Department of Education and Science Strategy Statement: Presentation.

I welcome Mr. John Dennehy, Secretary General of the Department of Education and Science, and his officials to discuss the strategy statement of the Department. Members of the committee have absolute privilege but this same privilege does not apply to witnesses appearing before the committee. Members are reminded of the long standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House, or an official by name, in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. Mr. Dennehy's presentation should last about 15 minutes.

I am accompanied today by Mr. Pat Burke, assistant secretary, and Mr. Brian Power from my own office. I thank the Chairman and the members of the committee for inviting me here to discuss the Department's new statement of strategy, which covers the period 2003 to 2005. We had hoped to be in a position to give members a finished, printed version of the document in advance of the meeting, but this did not prove possible due to the time constraints involved in preparing the document for publication. In the Department of Education and Science, in accordance with our normal practice, we will be publishing the document simultaneously in Irish and English and since it was a substantial job to translate the document, it has just now been completed and we hope to be able to publish in both languages within the next few weeks.

The document in front of the members today is the final version of the statement of strategy which has been approved by Government and laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. Preparation of the statement is part of the process of strategic management in Departments under the Public Service Management Act 1997. It is aimed at providing a better service to citizens. This statement is a forward looking document that serves as a framework for action by the Department over a three year period. It addresses not only the ongoing business of the Department but the legislative and administrative framework in which it operates and, crucially, its long-term goals. It also provides an important opportunity of considering how the Department needs to respond in terms of its structure, systems and resources to meet those goals.

In developing this, the Department's third strategy statement, one of the most important features of the process, has been the opportunity of developing a shared vision within the Department. The process of developing the strategy statement took place at all levels across the Department. In the initial stages I consulted with the Minister and Ministers of State and the management advisory committee in carrying out a review of the Department's mission statement and high level goals. These are set out on page 5 of the document and I will refer to them later.

The next step was to identify the key objectives linked to each high level goal, the strategies to be employed in each area to achieve these objectives, the specific outputs expected from each strategy over the period of the statement and the performance indicators to be used to measure our progress. The development of these objectives, strategies, outputs and performance indicators took place at section or business unit level within the Department and involved the broadest possible consultation with staff. In addition, there was consultation with other Departments with a view to co-ordinating strategies on issues of common interest and, in particular, in relation to Government policy initiatives being implemented on a cross-departmental basis. Our approach to the development of the strategy statement was also discussed at a bilateral meeting between the Taoiseach, the Minister and me. Following this broad consultation process, drafts of the strategy statement were considered by the management advisory committee and the Minister. Formal consultation also took place within the Department's partnership committee and at a specially convened meeting of the Department's senior management forum before the strategy statement was finalised and presented to the Minister.

The process of developing the strategy statement was designed to ensure the maximum level of participation throughout the Department. Through this process we set out to establish much clearer links among the Department's mission statement, its high level goals and the objectives, strategies, outputs and performance indicators adopted to achieve and measure our success in relation to these goals. I am confident that they will also encourage shared ownership within the Department, a clearer understanding of goals, objectives and strategies and an appreciation of the changes needed in work practices across the Department to achieve those. The inclusive approach will allow for greater integration with the processes of business planning and performance management. In all areas of the Department, senior managers have used the strategy statement as a basis for developing new and more detailed business plans within their own areas of responsibility. The performance management and development system will serve to clarify roles and responsibilities for individuals in meeting business planning objectives. In short, there are now clearly definable strategic links between the Department's mission statement, its statement of strategy, its individual business plans and the role profile of each officer. This will ensure that every member of staff is making an important contribution to fulfilling the Department's overall mission.

The members will also see reference in every section of the statement to a range of key Government strategies and initiatives to which the objectives outlined in this document make a contribution. These include the agreed programme for Government, the national development plan, Sustaining Progress and other key Government initiatives that cut across some or all Departments. In this way the Department of Education and Science will ensure that its planning and strategy contribute to the execution of the Government's overall policy objectives. The strategy statement represents an important step on the road to joined-up Government.

The statement sets out the key objectives and related strategies of the Department over the period 2003 to 2005. It is drawn up within the framework of available resources and in the context of Government policy and the Department's mission statement and high level goals. According to the statement of strategy:

The mission of the Department of Education and Science is to provide for high-quality education, which will:

enable individuals to achieve their full potential and to participate fully as members of society;

contribute to Ireland's social, cultural and economic development.

In pursuit of this mission, the Department has the following high level goals: we will deliver an education that is relevant to the individual's personal, social, cultural and economic needs; we will support through education a socially inclusive society with equal opportunity for all; we will contribute to Ireland's economic prosperity, development and international competitiveness; we will seek to improve the standard and quality of education and promote best practice in classrooms; and we will support the delivery of education through high quality planning, policy formulation and customer service. These five goals have been developed in close consultation with the Minister and the Department's management advisory committee and reflect the cost cutting nature of the impact of education policy and provision. In that context, the goals now reflect our commitment to providing for the educational needs of the individual, society and the economy. They also signal our determination to improve further the quality of educational planning and policy formulation and our commitment to high quality customer service.

