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Joint Committee on Education and Skills debate -
Tuesday, 12 Feb 2019

Statement of Strategy 2019-2021: Discussion

We will now have a briefing session with the Minister and Minister of State. I again acknowledge and welcome the fact that the Minister is engaging with the committee prior to the publication of this statement because we did not have an opportunity to engage prior to the publication of the previous statement. I invite the Minister to make an opening statement, which will be followed by engagement with members of the committee.

Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. Táim an-sásta a bheith anseo os comhair an choiste chun labhairt faoi ráiteas straitéise úr mo Roinne. Táim an-bhuíoch don Aire Stáit ar a bhfuil freagracht as an ard-oideachas, Teachta Mitchell O'Connor, as a bheith i mo theannta inniu. Mar is eol do bhaill an choiste, bhí dualgas orm agus ar mo Roinn ráiteas straitéise úr a fhorbairt taobh istigh de sé mhí ón dáta a ceapadh mé mar Aire sa Roinn. Nuair a bhí mé os comhair an choiste cheana féin, gheall mé dó go dtiocfainn ar ais chun labhairt leis faoin ráiteas straitéise úr agus chun deis a thabhairt do na baill a dtuairimí agus a moltaí a chur chun cinn. Ní féidir liom a rá go mbeidh mé in ann iad go léir a chur isteach sa ráiteas ach tá sé tábhachtach dom éisteacht.

I am here with my colleague, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, and my officials as part of this consultation process. My Department has already made a call for written submissions from the general public and stakeholders on what should be in the next strategy statement. This led to our receiving almost 400 submissions. In addition, I have been meeting various stakeholders as part of my introduction to my new portfolio. This has given me the opportunity to discuss with various education partners the issues they consider to be of importance in the coming years. Additionally, last Thursday I had a very successful meeting in Letterkenny with regional representatives of many of the key actors in the education and training sector. This was a very fruitful event and there were a range of suggestions made and ideas put forward which I have noted and will consider. I have also been immersing myself in the job, back in the classroom, meeting stakeholders, students, teachers and representatives of the board of management, whether in Cork, Kilkenny, Dublin or other parts of the country. I intend to continue with this because I am hearing many issues being raised, and at the coalface is where one will find out what is needed and where the weaknesses and strengths are.

I am here to meet and consult this committee and hear its views as to what should be in the statement of strategy for my Department. I am aware that under the terms of the Public Service Management Act, the statement will be submitted to the Oireachtas once it has been finalised. However, I requested this opportunity to add an additional consultative step rather than presenting the committee with a finished article before it had the opportunity to contribute its views. I am here in listening mode and I look forward to hearing the contributions from members on what they consider to be the key priority strategic actions for my Department in the next few years. I emphasise that my focus today is on the strategic level.

The strategy statement is an important document for any organisation. It is a key opportunity for a Department to define the direction to be taken in a policy context. My Department's strategy statement is an overview and a statement of direction for the education and training sector over the next three years. It introduces accountability at a Civil Service level but also allows the Minister of the day discretion in the work he or she wishes to carry out. For this reason, I ask the committee to set out today what strategic direction it wants the education and training sector to travel over the next three years.

Obviously, we are all very aware of the various constraints that operate from the point of view of finite resources and the like, but I want to focus today on what can be achieved and on setting out a level of ambition for the sector into the future. For my part, I am very keen to continue the work towards an education and training system that empowers learners and gives them the resilience, skills and training they need to prepare for living successfully in a complex and changing world. I want to release the potential of learners, enabling them to achieve their personal goals and supporting them to make the best of their opportunities as they move forward in their lives. I want a system that can respond to the changing needs of learners, one that is adaptable, accessible and challenging and remains consistently relevant.

The education and training system needs to equip the 21st century learner with core competencies such as critical thinking skills, language skills, ability to use technology and written communication skills. These core competencies will enable learners to adapt, work with others, think critically and be creative not just when they leave school or college, but throughout their lives and careers.

The committee is aware that the Department has engaged in a significant reform agenda in the past few years and there is no doubt that much has been achieved. I pay tribute to my predecessors for their work in that regard. I want to continue to make progress to embed initiatives and strategies that are under way and reform at a pace at which the system can deliver. I am also conscious that the education and training system works as a partnership between the various players involved, including providers, learners, parents, patrons, management bodies, teachers, lecturers, administrators, the ETBs and the State. It is important that this be explicitly recognised and the spirit of partnership evident in the sector be nurtured and built on.

To clarify for the committee, as well as the strategy statement which will set high level priority actions for the next three years, the Department will be developing annual action plans over the lifetime of the strategy. The committee will be familiar with the model of my predecessor as Minister, Deputy Bruton, who had annual action plans. My intention is to have the strategy statement which will identify the strategic direction to be taken and then annual action plans which will set out the more immediate actions to be implemented in order to make progress towards achieving the longer term strategic goals. I intend to publish a 2019 action plan shortly. However, it will be defined by the objectives set in the strategy statement. That is why it is important for me to have this session to hear the views of the committee on the content of the strategy statement and have the opportunity to take them into account in developing and working up a new strategy statement.

As I am conscious of the time constraints, I will not keep the committee much longer. I look forward to hearing the contributions of committee members.

I may have to leave before the Minister answers because I must go to the Dáil Chamber shortly, but I will return.

I thank the Minister for setting out the strategy statement which is important. One of the problems we have had with action plans is that some of the key issues were not dealt with. Issues such as teacher supply were hardly mentioned; in fact, that issue was denied. The biggest problem facing the Department is teacher supply. It will probably improve at primary level, but the shortage of teachers at second level is having a massive impact on the teaching of many subjects and the running of schools. It is also having a huge impact sna Gaelcoláistí freisin toisc go bhfuil sé deacair múinteoirí a fháil a bhfuil sé ar a chumas acu a bheith ag múineadh trí Ghaeilge i meánscoil. This is a huge issue for the Department and not enough is being done about it. Many small things are being done, but they are not enough. What is the exact status of teacher supply panels at primary level, in particular? Has the issue of teacher supply panels ever been considered in the context of gaelcoláistí? It might be a model that could work, although, obviously, it would be much more complicated at second level.

