Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Irish Language

Dara Calleary

Question:

84. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Education the status of supports provided to Irish-language schools to promote the use of Irish; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [45667/21]

First, I wish to query the status of supports that have been provided to Irish-language schools, an tacaíocht atá ar fáil do scoileanna Gaeilge chun Gaeilge a mhúineadh.

Second, I ask the Minister for an update on the consultation on the leaving certificate specification. We had a very good discussion with her at the coiste na Gaeilge before the recess. Táim ag iarraidh a fháil amach an bhfuil aon athrú nó aon rud ag tarlú. I wish to find out whether there have been any changes to that process or whether there is any update.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta as a cheist.

My Department's commitment to supporting Irish-medium education and promoting the use of Irish in Irish-medium schools is evidenced by the progress which has been made by the Department, along with partners, in implementing the actions set out in the Government's 20-Year Strategy for the Irish Language 2010-2030, the five-year action plan for the Irish language and my Department's Policy on Gaeltacht Education 2017-2022.

An estimated budget of €20.3 million, a significant budget, has been allocated to support the implementation of actions arising from the policy on Gaeltacht education since its commencement in 2017. This includes the provision of a range of additional resources such as grant supports and additional teaching hours provided annually to schools participating in the Gaeltacht school recognition scheme. Further supports are being provided to five post-primary island schools.

Regarding staffing, primary schools in the Gaeltacht are allowed a more favourable appointment and retention staffing schedule. At post-primary level, an additional post is allocated to all Irish-medium post-primary schools both within and outside the Gaeltacht.

Gaelscoileanna outside of the Gaeltacht are in receipt of additional capitation at a rate of €23 per pupil, in addition to the standard capitation rate paid to all primary schools. This is to give an extra incentive for Gaelscoileanna to promote the use of the Irish language in their school communities.

An additional per capita bilingual grant is paid to schools in the voluntary secondary sector, both within and outside the Gaeltacht, where instruction is through the medium of Irish in full or in part.

An additional €110.50 per pupil is paid to schools where students are taught all subjects through Irish. Where some subjects are taught through Irish, an extra €22 is paid for each student, per subject, up to a maximum of four subjects.

Irish-medium teacher education has been supported through the provision of ongoing continuing professional development and upskilling options for teachers. In addition, funding is also being provided for places on two new Irish-medium teacher education programmes, allowing for up to 60 new funded places annually.

I thank the Minister for her comprehensive reply, which shows there are significant supports available. She mentioned the context of the €20 million budget to support policy on Gaeltacht education. We need to be careful about where that money is being spent and whether it is being spent effectively in all Departments. As she knows from her engagement with Coiste na Gaeilge, there is considerable concern at this time in regard to the ongoing assessment of the draft leaving certificate specifications for Irish. If we are to encourage people not just to learn Irish but to use it as part of their daily lives and leave school with an ability to use it in their profession or career, we need to make sure we get this process right. Is any consideration being given to revising the consultation process that is under way within the Department, which has been impacted by the various Covid issues? All these wonderful supports will be diluted unless we get the specifications right and there is confidence in those specifications among the Irish language teaching community.

I reiterate that there is an enormous commitment to this issue within the Department. The funding in excess of €20 million speaks for itself. Significant work has been done and supports put in place, not just for the teaching of the Irish language but also for providing supports to Irish-medium schools within Gaeltacht areas and, indeed, outside them. Work has commenced on the development of a new policy for Irish-medium education, as outlined in the programme for Government, with the view to providing a framework for the delivery of a high-quality Irish-medium education in Irish-medium schools and early learning and care settings outside the Gaeltacht. The new policy will complement the separate policy on Gaeltacht education, which will continue to support early learning and care settings and schools within Gaeltacht areas.

Efforts to promote extended use of Irish in local communities and the implementation of local Gaeltacht language plans are set out in the Gaeltacht Act 2012. An interdepartmental working group has been established within the Department to progress this work as efficiently as possible. The planned next steps to be taken to inform the development of the new policy include the commissioning of a review of relevant national and international literature and research, along with an extensive consultation process with key stakeholders. Implementation of the policy will commence following the conclusion of all necessary stages of policy development, including comprehensive and extensive stakeholder engagement, which is vital to ensuring well-informed policy development.