Chapter 1 of the statement outlines the changing environment in which education is delivered in Ireland today. Chapters 2 to 6 deal with each of the Department's five high level goals. Chapter 7 focuses on our commitment to improving service to our clients; Chapter 8 describes how we will contribute to the achievement of broad Government strategies by working together with other Departments and agencies. Chapter 9 sets out the steps we are taking to strengthen the Department's capacity to deliver on its mission.

The achievement of our goals and the successful implementation of the strategies outlined in our statement are dependent on a number of critical success factors, particularly the availability of resources, the capacity of our organisation to deliver and a climate of co-operation among those involved in education. All these are essential elements in delivering a high quality education for all. The Department's strategic approach to the process of reorganisation and structural reform will have a positive impact on our capacity to deliver on our mission and key goals in the future. Substantial progress has already been made in the Department's programme of structural reform agreed by Government in June 2001. The main aim of the programme is to remove the Department from its detailed involvement in the day to day operation of many aspects of the education system in order to create capacity for forward planning, policy formulation, monitoring and evaluation. Agreement was reached during 2002 with all the staff interests in the Department on the detail of implementation. We are now in the course of putting the measures included in the programme in place. The four specific measures are the establishment of a State Examination Commission, the establishment of a national council for special education, the establishment of a framework of regional offices of the Department and bringing forward legislation to extend the remit of the Higher Education Authority to embrace the institutes of technology.

As the committee will know, the State Examinations Commission was established on 6 March and assumed full responsibility for this year's certificate examinations. The commission has taken on a very substantial task in its first few months of existence. Responsibility for the formulation of examination policy continues to rest with the Minister and the Department, informed by the advice of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment.

To support policy development in this area, recent reorganisation within the Department has included the creation of a new curriculum assessment and qualifications policy section. It is hoped to establish the national council for special education very shortly, and I know the committee has already dealt with this issue earlier today. As part of the process of major structural reform we are establishing ten regional offices, and it is intended that up to six of these will be in operation before the end of the year.

In addition to providing a more convenient point of access to information on the Department's activities, programmes and personnel, these offices will ensure that the Department is fully represented on, for example, the city and county development boards and any other regional or local bodies where the voice of the broader education sector needs to be heard. We would see the regional offices as the eyes and ears of the Department at local level and as a conduit to ensure that the concerns and requirements of those at the coal face of the education sector are taken into account at a central level when national education policy is being formulated.

The programme of structural reform also involves improvement of the Department's internal processes in relation to a range of operational areas. These include recognition of schools, teacher allocation and school transport. Taken together with the major structural changes I have already outlined, this comprehensive package of organisational change will better equip us to achieve the objectives set out in the statement of strategy. Of course, we must constantly review progress towards the achievement of our objectives. To that end, we are putting in place a robust monitoring system at every level. We will monitor the objectives and strategies detailed in the strategy statement against the delivery of related outputs on the basis of the performance indicators outlined.

This monitoring will take place at a number of levels within the Department. Each of the Department's business units will draw up a detailed annual business plan designed to deliver on the objectives and strategies outlined in the strategy statement. The performance management and development system will, in turn, facilitate the attainment of personal and business unit goals by individual members of staff. In this way, every part of the organisation will be working towards the achievement of the Department's mission.

Personal targets will be regularly reviewed, as will the business plans relating to individual areas of activity. These reviews will serve to demonstrate the level of progress being made at business unit level in relation to the objectives and strategies outlined in the statement of strategy. In addition, the Department's partnership committee will play an important role in monitoring progress. At senior management level the management advisory committee will regularly report on progress and contribute to the Minister's twice yearly review of the implementation of the strategy statement in advance of bilateral meetings with the Taoiseach.

The Department will also provide a formal annual report to the Minister detailing progress on the implementation of the strategy statement, in accordance with the terms of the Public Service Management Act 1997. In addition to indicating areas of progress, the report will set out reasons for non-delivery of outputs or particular difficulties encountered. It will also highlight changing circumstances and emerging issues and, if necessary, adapt or revise the statement of strategy in the light of such developments.

I welcome our witnesses for whom I have some questions and comments. The last statement of strategy was from 2001-04 and this one is from 2003-05. Why is this strategy being produced now when it includes 2003 and 2004, thus effectively only lasting one year further than the last strategy?

I welcome the more determined language in the new strategy in terms of the actual goals of the Department. The last strategy was wishy washy in the goals it intended to achieve. Everything was to be planned for or looked at, whereas at least on this occasion the Department is talking about actually delivering, contributing, improving and so on. I question why the promotion of lifelong learning has been excluded as a high level goal of the Department of Education and Science at this point. I would have thought it was as important from 2003 to 2005 as it was in the last strategy.

I have read the five goals that are there for now, and while they are broad, it is important that a definite commitment to lifelong learning be included. Mr. Dennehy noted that this has already gone to print or whatever, and we are merely commenting on it as I presume it is not going to be changed based on the comments made here. In a sense, I am not sure what we are doing here-

We are being briefed.

I will continue anyway. This mentions the National Development Plan 2000 - 2006 and the provision of £6.7 billion for measures in the education sector. Can the officials provide the figure for what has been spent so far under the national development plan on education measures and on what it has been spent? If they cannot provide those figures today, perhaps they will send them to me later. What has been achieved by those measures? Bearing in mind that we are more than halfway through the life of the development plan, what is left to be spent?

