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Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection debate -
Wednesday, 6 May 2015

ICT in Primary Schools: Discussion

Today's discussion is on the use of ICT in primary schools. I wish to draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that, by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence relating to a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of the proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

The opening statements submitted to the committee will be published on the committee website after the meeting.

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 Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I ask everyone to turn off their mobile telephones completely or to switch them to airplane, safe or flight mode, depending on their devices. Otherwise they interfere with the broadcasting equipment. This meeting is being broadcast live.

Today’s meeting is about the use of information and communications technology, ICT, in primary schools. Enabling primary school pupils to attain necessary levels of competence in ICT skills for subsequent education and the workplace is a pressing issue. We have placed on the members’ database research done by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, on the matter.

I am pleased to welcome Mr. Pairic Clerkin and Mr. Seán Cottrell from the Irish Primary Principals Network, IPPN, Mr. Peter Mullan, assistant general secretary, and Mr. Robert O’Leary from the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO, and Ms Karen Murtagh, assistant principal, and Ms Rita Sexton, assistant principal, from the Department of Education and Skills.

I invite Mr. Pairic Clerkin to make his presentation.

Mr. Pairic Clerkin

The IPPN views the use of ICT in primary schools as an extremely powerful vehicle for the implementation of the primary curriculum and supporting the Government’s objectives to raise attainment levels in numeracy and literacy, including digital literacy. The IPPN envisages increased opportunities for children to collaborate with other classrooms around the world through video conferencing and networking. The streaming of videos, plays, movies, animation, documentaries, concerts, presentations, speeches, webinars, podcasts, etc., can now be seamlessly and vividly incorporated into day-to-day teaching practice. ICT is an accelerator to achievement.

ICT can help to support delivery of a differentiated curriculum programme for children and especially enhance the educational experience for those with extra learning needs. Cloud computing may provide increased access to specialised expert tuition, e-books and individual learning pathways, promoting self-motivated learning. There are opportunities for the further development of web-based support and digital media to enhance the delivery of continuous professional development for teachers and school leaders.

It is essential children understand how to utilise technology to locate, select, filter and evaluate information to learn, reason, make decisions and solve problems. Collaborating and working in teams are also essential skills in our rapidly changing world. We expect the Department of Education and Skills to support schools to ensure all pupils have regular structured access to a range of ICT-related supports which will enhance their learning experiences, thereby ensuring they gain the skills necessary to succeed in the digital age in which we live.

We also expect an increased use of ICT to support creative and collaborative teaching and learning, along with the further development of differentiated learning programmes for children. Many are already being widely used to support teaching and learning of special needs children and those with learning difficulties. We expect schools will continue to have autonomy in how they utilise ICT resources in the school, be it the bring-your-own-device, BYOD, computer station in the classroom, computer room or mobile computer trolley models.

There is a need for the increased production and dissemination of high-quality interactive digital content for all age groups and in every curricular area. Teachers, nationally and internationally, are to be commended for their generous sharing of best practice and user-generated online digital resources.

However, these expectations will only be achieved if digital hardware is regularly serviced, renewed and updated. This requires ongoing funding from the Department which was been lacking to date.

The challenges facing primary schools vary from school to school as each is unique and at a particular point on the spectrum of ICT usage. Therefore, a one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate. Every school needs high-capacity broadband as a matter of urgency. All schools need a budget to replace ageing infrastructure. Many schools need a mechanism to acquire appropriate technical support. The reality for many schools in 2015 is that they can only afford to replace IT equipment with reconditioned units, in most cases donated by industry, and do not have adequate funding to pay for the required technical and maintenance support to ensure the system is fit for purpose. Teachers and pupils must have access to computers, networks and software applications which are dependable, reliable and up to date. The lack of funding in general has led to a situation where it has become difficult for schools to plan effectively for the integration of technology. The moratorium on posts of responsibility is a serious impediment to the development of ICT curriculum leadership and expertise in schools. The NCTE has been subsumed into the PDST. While schools will receive some supports for the incorporation of ICT into the different curricular areas, will they receive adequate support in developing their ICT infrastructure?

I turn to our priorities. First, we are seeking to secure multi-annual funding. Schools must be afforded the opportunity to plan strategically, with the Government committing to provide clearly defined multi-annual grants. There must be consensus on and a commitment to short and long-term objectives in order that schools can plan and budget accordingly. All schools must have access to a consistent and reliable broadband service. The 100 Mbps broadband roll-out must extend to primary schools. There is a requirement for differentiated professional development for teachers and curriculum leaders to promote and support the integration of ICT across the curriculum. The type of support required differs from school to school. Consideration should also be given to creative ways by which the leading schools and those achieving "digital school" status can articulate and demonstrate the successful incorporation of ICT across the curriculum in their schools. Any planning around ICT usage into the future must be closely allied with appropriate SPHE content on responsibilities around and the consequences of social media use. The moratorium on posts should be removed. We need designated staff members to lead the ICT aspects of teaching and learning in schools and who need support structures to implement and sustain the incorporation of ICT into all aspects of teaching and learning.

Our criteria for success should be measured on the use of ICT as a core methodology in teaching and learning across the curriculum in all schools, with adequate funding, reliable broadband and continuous professional development tailored to the needs of individual schools. Success should also be measured by the development of ICT leadership in each curricular area in all schools or local school clusters. Success should be measured with reference to equitable access. There should be no social digital divide.

The next speaker is Mr. Peter Mullan, who will make a presentation on behalf of the INTO.

