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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 1 Feb 2022

Vol. 1017 No. 2

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Education Schemes

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire


55. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Education the status of the roll-out of the expansion of delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, as committed to in budget 2022. [4817/22]

The expansion of DEIS and the additional funding in 2022 was welcome. We have heard little about it or how the review or expansion are progressing since. I have written to the Minister's Department six times since last summer, looking for a meeting to discuss this, and have raised it at the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, and through other channels. Will the Minister provide an update of the timeline for when schools can be expected to benefit from this additional funding?

Budget 2022 has provided for an allocation of €18 million for 2022 and €32 million for 2023 to extend the delivery of DEIS programme to further schools with the highest levels of disadvantage. This package represents an increase of more than 20% on the €150 million already allocated by my Department to provide supports for schools in the DEIS programme. The programme currently supports 884 schools. The additional funding provided in budget 2022 will allow for the extension of the programme to additional schools from September 2022.

This year's package follows an extensive body of work that was undertaken by the DEIS technical group on the development of a model to identify the concentrated levels of disadvantage of schools. The DEIS identification process, under DEIS Plan 2017, is based on an objective, statistics-based model to determine which schools merit inclusion in the programme. An extensive body of work has been undertaken by the DEIS technical group to develop the refined DEIS identification. The key data sources used in the DEIS identification process are the Department of Education primary online database and post-primary online databases, and CSO data from the national census of population as represented in the Pobal HP index for small areas, which is a method of measuring the relative affluence or disadvantage of a particular geographical area.

It is important to note that schools are not required to apply for inclusion in the DEIS programme and that all schools will be considered under the refined model when it is applied. During the process to refine the DEIS identification model, as is general practice in the Department, the Department has consulted with education partners, including school management and national parent representative bodies and unions, on the technical aspects of the refinement of the DEIS identification model. The purpose of this engagement is to ensure that, as far as possible, the refined DEIS identification model can provide an objective and independent means of identifying schools serving high concentrations of pupils at risk of educational disadvantage and also to ensure there is a full understanding of the refined model and its potential application. There will be further engagement with relevant stakeholders in advance of the implementation of the refined DEIS identification model.

The programme for Government sets out a commitment to complete the new DEIS identification model, ensuring the extension of DEIS status to schools that are identified as being suitable.

I thank the Minister. Will she confirm that this will happen in September 2022? This is around the time that schools traditionally prepare their staff and schedules. They need this information quickly if they are going to benefit from a DEIS designation. I have raised this matter in the past. In the previous DEIS allocation around, there was a significant missed opportunity for DEIS band 2 schools that could have gained, relating to home school, community liaison, school completion measures and so on, but that did not do so. The Minister has identified some of the stakeholders. There is also some wisdom and some observations from Opposition spokespersons. They have not been engaged with despite more than six requests on my part. I understand that the criteria have now been set. Is that the case? Many of us had observations to inform the criteria. Some of the stakeholders that the Minister identified were not asked their views about all of this either, as I understand it. Whom did she consult? Are the criteria now set? If not, will she inform me of that?

We intend to be in a position to roll out the DEIS model for 2022. We have an ambition programme of funding being made available for it. It was a considerable achievement that, for budget 2022, there was €18 million available, rising to €32 million in 2023, with the explicit intention of enhancing or extending the DEIS model in our schools. A greater number of schools will be included in the DEIS scheme. Extensive work has been undertaken. There has been engagement with stakeholders, as I have outlined to the Deputy. At every stage I welcome the thoughts of Opposition Deputies. The Deputy is welcome to make those thoughts known to me. Regarding this specific engagement, I believe that my Department has communicated to him that, as we come towards the finalisation of the programme, we will consult with all of the stakeholders once again, including Opposition spokespersons.

I welcome that. I received that communication today. I hope that happens. The basis on which that engagement will happen depends on where the process is. Are the criteria finalised? Can the Minister tell me that? That would have been an area that the Opposition might have hoped to offer constructive thoughts on.

