I will touch on the welcome announcements made yesterday. I accept fully that we should be positive regarding getting our schools reopened, because that is fundamentally the most important thing. We should not, however, be blinded by the realities of the challenges left to face our school leaders, given the short run-in to the reopening. The Minister has provided funding for 1,000 post-primary school teachers, but we have 750 post-secondary schools in this country. If there is a second wave of Covid-19 and if teachers have, for one reason or another, to remove themselves from the classroom, that is not going to be enough.
I was also talking to some of my friends in education today and asking them how they are going to manage with these overflow classrooms that they apparently have. That question was met with some sense of ridicule and rightly so. I state that because I have been in many schools in recent years, and I have not seen too many overflow classrooms, such as those contained in the plan. The idea of turning physical education, PE, halls into classrooms is one we should oppose. Physical education is not only a leaving certificate subject, it is essential to student well-being. The only chance for many students to get exercise in many situations is actually coming into schools and taking part in PE, being part of team sports and having some fun. That is essential and we should not be removing that opportunity from our schools.
The idea of going back to normality is one we should oppose. There is now an opportunity with the pandemic having accelerated many different factors in Irish life. One of those factors is that we need a vision for how education can be better. What was the normality was not good enough. There is a real chance to stand up and demonstrate leadership on this issue. The package announced yesterday is certainly welcome, and what we really need now is leadership.
I will touch very briefly on SNAs, and I intend to bring this up again on Thursday. Our SNAs are vital to the functioning of our schools and to give students with special educational needs the opportunity to be on a par with other students. We need to start valuing our SNAs. That will include ensuring the professionalisation of the role of SNAs, that conditions of employment for SNAs are standardised across the education sphere and that we pay SNAs appropriately. If we can get one thing right in the next couple of months, let us do justice to our SNAs.
I thank Deputy Gannon. We move on now to the Solidarity-People Before Profit group. I call Deputy Mick Barry, who is sharing time.
No, I am speaking myself.
That is fine.
I want to ask the Minister for Education and Skills about the position facing fifth years, the leaving certificate class of 2021, and also the sixth years who have just left schools, the leaving certificate class of 2020. I had an exchange with the Taoiseach earlier today. I asked him about changes being planned regarding the leaving certificate in 2021 to take account of these students having lost quite a lot of face-to-face time with their teachers in recent months.
The Taoiseach said that there are changes afoot and students will be given more choice in leaving certificate examinations next year to take account of the fact that students will be unable to complete the curriculum. I think the students listening to that reply from the Taoiseach would welcome the fact that changes are being made but would like a bit more information before making up their minds on the matter. The devil will be in the detail. How broad and sweeping will those changes be? What degree of choice will students be given? When will students know precisely what the changes are? That is an important issue.
The Taoiseach also said that there will be constant engagement with the cohort of leaving certificate students to ease any concerns or anxieties they may have. What exactly does that mean? If the proposed changes and increased level of choice for students are put out there and a majority of students are unhappy with the proposals because they do not think the changes are deep enough or the choices wide enough, does that mean the ball comes back over the net into the court of the Minister and the Department? Will the students be listened to and more changes made? If it does not mean that, is the engagement with students meaningless? I welcome the fact that there will be engagement with leaving certificate students to ease their concerns and anxieties but we need to see what that will look like if the students are not happy with the proposed changes. We will keep a close eye on that.
The result of the leaving certificate examinations for students who have just finished secondary school will only be made known on 7 September, as opposed to mid-August as is usually the case. They will be getting their results three weeks late and that will cause stress and anxiety. It means that students moving to third level will not have induction courses in many cases and will be starting courses in college significantly later than would otherwise have been the case. Students who must organise accommodation for themselves will be put in a particularly difficult situation. It is one thing if students know for sure what college they are going to but if they receive their results on 7 September and the first round of offers through the Central Applications Office are made on 11 September, some students will only then know which college they will be attending. Such students will be under real pressure to sort out accommodation in time for the start of their courses. Why is it that despite schools meeting their deadlines for getting grades and percentages into the Department of Education and Skills there will be a three-week delay in the distribution of examination results? That does not add up and I would like to hear an explanation for it.
I wish to also make some points about class sizes. It is a straightforward issue. The average class size in Ireland is 26 students while the European average is 20. That is a damning indictment of the Governments of recent years but also indicates the size of the opportunity to recruit teachers on a large scale in order to reduce the size of classes and make schools safer during the Covid-19 pandemic. I do not think the steps that have been taken are anywhere near enough.
I want to focus on the question of the circular and what it says about special educational needs teachers. The idea is that they will be used to cover classes as substitute teachers when a teacher is not there. They may not be the substitutes of first resort because they will come from the supply panels but other speakers in this debate have made the point that the supply panels are not nearly big enough to cover the demand for substitute teachers that will exist. That means, therefore, that special educational needs teachers will be taken away from their special educational duties and used as substitutes in our schools next year. That is not good news for children with autism spectrum disorder or who do not have English as their first language and are attended by special educational teachers. If I were a parent of such a child, I would be very concerned with the contents of the circular. We need to hire many more teachers on the supply panels and in the special educational needs category to work in our schools.
