Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

School Transport

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

Question:

1. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Education the way she will address the long-standing shortage of school transport places across the State; if she has engaged in capacity planning; and her views on whether it will be possible that each child who wants a place on a bus will receive a place. [35282/21]

I ask Minister for Education how she will address the long-standing shortage of school transport places across the State, if she is engaged in capacity planning, and her views on whether it will be possible that each child who wants a place in the bus will receive one.

The school transport scheme is significant operation, managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department. In the current school year, more than 114,000 children, including more than 14,700 children with special educational needs, SEN, are transported on a daily basis to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country, at a cost of more than €224.7 million in 2020. All children who are eligible for school transport, and who complete the application and payment process on time, are accommodated in school transport services, where such services are in operation. Children who are not eligible for school transport may apply for transport on a concessionary basis only. They may be offered seats where capacity exists and after all eligible children have been catered for.

The Department recently commenced a review of the school transport scheme. Following commencement of this review in February 2021, in a detailed analysis and a report conducted by the technical working group in the interim period, the steering group recently presented me with its initial interim report, a report on eligibility with an examination of issues for mainstream pupils relating to the nearest and next-nearest school.

Following consideration of this report, I have approved the recommendation to maintain the scheme as it currently operates, pending the outcome of the full review, but with temporary alleviation measures to continue on post-primary transport scheme services. These temporary alleviation measures allow for post-primary pupils who are otherwise eligible for school transport, but who are attending their second-nearest school, who apply and pay on time, to access school transport. This will result in transport being provided for an estimated additional 1,800 post-primary pupils in the 2021-2022 school year, who otherwise would not be accommodated under the scheme. This arrangement will be in place for the coming school year pending completion of the full review of the school transport scheme.

The Department has engaged intensively with Bus Éireann in regard to the logistics for the safe operation of school transport services for the 2020-2021 school year. Based on public health advice, the Department provided for school transport scheme services for the 2020-2021 school year to fully operate, but with additional measures and hygiene requirements in place and with the rolling implementation of measures on post-primary services, as required, to provide physical distancing using 50% of passenger capacity-----

I thank the Minister. She will get a chance to get back in.

Each year parents are faced with the same problems, when it comes to the school bus transport scheme. It is fair to say the scheme is popular, but it is over-subscribed. The question arises in terms of who is eligible and who is excluded. I would like to know the Minister's assessment of those who are excluded. What percentage of people are on concessionary tickets? What number of people who apply for the scheme are neither eligible nor get a concessionary ticket? The issue of unmet need is important. The suggestion that we will increase the number by 1,800 by next year is unambitious. It is out of kilter with the ambition in the climate Bill and with other obligations. Bus Éireann aims to get to 139,000 by 2030. That in and of itself is not enough, and the Minister’s ambition is half of that.

I am conscious of the issues the Deputy raises. As a consequence of that, he will be aware that there is a full review of the school transport system, which I have instigated. In the shortest term possible, we have asked for the interim report. The interim report looks at issues of eligibility in terms of nearest school and next-nearest school. I am pleased to say that in the short term, we have made those changes. There are many other changes and additions that will come on foot of the larger report, when it comes out.

Concessionary tickets are available to children who are not eligible for school transport, because they are not attending their nearest school, or because they reside less than the residency distance. Transport on a concessionary basis is subject to a number of conditions which are detailed in the school transport scheme, for example, the existence of spare seats on a bus, after all eligible children have been catered for and payment of the school transport charge, regardless of whether the child holds a medical card. As a consequence of the change was announced in 2011, the evidence is there that a growing number of children have availed of school transport on a concessionary basis since 2011, rising from 4,000 on 20 November 2012 to more than 30,000 in the 2019-2020 school year. This is an increase of more than 25,000. That will increase again as-----

I thank the Minister.

There will be additional 1,800.

The scale of the ambition is not nearly where it needs to be. In the last 20 years, we have seen a 6% decrease in the number of people who avail of school bus transport, and a 31% increase in the number of children travelling to school by car. That is inconsistent with where we need to be going in terms of our modal shift. There are many compelling reasons to move people from the private car to the school bus. If this is the first year in a ten-year programme, it is not anywhere near where it needs to be.

I ask the Minister about an area that is almost neglected in terms of school bus transport, namely, the private operators who operate outside the school bus transport system in many towns and villages around this country. How many people do they carry? Is there any assessment from the Minister’s Department in terms of the private sector and how many children it carries to school on a daily basis?

The Department is clear on ambition. We recognise there are considerable issues with school transport. A review of the entire school transport scheme is under way at this point in time. To facilitate accommodations that could be made in the short term, there was an announcement of an initial finding of review, which will now accommodate an additional 1,800 pupils. In this very short space of time, to be able to produce a report of that nature that facilitates students who wish to attend their second-nearest school is a welcome, progressive, positive and, indeed, proactive approach to take. I am conscious that the fuller report, when it is completed, will address many more issues. It will provide us with opportunities to amend and introduce new measures and accommodations. There is no shortage of ambition, as the Deputy refers to it. There is no shortage of determination to address the issues of school transport.

