Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh (Atógáil) - Priority Questions (Resumed)

Covid-19 Pandemic

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

Question:

79. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Education the steps she has taken to ensure the return to school is safe and sustainable; the investments that will be required for this; and the work she has undertaken with other Departments in furtherance of this aim. [45807/21]

Sinn Féin has always said that the priority must be a safe and sustainable return to school. We all know that in-school learning is unmatched in terms of children's development but there is clearly a distance to go in terms of some of the mitigation measures. There are issues to address in schools, not least securing CO2 monitors and adequate ventilation. How does the Minister plan to ensure all schools have the mitigation measures they need?

I thank the Deputy. Ensuring that schools can open and operate sustainably has been a key priority for me as Minister for Education. To support this objective, the Department of Education has engaged extensively with all of the education stakeholders, the Department of Health and the public health team in the HSE.

All schools across Ireland have fully reopened safely after the summer break, which is hugely welcome, as the Deputy acknowledged. Public health has reviewed the measures put in place to ensure safe operation of schools and has advised that the new variants of the disease do not change the infection prevention and control measures required in schools. The Department has been always guided by public health advice on appropriate Covid-19 infection prevention and control measures. Those measures protect students, their parents and school staff, and are effective.

Each school was provided with an updated Covid-19 response plan in advance of the return to school. Significant additional resources of €639 million were put into schools in the last academic year to keep schools safe. Further funding of €57.6 million has been paid by way of Covid-19 capitation to schools for the implementation of infection prevention and control measures for this term alone. This funding will cater for school costs related to hand hygiene measures, personal protective equipment, PPE, requirements, enhanced cleaning supports and supervision. At primary level, additional management resources for principal release days were provided for principals and deputy principals. Principals have one day per week away from teaching duties to concentrate on leading teaching and learning and administration duties. Teacher supply panels were also expanded to cover the majority of primary schools nationwide.

The Deputy specifically referenced the CO2 monitors that were recommended. Measures have been put in place to ensure that CO2 monitors will be provided in our schools. Some 96% of primary schools and all our special schools have their allocation. Indeed, each of our post-primary schools has at least ten monitors. There was an issue with the supplier, Lennox Laboratories, which was identified. Lennox has now informed the Department that resources, in terms of CO2 monitors, will be made available in October. In the meantime, should schools wish to purchase them on the ground, the opportunity for local purchase has been made available.

The Minister instanced the return to school documents that schools have received. As I demonstrated on Tuesday, and as has been borne out since, there are contradictions between that document and the HSE advice.

On Tuesday, at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Education, the Minister said that she did not expect any significant changes in terms of contact tracing or mitigation measures. That has obviously proven not to be the case. Indeed, what has transpired has gone significantly further than reporting on the matter had previously suggested. We recognise there was an issue that undoubtedly needed to be addressed but it is poor form that the education spokespersons for the Opposition were not briefed on these changes. The Minister was not fully transparent with the education committee about the changes that were on the way. More importantly, it is incredibly important that teaching staff, parents and students are hearing from the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, the rationale behind these changes. More importantly again, they should hear from the Minister what these changes will mean in our schools. I urge the Minister, along with the CMO, to address the nation, particularly the teaching staff and parents, on these changes.

I thank the Deputy. I will take the opportunity to refute the Deputy's assertion that I was less than forthright about the changes that were impending at the time of the meeting. The Deputy referenced the fact that all of society knew there were going to be changes and that there was a particular direction of travel. However, that direction of travel was not confirmed to me by the CMO. As the Deputy is aware, the CMO and the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, released their final recommendation yesterday. It was yesterday evening that documentation came to us. There was an indication earlier that changes were afoot. I had discussed the matter with the Minister for Health but the final recommendation did not take place until further updated data were reviewed. Those data have been reviewed and, as a consequence of that, the decision was made.

It is, might I say, a NPHET decision. The changes were made on foot of the recommendation of the CMO and NPHET, who have guided the school sector throughout the pandemic, as they have wider society. It is not my decision as Minister for Education but it is my decision to accept the advices of the CMO and NPHET.

Using my words as a suggestion that the Minister was forthright is not totally consistent. However, if the Minister is saying she was not fully aware of the situation as it was at that stage, of course I accept that. That said, I still urge her to ensure the CMO addresses parents and school staff about these changes and that the Minister makes it clear what these changes will mean on the ground and addresses the nation in that regard. There are still questions about how these changes will work out in practice.