I was about to congratulate the Minister on her appointment but, as she has left the Chamber, I will do so another time. The Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, might pass on my congratulations.
I think there are issues related to this motion that have always been there but are now accepted because of Covid-19. If returning to school were a wound, the issue would be regarded as septic and would need a great deal of care not to end up fatal. The issues that we face are now recognised as many in number but similar in vein. The Government must decide on a formula to get the schools reopened as they have now been closed for in excess of 130 days, although I appreciate that it is no easy task. The types of issues vary but space is by far the biggest problem. I am a past pupil of Ramsgrange community school. I would have considered it a school that had few issues but that is not the case. The numbers in the school have grown from 320 to just over 500 in seven years. Representatives of the school have been requesting an extension for some five years and received news last year that extension funding was granted but, most unfortunately, they will fall at the first planning hurdle because of Irish Water. That is another hindrance to any progress trying to be made across the country, whether for schools or otherwise, due to the fact that there is no funding structure and Irish Water has no current funds. This is the reason for a halted expansion to a new water treatment plant for the area that serves the environs of Ramsgrange community school. That project is expected to be on the long finger for at least a year.
Another wonderful school in my constituency is Kilrane national school in Rosslare. Some 330 pupils will start back to school in late August or early September. This school has a wonderful new three-room autism unit which is great to see. Kilrane was one of the few facilities that ran a summer provision course in full this year. The school was more than willing to provide its autism rooms to outside groups of parents who were desperate to use the facilities for their children who have received no services during the pandemic but was prevented from doing so because of insurance issues. That is a real shame and a missed opportunity for those most in need and the only obstacle was the unavailability of insurance.
Kilrane national school will face a particular problem because it has no communal area or physical education hall. In order to comply with social distancing guidelines, all they can rely on is the new autism unit. I hope that is a situation the Department can remedy in real time for the benefit of the 330 children currently in the school and for the children who will attend Kilrane in the future. I expect that Rosslare will grow exponentially post Brexit for various reasons.
There is every reason we should prepare our school for that growth. Now is the time to do so. There are similar issues in New Ross CBS. The school has no PE hall or community area, despite having just short of 400 pupils. The numbers are rising year-on-year and pupils deserve the same facilities as other schools in the town. Just under half of the pupils in Coláiste Bhríde in Carnew come from the greater Gorey area of north County Wexford. When I visited it before the pandemic, it was based in a very old building with classrooms that are no longer fit for purpose. Its classrooms are overcrowded, which is the norm in other schools. What is not the norm is the size of the classrooms in the school. One class will now most likely be divided into three. The school does not have the room or teachers to do this. I regret to say that none of the schools I have mentioned will be able to reopen in September without increased supports and assistance.
The schools I have mentioned are only a sample. I am optimistic about the roadmap for schools and there has been praise for the Department from all of those to whom I have spoken today and over recent times. They welcome the supports, but that is tongue-in-cheek because they are overdue. I think that is what is called an Irish thank you. There has also been some criticism. People have said that some of the information could have been delivered sooner to allow schools to be able to access tradespeople to reconfigure their schools. They are not in plentiful supply due to the amount of reconfiguration taking place in all sectors. I would expect that the procurement process has been alleviated for school principals as that is an important factor in being able to get work carried out.
I fully appreciate that the Minister has made a decision and, right or wrong, she will always face criticism. I hope that the problems will be few and far between and that everyone's agenda is to get children, who have not attended school for 130 days, back to school, along with ensuring teachers and all staff working in schools are in as safe an environment as possible.
School transport is an issue. Many of my constituents have complained that they have yet to receive refunds for school transport. I would appreciate it if credit notes were issued to those parents who are now being asked to pay in full for school transport by 31 July. I thank the Department officials who contacted me today to say that the deadline has been extended to 4 August. I ask the Minister, in these unprecedented times, to make sure that refunds are provided by that date.
I will not patronise the Minister because she is a teacher and will of course be only too aware of all of the problems I have mentioned. I wish to highlight that after reopening, those issues will still exist. I will take this opportunity to thank the staff in her Department. I have no doubt that they have all been under serious pressure, given the leaving certificate, colleges and everything else that comes within their remit, no more than students, teachers and the public they serve.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta Ó Laoghaire as an rún seo a chur os ár gcomhair anocht. Aontaím leis an rún seo go huile agus go hiomlán agus beidh mé ag tacú leis. Tá na fadhbanna leagtha amach ann ach tá na fuascailtí ar na fadhbanna sin ann chomh maith agus is maith liom é sin.
The Young Irelander and patriot Thomas Davis once said, "Educate that you may be free". Those words still ring true today, but they ring true in the sense of liberation from a cycle of disadvantage and poverty that too many of our children find themselves trapped in in Irish society.