I am not sure I can think of a single Deputy who does not want to see DEIS expanded, who does not support the programme or does not want to see it deliver what it can. I do not know if there is a single Deputy who would not have welcomed what happened in the budget but we want to make sure that every school that deserves it has the best chance. We know there were issues with the previous criteria. The criteria did not, for example, take into account rent supplement, and the housing assistance payment, HAP, did not even exist at the time. There are all sorts of issues. It is not always the case that the profile of the students match the immediate physical area. In urban areas there can be schools cheek by jowl that are quite different. There can be big differences between schools even though they are within the same community. We would have liked to inform the criteria. I have a direct question for the Minister and I would like her to answer it directly and clearly. Is the criteria finalised?

Again, to confirm to the Deputy, the process of refining the DEIS identification model has been a consequence of and is reliant on the engagement of a variety of stakeholders, as I have already outlined, including school management, national parent representative bodies, unions and so on, particularly with regard to the technical aspects of the refinement. In advance of completion and implementation of the DEIS identification model there will be further engagement with relevant stakeholders. As I have outlined to Deputy Ó Laoghaire, there will be an opportunity, as we near the end of the process, to engage with Opposition spokespersons also.

Educational Reform

Paul Murphy


56. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Minister for Education if she will respond to the call by a union (details supplied) for open access to third level education; if she plans to abolish the leaving certificate; if she will engage with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to develop open access to third level education; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [4697/22]

I thank Deputy Murphy for his question. I watched much of the discussion this evening on "Six One". In the main, students asked for clarity regarding leaving certificate 2022 and they acknowledged they have received that. In fact, the students asked for four things when I met them. The second thing they asked was that there would be additional changes made to the exam papers and we have provided for that. They also raised the issue of grade inflation in terms of the class of 2022 competing with the class of 2021 and we have addressed that issue for them. They also raised the issue of accredited grades, but as I have already explained, we are not in a position to offer accredited grades this year because one in four students does not have data related to the junior cycle. Those data are important because they are used for comparability or standardisation for students.

It is fair to say that the reaction of students today has been varied. The views of parents and others around the table are also varied. I have met with all of those around the table, including parents, students, teaching unions and management bodies, have listened to them and heard what they had to say.

Specifically on the four points that were raised by the students, I have gone as far as I possibly can to ensure they are presented with what they have asked me to do for them. I am in a position to deliver on three of their requests but the fourth one, for reasons I have outlined, cannot be delivered because of an absence of data. We are not in a position to provide for accredited grades this year in a similar fashion to last year. If Deputy Murphy heard the news this evening, he would recognise that many of the students accepted that the absence of data is an issue.

I do not buy it and the important point is the students will not buy it. They will not buy the idea that the Minister listened and that she and the Government did everything that was possible. A full 67% of students in a very widely shared and participated in survey by the students union said they did not want a traditional leaving certificate exam but the Government is pushing ahead with a traditional exam, with a couple of tinkering changes around the edges. That is all it is and that is cold comfort to the students. We know that even in a normal, non-Covid year, around 57% of students report suffering mental or physical illness due to the stress. Add in the experience of Covid, the fear of getting Covid and of missing exams and we are talking about horrendous, unnecessary pressure this year. I will make the point again that it is not necessary. It is an artificial shortage. Why not put the investment in to ensure there is a third level place for anyone who wants to avail of it?

To the Deputy's suggestion that we are just ploughing on I would say, far from it. He should take time to study what has been put in place in terms of these exams in June. It is very clear the exams in June are very different from what has been offered previously. For example, students studying maths would traditionally have had ten questions to answer but there is such significant choice now that they only have to answer six on paper one and paper two. On the higher level English paper two there are three very significant bodies of study. Rather than answering three questions, students will only answer two. Those changes are across all sections, including the oral exams. In the Spanish oral exam, for example, students would have had to prepare for five role plays but this year they will only have to prepare for three. Likewise, with Irish where they would have had 20 sraith pictiúr, they now have ten. These significant changes are across the system and are an acknowledgement of what the students actually asked for. They asked that additional changes would be made to the papers and that has been achieved. They also raised the question of grade inflation and a commitment has been given that the grade inflation for 2022 will be on a par with 2021. In terms of the accredited grades, I have not heard Deputy Murphy propose any alternative. We have said there is an absence of data so it cannot be as fair as the system we were in a position to operate last year.