Ten CO2 monitors for a secondary school that could have 40 or 50 rooms is not good enough. It is not even close to good enough. In the context of Covid-19 or in any context, when one considers issues such as supervision, the idea of teachers and school staff moving monitors around the classrooms between classes is clearly not practical or workable. We have been raising this issue since Christmas, as have many others. It is clear this was left to the last minute and that is why we do not have enough monitors. Has the Department examined the potential and benefits of filtration?

I thank the Deputy. On the matter of guidance for schools, I will again say to the Deputy that the confirmation was received only yesterday evening. It was the recommendation of the CMO and NPHET, accepted by the Minister for Health. Guidelines are issuing to schools today on foot of that recommendation and will be with the schools today.

I acknowledge that public health and other issues were addressed by the CMO and by various individuals involved in public health at various times yesterday and will no doubt be addressed again today. There is no shortage of discussion between public health officials and all our stakeholders. In fact, those stakeholders are fully briefed and meet on a regular basis with public health officials. That is something I was determined would be a key feature of the procedure within our schools. There are public health meetings with various unions and representative bodies and they will continue.

The CO2 monitors are in place, as I have already outlined. There was a shortfall but it will be met by October. There was an issue that was addressed by the supplier, Lennox Laboratories. Any issues that are outstanding will be dealt with.

Will the Minister comment on filtration?

Covid-19 Pandemic

Paul Murphy

Question:

80. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Minister for Education the number of CO2 monitors required to provide one for each classroom, learning support room, staff room and other school spaces in which they are required; the number that have been provided to schools to date; and when the remaining monitors will be delivered to schools. [45677/21]

We are a year and a half into a pandemic. We know very well the virus is airborne and that ventilation is crucial, and yet we still do not have CO2 monitors in every classroom across the State. According to what the Minister has just said, we are almost finalised and, therefore, there is not even a plan to have CO2 monitors for every classroom across the State. Why are we scrimping and saving on children's health? Why are we not ensuring there are CO2 monitors in every classroom, HEPA filtration systems where necessary, especially considering the moves that are being made in terms of contact tracing?

Managing ventilation is just one of a suite of public health measures in place to keep our schools safe. Updated guidance for schools on practical steps for the deployment of good ventilation practices in schools was provided at the end of May, following the work of an expert group that carefully considered the role of ventilation in managing Covid-19. A copy of the guidance is published on the gov.ie website.

The overarching approach in the guidance is for schools to have windows open as fully as possible when classrooms are not in use and partially open when classrooms are in use. The guidance outlines that carbon dioxide monitors can play a part in providing a useful general indication that areas or rooms may not be adequately ventilated.

They can enable occupants to become familiar with the impacts of activities, outdoor weather and window openings on levels of good ventilation. The Department procured portable monitors, as recommended, and these are currently being distributed to schools at a rate of between two and 20 per school at primary school level and between 20 and 35 at post-primary school level, depending on school size, at an estimated overall cost of €4 million. The monitors are portable, simple to use and will give a digital reading. The provision of portable CO2 monitors provides schools with the flexibility to focus their use on those rooms where they will be most beneficial to inform strategies for optimising ventilation in the school.

Deliveries of CO2 monitors to schools commenced in the third week of August. In total, it involves over 35,000 CO2 monitors being distributed to primary and post-primary schools. Some 25,000 CO2 monitors have been distributed to schools. This has facilitated monitors being provided to each school with 96% of primary schools, including all special schools, having received their full allocation of CO2 monitors. Ten CO2 monitors have been provided to schools at post-primary level with the balance of their allocation expected to be distributed in October. As I have said earlier, should they wish, schools have the option to purchase monitors locally rather than drawing down from the central framework. With regard to the Deputy's reference to scrimping on expenditure in schools, more than €635 million has been allocated for Covid measures within our schools in this past year, including €57 million for this first term alone. There has been no scrimping on Covid measures for the school sector.