Mr. Peter Mullan

I am grateful for the opportunity to engage with the joint committee on this issue. It makes little sense to speak about the use of technology in primary education in isolation from the wider issues that affect the system as a whole. While it is true to say the vast majority of principals and teachers are positively disposed towards the increased integration of modern technologies and are aware of the benefits that accrue in teaching and learning, in reality the use of such resources is uneven, haphazard, unstructured and down the list of priorities for many schools. This situation in schools directly reflects the approach taken by a succession of Governments in the past 20 years. This approach has been uneven, haphazard, unstructured and well down the list of priorities. As a consequence, there are a range of significant obstacles that directly impede the more widespread adoption and development of digital approaches. Further progress will continue to be curtailed until these issues have been addressed in a focused and strategic manner.

The obstacles include the following.

Primary education is grossly underfunded. Capitation grants to schools cover approximately 66% of operational costs such as utility bills and insurance. In practice, the balance is, directly or indirectly, met by the parent body. For many schools that serve communities with disadvantaged status, bridging this gap between essential expenditure and income is particularly difficult.

School boards and principals cannot plan effectively for the provision, expansion and maintenance of digital resources. Even though the Department of Education and Skills continually emphasises the centrality of planning as a fundamental tenet of sound education practice, the absence of strategic funding for schools for technology makes planning impossible.

The moratorium on promotion means that middle management structures in many schools have been largely dismantled, leaving many schools with no ICT co-ordinator to lead the integration of modern technologies in teaching and learning in school. The broadband capacity of the vast majority of primary schools is grossly inadequate. When compared to the broadband infrastructure at second level and in primary schools in EU countries generally, Irish primary schools are significantly disadvantaged in harnessing the power of the Internet to enhance teaching and learning. Fast, reliable broadband is essential if schools are to access learning resources online, yet the sad reality is that most schools have significantly less broadband capability than the typical domestic residence.

Class size in Ireland is also a barrier to the effective integration of ICT at primary level. Three quarters of pupils are in classes above the EU average, while one fifth are in class groups of more than 30, which makes modern teaching methods and the provision of individual attention almost impossible to sustain.

Significant improvements are required in all of the areas mentioned if a successful policy is to be implemented.

I will now hand over to my colleague, Mr. O'Leary.

Mr. Robert O'Leary

ICT can enhance, enrich and extend children’s learning in primary school. It can transform teaching and learning when deployed appropriately, substantially changing the traditional classroom where the teacher in general has control over pupils’ learning to one where students learn collaboratively and construct and discover knowledge for themselves. Learning is facilitated by ICT in ways that were not possible in the past. ICT should subserve the three general fundamental aims of the curriculum. It should enable the child to live a full life as a child and realise his or her potential as a unique individual. It should enable the child to develop as a social being through living and co-operating with others and thus contribute to the good of society and prepare him or her for further education and lifelong learning.

ICT in primary education must also serve the pedagogical principles of the curriculum such as activity and discovery learning, child-centred authentic learning, integrated and environment-based learning, developing a child’s sense of wonder and curiosity, developing existing knowledge and experience, language being central to the learning process, the development of higher order thinking and problem solving skills, collaborative learning, catering for individual differences and supporting assessment. ICT must be integrated into all aspects of the primary school curriculum. It should not be viewed as a stand-alone subject or topic requiring the development of separate skills needing distinct curriculum time but as a tool and a means for accessing the curriculum and supporting, enriching and extending teaching and learning. ICT in schools must emphasise teaching and learning, not technology skills.

All pupils in primary schools should be able to benefit from the integration of ICT in every area of the curriculum. ICT must become an integral part of the teaching and learning process in every school and classroom and every area of the curriculum. The use of ICT in primary schools can be seen to reflect directly the uneven, haphazard and unstructured approach adopted by successive Governments. Reasonable expectations among teachers in the use of ICT have been built up and dashed time and again.

That has come from sustained underinvestment at school base level. There is the lack of a coherent implementable developmental national strategy and a failure to invest sufficiently in and provide recognition for teacher professional development. In the main, implementation in many schools relied on the good will and expertise of a small number of dedicated teachers. There is insufficient capacity to allow teachers to develop their professional practice and a lack of investment in colleges of education.

Many issues, including planning for information and communications technology, ICT, and its use in supporting the curriculum, the professional development of teachers and ICT infrastructure in schools, range along a continuum, from basic to innovative and creative. It is essential, therefore, that the scale of the challenge be fully recognised. It includes reigniting teacher enthusiasm, recreating a place for ICT in every primary classroom, re-educating the teaching force, re-equipping classrooms and reconfiguring schools for the use of ICT. This will require engagement and discussion with teachers to learn what supports they require and it will demand much more research into how teachers are using technology today. Equally, we must ensure the different needs of diverse groups of pupils are envisioned within the plan. One size will not fit all. Particular attention must be paid not only to the pupils in mainstream classes but also to the needs of pupils with special needs, children in need of learning support, reluctant learners, Traveller children and children for whom English is a second language. There will be a need for particular investment to support the language needs of children in gaelscoileanna and scoileanna lán-Ghaeilge.

With regard to the digital schools of distinction programme, the programme for Government asserts that we should all be ambitious for education and fully develop a knowledge society. Apart from being an engine of sustainable economic growth, education is at the heart of a more cohesive, equal and successful society. Investment in ICT and primary education will pay significant economic and societal dividends.

We are a little over time and I can see the criteria supplied by the delegation. Will Mr. O'Leary list them and summarise the recommendations? The document has been circulated.