In terms of North-South co-operation in the context of the Good Friday Agreement, the last strategy and this strategy mention the role of both North and South. What initiatives were progressed under the last plan by the Department of Education and Science in conjunction with the Department of Education in Northern Ireland? Obviously, we are now aware of the Centre of Excellence for Autism in Middletown, but what other initiatives have been progressed and are there any other plans on the table in terms of where we are going from here?

It was a stated strategy objective the last time and again this time to tackle underachievement in special education needs on a North-South basis and to facilitate teacher mobility through teacher exchanges. I ask the officials to broadly outline the numbers of youth and teacher exchanges that have taken place between the Republic and Northern Ireland and whether they feel these exchanges have been successful in their objectives. Besides Milltown, what level of ongoing contact is there between the two Departments with regard to co-operation with each other in the area of special needs education?

Both strategies list immigration as one of the challenges the Department is facing, and I suppose it is a growing challenge. How is the Department coping with and reacting to this challenge and opportunity, which it is also? I know of classes where four, five or even six different languages are being used. Obviously some of these students would have special needs assistants or whatever, but how does the Department feel this is working at this point? We have our targets in terms of pupil-teacher ratios which, on paper, have been achieved but the size of classrooms is different in reality. That area needs to be looked at because if we are to have a few different languages in a classroom, the pupil/teacher ratio as it existed may not be satisfactory because the teacher's time is taken up in a different way. In both strategies, the objective is to achieve a level whereby Ireland will be in the top quarter of OECD countries in terms of participation of population in third level education and training. With a focus on disadvantaged backgrounds, how does the Department feel that this objective under the last strategy has been advanced, and what success has been achieved?

The artistic opportunities within education have been neglected. They got very little mention the last time round. Does the Department not feel there should be more awareness of the arts in schools, and greater emphasis put on that?

In relation to the science sector, reference is made on page 31 of the document to bringing the Irish Research Council for Science, the Engineering Technology Council and the Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences together as part of a new council. What role, if any, will Science Foundation Ireland have in all of this? I thought part of its role was to move into second level and indeed primary level schools and help open up the university and IT sector, bringing its experience to children at earlier ages. Will there be any specific mention of such a link?

In relation to the strategy for the implementation of the recommendations of the task force on the physical sciences, people are disappointed with the progress to date. There appears to be no timescale indicated for that implementation. I am aware it is funding related but could Mr. Dennehy give us an idea when most of these recommendations will be implemented?

The objectives regarding school transport have been mentioned. Mr. Dennehy might comment on what he believes needs to be changed in that area. I refer in particular to issues such as overcrowding on school buses, with three children having only two seats, for example, and no seat belts. We saw what happened on a school bus in County Louth two weeks ago. I am aware there may have been some horseplay involved, but unless the laws are put in place and implemented, we cannot expect things to work as they should. Children's lives are at risk the way things are currently operated.

Regarding the roll-out of ICT, I was disappointed that the budget was almost halved this year. Mr. Dennehy might comment on how effective he feels the roll-out has been in schools to date. The Minister gave me a children-to-computers ratio of nine to one in primary schools, and 11 to one in secondary schools. Is that ratio likely to improve? I was in a primary school very recently where there was only one computer for 30 children, though schools obviously differ in this area. How does the Department feel regarding how the ICT grant, delivered over the last three years, was spent? Was it spent effectively by schools? Some schools seem to have achieved far more with the grant than others. Has the Department any means of addressing this issue?

Ireland will soon take up Presidency of the EU. The Department has said that the performance indicator will be the success of the education aspect of the presidency. Could the Department of Education and Science play a greater role within the EU, being more proactive rather than simply dealing with matters as they are handed to us? Are there any measures in particular which the Department hopes to have in play by the end of our EU Presidency in 2004?

The impact of major demographic changes has been noted. Are we dealing effectively with this? If not, it is not the fault of the Department of Education and Science but of our planning process. Planning applications have been approved right across the country, particularly in areas of expanding demographics where massive estates are being built. I know of some in my own county. The town of Portlaoise would be a very good example. No contact was made with the Department of Education and Science when these planning applications were being granted. Sallins and Lucan are other examples. We suddenly discover now that we have no schools in place, nor any other facilities, or enough facilities to provide for the people coming into these housing estates. I would not like the planning processes, which currently contend with An Taisce, to be made even more difficult, but if people are to be allowed build massive estates, they must ensure that services are there. The departmental officials might comment on that, and particularly on the schools building programme and the extra pressure that brings.

I am unhappy with the pupil-teacher ratios and the way they currently operate, and would appreciate Department comment on the matter. Clearly there must be some rules, but because of the operational system, some schools end up with more teachers than they need while others do not have enough. I do not know if there is any way in which this can be changed so that schools can get the teachers they need for a particular year without having their needs assessed by the situation in the previous year. This might be difficult, but there is merit in the proposal.

Mr. Dennehy spoke of a hands-off approach, the way in which the Department is so snowed under with reacting to day-to-day issues that it has not got time to evolve and develop policy. It seems that this is the reasoning for the introduction of the national council for special education, the State Examinations Commission and so on. One could ask what is left of the Department.