That the Minister would say this is very different and there are significant changes speaks to a profound lack of vision by the Government because the basis of the system is exactly the same. For students, their perception of how they are going to do in their leaving certificate all rests on one or two exams in subjects including maths, English and Irish, in the oral and the aural exams. The Department is tinkering around the edges in terms of exactly what is on the exam papers but that is it. All the pressure builds up onto those couple of weeks of exams at the end of 18 years of educational experience. The alternative is really clear. It is to open access to third level education, to put the investment in, to use the temporary and part-time staff that already exist in our third level institutions, to add the extra 25,000 places we need, to say we have open access to third level education, just as we currently have open access to second level education, and to do away with this unnecessary rat race.

I have to be very clear that the question of access to higher education is a policy matter which is not under my remit but under the remit of my colleague, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. I am aware it is a key of objective of that Department to ensure there is access into either further or higher education for each person who wishes to pursue educational options at third level.

Regarding the leaving certificate, what is being offered this year is different. Again, I have not heard Deputy Murphy reference how he would propose to offer accredited grades given-----

I have nothing against accredited grades.

I am just making the point the Deputy said-----

The alternative is open access.

-----very clearly that we have not answered the needs of students, but I am saying we specifically went through each of the four issues that were raised by students. They asked for clarity, greater choice and that we would address the issues of grade inflation and accredited grades. We were able to address three out of four of those issues for them, but because of an absence of data, we were not able to address the fourth one. We have made sufficient and significant changes to the papers to accommodate the students going forward.

State Examinations

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire


57. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Education if she will secure a choice for the leaving certificate 2022 between calculated grades and written exams to ensure fairness for the class of 2022; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [4818/22]

Tonight leaving certificate students and their families are hurt, frustrated and angry. I have received many emails, phone calls and messages and, to be honest, many students are absolutely gutted. They made it very clear the disruption to learning, the stress and anxiety, and the challenges in covering the course have been so significant that a hybrid model was the only way to ensure fairness, and I agree.

The disruption to learning and the challenges in covering the course have been so significant that they felt, and I agree, that a hybrid model was the only way to ensure fairness. Instead, last night, via leaks in the media, which in itself shows some disrespect, they were told that their views had not been listened to and had been disregarded. Why has the Minister not taken on what students have said and offered the choice that was delivered successfully last year?

In recent weeks, I have attended a meeting with the advisory group on State examinations, which has representatives of students, parents, teachers, managerial bodies, the further and higher education sector, and the State Examinations Commission, SEC. Following on from this meeting, I met with the members of the advisory group on a bilateral basis and also had further engagement with each of them thereafter. I have listened carefully to what each of these stakeholders has had to say and examined each of their points.

Following consideration of this matter by the Government today, I announced the decision to operate an examinations approach for the leaving certificate in 2022, with significant further adjustments to the examinations; and to provide students with a commitment that the overall results of the leaving certificate in 2022 will not be lower than in 2021. As the Deputy may be aware, it would not have been possible to run accredited grades in the same manner as last year, as junior cycle data was unavailable for one in four students.

The further extensive changes I have announced to the examination papers, over and above those announced in August 2021, means that candidates have greater choice in the papers; have fewer questions to answer and still have the same amount of time as in a normal year to complete the examination. For example, in both mathematics papers, instead of having to answer all ten questions, candidates will only have to answer six. This is in addition to previously announced changes such as the running of the oral examinations and music practical over the first week of the Easter break.

Timeframes for certain assessment elements of the leaving certificate applied examinations have also been pushed out. Schools were also reminded of the flexibilities regarding the dates for completion and authentication of examination coursework. I have also confirmed that junior cycle examinations will take place this summer. Adjustments to the assessment arrangements for junior cycle were published in August 2021 and provide for more teaching time in schools. They include a reduction in the number of classroom-based assessments to be completed, the removal of the requirement to complete assessment tasks and adjustments to the requirements in coursework and practical performance tests.