The motion deals comprehensively with an issue that is perhaps the single greatest source of concern to hundreds of thousands of parents and families at this time. The motion addresses what impedes and impacts negatively on children who are already disadvantaged. A disadvantaged child or a child with special educational needs in a super-sized class of 30 will not be able to make the same progress as a child who is disadvantaged or has special needs and is in a class of 20 or 22. That is a fact.
I taught before I went into politics. We were trained in college to differentiate content to suit children's needs, strengths and interests. Teachers cannot do that in classes of 30 or more. Children are not getting the enriched and personalised curriculum they should be. They are not getting the opportunities we should be giving them, which would allow them to flourish and reach their potential. I had an issue with that during my 12 years in the education system.
The motion calls for the Government to begin immediately the process of drastically reducing class sizes, with the objective of achieving a pupil-teacher ratio in line with the EU average of 20:1. I completely support that. It is something that needs to be done. Thanks to this crisis, we can no longer avoid this plain fact. Our schoolgoing children have been on the receiving end of systematic and structurally embedded inequalities for decades.
I also wonder why it is the case that we can marshal the political will to bring on board an extra 1,000 substitute teachers because of a crisis. It should not have taken a crisis for that to happen. Prior to this, Governments seemed to be prepared to leave schools scrambling desperately to hold on to vitally needed and valuable teachers each and every September. It is something I fight for every year. It is guaranteed that I will be submitting appeals for schools which are desperately trying to hold on to valued staff members.
This is an opportunity to be radical and truly republican in the best meaning of the term. We have an opportunity to cherish all of the children of the nation equally, as outlined in the vision of the 1916 Proclamation. We should use this opportunity to bring about permanent change for the educational good of all of our children. If we do that, we will have done the State some service.
I thank Sinn Féin for bringing forward this motion. I would like to start by thanking the Minister and her Department for all of their effort and success in helping schools throughout west Cork to receive urgent funding recently. Dreeny National School in Skibbereen needed to carry out emergency works. Scoil Mhuire na nGrást in Belgooly required emergency works in conjunction with Irish Water. Rath National School was also awarded funding last week. All of the schools involved want to acknowledge that they have gotten the green light to carry out urgent works and the funding is greatly appreciated. Some schools in west Cork are starved for funds for urgent works, but I will say little about the schools in Ballydehob and Castletownbere for now because I need to speak to the motion.
I agree with the process of reducing class sizes, with the objective of achieving a pupil-teacher ratio in line with the EU. While this is important, there are immediate issues of concern in schools today. I received phone calls yesterday and today from principals in some rural schools in west Cork who are concerned that the roadmap for reopening schools seems to be aimed more at city schools than rural schools. The Minister might be able to provide some clarity on this.
Some of my constituents have said that it appears that the teaching posts in the roadmap are for post-primary schools rather than primary schools. Is this the case?
Schools have a lot of questions which I hope the Minister can answer. How will shared resources teaching work during the pandemic when some teachers are shared between three schools? Substitute panels have been set to work in 60 centres, none of which seem to cover west of Cork city. I stand to be corrected.
Part of the motion is correct when it calls for the Government to ensure class sizes of 30 students and above are abolished. I appreciate the motion being brought forward.
School transport is of serious concern to many parents and a lot of clarity is needed. I respect that this is a difficult time for the Minister. I resent some of the criticism she is getting because she is a new Minister. I wish her the very best and I hope we can work together to resolve a lot of the issues in west Cork and throughout the country.
I wish the Minister, Deputy Foley, and the Ministers of State, Deputies Rabbitte and Madigan, the very best and look forward to working with them.
It has been a traumatic and trying time in the education system. It has been a trying time from the cradle to the grave, really, but from the playschools, the naíonraí, the national schools, secondary schools and third level institutions it has caused angst to the children, the parents, their families, their carers and above all the special needs children. I know we have the July provision. I want to support the motion tonight and thank Deputy Ó Laoghaire for putting it down.
We need sensitivity and vitality but above all we need consultation. I know many principals very well but one, in particular, who has been in contact with me every week during the lockdown is Mr. Kevin Langton of Comeragh College, Carrick-on-Suir. They have been trying to deal with the fallout. Mental health was only one of the areas. There were many others, including physical health, you name it. They now have a limited window to get everything in order. While the money is available separately, I know about bureaucracy in the Office of Public Works, OPW, around delivering buildings and architects and such. That is not going to happen.
Community halls throughout the country must be used. They are often supported by the Government but the enablers are the community people who put them there. We must think outside the box. We need to reduce class sizes. We need all those issues resolved. However, my worry now is with Covid-19 and all the money we are spending on class sizes. Teachers have been lobbying as have Ms Nóirín Ní Mhaoldhomhnaigh and many principals to get supports. There are huge stresses on the schools' boards of management, parents' councils, teaching staff and parents. We need those supports but we need to cut out the bureaucracy as well.