As regards the leaving certificate specifications, there was an extension of the consultation process in that regard. This is important because the wider the consultation, the more effective it will be.

For policy in this area to be effective, it is essential that it goes from reámchscoile to ollscoile, that is, from preschool right through to university, and there is consistency around the standards. I ask the Minister once again to have a look at the consultation process within her Department and to engage with An Gréasán do Mhúinteoirí Gaeilge, which has commissioned very comprehensive research among its members, who are the people at the coalface. Time is needed to allow the junior cycle reforms to bed in and be assessed and to ensure they feed through in a proper manner into the leaving certificate reforms. I certainly acknowledge and welcome the huge supports the Minister is making available for Gaeltacht teaching, but it is important that we get every aspect of this right.

Deputy Calleary is right that having a focus on the whole strategy, from infants classes right through to third level, is key. That should come before the proposals regarding the leaving certificate. The problem with what is on the table in regard to the leaving certificate examination is relatively easily to comprehend. If we are going to put in place a more challenging course that is not a second, additional course that someone can take on top of the existing Irish course and there are no bonus points available for it, why would anyone take it? That is the key question. In fact, we would be discouraging people from taking on the more challenging course. Students who have fluency in Irish and go to a Gaeltacht school or Gaelcholáiste will be discouraged from taking on more challenging work unless the course is an additional course or it offers bonus points. That is easily comprehended.

The other part of the consultation that is being lost is the potential that foundation level will be ended. There are students who find Irish difficult. If we are talking about getting rid of the foundation level examination, we are closing the door on their being able to study Irish for the leaving certificate. It is an absolutely bonkers proposal and it needs to be put in the bin straight away.

I want to add my voice to those of the previous two speakers in regard to the need for any system we put together for Irish language teaching to take into account provision from naíonra level right up to third level. That consultation is necessary before we put plans in place.

I thank the Minister for her support for Coláiste Ghlór na Mara and its satellite school, which was previously known as Coláiste Lú, in County Louth. There are still logistical difficulties but I know there has been a conversation about the possibility of satellite schools being a means of dealing with the problem of reaching critical mass in regard to numbers for Gaelcholáisti. We need to make sure we get the whole system to work in delivering Irish education provision. I ask the Minister to ensure we get the supports that are necessary to deliver a satellite school for Dundalk. It is an absolute necessity.

I welcome Deputy Ó Murchú's very positive comments in regard to the development of satellite schools. It is testament to people's innovation and absolute determination to find pathways forward where there might be difficulties, and to discover ways and means of addressing issues in order to be as inclusive and proactive as possible. We are hugely committed to continuing to do that into the future.

The previous two speakers referred to issues relating to T1 agus T2. I absolutely appreciate the views that have been expressed here. There are myriad and contrary views as to how this should progress. It is the beauty of the consultation process that there is an opportunity to hear all views, experiences and wisdom on how best to proceed. The key objective is that we grow, nurture and support the Irish language. That is the objective and it is what we will do.

Special Educational Needs

Pádraig O'Sullivan

Question:

85. Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Education when she expects the National Council for Special Education to complete and submit its policy advice on education provision in special classes and special schools, which was originally requested in 2018; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [45216/21]

In September 2018, the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, was requested to develop policy advice on the educational provision that should be in place for students educated in special schools and classes and to make recommendations on what is required to enable them to achieve better outcomes. When does the Minister expect the NCSE to complete and submit its policy advice on education provision in special classes and schools?

In 2018, the then Minister for Education and Skills requested the NCSE to advise on the educational provision that should be in place for students in special schools and classes. Ireland is not alone in evaluating its educational provision for students in special education settings. Many European countries are thinking about the future direction they should take. This is particularly pertinent in the light of new obligations and responsibilities arising from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD.

The NCSE strives to ensure its policy advice is informed by robust and wide-ranging consultative and research processes. Its policy advice is always informed by international best practice. Much work has been done in this regard and the NCSE published a progress report in November 2019. At that stage, the council had reviewed existing educational provision in Ireland, conducted a detailed literature review, consulted various stakeholder groups and visited a number of Irish schools. It had also looked at fully inclusive schools and practice in Canada and Portugal. The report ultimately found no evidence to show that one type of special education placement is better than another. It also stated that any decision to move towards greater inclusion would require careful consideration and planning.