The biggest issue for the Department is demographics because the country faces a problem. There has been a massive increase in population on the east coast at the same time as the school population is supposed to stabilise and reduce at primary level. The Minister has a huge problem in that the demographics are pushing the requirement for new buildings in my constituency and nearby constituencies and areas in Cork and Galway. In other parts of the country difficult decisions about schools are being taken at local level. Does the Department have an overall vision?

I will say again because I have the opportunity to do so that I am disappointed with what is happening in Ashbourne. Since I last raised the issue in the Dáil, numerous parents have contacted me - I will meet some of them this week - to say they cannot find school places for their children. I was attacked in the local newspaper by the Minister's colleague, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, for raising this issue, but these parents do not know what to do. They are being given a list of schools up to ten or 15 miles away, instead of in the local town. I have raised the issue multiple times and it shows up flaws in the forward planning-demographics section of the Department. If it cannot see that there is a problem in Ashbourne, where else are there problems in forward planning?

I am concerned about the purchase of sites and the Department becoming involved in commercial matters in general. Not that there is anything wrong with it, but the expertise of civil servants does not match that in the private sector. I am not saying there is anything wrong with them, but they do not have the expertise that is available in the private sector. I wonder whether we should have an outside agency to deal with land acquisition, in particular, for schools because it costs a huge amount of money. The Department does a fantastic job and the best it can. I know that the staff are so conscious of the budget, but the budget for sites is increasing all the time and the list of schools that do not have a permanent site is not reducing. This major issue needs to be dealt with.

On what we are teaching children, the teaching of history as a subject has cast a shadow over the Department of Education and Skills. Last week I had a meeting with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, and can confirm that if the Minister does not put history back as a core subject in the junior certificate syllabus, we will make a commitment that if we are in government, we will do so. I strongly encourage him to do this, regardless of the advice of the NCCA on it. It is an important statement to make that we value history, that it is an important subject and that it was a mistake to remove it as a core subject.

On the delegation of powers to Ministers of State, I note that there is no delegation order under the Technological Universities Act. Is there a reason for this? From the reply to a parliamentary question I tabled last week, it appears the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, does not have powers under the Act, that they are all with the Minister. Is that an oversight? Perhaps it is necessary.

The Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, has raised the issue of apprenticeships. There is another Minister of State with responsibility for that issue. It would be better if apprenticeships were included as part of the higher and further education brief in order that the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, would have official responsibility for them. If we are really treating apprenticeships and higher education on the same quality scale, as we are, why are they being dealt with by two Ministers of State? The Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, deals with research and innovation in another Department. He also deals with the issue of school buses, which is an odd one to throw at a Minister of State because it means that he or she is busy for one part of the year. He also deals with apprenticeships which would fit much better in the brief of the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, although I am concerned she does not appear to have the necessary powers.

Another issue that is of crucial importance, one on which we have made a submission, is that of DEIS. There were some changes to the programme, but a full look at it has not been taken. I will be looking at it again in some detail. Special needs education accounts for a huge part of the budget, but we need to ensure the money is spent effectively in the best interests of children. There is also the issue of the National Educational Psychological Service.

I must now leave to go to the Dáil Chamber, but I will return. However, I may not be here in time to hear the replies.

I thank the Minister for outlining the strategy. It is welcome that he has come before the committee to get our views on this wide-ranging area.

I have some questions about the pilot project to teach politics and society. I understand it is going very well and has been very successful. The Minister mentioned the importance of critical thinking and ensuring the education system instils this skill among students. What are his feelings on the roll-out of this subject? Deputy Thomas Byrne mentioned history. The subject of politics and society incorporates history and is quite complementary. In this era of populism the education system has a role to play in informing students in order that they understand how politics works, how the various parties work and how to analyse media critically when reading or listening to debates. It would help to provide for better civic engagement among not only young people but also throughout society. It is a crucial subject.

On the importance of empathy, NUI Galway has Ireland's first UNESCO chair in children, youth and civic engagement. The importance of empathy has been scientifically proved. I understand the United Nations will include it as one of its sustainable development goals. Well-being is also one of the goals. UNESCO is carrying out a pilot project throughout Ireland, in which Foróige is very much involved. It involves the teaching of empathy which actually can be taught to transition year students in secondary schools.

It has been scientifically proven that it can be taught and the policy is evidence based. What is empathy? We use the word all the time. It is more than compassion. It is a critical problem online, not just for young people but for everybody, as people feel they can say anything online and there is no empathy. It means not only identifying with how somebody may be feeling when one says something online, but also putting oneself in someone else's shoes to understand how he or she might feel and acting on it. That is the basis of empathy, although I have tried to simplify it in a few sentences. Empathy has been recognised internationally and UNESCO is championing it. Given that the chair is in Ireland and UNESCO is funding the initiative, it would be good for the Department of Education and Skills to acknowledge it and it could be implemented as part of the well-being programme.

The evidence suggests that somebody could score ten out of ten on a test of well-being but that does not mean that he or she has empathy. One could be feeling fantastic with great self-esteem but one's empathy levels may be low. The term "well-being" is used so widely that there is much misconception about what it means, that is, whether it means going to the gym, doing meditation or something else. We are doing a good job on well-being within the education system but a module on empathy could be tacked on successfully, even on a pilot basis, as UNESCO rolls the initiative out throughout the country.

Given that the United Nations is also considering the matter in its sustainable development goals and given that scientists have proven that it can be taught, empathy would be an important module for society, and Ireland would show great leadership in examining it, even on a pilot basis. We have the relevant expertise and there is research and evidence behind it. At another committee of which I am a member, we have discussed online safety and bullying. The key is to put oneself in someone else's shoes, try to understand how he or she is feeling and act on it, rather than just saying one feels pity and walking away. It will help people and I do not mean only young people. Rather, it will help even us in the Oireachtas. It is a matter that extends across the board and we need to lead by example. It is not just me who recommends it; scientists have carried out evidence-based research and the recommendations are being rolled out around the world. Canada and the United States are leading countries in this regard and there is a UNESCO chair in Ireland. The funding is available and UNESCO is not asking the Department to provide it. It is available and it is being rolled out. It could be nicely tacked on to the well-being programme.