I referred to class sizes and the facilities. Some of the buildings are appalling. We were hoping to get rid of the prefabs and now it looks like nothing but prefabs will be bought with this kind of rushed situation. Irish Water is a big issue. Many places cannot connect to increase capacity because Irish Water will not allow it. This is important and I am here to support the Minister. I embrace the new plan. I want to be able to get answers and I want to thank Mr. Derek Newcombe and his new Department for his help.
The Minister, Deputy Foley, has helped me out with the amalgamation of Cahir boys' national school and Our Lady of Mercy Convent girls' school, two wonderful schools that have waiting more than three decades and are still not over the line even though the contract was awarded last November. Delays like that are frustrating. The construction industry is very busy. As I said, we want to work with and support the Minister.
We are waiting for DEIS status for schools in Tipperary town, Fethard and in many places. It is such a wait and drip-feed and it is difficult.
If an Leas-Cheann Comhairle will allow me the indulgence in the nóiméad I have left, a woman is being buried in County Tipperary in the morning, bean láidir, álainn agus stairiúil, Mrs. Peg Hanafin, a wonderful woman, God rest her soul. She is up there tonight, definitely, if anyone is. She set up, with a few others, the whole adult education system in Thurles town, Durlas Éile, adjacent to the famed Semple Stadium. She helped so many people, that was her motto. She lived to help people with the arts and worked with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and many other areas. She wrote five books, one of which went to print only last week on Friday. She died on Saturday. She and the Hanafin family gave a tremendous service. She was inspirational in teaching. We have had many visionaries in schools and in the educational realm in the past, including many sisters and clergy who do not get the recognition they deserve, but Peg was, as I said, an institution in her own right and gave support to less well-off people. When people could not get to second or third levels - not even second level at the time - she set this up for them. She set it up so that they could get back into education, do their leaving certificate and get on in life. She maintained friendship with all those people over the decades. Ar dheis Dé go raibh anam dílis Peg Hanafin.
I will share time with Deputy Harkin.
The motion is not directly on the return to school programme but it is going to be naturally caught up in all of that. The fact the motion was put down tonight meant the plan was brought forward. The Minister was supposed to announce this plan after we had all gone home next week, after the Dáil had risen for the summer. At least the plan has been announced and we can scrutinise it and talk about it in the House because it is vitally important. While the motion may not be directly related to it, it is related in the long term, because what we have now is an opportunity to tackle the problems in our schools, such as class sizes and pupil-teacher ratios, once and for all. We can do it now if we embrace this properly.
The plan shows some costings on the number of teachers and commitments regarding teachers but those commitments may not be enough. I want to be sure every school can meet the requirements and get the teachers they need to meet the reduced size numbers in the conditions that will be put in place and, also, when this Covid-19 emergency dies down, that those teachers will be maintained in that school and will actually serve to reduce the pupil-teacher ratios. That is vitally important.
One thing in the plan that needs to be stressed in these discussions, and one of the most important things that must happen in the schools, is that Covid-19 must be explained to all children at all levels to make sure there is no sense of emergency. They should be talked to and treated properly because that is vitally important.
The plan needs to be mentioned because several issues need to be highlighted. We need to make sure there are enough teachers. Much has been said tonight about the difficulty in recruiting teachers and the difficulty of where they will come from. The Minister said she is looking at that but we need to make sure they are there. That will take time in some schools but the plan and the cost needs to be there. It should not, and I hope it will not, be a cost issue that will stop the delivery of teachers for schools because that would be a real blow. It will defeat anything the Minister is trying to do, and that we are all trying to do in terms of getting our schools back open.
Recognising that school transport is going to be an integral part of the overall working of schools is going to be vitally important. We cannot have a situation where school transport is left as an afterthought and the providers are left behind. We must make sure they are part of it and integral to it.
A special education teacher emailed me this evening to raise this issue in the House. I hope one of the Ministers will answer it directly in summing up. Special education teachers have been told they will be expected to provide substitution in their schools. This means the special education classes will be left without a teacher and the special education teachers will be used in substitution. I do not see that in the plan but, perhaps, some schools are sending out that message to their teachers. We need to send the message clearly to them tonight that will not be the case and that special education teachers and children with special educational needs will be vitally important through the process and current numbers will have to be maintained. I would appreciate it if the Minister would confirm that because it is vitally important.
I ask that the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, pass on my best wishes to the new Minister, Deputy Foley. I think everyone agrees the opening of our schools is, perhaps, the most important issue facing this country in the next few months. It is important that we get it right, not just that children go back to school but that we can keep the schools open. Education matters for everybody but most of all for our most vulnerable children and for those who, in some way or another, have got detached from the system over the past 130 days. It is a huge challenge but just because something is a challenge, it does not mean that we will not do our best. Teachers, boards of management and staff are determined to try to make this work. The timeframe is extremely tight and different schools will have different circumstances and situations. Regardless, huge requirements are being placed on the shoulders of principals, boards of management, teachers, special needs assistants, SNAs, other staff, parents, etc. The amount of work and the attention to public health requirements, etc., is daunting. I was listening to the Minister when she was speaking.