It is not something that could be achieved in the short term. However, since the publication of the progress report, the NCSE has conducted further research and analysis. It has engaged in a public consultation survey and received further submissions and expert inputs. Obviously, it has examined the implications arising from the United Nations convention. Before the advice is finalised, every effort is being made to ensure the NCSE has consulted widely with a view to developing shared understandings on the critical issues involved and proposed solutions. I expect to have that report completed by the end of the year.

I welcome the comments of the Minister of State, particularly in respect of the report being published by the end of the year, which will be most welcome. I note that the former Minister, Deputy McHugh, stated that each child should be educated with his or her mainstream peers wherever feasible. That is very much reflected in what the NCSE has stated in its progress report. The former Minister also stated that the decision on whether to move towards greater inclusion of all students in mainstream schools requires very careful consideration and that it is a long-term vision that will happen gradually and by emphasising the needs of children with the most complex needs at the heart of it. As a former educator, I know it can be seen at ground level that there is undoubtedly a shift towards greater inclusivity in all schools, which is most welcome. That is the model shift that is occurring but, obviously, it brings its own challenges and issues. There will be issues in respect of the anxiety of parents, students and educators. Fundamental to any shift or change in light of the report will be supplementing schools with the appropriate resources and investment. That will be a prerequisite.

I thank the Deputy. I accept his point regarding the majority of children with additional needs being educated in mainstream schools. That is the case. Obviously, there are special classes that cater for approximately 8,000 pupils and there are 124, or almost 126, special schools that cater for an equal number of children. Each of these educational environments provides a vital service to children with additional needs. Depending on the level of complexity of need, such children will be in a mainstream class, a special class or a special school. The Deputy is right to say that if there were to be a shift - there is no such shift envisaged at present - it would have to be done over a long period. However, I believe inclusivity is at the heart of the education system and a review of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs, EPSEN, Act is on my list of action priorities.

I welcome the comments of the Minister of State but several issues and challenges would be ahead of us if there were to be any shift in terms of delivering for special needs students. The challenges I highlight are that it would be a phased process if it needed to happen. The number of students about whom we are speaking reflects approximately 2% of the school community. It is a small minority but they are the minority who have the greatest need. The questions we need to ask ourselves include whether a four-year-old or five-year-old child should be put into a special setting immediately or given the opportunity to interact with his or her peers first. Another question we need to ask ourselves is whether students with the most complex of needs can have those needs met in a mainstream environment. These are fundamental questions that we need to ask. Of course, a fundamental question is why students should have to travel 30, 40 or 50 miles to an appropriate setting under the current model. Those are the main issues that need to be addressed.

The questions the Deputy has posed are valid. The EPSEN Act, which is the main legislation underpinning special education, was published 17 years ago, in 2004, and the focus in respect of the provision of special education has changed substantially since then, from a model that was diagnosis-led to one that is now driven by the needs of the child. Therein lies the answer to the questions regarding whether children with complex needs can fit into a mainstream school or, indeed, the other way around. My view is that at present there is a place for all these special class, special school and mainstream settings to cater for the range of children with additional needs who are in the system. I thank the Deputy for his interest in this matter.

Questions Nos. 86 and 87 replied to with Written Answers.

Education Schemes

Catherine Connolly

Question:

88. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Education the status of the consultation process with education partners regarding the technical aspects and implementation of the new DEIS model; when she expects the work on the new model to be completed; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [45659/21]

My question relates to the DEIS model. This is a specific question to the Minister regarding an update on the status of the review that has been going on, where it is at, when it will be completed and when the DEIS scheme will be open to new applicants.

A key part of the DEIS plan was the introduction of a new DEIS identification process based on an objective and statistics-based model to determine which schools merit inclusion in the DEIS programme. An extensive body of work has been undertaken in terms of the refinement of this model based on the latest school enrolment data and data available from the 2016 census under the HP deprivation index. A detailed quality analysis of the data has been carried out by members of the DEIS technical group, which contains representatives of the Department’s statistics and social inclusion units, the inspectorate and the educational research centre. My Department has commenced a consultation process with education partners on the technical aspects of this model and work is ongoing on its final elements. It is envisaged that it will provide the basis for the development and application of a refined DEIS resource allocation model to ultimately match resources to identified need.