Mr. Robert O'Leary

It is clear that the proposals of the Irish Primary Principals Network and the Irish National Teachers Organisation are very similar.

That is good.

Mr. Robert O'Leary

The recommendations are to provide primary schools with sufficient financial resources to invest in up-to-date technology infrastructure, ensuring all learning areas have access to a range of ICT equipment, as well as provision for the incorporation of student mobile devices. Schools should be supported in developing plans for the phased integration of digital resources at the earliest possible opportunity. An integrated approach should be adopted to procurement that takes full account of the operating costs of ICT equipment and technical support provision. The provision of high-speed broadband for primary schools must be prioritised, as all schools need a high-speed, reliable network that extends to all areas of the school. All computers should be networked, facilitating access to online and locally based server resources.

As an immediate measure, schools that have achieved digital schools of distinction status should be provided with high-speed broadband in order to allow them to continue developing and acting as beacon schools in the locality from which other schools can learn. The re-establishment of middle management posts should be prioritised in primary schools in order to facilitate a co-ordinated approach to the integrated development of technology usage across the curriculum in all classrooms in every school. Digital content should be developed to support the Irish primary school curriculum to meet the diverse needs of pupils in these schools. We should prioritise and develop a wide range of formal ICT continuing professional development opportunities for teachers, recognising and supporting informal structures to facilitate teachers in collaborating in professional learning. We should prioritise and encourage schools in the use of ICT resources and assistive technologies in order to facilitate the inclusion of students with special educational needs. We should support teachers to enable them to provide learning opportunities that support cross-curricular learning approaches, student-directed learning and collaborative discovery-based learning activities.

I call Ms Murtagh to make her opening statement.

Ms Karen Murtagh

I thank the committee for inviting the Department of Education and Skills here today to discuss the use of ICT in primary schools. I work in the ICT policy unit of the Department. I am accompanied by Ms Rita Sexton from the ICT policy unit, and Mr. Martin Whyte, schools divisional inspector. I am also accompanied by Mr. Seán Gallagher, deputy director, Professional Development Service for Teachers, PDST, who has responsibility for technology in education.

We are at a turning point in the use of ICT in the classroom. Digital technologies are now part of everyday life. They are used in the way we live, work, rest and play. They are also increasingly part of the way we approach teaching, learning and assessment. The Department's role is to lead and facilitate schools and teachers in adapting new pedagogies and engaging with students using ICT in a seamless way.

Under the Government's reform agenda for public services, ICT is viewed as having a central role in the provision of better and more effective services. There is a lot of innovation in the use of ICT for school administration and related areas.

I will outline the current position of ICT. In 2013, a census was taken of ICT usage in schools on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills. The results will feed into the forthcoming digital strategy for schools and a report on the census will be published alongside the new strategy shortly.

Some of the main findings from the census in respect of primary schools include the following. In terms of teachers' professional learning, teachers should be enabled to engage in planning their own ICT related professional development and in evaluating their competence in using ICT in teaching, learning and assessment. There is a need for learning modules that address the needs of individual teachers and groups of teachers with differing sets of competencies.

The next heading is learning, teaching and assessment using ICT. The census provides support for the view that, if teachers are traditional in their pedagogical practices, the technology will be used in traditional ways. There is a need to demonstrate how ICT can be incorporated into each curriculum area, and how they can serve to establish links across aspects of the curriculum. Also, teachers need to be supported in using ICT to teach key 21st century skills and need guidance on the use of electronic assessments, including formative assessment.

In terms of research, policy and leaders, there is a need for a more systematic approach to evaluating ICT related initiatives in schools so that all schools and teachers have access to information about their effectiveness. Research should drive policy on ICT usage in schools. There is a need to provide principals with specifically focused continuing professional development, CPD, on how ICT can enhance teaching, learning and assessment at school level.

The data suggest that, in general, teachers are well resourced to use ICT in preparing for and presenting lessons. The use of ICT by pupils could be strengthened by ensuring that all primary schools have access to high-speed broadband and an adequate number of working computing devices and other technologies. Technical support continues to be a significant concern for schools and teachers. The development of ICT infrastructure and its application to teaching and learning would be greatly enhanced if minimum and progressive standards for infrastructure, software, technical support, Internet connectivity and teaching and learning were set out.

In terms of investment, the allocation for ICT in schools area in 2015 is €15.595 million of current funding, which includes costs for primary and post-primary. Of this sum, €3.8 million has been allocated for primary broadband, while €3.7 million has been allocated for the operation of the PDST's technology in education initiative to cover all running costs, including the provision of CPD. As the economy recovers, it would be expected that this investment would increase to address new priorities.

The forthcoming digital strategy for schools will set out a plan to embed ICT in teaching, learning and assessment over the next five years. The strategy is based on extensive research and consultation. It includes the online census of teachers and principals, a public consultation process, focus groups with students, parents, guardians and teachers, and consultations with a variety of stakeholders, including teacher unions, school principals and management bodies.

The strategy will link with other Department strategies dealing with teaching and learning, literacy and numeracy, school self-evaluation, inclusion and public sector reform.