The Government has taken a policy decision not to provide a CO2 monitor for every classroom in this State. That is a scandalous policy decision. The Government has also taken a policy decision not to provide high efficiency particulate air, HEPA, filtration systems where necessary. To make our schools reasonably safe from a ventilation perspective would cost €10 per child but the Government is choosing not to do so. I was speaking to a principal yesterday who had to go down the precise route the Minister advocates. The board of management had to go and buy its own CO2 monitors in order to have an adequate number. Children are those most at risk of Covid at the moment. It seems that the policy of the Government is to allow Covid to run riot through children. If this approach is followed, the consequence will be a small but important proportion of unvaccinated children ending up hospitalised. It is very important to note that up to 10% of those who get the disease could end up with long Covid.

I have to disagree with much of what the Deputy has said. It was the view of the expert group under Professor Wenger that portable CO2 monitors should be provided. The Deputy should be mindful that monitors are just that; they monitor when it is best to increase ventilation. This might mean opening additional windows or doors or whatever the case might be. They just give an instruction. That is all that they do. I acknowledge that there is already excellent practice within the schools sector. Indeed, Professor Wenger himself commented on the excellent guidelines provided to schools. It was envisaged that these monitors would be used as a spot check. That is why they are portable. They can be moved from room to room.

With specific regard to air filtration or any additional measures that might be required, the Department is prepared and is working with schools. If any additional measures are required to increase ventilation, these can be carried out under the minor works scheme or the expertise of an engineer or architect can be provided either locally or from the Department and, if works are necessary, they will be carried out as emergency works. If air filters are required in the short term, they can also be put in place.

The change in policy with regard to close contact tracing does not make sense. If a child goes to a birthday party for half an hour, that child is counted as a close contact and has to be tested. However, if they are in school and in the same pod as another child all day, every day, for a week, all of a sudden they no longer count as a close contact. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is an approach of hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. If we do not test children, we will not see just how widely Covid is running through our schools. It seems this decision will have quite negative consequences if it is not reversed. Parents should obviously be facilitated. Their lives should not be made more difficult. They should be facilitated in getting children tested but the idea that we should just turn a blind eye to the Covid transmission happening in the schools and treat schools as some sort of magical place where transmission does not happen does not make any sense.

There is absolutely no question of a blind eye being turned to anything within our schools. I want to be very clear that all of the mitigation measures recommended by the public health officials are in place in our schools and remain in our schools despite what is happening in wider society. These are rigorous measures. The advice offered yesterday is the best expert medical advice of the CMO and NPHET, who have collectively reviewed all of the population data relating to the cohort of children under 13 years of age. It is their expert view that the reopening of schools has not led to an increased incidence of Covid-19 among schoolgoing children or the wider population. I have discussed this with Professor Philip Nolan who, as the Deputy will be aware, is carrying out the modelling and it is the expert view of NPHET that, prior to the schools returning, the positivity level among children under 13 years of age was at 15%. On the return to school, that rate is now 5%. These measures are being introduced on foot of expert data analysis and the advice of the CMO, Dr. Tony Holohan, and NPHET.

Special Educational Needs

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

Question:

81. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Education if her attention has been drawn to the significant impact of school closures on children with special educational needs; the steps she has taken to ensure that every child with special educational needs can catch up after these closures; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [45808/21]

The cohort comprising children with special educational needs is the cohort most affected when school buildings are closed, along with those who suffer educational disadvantage. These children were among the greatest victims of the lockdown. At a meeting of the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science in March, I raised with the Minister the devastating impact removing in-school supports from children with special educational needs as an element of the progressing disability model could have. I welcomed the pause put on those elements of the progressing disability model in special schools in April but I am now hearing reports from schools in my area that those elements of the progressing disability programme have resumed and that access to those in-school supports has been lost. How has this been allowed to go ahead?

I thank the Deputy for his question. All of us, especially myself as Minister of State with responsibility for special education, are aware of the difficulties children with additional needs have faced during the pandemic, not the least of which were the difficulties they faced in respect of remote learning. However, it is important to stress that supports were given at the time. There was enhanced digital communication, there were teaching and learning platforms and additional guidance was given to schools. We can all accept that it was not an ideal learning environment not only for children with additional needs, but for children without additional needs as well. For this reason, we prioritised support for this vulnerable group. It is important to stress that special schools and special classes were the first cohort of children to come back after the school closures. They were prioritised. We matched our words with action and action ultimately means funding. The first programme we put in place was the supplementary programme, which was available to schools and children between February and April of this year. Funding for this amounted to €10 million and approximately 14,000 to 15,000 children availed of the programme. It provided five hours of one-on-one tuition per week. This was important in ensuring the risk of regression was not realised because that can understandably happen. We also put in place an expanded programme of summer provision. We doubled the funding to €40 million this year. Some 34,000 children availed of that programme. We wanted children to be able to rebuild their confidence. We wanted them to be motivated and we wanted to promote their well-being and inclusion. We also have the new Covid-19 learning and support scheme, CLASS. This has €52.6 million in funding and is available to schools to help children with additional needs and to further their inclusion.