All schools will be considered for inclusion under the refined DEIS model. Until this work is complete, it is not intended to extend the DEIS programme to any further schools. Nonetheless, additional resources have been made available to DEIS schools in order to address educational disadvantage, such as an increase in the budget for the school completion programme, the expanded summer programme which ran this year and which, incidentally, was open to all schools at primary and post-primary levels for the first time, and the reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio for DEIS band 1 schools, as well as for all other schools. As noted earlier, it is at a historic low of 25:1. While this work continues, there have been significant other resources put in place for schools that do not currently have DEIS status. That said, the work will be expedited as quickly as possible. Stakeholders are currently being consulted on it.

Several years ago, the former Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, along with all of the Deputies representing Galway West, had a meeting in a school that is really suffering as a result of its failure to be recognised as a DEIS school That is what spurred me on to keep asking questions, as other Deputies have done in the Dáil. The DEIS programme is a very good scheme but, as it stands, it excludes schools that we all think should be in it. Clearly there have to be objective criteria but in the case of the particular school to which I refer, the former Minister was aghast at what had happened in that context. I note the Minister's statement that extra resources were made available for non-DEIS schools. I appreciate that and I will go back to the school to check how it benefits but more than one school has been affected as a result of the very strict criteria being applied in the manner they are. I welcome that the review has taken place but when will it be completed? Can we have some specifics, please?

I absolutely appreciate the conviction with which the Deputy poses these questions. She has recognised that it is very important that there is a body of work that can be used as an appropriate framework for DEIS. It is at a very advanced stage - it is at consultation stage with stakeholders, which is important. We are in the final stages of it but it is an enormous body of work. There is an enormous number of schools within the remit of the Department. Conscious of that and recognising the needs of all schools, there have been significant other offerings for schools within DEIS and those outside it, some of which I have referenced, such as the reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio and the enhanced summer provision programme.

The increased investment in the school completion programme is another most important aspect. Equally important, as I previously stated, are the additional resources that are now going directly into schools via the class programme, meaning that an 800-pupil school will have 51 additional weeks of teaching, which amounts to 1.5 additional teaching posts for a school year. Therefore, significant resources are being employed in advance of the completion of the DEIS programme.

I appreciate the Minister outlining the extra supports for schools, but the question is not about that. The question is about the DEIS programme. For as long as the DEIS programme has been in place, schools have been excluded from it by very strict criteria that are difficult to understand by principals, teachers and politicians. I accept there have to be objective criteria, but it is those criteria that we drew to the attention of the former Minister some years ago. By any stretch of the imagination, it was very difficult to see how the school in question was excluded. I am not just speaking for one school; other schools are in the same position. There has to be fairness in the scheme.

The Minister spoke about the enormous body of work to be done; I appreciate that. When did the process start and when will it be finished? We must appreciate the enormous work facing principals, teachers and schools that are not given DEIS recognition. They face enormous challenges.

I know the Minister is passionate about this issue and that there is a cross-party desire to resolve these matters. The criteria are dated. I can think of numerous examples of schools affected. Two that occur to me immediately are Togher boys and girls schools. They are in a RAPID area. Around 200 additional units of additional social housing have been built there in the last three years. There is a significant number of children with additional language needs and with English spoken as a second language in the home. I invite the Minister to examine that issue because I was surprised these schools were not included in the previous DEIS cohort.

I will make two points. The first is an ask and the second is something for the Minister to bear in mind. The Minister has spoken about engaging with stakeholders. I am not sure who those stakeholders are. I believe that Deputies, and communities as a whole, have something to offer here. There should be an open opportunity for submissions. I would certainly participate in that and many community organisations in my constituency would do likewise. I ask the Minister to let us feed in what we think would be useful criteria around the housing assistance payment, HAP, and other elements. It was a huge missed opportunity that no new DEIS band 2 schools were added when a new cohort of additional DEIS schools was last announced. That was a big mistake because it is much less expensive and such schools get access to home school liaison and school completion. Many schools would have benefited from that. It needs to happen this time.

In the first instance, I acknowledge, as Deputy Ó Laoghaire stated, that there is enormous cross-party support for, and recognition of, this area. I appreciate the points that Deputy Connolly made. I must say that for all the reasons outlined by the Deputy, a new DEIS identification process and mechanism based on statistical information will be found going forward. The important point here is that we get this right. The Deputy has spoken of fairness, access and inclusion. It is for all of those reasons that I am very conscious of our obligation to get this right.