I thank the Minister, the Minister of State and the departmental officials. Early years to fourth level is a broad discussion and I will begin with the former. While I know the running and funding of early education is primarily a matter for a different Department, apart from the Early Start programme, which I think is the only relevant programme within the remit of the Department of Education and Skills. Early years inspectors have been appointed by the Department to assess the quality of education in early years. Has there been a report on that? It is relatively new and I do not know whether any of the officials present cover that area, but it is important that there is a high-quality experience for children, particularly for children who do not have many books or sources of vocabulary in their homes. The Department has provided for inspectors in that area. While I understand that the relevant officials might not be present, if that is the case, will the Department revert to the committee on the matter?

On curricular reform, Deputy Naughton mentioned politics and society, and computer programming is another new subject. Has a report been done on the ongoing junior cycle reform in schools? I presume a significant part of the strategy will relate to how it is gradually implemented in the curriculum over the years, as well as the systems for examining young people. Similarly, what plans are there for leaving certificate reform?

I fully support efforts to increase the take-up of apprenticeships, which is crucial. The Apprenticeship Council has made significant recommendations for further apprenticeships in various areas and there needs to be more of the traditional apprenticeships. Deputy Catherine Martin referred to the importance of apprenticeships for the green economy and I support her in that regard. Much of the apprenticeship issue concerns getting the message across to parents, schools and young people that apprenticeships are just as valid as higher education, or in some cases even more valid because there may be more job prospects due to gaps in the economy. It is important that parity of esteem with those who go on to higher education is given to young people who choose apprenticeships.

Higher education is another matter for the committee and I am concerned that we are waiting for an economic assessment in respect of the committee's consideration of the Cassells report and the recommendations and various options therein. Is there any update in that regard? Given the period that will be covered by the strategy, it is crucial that decisions on the issue are made. While it will ultimately be the Government's decision, the committee has a role in it but we cannot move further until we receive the information.

I do not agree with Deputy Thomas Byrne's suggestion for a private body to acquire land for schools. I disagree fundamentally because acquisitions should be done through the Department and the Office of Public Works, OPW, and in conjunction with local authorities, as is often the case. In my constituency, there are two new post-primary schools, one of which is up and running while a site has recently been identified for the other. The acquisition was arranged by the local authority, the Department and the OPW. I do not see a role for a new body to become involved. It can be effective if it is done well and in conjunction with the national planning framework, NPF. While Deputy Byrne referred to the growth in population on the east coast, the intention under the NPF is that there should be much more regional balance, with much more of the growth in population happening in the other cities and in towns and settlements around the country. To answer the question about planning for schools, it must follow the demographic of which the Department is aware, namely, the number of children whose parents are receiving child benefit, in order that the Department can know what will happen in the immediate future. I presume the Department works with the NPF on long-term planning. Although it is probably not a matter for the Department, it is important for the country that there is a regional balance.

DEIS is another issue but I am sure other members will raise it. It is important that we continue to support DEIS schools and that children who live in disadvantaged areas receive the supports they need. There is also a case for helping those children whose parents are economically or otherwise disadvantaged and who happen not to live in DEIS areas.

Deputy Thomas Byrne asked about teacher supply. This is an issue in secondary schools, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, subjects and Irish. There are also many issues with substitute teachers in the primary school sector.

A group is working on this. We had an advertising campaign pre-Christmas and will continue to do that and look at different interventions to try to attract and invite people who may be interested in coming back from places like the south-east of Great Britain or the United Arab Emirates. Teacher supply will remain a priority for me. There is an ongoing conversation about teacher supply panels. Our officials are working closely on the idea of regional supply panels for substitute teachers.

Deputy Thomas Byrne also raised the issue of population and school places with reference to Ashbourne. There are population pressures regardless of whether we are talking about Ashbourne in County Meath or Kildare, Wicklow, Louth or Dublin. The population pressures are growing. To tie it into the question raised by Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, the Department works very closely with the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and looks to where housing estates can be built and planning. The GIS is very much involved in it as well. We can only continue to be as informed as the information available to us. That was the thinking behind Project Ireland 2040, to see where the population pressures will be in the future. Regarding tying the two issues in with the purchase of lands, there is the example of the memorandum of understanding, MOU, between the education and training boards, ETBs, and local authorities in the acquisition of sites. There are examples where this has worked very well. In some instances, it has not worked well. Regarding the idea of an MOU, Limerick is an example of where that has worked and it should be heeded.

Deputy Byrne also spoke about the reintroduction of history as a compulsory core subject. He will be aware that I have called for a review in this area. I do not want to pre-empt the outcome of the review by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, but the officials and members of the NCCA are very familiar with my strong opinion in this area regardless of whether it is the decade of commemorations, the recent conflict in Northern Ireland, own history of emigration, the work on the move from conflict to peace, or our global imprint. That history needs to be told regardless of whether it involved peace, education, peacekeeping in places like Lebanon or the UNHCR, where we have a very high standard and acceptance in respect of working in critical places around the world such as Somalia, South Sudan, Jordan or Lebanon. We must be very open to the fact that we have a dark history encompassing things such as institutional abuse. We must ensure that we cannot just hide all that under the carpet. People came forward, spoke and gave their testimonials and we must ensure that the history of that very dark period in this country is not washed down the stream.

Deputy Byrne also raised issues relating to DEIS and the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, while Deputy Naughten raised the very important subject of politics and society. It is working very well in the schools in which it has been piloted. I have spoken to a number of teachers and students in the pilot schools. It is a class I would recommend to my colleagues. If they have not done so, I recommend that they go into that politics and society class because they know how to ask questions, engage and put someone on the spot. It is a pleasure to be in there. That politics choice will be rolled out to all schools in 2020. Deputy Naughten also mentioned history in connection with populism in respect of the many challenges we face internationally such as the mass migration of people from sub-Saharan Africa looking for refuge. Given the history of this country when we needed refuge, we must be very open to our contribution on a global basis.