The main themes of the digital strategy are teacher professional learning; learning, teaching and assessment using ICT; leadership, research and policy; and infrastructure. Each of these themes will identify a set of deliverables, including strong leadership provided by the Department to achieve ICT integration. There will be a commitment to embedding digital technology into all CPD programmes across the curriculum. Curriculum relevant digital content will be provided, and the Department will continue to explore and extend the use of ICT for assessment purposes through a range of projects. The strategy will also promote inclusion and success for all learners through the use of ICT. While a national technical support service would not be viable, a range of technical support models will be explored in consultation with schools and relevant partners. The Department will collaborate with the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources on enhanced broadband provision to primary schools. It will provide advice and guidance on fit-for-purpose and future-proof wireless systems for schools. To ensure the effective implementation of the new strategy, we will develop an annual set of funding priorities over its lifetime. These plans will take cognisance of the economic climate and the availability of public funding.

In addition to the developments in the use of ICT in the classroom, there are a number of improvements in the administrative system for schools which are linked with the wider reform agenda. The Department has outlined simplified arrangements for the maintenance of pupil enrolment and attendance records at school level. These arrangements are being further updated with the aim of facilitating schools to maintain their pupil enrolment and attendance records in electronic format. Under current arrangements, the Garda vetting procedure is a manual system. Shortly, the vetting arrangements will operate in electronic format. The purpose of a primary online database is to monitor the progress of children through the education system to ensure every student can meet his or her educational potential and to ensure every child of compulsory school age is in receipt of education. The online claims system enables schools to input details of absences of teachers and special needs assistants.

I thank the committee for its attention. We are happy to respond to any questions the committee might have.

I thank our guests for coming in and making their presentations. At the moment there is a concerning lack of co-ordination on how digital technologies are being implemented and used to the best of a school's abilities at both primary and secondary level. People and students in their homes and businesses are outpacing what is happening in the classroom. That is a concerning situation. Students are able to use technology for self-education after they leave the school gate, yet when they are within the school confines, in many situations, it is a technology-free zone.

I have a few questions which I would like to put to our guests. The Department of Education and Skills has outlined a digital strategy that is being considered and developed at the moment. What strategy for implementing and making good use of technology in schools is the Department operating at the moment or, indeed, has been operating for the past few years? What are the current guiding principles, because one would expect there to be some? A sum of €15 million in funding was mentioned with €3.8 million going to primary and €3.7 million to professional development. What is the rest of it being spent on? What grants, if any, have been provided to schools to fund equipment in recent years?

I have a question for the Irish Primary Principals Network, IPPN, and the INTO. Mr. Pairic Clerkin from the IPPN mentioned that ICT leadership in clusters was needed. I would like him to develop what he means. What does he envisage?

What is required to prevent a social digital divide? The UK has introduced the teaching of code at primary school level. Do the IPPN and the INTO feel this is required and should be introduced to our system? What would be required to achieve such a move? Is the use of tablet computers required in schools? How many primary schools use whiteboards?

I accept the need for adequate broadband in school is outside of the remit of the Department of Education and Skills. We are told it comes under the remit of the national broadband plan. The plan will have to be up to spec to ensure schools have sufficient broadband coverage. Without that in place, the ability of schools to use ICT will be quite limited. Will the IPPN and the INTO give a more specific figure for the funding required from the Department for schools to obtain and maintain digital hardware? What other supports are needed for schools to enable them to maintain their digital hardware, as this is becoming an increasing problem?

Deputy McConalogue covered many of the issues I also wanted to raise.

Providing technical support has been identified as a significant challenge because of the diverse nature of schools and some are more advanced than others. The Department stated in its presentation that “a centralised national technical support service is not a viable option” and it will examine several pilot models. Will the Department’s officials give more information on these pilot models? Are they based on regional clusters?

I thank the delegations for their presentations.

It strikes me that several of the delegations mentioned that the one-cap-fits-all approach was not the solution, as every school is different. However, their solutions to this were somewhat disappointing. They could have equally applied to mental health well-being, obesity or the other challenges facing schools. With respect, referring to classroom sizes and calling for more funding and managerial posts is a little mundane for this particular debate.

While I appreciate the harmonious approach by the IPPN and the INTO to this issue, have they identified best practice elsewhere? I was hoping for that in the presentations today. Talking about decreases in the pupil-teacher ratio and increases in funding is a bit like talking about world peace. We all aspire to it and it is very noble but it is not really as constructive as I was hoping for today. Have the delegations done any research with their own membership into best examples of innovation from the ground up? I recall almost 20 years ago when I was a principal of a four-teacher Gaelscoil, setting up a computer lab in the school fund-raising for the equipment and software.

There are ways and means of doing everything. The provision of block grants by the Department to every school contradicts the thinking that the solution is not to have one cap fitting all. I would prefer to see a reward-led system that recognises innovation in the classroom where there are good examples of best practice. The Department should be flexible enough to recognise, reward and encourage that sort of behaviour. To be fair, none of the staff in a three-teacher school might have IT expertise. To give that school the same block grant as one with considerable expertise will not have the desired effect. Therefore, we must be a little more creative.

Nobody has yet mentioned teacher training. Surely this is essential if we are to tackle this issue. It feeds into what I am talking about, namely, innovation in the classroom, which will ultimately come from the teaching body and principals who are forward thinking. They will differ in what they prioritise. I would like to know the delegates' views, primarily on the research in this area. Are there examples of best practice that could be fed back to the Department? Has the Department any plan to recognise and reward best practice? What are the Department's comments on my suggestion?

I pay tribute to the Irish Primary Principals Network and the INTO. I attended Tech Week last week and was blown away by the level of expertise and work. I saw everything from robots to CoderDojo projects. This brings me to the point I want to make, which is that ICT in national schools was built on the back of teachers who innovated in their own classrooms with their principals, who hounded businesses, parents and others to obtain funding to put a school ICT strategy in place. I say this with the greatest respect to the departmental officials present. I do not believe there is central joined-up thinking occurring on ICT anywhere in education, which is really sad.