I thank the Minister of State. Much of her answer is irrelevant to this topic. While much of what she has laid out is good, the answer does not address the key point I raised which was that, from my contact with schools, it seems to be the case that the elements of the progressing disability model which we had understood to be paused have now resumed and that in-school supports for children with special educational needs are now being withdrawn. The Minister of State announced the CLASS programme, which could have greater funding attached but we will return to that another day, to recognise the disruption school closures had on the children who are most vulnerable. In the same breath, her Department is allowing children with special educational needs, who are at high risk of educational disadvantage and regression, to lose their access to in-school therapies. This is very much a question of these children's right to an education. Without adequate and timely access to resources, it will have an impact on their progression. They are back in school buildings and making up for lost time. Now is not the time for special schools to be losing their therapists under these elements of the progressing disability programme.

The Deputy's question may be more pertinent to the Minister of State with responsibility for disability, Deputy Rabbitte, in terms of the progressive disability scheme relating to special schools. I understand this had been paused for a period. The supports the Department of Education gives to special schools have continued and been enhanced during the pandemic. Extensive supports are available, particularly in respect of technology. The assistive technology scheme is vital for children with additional needs.

On therapy and in-school therapy, we will move towards the school inclusion model and expand that to two further community health organisation areas over the coming years. That will complement the existing therapy services children will get outside the school premises.

I will raise the matter with the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. It is cross-departmental and does not belong exclusively to her. The Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, should be concerned about it and I urge her to speak to the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, as well and find out if this is happening in special schools. That is a key element of the Minister of State's portfolio and it is what I am hearing from schools.

This is International Week of Deaf People 2021. In a speech to the Irish Deaf Society yesterday, the Minister heralded the importance of making the educational experience enjoyable and inclusive for all children. However, there are deaf children in our country who cannot enjoy their education fully. One such child is 12-year-old Callum Geary from Cork, who attends St. Columba's unit for deaf children. Callum needs an Irish Sign Language, ISL, interpreter in his classroom to allow him access education. His family have been campaigning for this to be put in place, particularly under section 5 of the Irish Sign Language Act. It seems bizarre we expect teachers in Gaelscoileanna to have qualifications in Gaeilge, correctly so, but we expect teachers in special schools to learn ISL in their own time with very little support or criteria to be met. Will the Minister commit to resolving these issues and ensure deaf children like Callum receive the ISL interpreters they need to participate in education?

If the Deputy is aware of any special school that has a lack of therapy services as he outlined, he should let both the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and the Department of Education know of that. I speak to Deputy Rabbitte and to the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, regularly and we have tripartite meetings on furthering the work we can do collaboratively. The Deputy is right that there has to be joined-up thinking between relevant Departments.

It is important to stress that we have an unprecedented sum of €2 billion going to special education, which is almost a fifth of the education budget and represents an increase of 50% since 2011. We now have 18,000 SNAs, which is a huge number. They are all clearly needed but it is an increase of 70% since 2011. We have about 13,650 special education teachers, an increase of 40% since 2011. There is more we need to do in terms of supports, but we are making inroads.

What about the interpreters?

I thank the Minister. We are moving on to the next question.

Education Policy

Denis Naughten

Question:

82. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Education her plans to address large classes in primary schools; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [45180/21]

If the Minister spreads marmalade too thin on a slice of toast, she will not even taste it. That is effectively what we are doing with teaching resources in super-sized classes. Last year, one in seven primary school pupils were in classes of 30 or more and, in these instances, both the weaker and stronger students lose out, causing disruption in the class which has an impact on the whole class.