The Deputy spoke about empathy, well-being and compassion. He is correct. Well-being means being well both physically and mentally but it also involves dignity - how we treat, relate to and interact with people and not just students. One of the most significant ironies of life is that adults are great at lecturing young people and telling them how to behave and treat each other, but in respect of how we treat each other as adults, particularly in a large public forum like Dáil Éireann or Seanad Éireann, sometimes the dignity piece leaves a lot to be desired, especially when we have such a legacy and footprint globally. When Irish people went abroad to work, be it in education or in the missionary field, they knew how to treat people and there was an acceptance there. We must continue to be very focused on that legacy and appreciation for the way Irish people treat others. I know Deputy Naughten organised a meeting around that. UNESCO is involved in the empathy piece. If we are having the major debate around well-being, let us try to incorporate the empathy piece as well.

I have covered some of Deputy O'Sullivan's points. I know she had a couple of questions about third level education as well. I acknowledge the Deputy's work on junior cycle reform. It was a significant piece of work that was not without its challenges at the time. One of the lessons was that change needs to be done in a certain way. Perhaps a period should be set aside. I have learned from that for the leaving certificate reform. We must bring it in gradually. I am getting a lot of positive feedback. Many risks were taken. It required a lot of initiative at the time, whether it was the classroom-based assessments, the new subjects and the new short subjects. With the core subjects of mathematics, English and Irish, the complete focus was around literacy and numeracy. This is why I go back to history again. There is no better subject than history when it comes to focusing on literacy so perhaps there is an opportunity there.

I will update the committee on leaving certificate reform. We cannot have junior certificate reform without leaving certificate reform so there is a missing piece. Our students are going to go through the junior certificate and will get used to classroom-based assessment, research work, team work and the critical thinking piece, so we must ensure that the leaving certificate follows through. In saying that, we have a leaving certificate that is very much an integral part of our education system. Yes, there are pressures, including exam pressures. We have tried to take the heat out of that by adding two more days to the leaving certificate through the State Examinations Commission, SEC, this year. One thing that must happen is the continuity between the junior certificate and the leaving certificate. There must be a focus on that. I will keep the committee updated on that. I know it has contributed as a committee.

A number of issues came up. Deputy Naughten spoke about empathy and how we relate to each other. What we are hearing from companies is that they want empathy in their employees, so it is not just for children. It is also for adults. The Minister mentioned the behaviour of adults. On many occasions, I cringe when I see pupils from our primary and secondary schools coming to visit Dáil Éireann who then see the behaviour there, so empathy is important. That is what companies are telling us. They are telling us that they expect top academic qualifications but they also want the soft skills. Employers want these skills to ensure there is happiness in the workplace. In the past, competencies just involved literacy and numeracy and now probably include digital literacy, but all of the other competencies like collaboration, being able to work together and empathy are important.

Deputy O'Sullivan was out of the room when I paid tribute to the work she did on apprenticeships, which is continuing. Deputy Byrne asked about my delegation of duties. I am in charge of what we would call the new apprenticeships but my specific duties involve being in charge of the apprenticeships that are coming through the institutes of technology and the technological universities.

Someone asked about the status of the Cassells report. It was sent to the European structural reform support programme before 31 October. There is a body of work to be done in that regard. It is not said often enough that €157 million per annum in extra money has been pumped into higher education since 2016. We now have the biggest budget for higher education since the foundation of the State. There has been €157 million extra per annum since 2016. We responded to the Cassells report. Of course I know that the report pointed out that more investment in higher education is needed. We are looking for an economic evaluation from the structural reform support programme but there are data gaps within the Cassells report in respect of the very topics about which we have been talking today - apprenticeships and the money being spent on them. I also want to know about retention rates. What are the issues around retention rates? Do we need to spend more money on that? We are also going to look at graduate earnings and see how they will impact on students coming through because we want a fair playing field. I will also be asking the programme to look at the full income base of our higher education institutions and at the international student premium and the money it brings into the system, which was not covered in the Cassells report.

The Department itself is working on other areas. We are working on upskilling and reskilling. Again, it is very important that there is investment in these areas. Investment should not only be made in higher education but in everything else that is happening in that space.

I have to leave for another vote. Could I just ask two questions now? Would that be okay?

Of course.

I apologise that I missed the presentation; I was in the Seanad for a vote. The Minister was looking at teaching PE through Irish. Could he give us an update on that? I am also conscious of the fact that young females are not participating in PE as much males. Will the Minister comment on that?

I will have to leave as soon as I ask my questions. I am not being rude. I will look back over the Minister's answers. I would like to raise a few points rather than ask questions. In his opening statement the Minister asked what strategic direction he wanted the education and training sector to travel in over the next three years. There are some basic things we need to tackle. One is access to education. I refer to two problems with access. One relates to children with additional needs who are still struggling to get spaces in schools or in autism spectrum disorder, ASD, classes. The other relates to the many rural areas in which there are still issues around school transport. We have debated school transport in this committee on a number of occasions and have had a number of questions back and forth, but it is still an issue for many people. It comes down to the nearest school rule. That is a bit of an archaic system. Transport and the lack of special classes are still serious issues.

I am looking at the goals of the action plan. Goal 1 is to "improve the learning experience and the success of learners" and goal 2 is to "improve the progress of learners at risk of educational disadvantage or learners with special educational needs". If we want to achieve these goals we have to ensure that the correct supports are in place. I know there has been a lot of work done on increasing the number of ASD classes and special needs assistants, but there is still an issue, particularly at second level. I put this to the Minister in our last round of questions. In some counties we only have one or two options for people at second level. That will not cater for the need, particularly over the next few years as more people come out of ASD classes at primary level. The spaces are not there at second level. They are some of the basic things we need to tackle if we want to give everybody equal access to education and equal opportunities.