She spoke about logistics; curriculum; teaching; administration; well-being; enhanced cleaning and hygiene measures; control measures; keeping up-to-date with public health advice and ensuring the advice is passed on to staff, students, parents and others; induction training; redesigning classrooms and making necessary changes to school layout; updating health and safety risk assessment, including systems such as water ventilation and rubbish collection services; and actions to prevent introduction and spread of Covid-19 in schools. That is just some of the list. All of that must be put in place in four weeks. It is an enormous task and anyone who does not recognise that is not being honest.
I read through the plan quickly and I looked at the various appendices, including the various risk assessments, checklists, tracing logs, etc., that will be required. Appendices 6, 7, 8 and 9 contained 131 different actions. It is highly detailed. Most of the public will not be aware of the enormous requirements this will place on schools.
It is great to see the plan. There is a significant contribution of resources. However, do we know if the resources provided are sufficient? How will these resources be distributed? Where will the extra teachers needed come from? Have any of them been recruited? Is it possible to go through the process of recruiting teachers in that short space of time alongside all the preparatory work that needs to be done over the next four weeks?
One of the most important points made in the Sinn Féin motion is the absolute need to reduce class sizes in line with the EU average of 20:1. Class sizes matter enormously and greatly impact on children's learning. Individual attention makes such a difference. Ireland is way behind the curve, with one in five children in classes of 30 or more. When it comes to being above the national average Sligo and Leitrim do not often find themselves in the upper echelons especially when it comes to being above the national average in investment, resources, etc. However, when it comes to class size, we are well up there, with Sligo at 22.1% and Leitrim at 21.4% of children in classes of 30 or more. Many schools in Sligo and Leitrim with such large class sizes will want to know if they will have the resources they need to open their schools safely. Will they be able to employ extra teachers? Schools that already have high pupil-teacher ratios will be under even greater pressure to reopen and stay open safely.
Like my colleague, Deputy Pringle, I emphasise the need for proper provision of school transport. Will parents spend all of August under ferocious pressure trying to ensure their children get to school? I know of people - I am sure the Minister of State also does - whom buses have passed by in recent times standing at bus stops. I would like to know, and I am sure we would all like to know, that will not happen to any of our children as they stand at bus stops waiting for school transport.
In her opening remarks, my colleague the Minister, Deputy Foley, set out in detail the approach the Government is taking to reopening our schools. We have listened very carefully to the contributions in the House tonight. It is useful for me, as a Minister of State, and my colleagues in government to hear from Deputies of the concerns they are hearing in their communities. While the school system is a national one, it is rooted in local communities. I know the truth in the statement that one size does not fit all. We have large schools, small schools, urban schools, rural schools, special schools, schools in older buildings and schools in newer ones. The roadmap announced yesterday and the associated documents which have been made available to schools recognise that flexibility is needed in how the roadmap will operate for an individual school.
I accept there is a challenge to get preparations finalised in time for schools reopening, but considerable resilience and initiative have been shown across society since March. By working together, we can get the work done that is needed to reopen our schools. School leaders, staff and management representatives have been working closely with the Department in recent weeks to prepare the roadmap. That engagement was open and intense, and it was aimed at being very practical in ensuring it would deliver the appropriate supports. The commitment of over €375 million is a significant commitment from Government, but in practical terms it means delivering additional teachers, changing how we operate in our schools and addressing the funding for capitation grants. Most importantly it brings clarity to students, parents, teachers, principals and all school staff.
The reopening of our schools has been described as a major logistical undertaking and challenge, and this is fully recognised. I know some have expressed concerns over whether there is enough time to prepare, whether the additional staff are available and what might happen if there are outbreaks of the virus. We will all work together through any challenges that emerge. My Department is available to schools to support them in any challenge that may emerge. The interests of students and families as well as the safety of the staff in the sector have been the paramount considerations throughout as the challenges before us have been worked through. I know how important education is for our young people. Everything that I, the Minister, Deputy Foley, the Department and the education partners do is always motivated by the best interests of our students.
The Department recognises the particular challenges that special schools and special classes will face in dealing with children with complex medical and care needs who are at a higher risk of the serious consequences of Covid-19. Additional NEPS psychologists will be appointed to provide enhanced services to support the well-being of our school communities at this time, to include the well-being of our special school communities. This is something for which I have personally advocated as Minister of State with responsibility for special education and inclusion.
In addition, further targeted resources will be provided. Special schools will receive funding equivalent to ten days' support for the purposes of employing an aide to assist with the logistics of preparing for reopening. To support this work, a once-off enhanced minor works grant will be paid to all schools by mid-August. Providing funding in this way, schools will have the flexibility needed to implement necessary physical measures in their schools quickly in compliance with the public health advice and this roadmap.