In terms of staffing and transfer of staff, Mr. Dennehy said that is being negotiated. I would like a comment on how that is supposed to operate. I may not beau fait with all that has happened in the negotiations, but in terms of numbers being transferred, and especially in light of the freeze on public sector appointments, how many will come out of the Department and how many will come into the system new?

I welcome the statement by the officials, though with the same proviso as that mentioned by Deputy Enright, namely, that this is afait accompli and we can merely comment. I suggest that future strategy statements might be given to us in draft form so that we could have an input. I was reading through the consultation document, which is good in itself but is all internal, relating to what is happening in the Department or across other Departments.

I do not know if it has been suggested that there should be consultation with the partners in education - representatives of parents, teachers and so on. I realise it is strictly a strategy statement for the Department, and clearly the Department is interacting with its clients. For future strategy statements it might be possible to consult with this committee in advance of the final document being agreed on, and with the partners in education.

Deputy Enright has covered a lot of ground. I will begin with the section on disadvantage, on page 22 of the document. I know the Minister has stressed his own interest in addressing the issue of disadvantage. In his introductory letter he talks about social inclusion. I concur with that fully, and wish him well with it. I assume it is very much part of the priority within the Department.

The strategy document is inevitably quite general, and in relation to the anti-poverty strategy and its targets there is not a lot of specific information regarding what the Department hopes to achieve. What kind of extra resources are planned to address these areas? There is mention of the level of progress of disadvantaged pupils, the number of additional teachers provided, retention levels in support of schools, literacy levels in support of schools and so on. Has the Department decided specifically to allocate significant extra resources in all these areas? I am thinking for example of the issue of retaining trained teachers in schools in disadvantaged areas. There seems to be a greater than average predominance of untrained teachers in such schools. I am also thinking of some special schools and projects with which I am familiar, which address the needs of young people who do not fit into the general category of schools. One in my own constituency is extremely good. I am referring to St. Augustine's school which provides an excellent service for the young people in that area. However, it does have a waiting list, a number of resource issues and it is planning to expand. I do not want to speak of just one school but I mentioned the one with which I am most familiar. There will be a general problem with not having enough places for young people with challenging behaviour and who do not have a positive attitude to school. They need a different system than the regular primary or secondary schools.

When will the six-bed secure unit in Trinity House be opened? I understand it is ready but has not yet been staffed. There is a difficulty with the number of places available to young offenders. If there is no intervention for them when they are in this age category, there will be little chance for them at a later stage in the prison system. It is important that they do have proper intervention for themselves and the people in their communities.

In the submission, there is reference to early childhood education - Deputies Stanton and Enright mentioned it. There is a commitment in "we will support the development and provision of quality early childhood education in line with the strategy set out in the White Paper". Currently there is no national system of early childhood education apart from various efforts from various Departments. What are the Department's views on that and whether you hope to make progress on that matter within the timeframe?

I support Deputy Enright's arguments on school transport, particularly on seat belts. Does the Department hope to make progress in that area? I note in the presentation that under the Cromien report the Department is going to introduce an appeal system for the school transport service. When is that likely to happen? One of my colleagues recently raised an issue on the Adjournment of a case of children at a particular school where the older siblings can get the school bus but the younger ones end up standing beside a busy road. There is a need for flexibility in the school transport system. We should adopt a more sensible approach because the present system is too rigid.

At the ASTI conference, the Minister promised a commission on teaching and suggested that it could be broadened to encompass education. Is there any information on that? I am not sure if that is strictly a matter for the Minister or the Department.

Coming from the constituency where the ceiling collapsed in a school, I note there is a performance indicator of timely anticipation of need in school accommodation. Is that incident going to change the Department's practice in the school building unit? I am not blaming the Department because you get only a limited budget. However, if the Department has an input into old prefabs and building, it is reasonable to suppose there might be other accidents waiting to happen. Is there a response from the Department in terms of prioritising possibly dangerous buildings? The Minister said he will not allow anyone jump the queue but, as I said in the Dáil the other night, we want the queue to move more quickly. There are schools with potentially dangerous classrooms that need those extra resources. What is the Department's view on this? This is enough of a catalyst to make an argument for extra funding for the school building programme.

Deputy Enright referred to art education. What about music and the recent report on it in schools? Deputy Stanton has something to say about Cork but I wanted to raise the more general point that children should have the opportunity to study music. It is something we all agree with but again it is a question of resources. Has the Department had any discussion on that report and is there anything planned in that area before 2005?

I welcome Mr. Dennehy and his team to the committee. I agree with previous speakers on the timing of our contributions to this process as it seems we are spare to it. It would have been appropriate for us as an Oireachtas committee to have had an input at an earlier stage in the development of the strategy.

In Appendix B of the presentation, there are 24 agencies listed - although one or two might not be described as such. I agree with the Cromien report that we need to concentrate on policy issues. I would like to hear what Mr. Dennehy has to say on the issue of co-ordination of these agencies, the avoidance of duplication, decentralisation of specific roles to do with human resources, pay rolls and other administrative issues. Is there not a danger that the Department might go down the same road as the Department of Health and Children in the proliferation of different agencies? Strategic thinking is part of this process.