Another issue is the quality of some of the buildings. A number of months ago some people were presenting before the committee. This is not just about prefabs, some of the schools are on waiting lists for new buildings. The conditions in which some people are teaching are not good learning environments for students. They are not good environments for teachers either. They are some of the things we need to get right.

My last point is similar to one made by Deputy Naughton. I agree with a lot of what she said about empathy. She made some very interesting points in that regard. The Minister knows that I am always going on about mindfulness, mental health, and mental well-being in schools. If we are trying to decide on our strategy for the coming years we should not only focus on the academic aspects but let students know, from a very young age, that minding one's mental health and well-being is just as important as doing well academically. That links into empathy and many other aspects of well-being. We really should be rolling out mindfulness in all of our schools. It does not have major cost implications. It is something very basic which could be done. The younger students are when things like this are tackled the greater the chance will be of success and of students adopting mindfulness in their everyday lives. They are my main points.

I congratulate the Minister. Like Deputy Funchion, I will refer to his question about the strategic direction he wants the education and training sector to travel in over the next three years. I would say that it should be one that has equality at its heart. I agree with Deputy Funchion about equality of access and opportunity for our students, but we also need to address the elephant in the room, which is pay inequality and the crisis it is causing in teacher recruitment. We have four-teacher primary schools not just in rural Ireland, but in Dublin. When a teacher is ill or on a training course they cannot be replaced. These are schools in which there are teaching principals so it can be the case that a teaching principal who has fifth and sixth class students has to take in first and second class students or even junior and senior infants. Something has to shift. We need to value our teachers, who are so under-resourced and overburdened at the minute.

We also need to look at the status of our non-teaching staff and to value them. There are more than 3,500 secretaries in our education system. The salaries of the vast majority of those are determined by boards of management, which leads to different working terms and conditions. We have secretaries with no security of employment and no occupational pensions who are forced to sign on during the summer. As former teachers, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor and the Minister himself will know that schools cannot function without their secretaries. They are everything to students and staff. There needs to be a shift in that area as well.

The issue of forward planning and new buildings has been brought up by my colleagues. I brought this up when myself, Deputy Thomas Byrne and Deputy O'Loughlin travelled to Tullamore last year. It relates to this thing of announcing schools. Last year it was announced that a new primary school for the Goatstown-Stillorgan area in my constituency will open in September 2019. The parent of a two year old or a three year old child will think that is great and that a brand new school will open in 2019 when the truth is the site has not even been identified. Ballinteer Educate Together national school has been waiting for seven or eight years. The project has been moved around and does not even have planning permission yet. We now hear that the Department has applied for planning permission to locate it in an industrial unit in Sandyford beside a site on which it looks likely that 460 apartments will be built. Traffic chaos and safety issues will arise from this school being located beside a construction site. I do not understand the logic of announcing schools and then misleading the public by saying that the doors will open a year later when the site has not even been identified. The Minister should at least be honest with the public and say that he hopes that this will happen but that we actually do not have sites identified for the schools we are announcing.

As elected representatives, people come to us saying that this is great news and asking where exactly is the location for the school. Then the other school, which has waited seven years and does not have planning permission, wonders how they were successful when they have been moved around to different parts of the constituency. Take Ballinteer Educate Together which is now temporarily located in Churchtown and is still waiting for planning. That is something that needs to be addressed.

On strategy, does the Minister intend to integrate the recommendations made in the Joint Committee on Education and Skills report on relationships and sexuality education, and what is his timeline? The committee also did a very detailed report on mental health. I would love to see these reports inform strategy and be taken seriously rather than gathering dust on a shelf.

In the last quarter of last year, the Minister's predecessor was to have 500 teachers in DEIS primary and post-primary schools trained in the delivery of resilience building. Did that happen? How were those schools selected? How were those teachers selected? What are the criteria for deciding which schools or teachers received the training?

I agree with Deputy Funchion, and have said it many times, that a toolbox of skills to deal with a crisis is the most critical thing that we can give our children. I am an advocate for mindfulness and resilience building, which was one of the recommendations of our report. I, the Chairman, Deputy O'Loughlin, and Senator Black have been instrumental in introducing mindfulness into Leinster House. We think that it is very important that we in Leinster House lead. The previous Minister, Deputy Bruton, attended the meeting we held before Christmas to lend his support to it. The sessions are held on Wednesdays between 1.30 p.m. and 2.30 p.m., and six more are scheduled. This is happening is Sweden and the UK. If the Minister cares to pop in, he should do so. That gives a signal that we are leading on the importance of protecting our mental health. It would be a good signal if the Minister were to lend his support. The typical excuse for Deputies, never mind Ministers, is that they do not have time, but that is exactly when one should pop in and do some mindfulness training.

What is the extent of the Minister's engagement with the Minister for Communications, Climate Change and Environment, Deputy Bruton, on broadband connectivity? It is not only an issue for rural Ireland. In my time training in NUI Maynooth the overhead projector was as technical as it got, but now the technology is fantastic. I was a music teacher and used YouTube to bring the music to the students so that they could see the performer. Interactive whiteboards are also an invaluable tool. How are people in Glencullen, which they tell me is not far from Grafton Street, coping? I do not think a music teacher there has that access because there is no broadband connectivity. It must be next to impossible in rural areas of Ireland. There is inequality because pupils are not getting the same experience, and that is only in my subject, never mind any other subject. Teachers are heavily reliant on this.