I believe the decision that has been made will provide leaving certificate students of 2022 with an opportunity for their learning and attainment at the end of their post-primary education to be assessed and will enable them to progress to the next stage of their lives. It also provides the certainty and clarity in this matter that had been requested.

We will take it that the Minister agreed that it was warranted to look at the hybrid model. I will take that at face value given that the Minister had meetings around it and she explored it. The reasons that have been advanced against the hybrid model first assume that the leaving certificate is itself equitable in a given year, but that is not true. It is not entirely without merits but it has significant flaws. The other argument was that grade inflation would be too high. Today this has been turned on its head by the Government. Before now, the only people talking about it as a problem for this year's cohort were members of the Opposition. The other issue relates to standardisation. I do not believe that was insurmountable. I wrote to the Minister last week outlining solutions for the quarter of the students for whom we do not have a baseline - we have a baseline for three quarters of them - and how we could fill in that quarter. I do not believe that any of these obstacles was the problem. I believe there was a view within the Department that the idea that the leaving certificate could be changed was gathering too much steam and that we needed to draw a line under it and get back to the leaving certificate as usual. I think this was the wrong approach.

As I outlined, I have engaged with all the stakeholders, including parents, students, teachers and school management bodies. I have listened to the proposals they put on the table and evaluated each one of them. They were primarily around making additional changes to the written papers - the exams as we know them - and I answered that. Substantial additional changes have been made to the papers. I was also asked to consider grade inflation. I am amazed that the only people the Deputy heard speaking about grade inflation were from the Opposition. In fact, grade inflation was raised by many people around the table, including students. I have addressed the issue of grade inflation.

The matter of accredited grades was also raised. We did look at it. It is important that there be comparability or standardisation as part of the accredited grades process. It is important that the data available are the data belonging to the students, as was the case last year, because that is the fairest. Because of the absence of data, we were not in a position for accredited grades to be as fair as they were last year to the class of 2021.

Standardisation applies to the class cohort when you are trying to fill in a gap to achieve a baseline. It is not that the lack of individual results for that student, if it can be filled in, affects that individual student, but the Minister knows that.

The point I am making on grade inflation is that until today the Government was presenting grade inflation as a reason not to do it, whereas the Minister has now built in a form of grade inflation. Maybe that is a mitigation that is needed with the model she has chosen but that was not an argument that was being advanced by anyone about this cohort except the Opposition and students.

Additional choice in the papers could have been accommodated with the hybrid model. I see no reason you could not have the written exam with additional choices in the paper. The problem is that teachers do not teach the course in the same way and schools did not experience Covid in the same way. All schools had to close but the impact of those closures was affected by factors such as access to devices. Some schools would have had different absences of teachers and students. State examinations cannot tailor the choices of individual students to take into account their different circumstances.

What has been set out today is that there will be additional choice which means there is greater time and less content required to be studied to take these exams in June. We are not just talking about the written exams but also the orals and practical exams. There have been accommodations along the line there. That was a chief consideration for the students and one they raised consistently around the table. They felt that the class of 2022 could not compete with the class of 2021 because of grade inflation. A concession was rightly made to acknowledge that grade inflation for the class of 2022 would be on a par with that of 2021.

On accredited grades, at the heart of it, the students wanted it to be fair. To afford students accredited grades would not be as fair as I would like when we do not have the data that are necessary for standardisation or comparability.

School Accommodation

Seán Canney


58. Deputy Seán Canney asked the Minister for Education the status of progress with the proposed amalgamation of a school (details supplied) and the development of another school in Tuam, County Galway; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [5197/22]

What progress has been made on the plans to develop the new single campus for a newly amalgamated national school in Tuam, County Galway? What progress has been made on the Educate Together national school, which is seeking a permanent home? It is in its seventh year in existence in the town and is doing very well.

I am pleased to advise the Deputy that a project for the schools to which he refers has recently been approved. The single project will provide for the construction of a 41-classroom primary school for Trinity National School as well as the development of an eight-classroom primary school for Tuam Educate Together National School on the same site. Special education needs classes are also being provided for both schools.