With regard to co-ordination with different Departments, two areas emerged, one is on the international education side with ACELS and the teaching of English as a foreign language. There has been some trouble with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform about this in their crackdown in the last 12 months over visas and people not properly attending courses which has caused problems in ACELS. There are also related issues such as the closed shop they operate.

Information communications technology is another area we need to examine. The Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Dermot Ahern, has announced that he intends to extend broadband to all schools within a defined period. Another area in question is autism where we have spoken about the Department of Health and Children and its role in co-ordinating with the Department of Education and Science. I noted that in the submission the Department referred to joined up Government. Can Mr. Dennehy expand on those thoughts?

I welcome Mr. Dennehy and his colleagues to the committee. I understand this is mainly an internal departmental document. I do not know if the committee has a right to have any input at an early stage of its drafting and whether that would be useful is another question. The role and the relations between the Department and this committee is a matter that can be addressed. I do not see it mentioned in the submission how the Department views this committee.

They tolerate us?

I did not say that but it is useful to know a Government Deputy would say that.

Helpful as always.

It is a matter on which we need some clear some lines of communication. Is the committee a bit of a nuisance that they have to come before every so often to give a report or could the committee be seen in a supportive role? Could it be seen as critically constructive, with members trying to make a positive input to help officials of the Department and the Minister to perhaps do the job in a better way? As Members of the Oireachtas, the elected representatives of the people in this democracy, we probably bring a perspective that is both valuable and useful. Perhaps this needs to be looked at. Most of the time my own contacts with officials have been extremely positive. I have found them to be extremely helpful.

There is mention in the document of a changing teaching environment. Reference is made to "the changing face of delivery of education" and it being "more concerned with teaching of learning skills than the provision of knowledge". That is a profound statement which shows that the role of the teacher is seen to have changed in the sense that we are now talking about the teaching of learning skills rather than the provision of knowledge.

This brings us directly to relationships in the classroom between teachers and students. We are talking, possibly, not so much about what is taught but how it is taught. We can go on to talk about in-service training and the fact that many teachers have taken the Higher Diploma in Education during the years. Very often what they look at in in-service training is what is being taught. Only rarely do they get an opportunity to examine and reflect on how they teach, or consider issues such as discipline in the classroom and interpersonal relationships. I humbly suggest that it is crucially important for the Department that when it looks at the teaching of learning skills, somebody actually gives some thought to how people teach. There were suggestions that every so often teachers should have sabbaticals, that perhaps they should take certain third level interpersonal relationship courses and reflect on how and what they teach. The Department might well focus on this area.

Early childhood education has been mentioned, the approach to which has very much been ad hoc. We need to take the matter in hand and focus on it. Some committee members were in Finland last week and found that children began formal education at the age of seven years. There is an argument to be made that children in Ireland start school too early, that perhaps they are forced into formal educational structures much too soon. I know that in recent years the Department has been more and more reluctant to allow students repeat in primary school. It is becoming harder and harder to do so. If a child starts school too early, he or she may not be ready to move on to the next stage. That may be the reason there is an increasing demand for special education. We may need to look at this matter again. I suggest that the focus should be on pre-school education at which the Government needs to look and bring forward a Bill to tie all of the issues together.

Mention has been made of science. With regard to the junior certificate, it seems there will be two sets of lower level examinations, depending on the resources available in schools. Something has gone wrong. Perhaps the Minister will comment on this.

On page 26 of the document reference is made to youth work. The Youth Work Act is dead in the water. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what is happening in the area. Certainly, re-energising is needed at this stage. While I know that the vocational education committees have looked for resources from the Department in order that they can do what they are supposed to do, they are not forthcoming. Informal out-of-school youth services, properly resourced, could go a long way towards solving issues such as the abuse of alcohol and drugs, issues with which the Minister and the Department are dealing. Young people often say they have nowhere to go and nothing to do, apart from going to a public house, or the fields or sheds with cans and drugs.

We have failed to provide a proper youth service. It would cost a lot less to provide a proper youth service than put people in jail. We can easily link the two. If young people go off the tracks because of the failure to provide a proper youth service, very often they will end up in trouble with the Garda and the courts. In turning to crime and drugs, they will end up in jail which in the long run will cost the State a lot more.

Nobody has focused on this issue, not even the media. In most of our towns there is not even a coffee shop to where young people can go and hang out. We need youth centres and properly trained youth workers. We also need outreach workers. If we invest resources in these areas, we may not need to build as many jails. It is a shame to put in jail people aged 18, 19, 20 or 21 years who are in their prime. We lock them up because we failed them earlier. I feel strongly about this issue.

Regarding ICT, I understand the Department of Education in Northern Ireland has taken a totally different approach from the one taken in this State, that in Northern Ireland there is an integrated system whereby all schools receive the same interchangeable equipment. In this State each school gets a grant which it can spend in whatever way it sees fit. This is causing problems in terms of inter-operability. Perhaps the Minister will let us know if anything is being done in this regard. On the report presented to the Minister, the one to which he referred, may committee members have a copy?

Regarding special needs, while I am aware that CABAS schools have been given a reprieve until September 2004, there is a need for greater clarity. If one is talking about a customer driven service, it is only right that parents should be told what will happen and what the Minister's thinking is. This has been a pilot project for the best part of four years.