An enhanced rate is being provided to special schools and to special classes. These special schools and classes where there is a teaching principal will also receive one release day per week. These schools with an administrative deputy principal will be provided with 16 release days. The Department is also supporting the replacement of all absences of SNAs in school settings. We have at the moment approximately 17,000 SNAs and it is critical that every child with special needs would receive the support he or she needs to get back to school in an appropriate and safe way.
Enhanced Covid-19 rates are payable in respect of students attending special schools and special classes attached to mainstream schools to assist with the extra costs associated with the cleaning of classrooms with a small number of students operating specialist provision.
A special sum of €3.8 million will be provided towards the cleaning of special schools. Additional financial support will be provided to special schools and classes to provide hand sanitiser and personal protective equipment, PPE, which is likely to be required to a greater degree in these settings. Aprons and gloves are particularly necessary for intimate care. It is almost impossible for children in special schools and classes to maintain social distance. We have to be realistic about that and PPE will therefore be absolutely necessary.
One of the key elements in ensuring that schools can remain open once they reopen is preventing the Covid-19 virus from getting into a school in the first instance. This means students, families and staff all playing their roles in keeping the virus out of the school by ensuring that those who have symptoms or who suspect they have the virus stay out of schools. This is particularly the case for children with special needs. The parents and guardians of these children will have to be particularly aware. They should not be sent to school if they are not well. Best practice must also be maintained with regard to hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette in school while social contacts must be minimised and physical distancing practices must be respected. Individual responsibility will be critical to schools reopening properly.
Our schools and their students, families and staff are at the centre of our communities. We look forward to our schools reopening in the coming weeks. I thank Deputies for their contributions this evening. The Minister, Deputy Foley, and I will take them very seriously and we will follow up on all the Deputies' individual queries. Deputies can talk to the Minister or myself about these queries at any time. The reopening of schools will give a much-needed signal of certainty and hope to Irish families. We will continue to work with all concerned to the benefit of our students across the country. There has been a positive collective response from the Irish people because we all want to work within the new normal. The education of our children is critical for this country and for future generations and their mental health. It is important that parents see their children returning to social settings and getting the knowledge and learning they will need in the future. I thank everybody for their assistance in achieving that.
In her speech, the Minister spoke about a significant commitment to schools from Government. I remind the Minister that it is Irish taxpayers who are paying for this package rather than the Government parties. From day one of this pandemic the Government has been all over the place and has lacked direction in its response to the issues facing the education sector. Since March, I have been asking questions of two Ministers for Education and Skills and trying to get answers as to how schools would be able to reopen, when they might do so, and when principals and school boards would be told the details. None of my questions was adequately answered. I was told time and again that the Government was working on a plan and that the schools would be told how they were to reopen in plenty of time.
The last time I spoke on education in the Dáil was on a Topical Issue debate. It was also at 12 midnight. The issue related to Firhouse Educate Together secondary school. Some 40% of this school's pupils have special needs and they are being forced to move to Citywest, which is a good distance away from the school's current location. I understand the challenges schools are facing but this school will be facing massive challenges. Again, we are waiting on answers from the Minister and her Department as to how the school will operate.
With four weeks to go, schools are still in the dark. An earlier speaker said that we have to be positive. I want to be positive. It is great that the schools are reopening but under what conditions and to what end are they doing so? Only today, both the TUI and the ASTI poured cold water on the Minister's claims that all schools will be able to reopen by the end of August. There are significant challenges facing schools. The TUI has said that we need to recruit more than 1,000 teachers if we are to have a hope of being ready. How does the Minister propose to do this within the couple of weeks that are left? Is that another burden that will be put on school boards?
A parent made contact with me today. She has three children. One is seriously ill and the school has said it cannot take the child back. Another has Down's syndrome and another, who is six years old, is desperate to go back to school. Again, there is no place for these children. What does that parent do? What is the Minister's answer in that regard? Schools are telling me they are looking for answers but that they have not got them so far. The burden is therefore back on school boards and school principals. The Minister has laid out her roadmap but it is not good enough for many parents and schools.
Sometimes drastic measures are needed in drastic times. This Private Members' motion could possibly be a catalyst to reform the education system when that reform is really needed. It calls for the development of a dedicated strategy to prioritise those who have lost out most. Many speakers have mentioned children with special needs and so on. School transport is, as we say in Cork, a box of frogs at the moment. People are stressed to breaking point because they do not know what is happening.
One individual whom I know, a seven year old named Zach, needs an autism-appropriate school to attend but no place has been found for him in the whole of east Cork. He does not even know if he will be in school if the schools open. His parents are facing a 50 km round trip to Cork city.
There are many issues that need to be addressed. I spoke to many primary and secondary school principals and they do not feel the confidence I hear about from the Government. They do not recognise the Government's assertion that there have been constant negotiations and talks. Many of the principals to whom I have spoken in recent weeks are very nervous. I hope there will be clarity for them.