I can also confirm that the project for Trinity National School will facilitate the amalgamation to which he refers. Trinity National School is an amalgamation of three schools; namely, Presentation Primary School, Scoil Mhuire Mercy Primary School and St. Patrick’s Primary School.

The amalgamation took place from 1 September 2019 and the three schools' existing buildings are continuing to be used until the new amalgamated school is provided. The Department will be devolving the delivery of this project to Galway and Roscommon Education and Training Board, ETB. The next step in the progression of this project through the architectural planning process is for Galway and Roscommon ETB to enter into a service level agreement with the Department. The execution of the service level agreement is currently under way. Once this is in place, Galway and Roscommon ETB will proceed with the appointment of a design team to progress the project through design, planning and construction in due course.

I thank Galway and Roscommon ETB for taking on the management and delivery of this campus project. This project will involve a very significant investment in the provision of new and very modern school facilities in Tuam and is very welcome.

I thank the Minister for that very positive news for Tuam. It is great news that the Educate Together school will receive a new facility on the same campus as Trinity National School and both schools will be delivered as one project.

It is important for the town of Tuam. It is also important for the town's development that we have this single campus because then we can look after some of the transportation needs, including the inner relief road required in the town. This is now being devolved. Will the Minister estimate how many years it will be before we see the ribbon being cut on this facility which is, as she says, badly needed for the town?

I thank the Deputy. I agree with him this is a very significant and positive development and an ambitious project for the town and rightly so. The single project will provide, as I have said, for the construction of a 41-classroom primary school for Trinity national school as well as the development of an eight-classroom primary school for Tuam Educate Together national school together on the same site. The timeline for the completion of the campus projects progressed together as a single project should not be expected to be any different from an equivalent single major building project that is not on a campus. However, at least until such time as the statutory consent process has been completed it is not possible at this stage to provide a timeline for the completion of the project, but it is my expectation that the service level agreement will be progressed as a matter of priority.

I also acknowledge the Archdiocese of Tuam for its work in facilitating this project to take place. It is important also to acknowledge the work of the Minister's predecessor, Deputy McHugh, who set the train in motion in getting what the Minister herself rightly described as a fantastic new education facility for Tuam. It is very important as well that we move to the design stage as quickly as possible because Galway County Council has plans to do some roads and modify some works in terms of traffic management within the town. As the town is now growing substantially it is important we do it in a co-ordinated way so we are not spending money on roads that become dysfunctional when the schools are built. I also believe it will add to our cohort of secondary schools and be feeders to them, including Presentation College Currylea, Scoil Bhríde Mercy Secondary School, St. Jarlath's College and of course the Archbishop McHale College. All of them are progressing well and I compliment the Department on all the support it has given to educational facilities in Tuam.

I thank the Deputy. I acknowledge the commendation of the patrons. There has been a very strong collaborative and co-operative approach taken here and that is very important. In all sectors of society and most notably in the education sector, we can achieve great things when we enter into the spirit of collaboration and co-operation. This is is an excellent example of patrons coming together, of there being a very clear and defined ambition for education in Tuam and because of the collective engagement and the generosity of everyone involved in the process, ensuring that we can develop what will really be an ambitious, positive and significant development in education for Tuam. It is a development that looks to the future with ambition for education in the area. I support the Deputy's very positive comments.

School Transport

Mattie McGrath


59. Deputy Mattie McGrath asked the Minister for Education the progress made by the steering group in reviewing the school transport scheme; the changes that have been made to the scheme to date; and if the group has examined the possibility of issuing school bus tickets earlier than at present, for example in July, which would allow for concessionary tickets to be processed before the school term resumes in order that parents can make alternative travel arrangements if necessary. [5182/22]

As for the last Priority Question, I call Deputy Danny Healy-Rae.

I ask the Minister to outline the progress made by the steering group in reviewing the school transport scheme. What changes have been made to the scheme to date? Has the group examined the possibility of issuing school bus tickets earlier than at present such as in July, for example? This would allow for concessionary tickets to be processed before the school term resumes in order that parents can make alternative travel arrangements if they have to.

It may be construed that I have a conflict of interest because we, that is, my late father Jackie Healy-Rae and I, operated a small school bus transport service since 1956. I have to declare that.