I would love an update on the National Strategy on Education for Sustainable Development in Ireland 2014 to 2020 if the Minister is in a position to provide it now or later. That was focused primarily on educating children and students about sustainable development rather than seizing the opportunity to make the very schools themselves greener. A quick example of that was apparent when the Joint Committee on Climate Action visited a school in Tipperary before Christmas. It had done a great deal of retrofitting and put six solar panels on a roof which could take 30. It is outrageous that that is the message we are giving our students, who if they ask why there are only six panels when it would fit 30 are told that there is no point because the school cannot get money back from the grid. We must look at that. There should be a solar revolution on every public building, including school buildings. Schools are a perfect investment for that. Has the Minister spoken to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment about the need for the Government to bring in measures that would not just put the responsibility on the students who are doing fantastic work through the green flags initiative, for instance? It would mean the Government stepping up to invest in and incentivising our schools becoming greener, which unfortunately did not happen in that school in Tipperary where there was no incentive.

I thank the Chairman for allowing me to join the committee today. I thank the Minister for speaking so eloquently on the issue of history. He displayed a very deep understanding. He may be aware that I and my colleague, Senator Kelleher, and others have put forward proposals on Traveller history in education, and I believe that the National Council for Curriculum Assessment, NCCA, is examining how it might become part of the curriculum. It is, as the Minister said, part of all those parts of history reflecting the kind of diversity of experience, both good and bad, that people have had in Ireland and that has helped to shape our country. I am hopeful of the outcomes. Will the Minister give a timeline for when we might expect the completion of that review?

Also on critical thinking, I draw the Minister's attention to a very good but under-resourced initiative, namely, the Young Philosopher Awards and the Young Philosopher of the Year. It is a very small project and certainly not on the scale of the young entrepreneur initiative or others. It is very important, nonetheless, in promoting critical and philosophical thinking which is so important for our young people. The initiative came out of UCD with 50 or 60 schools involved. It is something that could be of great benefit, especially at a time when, locally, nationally and internationally, there are very polarised debates, so to be able to think philosophically and engage with each other is important. It is a sign of the importance of critical thinking that the work of Paulo Freire is being pulled out of schools in Brazil. It is because people recognise the power of when people are thinking critically. We should look to reverse that trend in every way that we can.

Well-being has been mentioned. We need to model this as well as teach it. Insecurity for teachers is an issue in creating a positive environment. This is particularly the case for school secretaries. I know that school secretaries have almost a social work component to their jobs. In many cases it is the school secretaries who help children, especially those children who are dealing with difficult situations such as their family's housing security, being in direct provision or navigating bureaucracies, which unfortunately our youngest people sometimes have to navigate. They play a key role and it is very unfortunate that people, including students, do not know whether the same school secretary will be there in September because they effectively lose their jobs every year and must go on social welfare before returning to work in September. That is not acceptable.

I sit on the Committee on Social Protection. We held a joint meeting between the Committees on Education and Skills and the Committee on Social Protection - I think it predated the Minister's appointment - which focused on disability and the blocks to access. I would love to hear the Minister refer to second chance education and how we can ensure that those who may be navigating the social protection system are being given quality education options. Sometimes people can feel as though it is the luck of the draw regarding the courses they are offered and the time of year that they register as to whether they will be offered a college course.

I am concerned about the National Training Fund. There will be statements on it in the Seanad this week. There has been an indication that employers will be given a greater say in what training persons might do. The National Training Fund is there to allow individuals to build their own career or capacity or perhaps to start a new career. It is very important that it remain learner-centred rather than become an asset of companies.

I am not sure if the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, will join us again but I will raise the issues and we might follow up elsewhere. I refer to goal 4, to "Build stronger bridges between education and the wider community" in the Action Plan for Education. Will the Minister consider incorporating that goal into future procurement so that, for example, in the area of books for schools, we try to support situations linked to wider learning opportunities.

Green schools have already been mentioned in terms of energy, but the pollinator plants and wildlife corridors they can provide are also important.

My question for the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, concerns frontier research, which is public research for the public good and which has a wider scope. I have specific questions on the effect of Brexit on this area. What measures are being taken to ensure that research projects in which Ireland is a partner of UK institutions at the moment are protected? Are we carrying out appropriate transfers of data and research materials to ensure that they are based within the EU so that projects are not put in jeopardy? Perhaps resources will have to be freed up to address what will be quite a logistical challenge. Data transfer subsequent to a no-deal Brexit, if that happens, will be extremely difficult.

On the recognition of qualifications, is there any scope to remove the current employment control framework for universities? There will be a wide array of extraordinarily talented researchers and academics who may be searching for other English language locations. At the moment, because of the employment control frameworks, leaving aside the issue or funding many universities are blocked from being able to hire those people because they are restricted in the numbers they are permitted to recruit.

The Minister mentioned language skills, and the ability to use but not abuse technology. I am concerned about the abuse of technology. A number of speakers have mentioned concerns about the mental health of young adults and students. The issue of online bullying and abuse also arises. I do not know what can be done, but it is one of my major concerns, and I know of many of my constituents, including parents and young people, who are very concerned about what is happening at the moment. This is a major concern for many people.

Some people spoke about the acquiring of land for future schools and various other things. I have two Gaelscoileanna in my constituency; one in Sligo and one in Manorhamilton. Extensions to schools is another issue; perhaps that is not an issue for the Minister this evening, but the capital investment plan is one of the biggest issues I have. The two major issues I want to highlight are the mental health issue which has been brought to my attention by so many people - parents and students alike - and online bullying, which is a major concern for many people. It is getting worse. What can be done? It is something that has to be dealt with. Much of this abuse is taking place within schools and online. It is a major concern for me and for others.

I have the action plan for 2016 to 2019, and I took the opportunity to go through it again yesterday. I assume we cannot automatically go straight into another action plan without looking at what was achieved through this one. There is laudable and notable ambition contained within this action plan, and some very specific objectives, timelines and target indicators. Is there going to be an opportunity to go through these at another time? I do not expect anyone to go through it now, but I really believe that we have to assess where we are based on what was put in place by the previous action plan.

In terms of supporting teachers, one of the five goals we have is helping those delivering education services to continuously improve. That is incredibly important, because many teachers are suffering from low morale. Pay parity is an issue which arises quite regularly, particularly in the staff rooms of larger, newer schools, where 50% of teachers are actually on a lower pay scale. That is completely wrong.