I have been hearing about the issue of school class sizes. This is the most vital issue. I urge the Government to withdraw its proposed amendment because it will lead to people being left behind. It should stick to the motion as proposed by Sinn Féin. I ask the Government to support it. I congratulate my comrade and colleague, Deputy Ó Laoghaire, on bringing it forward.
The Government has had 20 minutes in which to speak and neither the Minister nor the Minister of State actually addressed the purpose of the motion, which is to underline the fact that we faced this crisis, and that this jurisdiction was one of the slowest developed countries in Europe or elsewhere to reopen closed schools, because our school system is underfunded, understaffed and overcrowded. Unfortunately, that issue was not addressed in either speech. I appreciate that there are other issues to be addressed, I addressed some myself, but this is a fundamental point. We were put in this situation, and schools have been closed longer than they otherwise would have been, because it was so difficult to establish how to reopen schools safely.
I am disappointed at that but I ask the Minister to reconsider the Government's position on this motion and on its amendment. There is an opportunity here. I emphasised that to the senior Minister, who was here earlier, and I now emphasise it to the Minister of State. As a result of demographic trends, there will be an opportunity to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio dramatically on a cost-neutral basis. All that is required is for the Ministers in the Department to insist that the number of teachers at primary level not be reduced and that these teachers stay there to provide a better standard of education at a more appropriate ratio for a developed state because our high pupil-teacher ratio has had a significant impact on our ability to return to school and also on the quality of education received.
We talk in this House about the progression to university and how that varies from area to area and demographic to demographic but the fact is, inequality is baked in to the Irish education system from an early age and that is because of issues such as this.
I will briefly address some of the other issues that arose. School transport is an issue I am concerned about. I welcome that there is additional funding but it seems to be for reconfiguration. It does not appear that there has been extensive discussion with the transport companies or Bus Éireann for that matter. If there was, the outcomes have not been published. If discussions are happening and the outcomes are to be published, I would welcome that, but I am concerned about the children who rely on school transport schemes. Approximately 120,000 children rely on the school transport scheme, between buses and the taxi scheme, and if they are not included in the public transport scheme, we cannot be guaranteed that they have another way of getting to school. That is an issue that needs to be resolved.
I want to return to special educational needs. There is much concern in that regard. Deputy Pringle has left the Chamber now but he raised a point a few moments ago that was not addressed. I ask the Minister of State to address it. If she cannot address it now, perhaps she would respond to me tomorrow. The concern fits with my reading of the circular which relates to the sequence for covering all teacher absences. The first is the supply panel if a school is part of a supply panel cluster arrangement. The second is where the school is on a panel for regular substitutes. The third is the national substitute service. The fourth is that if no substitute is available from the above options then a school may, for teachers in mainstream schools, use non-mainstream teachers to cover the absence. As far as I am concerned, that means special education teachers can be used to cover absences. Not only that, but it is clear that in other parts of the document they are also being asked to be, effectively, the people who are delivering education for those who are not able to attend because they are in a high-risk categories, although the high-risk categories have yet to be defined. There will be children who will not be in a position to attend. Special education teachers could be covering absences and breaks and they could be directing the teaching of those who are not able to attend. When are they supposed to deliver the special education that is needed? The Minister will be more aware of this than anyone. Those children have lost out more than most, obviously in terms of education but also in terms of socialisation and isolation. They have fallen back the most and they need the most attention. I think this is wrong and it needs to be addressed.
There is also an issue concerning special needs assistants, SNAs. The Minister of State said she will cover the absence of SNAs. There are no SNA substitute panels. That needs to be examined and rectified. The Minister of State can take that as a constructive proposal. We have substitute panels for primary schools and secondary schools and there is a need for panels for SNAs as well. It is important to note that, throughout this process, staff other than teachers, and in some instances even teachers, have not received the respect they deserve. I include SNAs in that but I also include school secretaries, who are not mentioned. There is no discussion of what would happen in their absence either.
I mentioned children who are immunocompromised. There is not enough detail in that regard. There is not a specific resource. It seems to be leaving it to the special education teacher to decide how they will continue to be taught. Their condition is not going away and neither is the pandemic. We must ensure that they are not totally isolated and that they continue to get some form of education.
I will finish on this point. The key point is that we were put in this situation because of underfunding and understaffing. We have an opportunity to get out of it and that process should start now. I urge the Minister of State to back the motion and to begin the process of delivering an education system that is fair, equal and in proper accommodation that is fit for this jurisdiction.
I am going to put amendment No. 1 in the name of the Minister for Education and Skills. The question is, is é an cheist, "That the amendment be made." Is dóigh go bhfuil an cheist rite. I think the amendment is agreed.
I have to put the question formally: "That the motion, as amended, be agreed to."
Could I clarify matters please? Are you saying, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, that the motion, as amended, is agreed to?
Yes, I am now putting the main motion as the amendment in the name of the Government is now the main motion.
No. I am sorry. Gabh mo leithscéal. My understanding is that there will have to be a vote on the amendment before we vote on the motion.