I agree with what was said about huge estates and the lack of planning in the provision of schools. There is a need to tie things together better. While we also have many Gaelscoileanna which are usually well resourced, more needs to be done at the earlier stages. The same is true of Educate Together schools, once established. I understand the Department does not own many schools, that most are owned by other bodies. There is a need for action to be taken at an early stage when needs are obvious; we should not wait until someone else establishes a school. Does the Department have any role in establishing schools? Is that the problem; that the Department does not have a role; that it waits until the church bodies, Educate Together or Gaelscoileanna set up schools; that it only moves in when a school is up and running? Should it not have a role in identifying needs?

We need to move ahead with the Teaching Council. Will it have the capacity to do what it is supposed to do?

I am trying to find out more about the Middletown centre. Mr. Kilroy appeared before the committee recently to make a presentation. I understand the task force on autism met for over a year and that when the question of the centre was put to its members, they rejected it out of hand but that the Department went ahead with it anyway. There has been no discussion with an Oireachtas committee or any of the parent groups. When I asked them about the centre, they said they knew nothing about it. I also asked the Minister about it this morning. We are still trying to get clarity on the matter. The centre is costing a lot of money and I know many of the groups are very concerned about its function. It is supposed to be a residential centre. Does this mean that children from Caherciveen or Wexford will have to travel and stay with their parents? Will it project one model or the model that is the least expensive? Much more needs to be known about it.

There is reference on page 57 of the strategy statement to clarifying the rules and better regulation. I agree with what has been said. While many statements and circulars have been issued, they do not appear to carry any force. For example, one has to do with teachers being cautious about using their schools in an economic way to promote commercial organisations. A particular newspaper group encourages children to collect tokens in order that they can get bits and pieces for their schools. If I do not buy the newspaper in question, a certain amount of pressure is exerted on my son to ask me to buy it in order that he can bring the tokens into school. I came across a school where the teacher had a league table on the board indicating who had brought in the most tokens. The children were encouraged to tell their parents to purchase products in the local shop in order that they could collect the tokens. Ethically, there is something wrong with this. Schools should not be put in that position.

What are the Department's views on this issue? Is it right that schools financed by the State should be used in an indirect way to promote products to the advantage of certain commercial organisations? Where does it stop? Is it right that schoolchildren should be used in this way? Does the Department have a view, bearing in mind what we heard about the various circulars floating around which state caution should be exercised in these matters? I know it is aware of the issue because there are advertisements in newspapers and on television encouraging people to shop in certain premises in order that their children can bring the tokens into school. In other words, if the State will not supply computers and so on, the local superstore will. If one was to do the figures, the sums that have to be spent by parents to provide a school with one computer are astronomical.

I wish the Department well with its strategy and hope we will again meets its officials to review progress.

I want to make a number of points. On education, it is probably fair to say the focus is put unfairly on the tiny percentage who create difficulty. In doing so we tend to forget the wonderful job of work being done almost all of the time. As public representatives, we are often forced to reach conclusions on the basis of anecdotal evidence or whatever is presented to us. Therefore, much of what I have to say will be said from that basis rather than any scientific basis.

One of the comments some of my former colleagues make to me on occasion, sometimes in frustration, is that the Department has increased the amount of money going to schools, sometimes dramatically, in capitation grants to primary schools, in particular. It appears, however, that in some schools large funds have built up, despite the fact that there is a need for them to be used immediately. It is not always true that funds have built up in schools where there is a need for repair jobs to be done but sometimes this is the case. Does the Department have any means of establishing whether a board of management actually spends the funds allocated to it or that they are spent in the area for which they were intended? From what I have heard, this is an area to which some attention should be paid.

A long time ago when I had responsibility in a particular school, the difficulty was that we were collecting at least as much through various means as we were getting from the Department. Even then there were chairmen who managed to hoard substantial amounts at times when teachers wanted money for arts and craft materials, or to support the music programme, for example. It is wrong if this practice is continuing to any appreciable extent.

In the section dealing with quality assurance reference is made to first and second level education and the Department's direct responsibility. It is true that many of us will have come across cases of parents concerned about absenteeism at various stages, particularly in the run-up to examinations.

The point Deputy Stanton made about in-service training is important. The better children are at particular subjects, the more they enjoy them. We tend to forget that this is equally true of teachers. The better equipped they are, the less stressful the job, the more they enjoy it, the better they create the atmosphere about which Deputy Stanton was talking, and the more effective they will be.

While a huge amount of work can be done by way of in-service courses, sometimes a different approach has to be taken but we have not been good at doing this. The Teaching Council might help in this regard. In the case of third level, in particular, I am not sure if there has been any level of quality assurance or that we have systems in place that ensure students expensively subvented by the taxpayer are given the service to which they are entitled and which they need if they are to come out at the end as the citizens the country requires.

I know the Secretary General is familiar with some of the writings of Chris Woodhead who was a chief inspector in Her Majesty's service and did the same kind of work. He has written colourfully, sometimes with exaggeration but often with more than a grain of truth, about the education system in the United Kingdom. One of his favourite topics is what he regards as the dumbing down of standards in order that Ministers and others can say they are doing fantastically well. I do not know whether he is right or wrong but he has made many other comments about the education system in which I believe he is right. He warns about a path education authorities might follow which will ultimately lead to negative results. This is an issue worth considering.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, I am not sure that the education sector and the Department, in general, have managed to get the credit they deserve for their input into the economic life of the country. The downside is that if those who make decisions about expenditure are not convinced of the value of education, they will not allocate funds to it. This applies at both ends, at the end about which we sometimes talk - mathematics, science and so on - and to having a workforce which enables the country to enjoy an advantage.