The whole area of teaching principals must be looked at; it is something this committee looked at during our summer school session, when we discussed the possibility of allowing teaching principals one day a week in which to look after all of the administration and other areas. Principals are the leaders of education within their schools, but when their time is completely taken up with administrative work it becomes very difficult to lead.

I totally agree with what my colleagues have said about looking after staff on a whole school basis. We have to support our secretaries and caretakers. In many cases those people are the heartbeat of the school, and do so much unacknowledged work. We have to support them. Recruitment and retention is a problem, and we absolutely have to look at it.

On special needs, the adequacy of special education access and funding is hugely important. There are some very good autistic spectrum disorder, ASD, units at primary school level. I visited one recently in County Laois, outside of my area, and brought it up with the Minister on a previous occasion. Not one cent was given to that school to kit out the ASD unit, and that has to be looked at. It is also very difficult to find places for children moving from ASD units in mainstream primary schools to ASD units in mainstream secondary schools. While we have done quite a bit of work at primary level we are now reaching the stage that provision has to be made at secondary level. The question of how we progress sections of the Education of Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 is also hugely important.

My colleagues have mentioned delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, and I want to reiterate that I believe it is a really good programme. However, there are many children suffering from disadvantage who are in non-DEIS schools. We have to address that. We also have to address the assessment criteria used to allocate DEIS status in schools.

Equality of opportunity is of great importance across the board, including third level and access to further education for older people, in terms of enabling access to life skills. We should put a renewed focus on that.

The objectives contained in the former plan for apprenticeships, which is finishing this year, were quite ambitious, and rightly so. We have to look at expanding our capacity in terms of skills in the regions as well as nationally, and aim to have 50,000 people in apprenticeships by 2020. I am not sure we are on target to reach that. I want to make a plea to the Minister in terms of areas where apprenticeships can be accessed, including for early school leavers and others. To be parochial for a moment, there were plans afoot to set up an apprenticeship scheme to cater for young people in the old Model school in Athy, which is a blackspot for early school leavers. I would appreciate it if the Minister could look at that area in particular.

I thank the committee members for their comments. There is a lot of good stuff in all of this. I would do the committee members an injustice if I kept them here for an hour to go through this line by line. This now is not just a matter of public record, it is also going to be the blacks and whites for my team to put together the action plan. Obviously not everything will be incorporated into the action plan. We can work on themes that have emerged here today and I really want to do that.

I will do a whistlestop tour through a few of the issues that have been raised. Senator Maria Byrne mentioned corp oideachas, which is PE as Gaeilge, and looking at how we differentiate between physical literacy, physical education and physical activity. I want to try to work on giving PE its proper status within primary schools. We are doing that at second level. By 2020, PE will be introduced as a choice for the leaving certificate, as will computer science. Senator Byrne mentioned the statistics which show that girls drop out of sports at the earlier age of 13 or 14 years and are twice as likely as boys to drop out of sports. If we are serious about PE at the leaving certificate level then we must consider PE at primary school level. I have learned, having informed myself about this subject, that there are specific modules within the training of teachers for primary schools so we have to figure out a way. In terms of my own passion for the Irish language, I think there is a quick win in terms of the Irish language. I mean if PE can be taught through the medium of Irish then students will learn or improve their Irish language skills in a fun, more creative and more enjoyable way. Maybe we could enter a new era where people develop a love for the Irish language in that way. I will keep the committee up to speed with this matter.

Deputy Funchion talked about the nearest school rule. We are reviewing that transportation arrangement as we speak. She talked about special classes as did another member. That is an evolving issue. It is hard to comprehend the change since 2011, when there were nearly 500 special classes and today there are nearly 1,500 but that is still not enough. The programme is still not done in the way that I would like it to be done. I do not like the programme being diagnosis led. We will look at a new model. We are working on that at present and we will look at incorporating the HSE, my Department and the Department of Health. To be honest, it was at this committee that I encountered this concept, and it was my first day here as Minister. I am very interested in developing that model where if a speech and language therapist, occupational therapist or nurse is needed in a mainstream school then that is the place where we need to be going and continue to give parents the choice.

Deputy Funchion also raised the issue of the lack of secondary school options. The issue was raised by a number of members. We have done a good piece of work on that at primary level but we have still a piece of work to do at secondary level.

On empathy and mindfulness, has Deputy Martin formally invited me to the event at 1.30 p.m. on Wednesdays?

Yes. I hope to see the Minister at the event.

I suggest the Minister clears his diary.

We live in a crazy world, especially politicians where we maybe do not have enough boundaries in terms of time and taking time out. I will take up the invitation and I will attend on some Wednesday at 1.30 p.m.

Deputy Martin stated that equality is at the heart of access. She talked about pay equality and the issue of teaching principals. I met a cohort of principals yesterday evening. It is a very difficult space for half of the primary schoolteachers who are teaching principals. It is an area in which I have given a commitment. Recently, at the Irish Primary Principals Network, IPPN, conference, I stated that I want to work on trying to alleviate the pressures on teaching principals. It is a piece of work that I am going to work on and take seriously.

The status of caretakers and school secretaries was mentioned. Fórsa now has a campaign. I am on public record as saying that if there is to be a conversation it has to be within the parameters of the Workplace Relations Commission. My officials and I are happy to engage in that regard.

In terms of the language used when describing school openings, when a school gets its patronage and status as a school, be it a Gaelscoil, an education and training board, ETB, or an Educate Together school then word goes out that a new school is opening and creates that perception. We have to look and reflect because it is going to be temporary accommodation for a period before there is a full school. There is a piece of work that we can do there.

Relationship and sexuality education, RSE, is under review. That was started last Easter by my predecessor. I will keep the committee up to speed on where we are at in terms of the issue.

In terms of resilience training and mindfulness, specific questions were asked around how schools get resilience training and how they get targeted. I will get back to the committee on that particular question.

The strategy and the sustainable development goals, SDGs, were mentioned. That is an area on which I have been working closely with my colleagues in the Department. Young people are interested in the area whether it is the environment, sustainability, migration, social inclusion, disadvantage or economic disadvantage. Teachers and students are embracing the area and I am interested in seeing whether we can add more value to that.