School Staff

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

Question:

2. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Education the steps she has taken to achieve pay equality and pension entitlements for school secretaries in accordance with the commitments given by Government. [35283/21]

I ask the Minister the steps she has taken to achieve pay equality and pension entitlements for school secretaries, in accordance with the commitments given by Government.

As someone who comes from the school sector, I am keenly aware of the vital role played by school secretaries in the running of our schools. In recognition of this role, I have put special arrangements in place for the coming school year whereby schools will be funded to employ a replacement secretary or caretaker in the event that staff who are at very high risk of contracting serious illness from Covid cannot work on the school premises. I have also extended the employee assistance service to all school staff including secretaries and caretakers.

The majority of primary and voluntary secondary schools receive assistance to provide for secretarial, caretaking and cleaning services under grant schemes. Where a school employs a staff member to support these functions those staff are employees of individual schools and responsibility for terms of employment rests with the school.

On foot of a chairman’s note to the Lansdowne Road agreement, the Department implemented the 2015 recommendations of an independent arbitrator. The arbitrator recommended a cumulative pay increase of 10% between 2016 and 2019, and that a minimum hourly pay rate of €13 be phased in over that period. This arbitration agreement covered the period up to 31 December 2019 and has been fully implemented and increased funding was provided by my Department. The arbitration agreement was designed to be of greatest benefit to lower-paid secretaries and caretakers. For example, a secretary or caretaker who was paid the then minimum wage of €8.65 per hour in 2015 prior to the arbitration has, from 1 January 2019, been paid €13 per hour, which is a 50% increase in that individual’s hourly pay.

Fórsa trade union has tabled a follow-on claim from the 2015 agreement. Officials from the Department, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and school management bodies have been engaging with Fórsa on the claim. On 27 October 2020, under the auspices of the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, an understanding was agreed on a pathway to progress the issues. Several key strands have been identified, and a phased approach is being taken to the development of proposals. The parties continue to engage under the auspices of the WRC with the next meeting scheduled for 30 July and I support at all times meaningful engagement on this issue by all parties.

We are heading into another summer when very many school secretaries will have to go on jobseeker’s allowance again. A commitment in this regard is contained in the programme for Government. This commitment was made by the Minister’s party when it was in opposition and by the Tánaiste last October. I welcome the engagement but school secretaries and their representatives are frustrated by the pace of progress regarding these matters. What is the timeline in this regard? How quickly will this engagement conclude? When can school secretaries expect these issues to be addressed and to get a fair deal and their entitlements?

As I have outlined and said consistently, I am very conscious of the excellent and pivotal work contributed to school communities by schools secretaries and caretakers. I have been very clear on this. I am also very clear, as I am sure is the Deputy, that there is a process of engagement via the WRC. I also acknowledge that since October 2020 the process has moved apace and there has been significant engagement and meetings have been held between the parties under the auspices of the WRC. There have also been bilateral engagements in that regard. Therefore, there is a clear commitment to progress these complex issues that form part of the pay claim.

I also acknowledge that detailed work is being carried out between the parties in phase 1 of the talks. To consider the remaining elements of the claim, further data are required. These data are now forthcoming as the Department recently completed a necessary data gathering process across the primary and post-primary sector. The returns from this exercise are now being analysed and this work will help to inform the next approaches to be taken regarding these issues. It remains the intention of all parties to reach agreement on the regularisation of pay, conditions of employment and pension provision, which is, as the Deputy said, set out in the roadmap document.

Go raibh maith agat, a Aire. It is important to state there are issues of equality and fairness and regarding the rights of workers. In addition, there are also real issues of potential hardship. Therefore, time is important and of the essence. I reiterate the frustration - and it is frustration - felt by school secretaries and their representatives regarding the rate and speed of progress, or lack thereof. I ask again what the Minister sees as being a realistic timeframe. How quickly can these negotiations and discussions be concluded? I know that extensive work has been done on collecting data, which concluded on 21 May. We are now in July so this work concluded six weeks ago. Time is of the essence. I ask again, therefore, what is the realistic timeframe, with complete focus on this issue, to get a resolution.

I acknowledge again that there has been significant progress. I reiterate that since October there has been consistent engagement via the WRC, and this includes bilateral engagements. The engagement has been very fruitful in that it has been consistently helpful to the process to chart a way forward. As outlined previously, the Deputy is quite correct that a significant body of data was requested. It was gathered by the Department, which was a significant undertaking. These data are now available. The process will be progressed at speed. It is a necessary element of the work. Everybody would wish that the process could be concluded with the click of fingers, but this is not possible given that several parties are involved via the WRC. It is very important that all parties are given the time and latitude to bring to the table what needs to be brought to the table, and to bring the information required to progress matters.