Nearly every speaker referred to the young offender and disadvantaged areas end of the spectrum. I do not believe the Department and those involved in education have sold the message sufficiently well that intervention at that stage is the cheapest and most effective way in social and economic terms. I do not know on whose part that is a failure. In some sense it is ours but it is continuing to cost us. I have no doubt that interventions in areas of disadvantage - geographic areas as well as individuals - offer a wonderful payback for society as a whole but I am not sure the strategy statement reflects this as aggressively as it is reflected in reality. Deputy Enright was right in saying the tone of the statement was much more upbeat and proactive than its predecessors.

We will not require Mr. Dennehy to spend an hour responding to the many issues raised, many of which arise at almost every meeting we have, but he may wish to respond briefly to them in general terms.

I do not believe I would be able to respond to all of them, even if I was here for a week.

You could try to respond to them in ten minutes.

The comments were extremely welcome.

With regard to Deputy Stanton's question as to what is our attitude to the committee, it is that it is made up of an informed group of Deputies and Senators, public representatives, whose observations and comments are always well considered. I mean that seriously. Reports produced by the committee and transcripts of its meetings are always considered across the Department. We have taken on board a number of its suggestions.

A number of members raised the issue of the preparation of the strategy statement, for which there is a set procedure under the terms of the Public Service Management Act, which applies to each Department, not only the Department of Education and Science. There appears to be no role for the various committees of the House in the planning phase. Reports are presented to various committees, including the committee which deals with the SMI, which examine and discuss them with officials from Departments. This is a contract between the Secretary General, on behalf of the Department, and the Minister on a programme of work covering a three year period.

With regard to Deputy Enright's question, the reason we have a new strategy statement is simple. Within the terms of the Public Service Management Act there is a statutory obligation on the Secretary General to present a new strategy within six months of a Minister taking office covering a three year period. That was done, only this time strategy statements were approached across all Departments with far greater professionalism, far closer attention to detail, far more consultation within the organisation - I will return to the matter of external consultation - and closer consultation with Ministers. We discussed the strategy almost weekly with the Minister over a five or six month period at management advisory committee meetings in the Department and other fora.

We have all been learning because this is only the third strategy statement in Departments. The reason three came so quickly was that there was either a change of Minister or Government. Even if there is not a change of Government but a change of Minister from the same party, a new strategy statement is prepared within six months. We have had three in the Department and have learned from our work on them. Our earlier attempts were weak; we did not consult sufficiently, nor did we involve the Minister sufficiently. The tendency was to draw up an outline strategy for presentation to the Minister who signed off on it but that was not the way it was approached on this occasion. Useful guidelines were prepared by the Department of the Taoiseach on how strategy statements should be approached.

Before the final strategy statement was put together, there was detailed consultation with the Taoiseach, each Minister and his or her Secretary General. The strategy was approved and laid before the Houses before we finally arranged to have copies printed. Perhaps there will be a new way of doing it in future; perhaps there will be a role to be played by committees such as this at an earlier stage. In this context, some of the observations and comments made today will be reflected in changes we make as we move forward.

At the end of the year we will reflect on what we have managed to achieve in the light of more restricted resources. We may have to change our approach. The input here is useful - I mean that sincerely. It is of use to us as are - although we are not looking for them - parliamentary questions. While the subjects of many are routine matters, we often learn from such statements by public representatives, which we can use as we move forward. That is the reason the strategy statement of this year is different from that of other years, although it is still not perfect. In the light of members' comments and others we have received, we will consider how we can improve it or if there are issues on which we did not put sufficient emphasis. If one reads through the strategy carefully, one will note that emphasis has been put on lifelong learning, even though it is not set out in lights, as it was in earlier strategies. We are conscious that major emphasis has been put on such learning across European Union and OECD countries.

On the question of how much has been spent to date in the context of moneys promised under the national development plan, we will have to put the information together for the committee because we could not even hazard a guess.

A number of members raised the issue of North-South co-operation. There is close co-operation with the Department of Education in Northern Ireland, which has been brought about by a number of superb Permanent Secretaries in that Department with whom I have worked closely. The two staffs have also worked closely. During the period Martin McGuinness was Minister for Education, as one would have expected, there was a great deal of co-operation between the two Departments, which was as the Northern Minister and the Minister for Education and Science would have wanted it.

We have been working on the issue of the transfer of qualifications from one jurisdiction to another, the transfer of pension rights and the area of special needs. On the issue of child abuse, there were strategies applied in the North and strategies here in which we were involved. We have worked jointly to bring together a strategy in that area. Our inspectorates have worked closely on the issues of language teaching and examination work. Even in relation to the Eleven Plus examination in the North, we nominated individuals from here to work on the Burns committee.