I have mentioned as a teacher and must repeat that the IT world in parts of Europe and the United States is such that corporate IT companies supply software and computers directly to schools. We have never tapped into that. If we have, it has been done on a very local basis. I wonder why the Department has not put together a centralised procurement process similar to that of Dublin and Dún Laoghaire Education Training Board, whereby a tender is offered at the beginning of the year and various companies compete to supply computers. The schools within the ETB area can draw down computers. Many of the computers that are bought halfway through the year are of a much higher specification than those bought at the start and their purchase price is the same as the original tender price. I do not know why we do not allow the principals around the country to buy from a central body. They would be getting the best value for money all the time. The specification must be the equivalent of or better than a specification set out at the beginning of the year.

Consider the idea of pooled technical support. I do not know why the Department does not contract in regional areas a number of companies that would provide technical support directly to the schools. Thus, school principals, instead of trying to fix problems themselves or trying to find a few bob in order to drop equipment into a local shop to have it fixed, would have proper ICT organisational backup.

The ICT strategy appears to be one of monitoring and managing rather than supporting teaching and learning. I am open to correction on this. The return system, whereby we can record teacher absence, etc., through ICT, is all good and dandy but teaching and learning are what the people on the ground are interested in. That is a concern for me.

The Irish Primary Principals Network will want to support curricular development in the schools. Is this being done on the backs of teachers working at home in the evenings? Is there joined-up thinking and is time made available? Can a substitute be provided to allow a teacher a certain number of hours per week to work on a specific project for a specific period in order to develop a curriculum that can be shared around the country?

In regard to the use of ICT for teaching Irish, is any work being done, perhaps by teachers on secondment, to prepare teaching materials given the status of Irish as a core subject at primary level?

I am acutely aware of the collapse of management in the school system. We need a champion for ICT in schools but unfortunately this area is being developed largely on a voluntary basis. Is the INTO seeking to formalise ICT teaching through in-service training for those who take up the post of ICT co-ordinator in a school? Has research been carried out into the use of freeware and shareware in schools? Finland has made the decision to source all of its software needs as freeware, for example, Moodle and Open Office, whereas Ireland tends to go down the proprietary route and we spend considerable amounts of money as a result. I understand the cost of licensing Microsoft software is €50 per machine. Is the IPPN or the INTO aware of any freeware being used in schools? Can the witnesses identify any example of blended learning, which involves using an application like Moodle to deliver the curriculum at home as well as in the classroom? Did I hear one of the witnesses refer to the computer trolley? Are schools still using computer trolleys in 2015?

I thank the witnesses for their presentations. I requested that the committee discuss this topic because there was a wide gap between aspiration and reality. The witnesses are speaking from the same page in respect of what can be done with ICT but the reality on the ground is very different. As the INTO representatives pointed out, implementation is patchy and varies between schools. The ESRI report on ICT use by children in school and at home also identified a wide gap. Children who are computer literate can perceive the traditional environment in some schools as alien to the way they are brought up. This issue should be a priority for us.

When I asked about the ICT strategy in the Seanad last year, I was told it was coming soon. The Department's submission indicates that it will be introduced in June. The key issue for the strategy will be funding and the provision of multi-annual funding in particular. We will only ensure a coherent strategy for ICT and avoid a haphazard approach by providing a multi-annual capital envelope. We will not develop a proper IT strategy if money is thrown at schools in a good year but then nothing happens for four or five years. We should instead be providing an envelope of funding for that five-year period. Schools could be given a commitment on the minimum amounts to be spent in each year and funding can then be increased if more money is available. The funding would be linked to clear targets based on an audit of school's ICT needs. The departmental officials indicated that funding would be made available but they also referred to the current economic context. If we are serious about education and the economy, particularly given the economic importance of ICT companies, this is an area we should regard as an investment in the future.

We should not have a stop-start approach to it depending on the overall economic context. We need to prioritise it. Judging from the delegates' presentations, it seems the strategy will be more conservative than I would have hoped. It needs to be ambitious. There is great potential in this area for differentiated learning, for children to learn at different paces and for children with special needs, and that will more than cover the cost of it. The potential for using the ICT properly is incredible if we were to do it right.

The Department's submission stated it was committed to the provision of enhanced broadband provision. That does not seem to give the sound clear-cut target we had for second level schools in respect of which it was stated that all second level schools would have a certain broadband speed. We worked towards achieving that. I would like to know how specific that target will be. It is rather pointless if we do not know that. The INTO magazine InTouch had a good article on this aspect last year. It set out where a teacher planned to show a video to the classroom. The teacher sat down to show a three-minute clip, the first minute played and then the video stopped. The teacher did not if it had stopped for ten seconds or for five minutes. It is not possible to plan teaching in that context. Teachers need to know that the broadband connection will work. The ESRI pointed out that this was an issue in terms of how ICT was used in schools, that it depended on having consistent access to broadband and knowing that one will get the necessary broadband speeds.

I wish to raise with the delegates the issue of e-books, which is a bugbear of mine, as the members will know, as I have raised it with various witnesses from the Department of Finance, the Department of Education and Skills and other bodies which have appeared before the committee. It is crazy that in many cases e-books cost more than the printed book. The Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Finance will trot out the excuse about the EU directive, but what are we doing to change the directive? The VAT directive was written at a point when nobody had even conceived of the idea of e-books, but things change. It is a significant issue. I would like to know what the Department of Education and Skills is doing with its colleagues in the Department of Finance to pursue that issue at European level in terms of requesting that an amended directive be drawn up to address this issue.