Broadband was mentioned. I am working closely with my colleague, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Richard Bruton. We have a strategy for the schools but I know that some schools still lose out, particularly primary schools in rural areas. Senator Conway mentioned what a school in west Clare has done. In between now and getting the national broadband plan the school is considering a wireless solution. I know it is not a long-term solution but it does give the school 17 megabytes as opposed to the existing 3 megabytes.

Senator Higgins asked about the history review. We plan to complete the review by the end of the first quarter, which is the end of next month. I will keep the committee up to speed on the issue.

I am interested in hearing more about the critical thinking piece about the Young Philosopher Awards in UCD.

I am particularly interested in the awards as I studied philosophy for one year; I am not a philosophy graduate.

The insecurity of teachers was mentioned, as were inequality and the key role played by secretaries. I am very conscious of the role that secretaries play in schools. They are front of house; they do not just deal with administration but deal with many aspects of the school curriculum.

Senator Higgins mentioned mindfulness as well. She suggested that responsibility for the initiative could be shared by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and my Department. That is a good idea.

We have had one on the issue of disability.

Would the Senator like another initiative?

The initiative pointed to the obstacles that exist when people move between seeking employment and education.

I am somebody who was involved in second chance learning so I firmly believe that everybody should get a second, third, fourth or fifth chance to learn. Such learning is embraced in a very positive way and is connected to the confidence piece as well. I know from my experience of working in an estate years ago that there was a very diligent and active neighbourhood worker named Ms Mary English who went into houses drinking tea with and talking to women to try to encourage them to return to education. Her actions were transformative and changed the lives of many of those women. All of the people that she trained 20 years ago are tutors and facilitators themselves. I am very interested in this piece.

Senator Higgins asked about the future procurement of frontier research. I will ask Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, to get back to the Senator about that issue.

Deputy McLoughlin mentioned online abuse. Without question, online abuse is a challenge. We must figure out a way to accept that technology is part of our new society yet allow creativity. Obviously technology is a place where young people are creative but we must deal with the abuse bit. Parents and schools must play their role. Schools have the autonomy to decide whether they want to ban phones or simply not have them in school. One of the elements that I have picked up in primary and secondary schools, whether it is in coding or encouraging more young women to study science, technology, engineering, mathematics, STEM, subjects, is that there is an appetite for the technological aspects of learning. Whether it is Combilift in County Monaghan, where the company is now considering automotive forklifts, or elswhere, one needs the people with the skill set to do those things.

We are moving into that space. We want to intervene effectively to ensure there is no online abuse. To give one example of how young people are responding to it, I came across a young lad at the Young Scientists who is developing a software package that concerns how to spot online abuse - how to use computers to deal with a computer problem. We must follow young people as well. There are no better advocates in terms of ensuring that bullying is not part of the group than young people. They will be the ultimate people who will do that. I am confident that solutions will be found.

The acquisition of land, the extension of schools and the capital plan in the future were all mentioned. We have a ten-year bundle and are looking at €8.4 billion so we will continue to work closely on that. The Chairman spoke about the review of the 16 to 19 plan. One of the things we are doing at the stakeholders meeting is asking what has and has not worked. For example, we have achieved 85% of last year's action plan so much of it has been delivered. We also ask them what the weaknesses were so we are asking that question.

Some other issues that were raised include morale, pay parity, the fact that 50% of teachers are on lower pay and scale in some of the larger classes for younger teachers. It is an issue. I acknowledge that we cannot have a system where teachers do the same job for different levels of pay. There is unfinished business and I want to continue to work with the unions and teachers to ensure we finish that unfinished piece. I know we have an agreement up to the end of 2020 but it is something of which I am conscious. Teaching principals were mentioned and I spoke about that issue. Other issues raised include caretakers, secretaries, special classes in primary and secondary school and the full implementation of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act. Regarding the DEIS issue, we have, hopefully, identified that the full audit will be complete by the end of March. We will then evaluate the results. There will be a new DEIS system, a system that will be gradual but also more targeted. Certain schools are in DEIS because of geographical considerations but it is a lot more complex so I keep the committee updated about that. Access to further education was mentioned along with the specific issue of apprenticeships in Athy. We must follow up on that.

The Minister said he would follow up on specific questions. The action plan said that the teaching of resilience would be delivered by quarter four of last year. Were those 500 teachers delivered? The Minister can get back to me afterwards if needs be. Regarding greening our schools, is the Government stepping up to facilitate schools to sell energy back to the grid? Could the Minister talk to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment about that? As a follow up to what the Minister said about delivering PE and doing it properly, there has been resistance. Since I was elected here, on several occasions, I have raised the need to carry out an audit of schools to see which ones do not have PE halls. I am aware of one in my constituency. The school was built in 1980 and still does not have a PE hall. Again, if we come back to equality, we need to establish which schools do not have PE halls because they are at a disadvantage in delivering that new curriculum.

I understand the Minister answered the question about Ashbourne so I will not ask him to put anything on the record again. As always happens by coincidence when I raise the lack of school places, by pure chance, I get email from more constituents. I must say that I got more correspondence from other constituents today who have no school place for this year and who tell me they may not have a school place for next year either.

On behalf of the committee, I thank the Minister for the briefing on the new strategy statement. We will monitor progress on this. I also thank the Minister for his briefing on the General Scheme of the Miscellaneous Provisions (Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union on 29 March 2019) Bill 2019, which was very helpful. There is no doubt that we will be engaging further as the Bill progresses through the Houses. It is important that all of us work together on this extremely important matter that will have an impact on so many lives. We must ensure that the interests of the State and Irish citizens are safeguarded as we move into a situation that is completely unprecedented. I am happy to release the Minister from his duties. The committee will go into private session to deal with housekeeping matters.

The joint committee went into private session at 6.05 p.m. and adjourned at 6.27 p.m. until 3.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 12 March 2019.