I remind members watching proceedings on screens that the questions are moving on. I will skip over the next question because the Deputy is not here.

School Facilities

Alan Dillon

Question:

4. Deputy Alan Dillon asked the Minister for Education her plans to increase the provision of multi-use sports halls in primary and post-primary schools; the annual allocations approved nationally for multi-use sports halls, general purpose halls and physical education facilities from 2019; the details of similar projects in County Mayo under consideration by her Department; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [35173/21]

Our schools need access to multipurpose spaces that will allow for greater physical activity and a safer space for school communities together. There is easily one school in every constituency where the communal spaces are inadequate. Greater availability of such spaces has become a real necessity with the onset of the pandemic. Additional spaces would allow for greater flexibility in our schools and promote physical activity during inclement weather. I am hoping to see allocations of these types of projects increase significantly over the coming year for our primary and post-primary schools.

Many schools have a GP room or sports hall and practically all schools have outdoor play areas. In addition, many schools use adjacent local facilities, including community halls, public parks, playing fields and swimming pools.

Investment and expenditure on GP rooms and PE halls is an element of the overall expenditure and investment in the school building programme. The provision of GP rooms, PE halls and outdoor hard play areas, such as basketball courts, form part of the accommodation brief for all new school buildings or where a major building or refurbishment project is being delivered for an existing school.

The main focus of resources over the past decade and for the coming period is on the provision of additional capacity to cater for increasing demographics, particularly at post-primary level, and for special needs provision. Under the national development plan, NDP, increased funding has been provided for the school sector capital investment programme. This funding allows for a continued focus on the provision of new permanent school places to keep pace with demographic demand and also provides for an additional focus on the refurbishment of existing school buildings to include the building and modernisation of PE facilities in post-primary schools. At present, this investment is targeted to the latter half of the NDP programme.

Details of large-scale projects being delivered under the school building programme, including in respect of Mayo, may be viewed on the Department's website, education.ie, and this information is updated on a regular basis. In addition, a list of large-scale projects completed from 2010 to date may also be viewed on the website.

I thank the Minister. Recently, I had discussions on the sports capital and equipment programme with the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, and I know this scheme has been opened up to schools and education and training boards, provided that they make a joint application for local sports organisations.

That is welcome but does not go far enough to address the infrastructural deficits in some of our schools, which are in desperate need of facilities. There is an opportunity to better highlight the availability of funding pathways within the Department and ensure that boards of management and principals are fully aware of the available funding opportunities. While the sports capital programme will be good for sporting needs such as multisport facilities, there is a need for funding to be prioritised for non-sporting facilities, such as general purpose rooms and assembly or PE halls, as some schools have no such facility. I ask the Minister to give some consideration to providing dedicated funding streams for general, multipurpose PE halls in primary school. I know of the case of Derrywash National School, the representatives of which have been continuously in contact with me on this matter.

I thank the Deputy and appreciate the case he makes and the importance of the provision of these sorts of facilities in our schools. As I have previously outlined, they are part of funding via the NDP but we are looking towards the latter half of the timeframe of the plan for allocation. It is something of which I am conscious. I must also point out there is an enormous budgetary constraint in terms of provision. A GP room, for example, for a four-classroom primary school comes in at around €684,000. For an eight- to 16-classroom primary school, the cost is more than €900,00. A GP room for a 24-classroom primary school costs €1.8 million. A PE hall costs in excess of €3 million. I am conscious of the need, particularly from a health and fitness point of view and also on the basis of the additional resource that it provides to a school. I will do all that I can to advance that as quickly as possible, given the financial constraints we face.

I thank the Minister. I understand that Project Ireland 2040 commits to spending €8.8 billion on primary and post-primary school buildings. It is welcome that this ensures students in all post-primary schools will have access to appropriate facilities, such as PE halls. It is hugely important that we ensure PE halls and the modernisation programmes are rolled out as quickly as possible and that we have upgrades and refurbishments to the existing school stock. Those should be prioritised in coming years.

I listened to a recent Joe Molloy interview with the Taoiseach on the idea of a dedicated PE teacher in primary schools to help Ireland fight childhood obesity. The structure of PE at primary level needs a focus. It has been historically problematic and in order to tackle childhood obesity, I would like to see the Department take the lead on this.

I thank the Deputy. I again say that I am wholly in agreement with him. I know from personal experience the importance of PE departments and all they achieve at second level. The provision of halls and a general purpose room at primary school level is important. The multipurpose nature of accommodations of that nature speaks to health and fitness while also allowing for enormous creative endeavour. It also facilitates school gatherings and events. There are enormous benefits. That is unquestionable. The commitment is there, as the Deputy has referenced, in the vision we have for schools, going forward. It would be my intention, if at all possible, to draw the funding sooner rather than when it is projected to be available. I will consider the Deputy's point about the provision of teachers specifically dedicated to the work of PE in primary school, going forward.