The consultation is with the education partners. I have absolutely no difficulty with anybody bringing forward ideas in relation to it. A very wide consultation, which predates my term in office, was completed. Following the 2017 inclusion of additional DEIS schools, a line was drawn under it so as to allow this process to continue and be completed. I appreciate the urgency around it. It will be expedited as much as possible to ensure that is done. However, the priority is to get it absolutely right - as right as we can, at the very least.

School Staff

Claire Kerrane

Question:

89. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Education the status of and position regarding ongoing talks regarding pay and entitlements for school secretaries and caretakers; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [45575/21]

I ask the Minister for an update on ongoing talks regarding pay and entitlements not just for school secretaries, but also for caretakers. I appreciate and understand that talks are ongoing but perhaps the Minister will outline what she can tell us in relation to the matter.

School secretaries and caretakers are valued members of the school community and the Department is fully aware of the vitally important role played by them in the running of our schools.

I welcome the significant progress that has been made through the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, in recent days. This builds upon previous recommendations of an independent arbitrator for 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. Fórsa trade union has tabled a follow-on claim and officials from the Department and school management bodies have been engaging with Fórsa on the issues. On 27 October 2020, under the auspices of the WRC, an understanding was agreed on a pathway to progress the issues.

Following intensive discussions at the WRC on 13 September, significant progress has been made in this dispute. Subject to agreement on all elements of the claim, the Department has offered to move school secretaries' pay rates to a scale which is aligned with the clerical officer grade 3 pay scale within education and training boards on a pro rata basis, with an effective date of implementation for these new pay arrangements of 1 September 2021. There is also agreement in principle to take the same approach to the consideration of appropriate pay and conditions of grant-funded caretakers. When the final package for secretaries has been agreed and an implementation plan put in place, intensive engagement will begin on achieving that.

I welcome the deferral of the action scheduled for Wednesday, 15 September to allow for intensive talks to resume aimed at resolving the claim and agreeing a final package. I also look forward to continued progress under the WRC. Significant progress on this issue has been made. I acknowledge the generosity of all concerned around the table to make this possible and the engagement via the WRC. As I said, what has been advanced thus far for school secretaries has also been agreed in principle for caretakers.

I, too, acknowledge the work of school secretaries and caretakers. Without them, our schools simply would not function. They have obviously had to battle not just for fair pay and equality, but also fair terms and conditions. They have been in a most unfair system for some time. I also acknowledge the work of Fórsa in bringing this dispute to the position that it is in now.

I welcome the moves and the details outlined by the Minister in relation to pay scales and pay equality. The Minister noted that this has been agreed in principle for caretakers, which is welcome. However, when the Tánaiste made that commitment on 8 October 2020, he said it would apply not just to pay but also to improved terms and conditions and pension rights for school secretaries. I am seeking reassurance from the Minister that that remains her position, and it does not just relate to pay equality, but also to the terms and conditions and sick pay and pension entitlements. Perhaps the Minister will outline her position on those points.

Again, I acknowledge, as the Deputy has done, that considerable work has been done and it has demanded the co-operation of all involved. I acknowledge that in respect of the union, the Departments, given that this involves the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform as well as my Department, and the WRC.

To give some background, on 13 September the parties engaged at the WRC, whereby the Department, subject to the agreement of all elements of the claim, made an offer. That is important. We have referenced the pay scale, but it is subject to the agreement of all other elements of the claim. We offered to align school secretary pay rates to that of the clerical officer grade 3 pay scale within the education and training boards. As I said, this included agreement on the implementation date of 1 September 2021.

Discussions in the WRC last week focused on the very significant concessions around pay that have been offered to Fórsa on behalf of school secretaries and signalled that further talks are to take place on matters relating to the implementation of the pay scale and leave arrangements, etc. As set out in the joint statement following the WRC engagement in May 2021, it was acknowledged that the issue of public service status is more complex and needs to have regard to the state of the public finances and the repercussive effects.

I acknowledge that one follows the other and there continues to be discussion as regards all matters.

Perhaps I have missed it and it is included in what has been agreed, but I refer specifically to pension and sick leave entitlements, which are very important terms and conditions that other school secretaries enjoy. That has been a major part of the issue as regards equality. I ask the Minister to outline specifically what is happening in relation to those entitlements.