I was nearly going to sing "The Farmer and the Cowman Should be Friends" from "Oklahoma" when I heard Mr. Robert O'Leary talk about the closeness of the submissions of the INTO and the IPPN. It is great to see them working on the same track. A computer cannot replace a teacher in a classroom. The teacher is the main resource in the classroom and the computer is a tool. The computer is an excellent tool for showing problem solving in mathematics in primary school and for research purposes and project work.

I believe that e-books have a limited but significant role. There is nothing like having a book in one's hand. I was doing work on Yeats with my youngest daughter and I brought her a book of his poetry. All his poems were included and my daughter could not believe that they would all be contained in a book and thought that I had downloaded them from the Internet. She took the book of poetry away with her. A hard copy of the book or a well thumbed manuscript is a significant and useful tool in education. A number of significant grants have been provided by the Department down the years, which have resulted in there being many more computers in the classroom.

I am interested in the issue of the technical and operational support for ICT. Younger teachers are more computer literate and can deal with problems more easily than I would have been able to deal with them. What provision has the Department put in place for ongoing technical and operational support?

I apologise sincerely to all of the delegates. I was subject to the vagaries of Iarnród Éireann's timetable in getting here from Athenry and missed the presentations. I am very sorry that I missed them because it would have been fascinating to hear what they had to say. Many of them have been deeply involved for decades in the exploration of the use of ICT in primary schools. I fundamentally believe once in every generation there is an opportunity for a country to respond in a meaningful and effective way to meeting the needs of its young people. That is how serious this issue is, which is why I am so apologetic for not being here for the presentations.

When Donogh O'Malley announced the introduction of post-primary education for a generation of Irish people many years ago, he employed incredible vision and courage. We are now seeing its impact where multinational companies approach Ireland primarily because of our hugely talented and highly skilled young people. We are right back at that place and will either make a fundamental decision to make a very significant investment in the use of ICT in schools or fall behind significantly in the next five years.

At an event last year held in Dublin Castle Lord Puttnam, the digital champion for Ireland, who is doing extraordinary work on our behalf in advancing the digital agenda, said it would be three to four years at a maximum before other countries, particularly in South-East Asia and the emerging economies in Africa, would leapfrog Ireland in the use of ICT in schools. Essentially, they are jumping from a 19th century to a 21st century school system. They are looking at best practice internationally in the use of ICT in education.

In Irish schools we have incredibly talented, committed and passionate teachers who are already doing a lot of what the delegates have set out in this strategy; they have been doing it for the past 40 years. The Computers in Education Society of Ireland, CESI, has been in existence for over 40 years. It involves teachers who, long before any of the rest of us saw the value of using technology in an innovative way in the classroom, saw an opportunity and employed incredible vision. Mr. O'Leary has been deeply involved in this process also for many years. We now have children teaching one another the skills they need to function effectively in a modern 21st century environment. Last Saturday we saw the culmination of a national online mathematics competition, MATHletes, using the Khan Academy platform. Some 13,000 Irish children at both primary and post-primary level took the time, with their teachers and parents, to enter the competition and learn mathematics in an exciting new way. What was really ground-breaking in this endeavour was the amount of work the children did outside school time. They were on the Khan Academy platform late into the evening, at the weekend and during the Easter break when one would have expected most children to throw their schoolbag in a corner and not engage in any educational activity. Some of them were online for up to 30 or 40 hours during the Easter break.

There is something interesting and exciting happening in ICT education in Ireland. There is a deep yearning on the part of teachers and young people to make a leap forward in how they use ICT in education. There is no denying that it will require a significant investment, courage and vision on someone's part to make that leap now. This time next year the strategy will be published and it will need to be a call to action. It will need to employ the same vision employed by Donogh O'Malley all those years ago. It will need to set out a challenge for us all. Everybody involved in education and who will be in government next year needs to realise that we are at a significant crossroads in education and that unless we take the right route, we will deny children the opportunity of a lifetime to excel, create and be major players in the shaping of the world for many years to come.

A lot of questions have been asked. I might start with Ms Murtagh because a good few issues have been raised for the Department.

Ms Karen Murtagh

I will take some of the headings and my colleague, Ms Rita Sexton will take some of the other ones. I will talk about the infrastructure, as there were many questions on infrastructure, broadband and technical support. The Department is aware there are different levels of broadband in schools, ranging from 1 Mbps right up to 100 Mbps in primary schools. By the end of June no schools will remain on satellite connections; they are moving on to other connections. We will be collaborating with the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to introduce a scheme similar to the 100 Mbps in post-primary schools. The needs at primary schools are quite different from the one or two teacher schools right up to schools with a few hundred students. We need to look at that and see if a funding package is achievable between the two Departments. It is a priority under the new digital strategy for schools.

We have looked at a centralised model for technical support. It is not viable owing to the differing sizes of schools in the country. A clustering model where we cluster schools of the same size and needs into small clusters with a view to purchasing technical support can work for those schools. The centralised model is also prohibitive in funding terms. Having identified the schools' needs, we will be doing the technical support in conjunction with the education partners.

Senator Craughwell mentioned centralised procurement. Frameworks have been put in place by what is now the Office of Government Procurement for desktops, laptops and printers, and the PDST TIE has frameworks in place for the purchase of digital projectors. We are working with the OGP to renew those frameworks. They will go out again nearer the end of the year to refresh those frameworks for supply of computers and printers. The Department will be represented to ensure the computers suitable for schools will be on those frameworks.