I thank the Deputy for raising the question. The school transport scheme is a significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department. In the current school year more than 121,400 children, including more than 15,500 children with special educational needs, are transported on a daily basis to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country at a cost of over €289 million in 2021.

The Department commenced a review of the school transport scheme in February 2021. The review is being conducted with a view to examining the current scheme, its broader effectiveness and sustainability, and to ensure that it serves students and their families adequately. Following commencement of this review the steering group presented me with an interim 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 approved the extension of temporary alleviation measures in the current school year for transport for post-primary students who are otherwise eligible for school transport but are attending their second-nearest school rather than their nearest school.

Wider considerations relating to operation of the scheme are now taking place in the next phase of the review which is currently under way. As part of this phase of the review, the Department is currently conducting an extensive stakeholder engagement process. The Department will be listening to the views specifically of parents and guardians, students, the education partners and other relevant stakeholders through the use of surveys, focus groups and meetings, as well as inviting written submissions. The Department is inviting stakeholders to share their views and opinions so that they may be considered as part of the assessment and in informing policy on the future operation of the scheme.

The steering group will continue to report to me on an interim basis as the review progresses. This is an important body of work but it is also important that I receive those interim reports because it allows me to progress, as I did previously for this school year, on actions that can be taken. The work continues with the widest possible level of engagement.

I thank the Minister very much for her reply. There are a number of issues I have to raise with her.

On the medical card, it only covers pupils on the bus to the nearest school. If that school is full they must pay to go to their next-nearest school.

Many bus operators have asked me to raise the rule that prevents drivers from working beyond the age of 70 years. These 70-year-olds go on to drive tour buses, for instance, around the Ring of Kerry with full bus loads. What they are saying is if Bus Éireann provided a doctor to check their health yearly that would be no problem. I am asking the Minister to review that rule.

Go raibh maith agat.

I also want to mention the 20-year rule that prevents buses when they reach 20 years of age-----

The Deputy will get a chance to come back in.

I thank the Deputy for the points he raised. On some of them, for example the 70 years of age rule, that is something that is across the public sector and not unique to this operation here.

In many of the issues he raises, this requires a wide and all-encompassing review of the system to ensure it is serving the students and their families. This year we introduced the eligibility for students who were not necessarily attending their nearest school but their second-nearest school. We have done that because there is an acknowledgement that there is a difficulty for students for a variety of reasons, in terms of accessing their second-nearest school. There is a broader context here as well. We are looking at efficiencies in terms of travel, in terms of utilising the transport service and making it as readily available as possible so that it is freeing up families in terms of the commitment of taking children to school.

I thank the Minister. Again, I ask her to change that 70 years of age rule because bus operators are having severe difficulty in getting qualified drivers. We are throwing good drivers onto the rubbish heap.

On the 20-year rule for buses, if a bus passes the commercial vehicle roadworthiness test, CRVT - and those tests are rigorous - then it should be allowed. This is happening in other jurisdictions like the UK and the North of Ireland.

There is another rule. Years ago, when rural schools were closed, a promise was made at that time that children would be brought to the central school. To start a new run, there has to be ten children. People in rural Ireland may not have the opportunity to provide ten children. They have one, two or three children, and their neighbours might have two or three, but if they do not have ten children they cannot start the run. That is very unfortunate in light of the promise that was given when the local school was closed that children would be taken free of charge to the central school. That is not happening in many cases.

I appreciate the points raised by the Deputy because I appreciate the importance of the school transport system, especially in rural constituencies such as ours. I was, therefore, very clear that there needed to be a review of the system as it currently stands. I ensured that the review began, which it did in a timely fashion, and that interim recommendations were made to me. I have actioned those recommendations. The Deputy has raised different points, but it is important that everybody gets the opportunity to flag particular issues. We are currently engaging with parents, students, all stakeholders and anybody who wants to make a submission. Those submissions are being evaluated, as are all the points being raised, to ensure that the school transport system as we know it meets the needs and demands of students and their families. All issues will be addressed.

Can most operators make submissions?

Yes, there is an openness for submissions.