The Minister stated that agreement had been reached in principle in relation to caretakers.

In the deal on pay and entitlements, will school secretaries and caretakers be dealt with together, although school secretaries have advanced slightly? Why are caretakers coming second? Why could both categories not have been dealt with together? Could I have a clear timeline for the delivery of everything? Those affected have waited for a very long time for equality and a fairer system. I welcome the progress that has been made. Pensions are really important to school secretaries and caretakers.

School secretaries and caretakers are the heartbeat of our school communities in many instances. Beyond the principals, they are the most public faces of our schools. They are the people who keep the schools ticking. It was a travesty that, for so long, they were operating under a set of unfair and insecure conditions. I welcome the progress that has been made. The big lesson for all workers to take from the school secretaries on all this is that the benefits of unionising and working together remain valid. My appeal to the Minister is to ensure that our school secretaries and caretakers get a fair deal. This is particularly required when it comes to pension entitlements and sick pay. There must be full equality between those who work in schools outside the ETB arrangements and those who work within them.

There is no doubt but that this has dragged on for far too long. I welcome the progress that has been made. I appreciate that the Minister is working on this and that negotiations are continuing. I urge her to continue to engage and try to ensure a fair and equitable solution. The fact is that schools would come to a halt without caretakers and secretaries. It is vital that caretakers not be forgotten. The Minister's words suggest they will not be.

Pay equality is not an outrageous demand, nor is fairness in terms of conditions and access to sick leave. Meeting this demand has to involve ensuring school secretaries and caretakers have pension entitlements also.

Deputy Carthy took the words out of my mouth in saying great credit is due to Fórsa over how it has represented the caretakers and secretaries. It is an advertisement for the benefits of being a member of a union. I urge every worker who is struggling with terms and conditions and pay to join a union because there is strength in unity.

I appreciate the points the Deputies have made. They do not have to tell me the value of school secretaries and caretakers. I have worked all my teaching life in the school sector and I am very familiar with the work of school secretaries and, indeed, caretakers.

Specifically on some of the points that have been made, a phased approach is being taken to these discussions. The first phase was on aligning the specific pay rates with those of a grade 3 clerical officer. However, there is an understanding and an agreement by all parties that no single aspect of the claim will be regarded as resolved or conceded until agreement is reached on the resolution of all aspects. That principle will continue to apply during the course of the current talks.

There was a question on why there was an advancement in respect of school secretaries. The necessary data have been collected on secretaries and therefore there has been an advancement in respect of them. Fewer data are available on caretakers. Data need to be collected so there will be clarity on the caretaker issue. It has been acknowledged that, in principle, what applies to one category applies to the other.

There has been great co-operation on the part of all concerned, and a generosity and willingness to come to the table to engage in discussion and find the pathway forward. The most positive aspect of this has been the willingness of all concerned to address the issues as they need to be addressed and to do so as expeditiously as possible. I appreciate the points made by previous speakers on the time span but it is our wish to bring this to a conclusion as soon as we possibly can.

Questions Nos. 90 to 92, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

School Equipment

Brendan Griffin

Question:

93. Deputy Brendan Griffin asked the Minister for Education the position regarding air quality monitors in classrooms; if they are working; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [45695/21]

I am raising this question today because many parents have been in contact with me because they want to know more about the air quality monitors, the carbon dioxide monitors. They want to know whether they are working and effective. A concern people have is that, as we move into the winter months and as windows are closed and classrooms have to be kept warmer, the monitors will not be effective. Could the Minister update the House on their effectiveness?

Managing ventilation is just one of a suite of public health measures in place to keep our schools safe. Updated guidance 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 website www.gov.ie. 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 they are. 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.

My Department procured portable monitors. They are currently being distributed to schools, with allocations of between two and 20 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.

Deliveries of carbon dioxide monitors to schools commenced in the third week of August. In total, the process involves over 35,000 monitors being distributed to primary and post-primary schools. Some 25,000 carbon dioxide monitors have been distributed to schools, which has facilitated the provision of monitors to each school. Ninety-six percent of primary schools, including all special schools, have received their full allocation of carbon dioxide monitors. Ten monitors, at a minimum, have been provided to each school at post-primary level, with the balance of each allocation expected to be distributed in October. An issue arose with Lennox over the final balance of carbon dioxide monitors but provision has been made for them to arrive in schools in October. Schools have the autonomy to purchase carbon dioxide monitors locally if they wish and deem it necessary.