Nobody called a vote.
I did call a vote.
I am sorry. I did not hear it. I beg the Deputy's pardon. He can call it at this point now as I am putting the motion. I did ask and I did not hear any call for a vote.
I am sorry. I thought I said it.
No, I did not hear it. I am putting the main question now and the Deputy can make up his mind. The question is: "That the motion, as amended, be agreed to."
Na Teachtaí Dála ar thaobh na cheist sin, abraidís tá. Na Teachtaí atá ina choinne-----
I have to say now-----
Is féidir leat vótáil-----
No, it is a different proposition though, because-----
Deputy Ó Laoghaire should please be aware that I am in the middle of a vote at this point.
I did say "Níl".
I did not hear the Deputy.
Could we consult some of the other people who might have heard me?
There is nobody beside Deputy Ó Laoghaire. I am sorry.
A Leas-Cheann Comhairle-----
I did not actually hear.
It was definitely said, and it is important because-----
That is okay. Could I just clarify something? The first step was to put the Government amendment.
I did not hear anybody say "No" or call a vote on that.
Yes, we did.
I did not actually hear it.
The Deputy should just let me explain. Then I proceeded to put the motion. Deputy Ó Laoghaire can now call a vote at this point if he wants.
This is a vitally important point. We tabled a motion and an amendment was tabled to it.
You asked the question. I said "No". I also said "Vótáil". I appreciate that perhaps you did not hear me-----
-----but I did everything in accordance with the procedures of the House and I do not believe it is fair or equitable that the motion itself, that we just spent two hours debating, is somehow annulled because of that.
I did not hear that so I proceeded to the next part.
Could I appeal to the good grace of the Government, which would surely be aware that I would have called "vótáil", and indeed I did call "vótáil", that it accepts that a division was challenged? I do not ask the Government to accept the motion - that is obviously its prerogative - but to accept that a division was challenged. This is just about fair procedure.
With respect, I think this is a matter for the Chair, for the Leas-Cheann Comhairle.
I did not hear a vote being called. There was no vote called. I am trying to make a ruling. I have listened to the Minister of State.
A Leas-Cheann Comhairle-----
I ask the Deputy to wait one moment. I will come to him in a moment. I did not hear a vote being called. Nobody called a vote that I heard, so I moved to the next part. It is quite open to Deputy Ó Laoghaire to call a vote now. He can call a vote and we will put it into the Thursday voting slot as usual.
I am sitting up here and I could hear Deputy Ó Laoghaire calling "vótáil" so I think it is a bit disingenuous when-----
No, I do not intend to be disingenuous in any way.
I am not saying you are. Gabh mo leithscéal.
I just did not hear it.
I am not being disingenuous either; I am just saying that if I can hear it from where I am, surely the Opposition parties on the far side could have heard it.
I understand that.
Deputy Ó Laoghaire is correct that it is a different proposition now. That is the point he is trying to make.
I did not hear "Vótáil" so I moved to the second point. I am giving Sinn Féin a chance now to call a vótáil if it wants.
We cannot. We should ask that the sound file would be played.
I cannot hear two people at the same time. I am sorry. It is very late in the morning.
You will be aware, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, that it would have been my intention to call "Vótáil". I did call "Vótáil". I did say "Níl". According to you, a motion we put quite a bit of work into is now to be set aside for the Government amendment.
I would love to help but I have made a ruling. At this point I am not sure, in the sense that I did not hear it.
There was no disingenuity on my part. I simply did not hear the Deputy and moved to put the question on the motion, as amended. I am giving the Deputy an opportunity to vote against that now.
I do not believe I can accept that. It is a bit of an absurdity.
That is the way it is at this point. I am really sorry. Perhaps it is the lateness of the hour-----
Can you please consult with other Members who may have heard?
I have consulted as best I can, Deputy. You have asked the Government and it has given its viewpoint and left it up to me. Nobody has come back to say he or she heard you call "Votáil" except your colleague, Deputy Buckley. I did not hear it so I have moved on. I am giving you an opportunity now to make the-----
I appeal to a fair-minded Deputy who is not from my party and who would clearly have heard me say "Votáil". Can I make that appeal?
Sorry, there is a Deputy-----
I am making an open appeal.
That is okay. There is a Deputy at the back waiting to comment. I call Deputy Cowen.
I agree that Deputy Ó Laoghaire said "Níl". He called a vote.
Okay, thank you. Just let me reflect on that for a moment, please.
It is late in the evening and we are all tired. I did not hear a vote being called, so perhaps there is a lesson there for all of us. I am going to go back to the amendment now and redo it for Deputy Ó Laoghaire but there is a lesson here. I did not hear it up here at this level.
Amendment No. 1 is in the name of the Minister for Education and Skills.
In accordance with Standing Order 80(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time on Thursday, 30 July 2020.
I would say to Deputy Ó Laoghaire that it is extremely difficult to hear Members without their microphones. It is something to bear in mind in future.