With regard to the Middletown centre, its establishment has been great news for the parents of children with special needs, particularly those with autism initially. It was a unique opportunity for the two Governments for the first time to jointly fund the purchase of a property that would otherwise have been sold commercially and probably turned into a hotel. This is a centre of excellence for children from the whole island, whether they come from west Cork, County Armagh or Dublin. Groups from this jurisdiction and Northern Ireland are working out the detail of how it will eventually work. It will be a facility for residential care for short periods as opposed to placing a child in permanent residential care. It will be a wonderful facility to do what a number of people have asked, that is, bring individuals together for in-service training, obviously in this case in the area of special needs. This is an issue which I am sure the committee will debate again. The details are being worked out. It was an ideal opportunity for a co-operative venture involving the two Departments. Sooner or later we will find that we can engage in a lot of activity and work together in this area.

May I interject?

Of course.

When it was decided to do this, the excellent task force on autism had been established and was up and running, yet this important initiative was not discussed or put to it. One would wonder about this for two reasons. First, what was the point in setting up a task force if at the same time the Department was going to go off and do its own thing and establish a centre of excellence, with which members of the task force who were the experts in the area did not agree? Mr. Dennehy then spoke about in-service training. If one takes the ABA model, for instance, surely the training involved is considerable and the monitoring ongoing. This begs the question: why did the Department not involve the task force at that time to get its advice? After all, it had been established by the Department to be the expert.

There is a simple explanation. The task force was set up to independently look at the position on autism. We did not interfere with its workings at any stage. Equally, the purchase of the property in question was being planned by the two Departments to be used in some way to promote excellence in our responses in the areas of special needs and autism. As the Deputy is well aware, ABA is but one method of tackling autism. It is not always the preferred method but a genuine, valid and useful one.

As I said, this is an area to which the committee will probably return because the details of how we will use the centre are still being worked out. There is, however, huge excitement among those involved in the area of special needs. While the Deputy may have spoken to members of the task force who may have reservations, I have spoken to a number of others who think it is a super idea. The task force was very big and, as with any large group, there was a divergence of opinion, and obviously still will be.

At the last meeting there were members of the representative associations - the parents' groups - who still did not know anything about this.

The purchase of the estate is only being completed. We will then get down to working with the groups. There was no intention of foisting this on anyone. It will be through an enormous amount of consultation and discussion that we will decide on the best use of the property, North and South.

While we are anxious to promote the arts in school, in the strategy statement we did not set out to deal with curricular areas in detail. For that reason the arts have not been highlighted. The music network report was published only in the past week or so. It is one at which we are looking. One of the assistant secretaries in the Department is preparing briefing material for his colleagues. We had some discussions with the Minister last week on preparing a strategy for the teaching of music.

The reason I mentioned the arts was I was concerned at the way the strategy was worded. The words "economic" and "financial" appear frequently. I do not want to see the education system evolving in such a way that students and children are seen purely as a means of fuelling the economy. I am concerned that there are other needs and aims. When I speak about the arts, I am not talking about the teaching of the subject but about education in a broader context.

I agree 100% and have a lifelong commitment to the arts in terms of their importance in the holistic development of a child or young adult. I totally take on board the point made by the Deputy.

The ICT issue was raised by a number of members. The story to date has been a good one. Due to financial constraints, there has obviously been a slight slowdown in spending but over a short number of years we have built up a good infrastructure in schools. A couple of years ago we envied other countries which had started well before us but we are now well up there with the rest, although there are some such as Korea and Sweden still ahead of us.

The committee has seen some of the figures. Over the past four years we have brought down the pupil-computer ratio down from 37:1 to 11:1 at primary level and 16:1 to 9:1 at post-primary level. Obviously, we still have a great deal more work to do in this area which is resource hungry. It needs more resources. The pace of development over the next number of years will obviously depend on the resources made available to us.

On the issue of broadband, we are linking closely with the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources. Our next major objective, apart from continuing the in-service training of teachers, is to ensure broadband connectivity, not only in every school but every classroom.

There are people coming here from a wide range of countries around the world to look at what we have managed to achieve. For example, yesterday we had a visit from the Minister with responsibility for ICT in Thailand. The Department has been visited by Ministers from Malaysia; Finland, which members of this committee visited last week or the week before, and Denmark. The Danes were very impressed by what we had achieved in the areas of hardware provision, in-service training and developing interest among kids. However, there is a lot more to be done.

Everybody agreed that in view of the issues involved this was bound to become a wide-ranging debate. It has been extremely interesting. Mr. Dennehy, would it be fair to ask you, if members agree, to submit a written response to the huge number of questions remaining? This is an area which the committee will be revisiting on several fronts but specifically the strategy statement. You have covered some of the areas but there are quite a few left to go through.

Obviously, the Chairman believes in giving homework.

I do not want it tomorrow.

We would be delighted to do so.

It is the reasonable way to approach the matter.

While I am sure we will not deal with absolutely everything, we will cover as much as possible. You can talk to us again about the areas with which we fail to deal.

It will all be in the Official Report which will be accessible. There are issues which we need to pursue in a little more detail, not in the timeframe we face today. This has been a fruitful discussion in which there have been valuable contributions from members. Thank you for the information from the Department.

Thank you very much.

The joint committee adjourned at 3.40 p.m until 11.30 a.m. on Thursday, 26 June 2003.