In the programme for Government, there is a strong commitment to making further progress in reducing the pupil-teacher ratio in primary schools and supporting small schools. As part of budget 2021 measures, the Government has sought to deliver on this commitment by the announcement of a one-point change to the primary staffing schedule and the introduction of a three-point reduction in the number of pupils required to retain a teacher. For the 2021-22 school year, the staffing schedule is on the basis of one classroom teacher for every 25 pupils. This budget improvement has resulted in the lowest pupil-teacher ratio ever at primary school. The latest figures relating to pupil-teacher ratio show an improved pupil-teacher ratio from 16:1 to 14.5:1 at primary level, when comparing the 2015-16 school year to the 2020-21 school year. This compares favourably with the OECD pupil-teacher ratio, which is 15:1. In the same period, the staffing schedule moved from 28:1 to 25:1 for this school year.

The most recent budget announcement will continue this positive trend of improving class sizes this school year. Statistics on this will be published later in the year. The staffing schedule, which now stands at a historical low, will help to ensure better teacher retention in primary school and that less pupils are required to retain or recruit a teacher. Significant improvements have been made in terms of pupil-teacher ratio, looking from 2016 through to 2021. It has been a considerable achievement that we are at an historically low level of 25:1.

I appreciate and know from experience that there are always opportunities to do more. I am committed to doing all we can to reduce that further. We have a significant budget and will have a further budget coming before us in October. There will be considerable negotiation involved in that but there is a strong commitment under the programme for Government to address the issue of pupil-teacher ratio further.

I acknowledge the investment made by the this Government and that which preceded it. Our core objective needs to be that no child should leave primary school not being able to read and write. Children need to be supported to do that, yet statistics show that up to one in ten children into that category. These larger class sizes result in less teacher time for each pupil and, while I accept that the pupil-teacher ratio has come down, we still have a significant number of pupils in large classes. I urge the Minister to ensure this is reflected in the budget investment. Not just that, we need investment to support teaching principles and in the context of capitation.

I will give an interesting figure in relation to the area of disadvantage. Looking at students in large classes of 30 or more, 10% of urban band 2 DEIS pupils fall into that category and, in rural DEIS, nearly 12% of pupils fall into those larger class sizes. Something needs to be done.

I appreciate the Deputy's acknowledgement of the progress made to date. I know from my experience in the classroom the importance of continuing to pursue this direction. I reiterate the strong Government commitment to doing that. It is worth repeating that 25:1 is an historic low in our schools.

A budget of €8.9 billion is significant, particularly when one looks at other Departments, and shows the priority that is placed on education. We are further resourcing schools this year through the class programme, which is to provide additional learning support in schools. We have made provision for additional teaching hours for schools this year, specifically as a Covid measure. For example, an 800-pupil school will have 900 hours, which is one and a half full posts for a school year.

I have raised this matter on a number of occasions since the Minister's appointment and I will continue to do so. The 2019-20 statistics for my constituency show that in County Galway, one in five pupils were in classes of more than 30. In County Roscommon, it was one in six. I do not believe that is good enough. We need to see priority given to the investment required in primary education to reduce those very large class sizes and ensure every child can fully participate in the education system and, when they leave it, in society as a whole, which has long-term dividends for us all.

I do not disagree with the Deputy about the importance of the issue. In the past year we have made significant inroads in this area. A further commitment is that we are making available to schools additional teaching resources in terms of teaching and learning for pupils, who may even more so this year have felt disadvantaged because of Covid. That is significant. An 800-pupil school will get 900 hours, which is 51 weeks teaching or one and a half full posts for a year. It is a significant additional investment in our schools.

Equally, I would point to the three-point reduction that was brought in as a consequence of the budget last year which allowed for the retention of a teacher within a school. I am very cognisant of the importance of this. I think substantial progress has been made but, as always, we are committed to doing even more. Our commitment here is not to be underestimated.

Apprenticeship Programmes

Richard O'Donoghue

Question:

83. Deputy Richard O'Donoghue asked the Minister for Education how apprenticeships can be merged into the education model much earlier in order that early school leavers can be encouraged to start apprenticeships in advance of completing their education. [45918/21]

How can we merge apprenticeships into our education model much earlier in order that early school leavers can be encouraged to start apprenticeships in advance of completing their education? We are at crisis point when it comes to skills shortages in our country, particularly in respect of vocational subjects. Without getting into particulars around housing, I want to focus on the junior cycle and its students who have a basic interest in the academic subjects.

It is important to acknowledge that apprenticeships represent a meaningful, valuable and realistic pathway for all learners. That is hugely important. The Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science published the Action Plan for Apprenticeship 2021-2025 earlier this year. Under the plan, the development of apprenticeship taster courses will be explored as part of transition year and senior cycle reform with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA.