Departmental Schemes

Marian Harkin

Question:

3. Deputy Marian Harkin asked the Minister for Education if she will include the CHO 1 area in the extension of the pilot of the school inclusion model. [35291/21]

Will the Minister consider CHO 1, the Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Cavan, Monaghan area, as one of the pilot areas to be included in the extension of the school inclusion model? As we know, this model is designed to give the necessary and appropriate supports to students with special needs within the school setting. It is a best practice model and offers the best option for inclusion, both inside and outside the school.

I thank the Deputy for her question. I note what she has said about the school inclusion model. It does give the appropriate supports to children with additional needs and it is best practice. It is based on the principle of providing the right educational, care and therapeutic supports at the right time for children with special education needs. Its purpose is to help these students achieve better education and life outcomes. The policy is based on evidence-based advice provided by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE. Independent evaluation is critical to the development of this new model of service and its extension to other schools.

The school inclusion model includes the provision of in-school therapies, such as: speech and language and occupational therapies; the allocation of special needs assistants on a front-loaded basis, thereby removing the need for a diagnosis in order to access care support; additional professional supports for schools, including psychology, behavioural and professional development; and the training of special needs assistants. The model has been developed in collaboration with the Departments of Health and Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, the NCSE and the HSE.

In February 2019, the Government approved the trialling of the model for the 2019-2020 school year. Initially designed as a one-year pilot involving up to 75 participating schools in the CHO 7 region, comprising west Wicklow, Kildare and south west Dublin, it was interrupted by Covid-19 with the closure of schools and the diversion of HSE therapists from the project to Covid-related work. It was then extended to the 2020-2021 school year which was been interrupted by Covid. Progress has been made on aspects of the model but much remains to be done in terms of in-school implementation and evaluation.

The Minister of State has just told me how excellent the school inclusion model is. The reason I asked for the CHO 1 region, comprising Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Cavan and Monaghan, to be included in the next phase of the pilot scheme is the unbelievable situation in the Sligo-Leitrim area regarding children who are awaiting initial assessment, treatment and further speech and language therapy. It is not just unacceptably high, it is far beyond the limits of what any health service could defend.

I submitted a parliamentary question in April this year and was informed that, in Sligo-Leitrim, there are currently 385 children awaiting initial assessment, 84 awaiting initial therapy and 444 awaiting further treatment with the speech and language therapy service. Those figures are unacceptable and that is why I am asking for the inclusion of CHO 1.

It is important to stress that the school inclusion model vis-à-vis the therapeutic supports it will provide in school is not in lieu of HSE therapeutic supports but is to complement them. I am working on the assessments and waiting times for those assessments with the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte.

The Deputy has referred to the selection of a region and specifically mentioned Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim and Cavan. To know what the working group will take into account in terms of criteria, it may be helpful for the Deputy if I outline some of those. For an in-school therapy model in an urban and rural location, the area should be able to provide for a broad representative sample of schools and the region should be accessible to be supported from management services. There must also be capacity to recruit sufficient speech and language and occupational therapists. There must be a minimisation of travel time and clusters of schools can be established within a defined region.

I thank the Minister of State for her response, and as she rightly says, those services are extra. I am making such a strong case for that region to be included because the services there are virtually non-existent. I mentioned the waiting lists, but that was not my only question. I also asked about the positions allocated and filled. Looking at the area of occupational therapy, only 84% of the positions allocated have been filled. For physiotherapy, the figure is 90%. For speech and language therapy, however, only 59% of the positions allocated were filled in the Sligo-Leitrim region. I got those figures in an answer to a parliamentary question in March this year. Those figures are heartbreaking. Each statistic represents a child and a family. The Minister of State does not have a magic wand, but this pilot programme can make a significant difference and I ask her to strongly consider this region.

I do not disagree with the Deputy. This school inclusion model will make a significant difference. I will bring the Deputy's comments and contribution on the availability of therapists to the attention of the Minister of State with responsibility in this area, Deputy Rabbitte. Returning to the criteria for this region, it is important that there should be no overlap with existing in-school speech and language pilot projects. There should be capacity to co-ordinate with existing HSE services and to bring all schools together for continuing professional training, CPD, events. They should, if possible, be in an area which has been reconfigured in respect of progressing services for people with disabilities. These similar criteria could form a basis for a future roll-out. We are aware, obviously, that extra funding was provided to us in the budget, through the NCSE to recruit extra therapists, behavioural practitioners, etc., so that we can expand the school inclusion model from this September and in the years to come. That will revolutionise the experience for children with additional needs, as the Deputy stated.