On funding, the digital strategy has not been signed off yet. It still needs to go to Government and to the Minister. Until it is signed off by the Government we cannot discuss funding on that because that is all agreed then. We are looking to move forward to multiannual funding over the five-year lifetime of the strategy. We are aware that there has not been funding since 2010 for all schools, primary and post-primary, for infrastructure. There is a huge need for schools to purchase equipment. We will be looking at funding for that.

Some members asked about students using technology outside school. As part of the digital strategy we held workshops with primary and post-primary students. While we found that many students power down when they go into school and power up when they go out, much of the time they spend on IT outside school relates to social media. The student workshops were very informative. They had great ideas on the use of ICT within the classroom. We found that the use of ICT in primary schools was more prevalent than in post-primary schools. In post-primary schools it is more focused on doing the exam etc. However, as mentioned by the representatives of INTO and IPPN, it depends on the school and whether someone in the school is pushing ICT.

I will hand over to Ms Sexton to respond.

Ms Rita Sexton

I will touch on the new strategy and the last strategy. The last strategy commenced in 2008 and lasted until 2013. In the past couple of years a number of things have happened in the ICT in school space. One of the big things was that the National Centre for Technology in Education, NCTE, became the PDST. Policies and changes have happened in the background. All of the policies and best practice will be carried through to the new digital strategy. A few people described ICT as a tool and the IPPN referred to it as a vehicle, a view which is at the heart of the new digital strategy. The strategy is focused on the use of ICT in teaching and learning assessment.

Ms Murtagh touched on the funding side of the strategy. Other significant areas of the strategy are the plans for continual professional development and training for teachers. There will be a lot of that happening and the PDST will play a lead role.

The PDST has a new online platform called Such innovation is needed in the system because teachers need access to blended and flexible models of learning. Over the lifetime of the strategy we will build on the number of online courses available. There will be blended learning, a mix of online courses and face to face learning.

The strategy aims to target and support leadership in schools because we know it is necessary in order for ICT to be embedded in schools.

Ms Rita Sexton

The Department and support services must be able to inform and provide support to school leaders. For example, this summer there is a new course available entitled Leading Digital Learning and Technology - Integration as a School Leader. We want to build on those supports for leaders in schools and the inspectorate will have a role to play. It is important that we have its views on how ICT integration works in school and it has sought CPD in this area. The first step, as part of the strategy, is for the PDST to upskill the inspectorate in ICT. That means the inspectorate will be in a position to comment on the use of ICT in schools when they visit schools over the next five years, an initiative which is in line with the ICT schools programme.

The e-learning roadmap was mentioned. It dates back to 2008 and we hope to update it in year one of the digital strategy. The roadmap is an important planning tool for schools.

The issue of coding in primary schools was raised today. As the committee will know, it is not a standalone subject in school but many teachers use it as part of teaching. The members are probably all familiar with a popular and visual coding tool called the Scratch programme. Teachers use the programme to teach literacy and numeracy skills and students do not realise it is coding. The PDST provides a summer course called Scratch for Literacy and Numeracy.

The issue of e-books was also raised. We are in regular contact with the Department of Finance on the issue. The rate of VAT charged for e-books is not the same as that charged for schoolbooks. It is an issue for ourselves and all of our European colleagues. There is a lobby building and, therefore, I think we will see changes down the line. We will work with the Department of Finance on the matter.

On Monday nights a very good sharing network on Twitter takes place where teachers share resources and ideas. Does the Department monitor the exchange?

Members may ask supplementary questions later.

Mr. Pairic Clerkin

Funding is a key issue from which there is no getting away. As school leaders, our responsibility is to create a vision in schools, but we also need adequate funding to plan for this. In addition, we need to be able to plan for how we will incorporate this vision on a multi-annual basis. We must be able to put in place the necessary infrastructure, after which we can plan for the professional development that is required and maintenance. It is true that children do not wait and if the technology does not work, the opportunity is lost and the lesson will be a disaster.

To address the issue of the social digital divide, parental support is key in this regard. Fantastic supports are provided for many schools by parents' bodies. I refer, for example, to the infrastructure they are able to put in place. Connectivity with local industry is also a factor and many schools receive maintenance support from the parents body. This, however, is also a funding issue in that schools cannot be dependent on what is available to them at local level. Funding must be provided if we are to plan effectively for connectivity and ensure everything works when it is meant to.

What I was referring to in the context of school clusters was smaller schools. There is an onus on us in larger schools to develop leadership at local level and ensure we use all the talents available to us. Schools are networking very effectively, certainly much more than they did ten years ago. There is an onus on us to ensure we are using the best of the abilities available locally to help to promote the use of all aspects of teaching and learning, especially information and communications technology, where we can do so. This is especially important for smaller rural schools which may need to network to create this expertise.

Tablets are increasingly being used in schools to great effect. However, schools depend on the availability of a good Wi-Fi network to use tablets most effectively. While white boards are widely used in schools, every school fears the day they need to be replaced. Providing them is one thing but replacing them will be highly challenging for schools.

The computer trolley is, in effect, the laptop trolley. Schools will have eight or 16 tablets that are transported using a user-friendly trolley. The tablets can then be synchronised locally. These types of trolley are being increasingly used in schools.

On the issue of maintenance, schools have been very creative in how they put in place technology to support children. Different types of model are in place in schools, many of which have bought computers from industry at a reasonable price. A school may have one computer station or eight computers in a classroom. Some schools have purchased tablets, while others have a computer room.