It is important that all classrooms have these monitors in place. It is regrettable that some have not been able to avail of them to date. I acknowledge, however, the work done on providing these important pieces of equipment for the vast majority of classrooms in a relatively short period. It is important that the Department try, where possible, to monitor the data, including data on where outbreaks of Covid occur, to determine whether there is a correlation between classrooms that are not particularly well ventilated and outbreaks. The Department should try to learn from the data and intervene and take corrective measures where required. I hope that the target for providing 100% of the monitors, as outlined by the Minister, will be met because it is really important that no child in any classroom be without the benefit of a monitor.

I thank the Deputy. There is international demand for carbon dioxide monitors. We ordered them more than four months ago. We are moving into the fifth month now. Ninety-six percent of our primary schools are in possession of their allocation of carbon dioxide monitors. All of our special schools have received their allocation, and all of our post-primary schools have a minimum of ten monitors. Complementing the guidance already available to schools — the excellent guidance on the operation of ventilation in our schools — it was suggested, through the expert group under Professor John Wenger, that the monitors be portable. The idea was that they could spot-check and be moved from room to room. We accepted that and therefore we ordered them centrally. Where there is a small shortfall, schools do have the autonomy to purchase locally.

Where issues arise regarding ventilation in a school, whether they concern the need for improved vent or window work or otherwise, funding is available for that school through the minor works scheme. Alternatively, emergency funding applications can be made. If there are bigger issues, there is absolutely no question but that the expertise of the Department, be it in engineering or another area, can be availed of.

If any additional measures are required to be put in place and have been done in other cases, we will continue to do that on a case-by-case basis also. There is no question of our sourcing and resourcing this area within our schools.

I am satisfied that Question No. 94 has been answered previously. Can I move to Question No. 95 please, Acting Chairman?

Question No. 94 replied to with Written Answers.

School Transport

Matt Carthy

Question:

95. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Minister for Education the steps she has taken to ensure that capacity will be available in school transport for all applicants in 2021-22. [44739/21]

I ask the Minister the steps she has taken to ensure that the school transport system has capacity for all applicants for the current school term.

I thank the Deputy for his question. The school transport scheme is a significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department. In the 2020-21 school year, more than 114,100 children, including over 14,700 children with special educational needs, were transported on a daily basis to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country at a cost of over €224.7 million in 2020.

All children who are eligible for school transport and who completed the application and payment process on time for the 2021-22 school year will be accommodated on school transport services where such services are in operation. This year I have extended measures to all post-primary pupils who are otherwise eligible for school transport but are attending their second nearest school. Prior to this it was their nearest school but this year I have extended it to ensure that the second nearest school is also part of the framework. All those who have applied and paid on time will be accommodated on school transport services. This arrangement is in place for the current school year pending completion of the full review of the school transport scheme.

Children who are not eligible for school transport may apply for transport on a concessionary basis and are offered seats where capacity exists after all eligible children have been catered for. Late applications or families who pay late or both are not guaranteed a seat and will only be allocated a seat if capacity is available once seats have been allocated to those who have applied and paid on time for services for the 2021-22 school year.

Planning for school transport for the 2021-22 school year has proceeded on the basis that the public health measures in place as schools closed at the end of the last school year would remain as term began in this new school year. This includes the recommendations from public health that post-primary services would operate at 50% capacity and that masks would be worn. However, as the vaccination programme for children on post-primary services is rolled out and as the lifting of restrictions on public transport services proceeds, the capacity limit of 50% on post-primary school transport services will be subject to ongoing review and the Department will be considering the position in this regard over the coming weeks.

Bus Éireann has confirmed that to date, 104,324 pupils, including 54,728 post-primary eligible pupils and 14,735 post-primary concessionary pupils have been issued tickets for the school transport scheme. This number is changing as tickets continue to be allocated to pupils. In the region of 98% of all valid and paid-on-time applicants have been issued with a ticket.

I thank the Minister for that response.

Last year, the biggest issue that my own office dealt with was the issue of school transport. I am aware of parents where one of them had to give up their work because they went through the whole academic year with their child being unable to secure school transport which they were eligible. There are often difficulties arising from the deadlines in place. We know that deadlines are in place to make the management of the system a little more controllable but there are often valid reasons people cannot meet a deadline including, in some instances that I am aware of, where parents simply do not have the money at a particular point in time to pay for that school transport.