The leaving certificate vocational, LCV, programme operating in our schools is designed to enhance the vocational dimension of the leaving certificate established, with a focus on enterprise and preparing students for working life. The leaving certificate applied, LCA, programme in our schools also includes modules on vocational preparation, including work experience and enterprise.

The Deputy will be aware that the NCCA has undertaken an extensive review of senior cycle programmes and vocational pathways, including transition year, the leaving certificate applied, the leaving certificate vocational programme and the leaving certificate established. A key theme of this review is the future form and reform of the existing senior cycle programmes. This includes the range of learning programmes and pathways available to students at senior cycle, with an express desire that senior cycle should provide adequate supports for whatever progression pathways students choose. The important consideration here is that the senior cycle must be in a position, as the Deputy has outlined, to provide a myriad of pathways forward for students, whatever those pathways might be and however they determine themselves. The Department of Education is considering the report and other aspects of the NCCA's advisory report, as I have outlined, and it will be published shortly. There is a very clear understanding that we are looking towards and focusing on providing as many pathways forward and diversity for students as possible.

From my experience, I have found that students are forced into an academic cycle to complete their leaving certificate where vocational subject time is reduced, particularly in respect of the leaving certificate programme. My suggestion to the Minister for Education is to commence the process much earlier and to merge the Further Education and Training Awards Council, FETAC, framework at junior certificate stage, possibly during transition year. Building a two-days-per-week work experience into the apprenticeship, the school would be encouraged to build a partnership with local industry. There are lots of possibilities in this suggestion. Employers could feed into an app or a site. The employer could then be encouraged to highlight its employee shortage for the coming year.

The reason I say this is that I myself left school at junior certificate level. If there were such a system in place when I was in school, I would have then gone on to do my leaving certificate. I went into construction and am in construction still. I see an awful lot of skilled people in school who do not want to be there but if there were this type of cycle, it would encourage people to do their leaving certificate and also have their apprenticeship.

I am very much open on this, and the Deputy is pushing an open door here. I absolutely want the new senior cycle, as we are talking about senior cycle review, to offer maximum potential and possibility to all students. As for even more pre-apprenticeship courses, as the Deputy referred to, pre-apprenticeship programmes are targeted at young people aged, we will say, from 16 to 24 and the aim is progression to an apprenticeship. They are designed to give young people the skills, confidence and connections they need to access and successfully complete an apprenticeship. A call for expressions of interest issued at the end of 2019 for the development of pre-apprenticeship programmes involving approximately 500 learner places to roll out from quarter 1 of 2020. Over 589 Pathways to Apprenticeship places were subsequently awarded to post-leaving certificate, PLC, providers. Students and learners can access information on this on the website. Separately, as I said, whether it is the LCV programme, the LCA, transition year or the leaving certificate established, there is an absolute openness to recognise in the senior cycle review many of the points the Deputy has raised.

My office is inundated with emails from constituents in County Limerick who want to raise awareness about the shortage of school funding. Funding is particularly low in Ireland at €1 per child per school day. I know the Minister's office has responded to this as in her written reply, and I am delighted to be able to get back to those constituents and show them that she is rectifying the numerous issues I have raised. Schools funding is very important, especially for rural schools that have working principals. They must have the backup they need for school administration, especially where numbers are under 100. It is so important that things are put in place such that the smallest schools, the rural schools, have the same moneys available to them as other schools and can get in clerical staff to help them and free up some of the time for the working principals.

I appreciate the Deputy's comments on my office reverting to him in response to any queries he might have. Specifically regarding teaching principals, I am very conscious of that and of rural schools and was very pleased to be in a position to introduce the additional administrative day leave for teachers in order that teaching principals were guaranteed at least one day per week. We successfully ensured in the vast majority of cases, where a network of five schools or whatever clustered, that a designated day was made available for the administrative work that needed to be done by principals, deputy principals or whoever else in the school, and that is important. Even in the wider sector of education in terms of Covid measures, whether it was exams at post-primary level or whatever else, I was always very conscious of the need to put in place, for example, assistance that could be provided to school leadership, whether exam aid or whatever else, and even for the return to school aid was provided. I am very conscious of that. I hope to build on that. It has worked very well in our school system. I have a unique understanding of and appreciation for the issues the Deputy has raised, whether in small schools or larger schools.