There were particular issues with the information technology, IT, system employed by Bus Éireann with regard to medical card holders. I would appreciate if the Minister could outline the specific efforts that have been made to ensure that the student who fall into those two categories are catered for on their local school bus.

I thank the Deputy. I appreciate the issues being brought forward to constituency offices. I am a rural Deputy myself and I understand that and the importance of the school transport system. We have made significant progress in the past year in addressing many of the issues that were problematic last year. This has been helped in no small measure by the review that is in place and as a consequence of the decision I made to ensure that the second nearest school would also be part of the terms of agreement for access to school transport.

The figures and the statistics speak for themselves, in that 98% of all valid and paid-on-time applicants have been issued with a ticket. That is a phenomenal figure to be able to discuss with the House here today.

On specific cases that the Deputy might raise, there is always a mechanism where, if there is an exception for whatever reason, whether due to family circumstances not allowing payment on time or if something has happened, this can be reviewed.

I thank the Minister again. There are two particular issues I will mention. The Minister referred to 98% of valid and paid-on-time students having secured their place on their school bus. That means that 2% have not. In percentage terms this may be a small number but it is a substantial number in real terms and the impact is very real for those families. I urge the Minister that she might ensure that this figure reach 100% as quickly as possible.

The second point I will raise is where the Minister has mentioned the current 50% capacity which our school buses are operating on and her ambition to move that to 100%. Can I ask the Minister to ensure that when that happens, that the additional capacity that this will allow for is actually used to ensure that more students receive concessionary bus tickets and that those for whom other anomalies have emerged are catered for, rather than simply dividing in half the number of buses available? We should use the opportunity that this will present to ensure that more students can avail of their local school bus.

Before I ask the Minister to respond, I notice that Deputy Kerrane wishes to contribute.

Gabhaim buíochas, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. The Minister has confirmed that she will review the 50% capacity rule for buses for post-primary schools in line with the 100% capacity that obviously is the case for public transport. Since the roll-out of the vaccinations for younger people, particularly those who are going to post-primary schools, has the Minister sought advice on the capacity rules to increase it from 50% given that roll-out? As the Minister will be aware, in rural areas where there is no alternative to the car, this obviously is leaving parents in very difficult positions, particularly those who are working. It is not very environmentally friendly either to have several cars on the road when children could actually be on their school bus. We very much need to look at that 50% capacity rule and getting it to 100% and doing that as quickly as possible, in line with public health advice.

I call Deputy Ó Laoghaire now.

I support what Deputies Carthy and Kerrane have said. It is very clear and the inconsistencies in my constituency are very frustrating for people. Most students who travel to school will do so on public transport where if they get a bus, they will travel on 100% capacity. However, for the minority of cases in my constituency and probably for the majority overall, they are on 50% capacity. It is difficult and frustrating to comprehend this and I am glad that this is being reviewed.

I agree with Deputy Carthy that it needs to be done on the basis of expanding capacity rather than on dividing what is there.

In the long run, expanding school transport is a no-brainer in every respect, from an equality, traffic, and crucially, from a climate change point of view. It makes sense in every respect to try to continuously scale up school transport in order that most students are not going to school in a car but are going to school in a bus with their peers. That is what makes sense.

I thank the Deputies. I confirm, once again, that the planning for school transport for the 2021-22 school year has proceeded on the basis that the public health measures in place at schools closed at the end of last year would remain as term began in this new school year. This included the recommendation from public health that post-primary services would operate at 50% capacity and that masks would be worn. However, as we have said, as the vaccination programme for children and post-primary services have rolled out and as the lifting of restrictions on public transport services proceeds, the capacity limit of 50% on post-primary school transport services will now be subject to an ongoing review by the Department and that will be considered within the next number of weeks.

I wish to acknowledge again that in the region of 98% of all valid and paid-on-time applicants have been issued a ticket. This is a significant percentage but as I have also already alluded to earlier, a further percentage change will happen because tickets are continuing to be issued. This is distinct progress on where we were in previous years.

I also note the comments of the Deputies in moving from 50% to 100% but this will be done on the back of public health advice and prudence for our students.