Maintenance is an important issue. A school with a second-hand computer framework in place needs a different type of maintenance programme than a school that is trying to maintain a modern IT system. It is a little like trying to keep a ten year old car on the road. Having a different individual visiting a school every second week simply does not work. Our experience shows that the same individual must come to the school and that he or she must know the system and be able to support the model in place. Ideally, maintenance services need to be provided on a weekly basis, which is costly and a drain on school resources. Some schools are struggling to pay their ESB and gas bills. It is, therefore, very challenging to fund ICT provision.

Mr. Seán Cottrell

As Mr. Clerkin pointed out, trolleys are effective for a lot of schools.

Teacher training has become an issue, but as technology has moved on, it has become more user-friendly and even people with minimal computer skills find the new software far more intuitive. I certainly do not hear people screaming for teacher training as much as for things like tech support or capital investment.

On the hardware side, a lot of multinationals now use corporate social responsibility policies to have staff in schools where they live. That is fine, but there are not multinationals throughout the country and we should be careful not to allow this to become a multinational response to an issue that needs to be co-ordinated nationally. We need to reach every school, not just those in the shadow of Apple or other multinationals.

I am not sure what research has been carried out into best practice, but we looked at what was happening in schools in New Zealand, Australia and Canada. They have shown that, without a shadow of doubt, technology is not a subject as such but the means by which we can improve teaching and learning. They are well ahead of us in that respect. Ten years ago every school in New Zealand had a broadband connection which was faster than anything we have even today. I am glad to hear the satellite service is being phased out because it was inadequate.

In the late 1980s when the Apple 2E computer was available with its small 7 in screen, those of us who had one thought we were made, but in those days to be a user one also had to be able to fix it when it broke down. If one was competent to repair computers, one was in demand because everybody brought his or her machine to be fixed. Schoolteachers would use their homes to fix computers and in school they were often pulled out of classrooms to be repair men and women for the staff instead of being in their own classroom. We cannot afford to have teachers solving IT problems in schools. That is not what they are paid to do.

Deputy Ciarán Cannon mentioned the need to act. I agree that there is a need for urgency. President John F. Kennedy had his man on the moon moment when he said that, by the end of the said decade, America would put a man on the moon. We need a Minister and a Government to say, likewise, that we must achieve X within three to five years. A shorter term plan might be to take one subject, be it science or mathematics, and say it will be taught through the medium of technology from junior infants through to sixth year within a certain timeframe. They should set the timeframe and put in place what is needed. We need a sense of urgency because without it, everything else will not follow. With it we can sell the vision to all education partners, the multinationals and whoever else has a role to play. Unions, management bodies and principals' associations are all on the one foot on this issue; therefore, there is no reason we cannot achieve it. If we do achieve it, we will have a lot to hope for.

Mr. Peter Mullan

Deputy Charlie McConalogue spoke about the digital divide. Unfortunately, there are several digital divides.

For example, there are digital divides between the home where connectivity is not an issue and the school where it is and between the home where funding and ICT support are not issues and the school where they are. There is also a major digital divide on the island between North and South, given the planning and implementation of ICT programmes in schools in the counties in the North compared to what is happening down here. These divides need to be tackled. We are all in agreement that funding and connectivity are the baseline issues that need to be tackled.

Deputy Jonathan O'Brien mentioned the issue of technical support. One mechanism for providing support that could be considered is the education and training boards, ETBs, which could be utilised to push out organised technical support for many primary schools.

Deputy Jim Daly stated we had not mentioned teacher training. We mentioned colleges of education and made several references to continuous professional development. At the heart of our presentation on best practice was an example - the digital schools of distinction programme. This is probably not just best practice in Ireland but also in many countries.

Senator Averil Power mentioned funding. There must be a five year plan. There is no point in putting money in place on a one year basis. It needs to be actioned over a number of years. Deputy Ciarán Cannon is right, this is a once in a generation opportunity to do something significant. His analysis of where we are vis-à-vis other countries is right, as we are being left behind every year we fail to invest in IT in schools and connect them to the outside world.

Does Mr. O'Leary wish to contribute?

Mr. Robert O'Leary

I would like to develop a couple of Mr. Mullan's points and address some of the issues members have raised in the past half hour or so. I am not sure whether I am a farmer or a cowhand, but I am a school principal, as is Mr. Clerkin. Mr. Cottrell and Mr. Mullan are retired school principals.

Mr. Robert O'Leary

A question was asked about whether there was joined-up thinking. There is. Mr. Mullan mentioned the digital schools of distinction programme, which rewards good practice, creativity and innovative thinking. By the end of June, it is hoped approximately 250 primary schools will have been awarded this status. That is where there is good practice. I have had the opportunity to travel to primary schools all over Europe, but one does not need to visit them to see best practice. If one was to visit the Irish schools that had been awarded digital schools of distinction status, one would see the most creative and brilliant use of technology that one could wish to see anywhere in the world.

At the weekend I looked at Fine Gael's 2011 manifesto for Government. One of its proposals was for a pilot programme to develop learning lighthouses in a number of schools where students would have been given various pieces of equipment and teachers would have received specialised training. There are now learning lighthouse schools; they are the digital schools of distinction. There is a fantastic opportunity for these schools to be used as lighthouses for the other schools that are rocking back and forth on the seas around them and need guidance. We are more than happy to do this because my school is one of them. This is a ready-made opportunity into which the Department of Education and Skills can buy. Schools are more than happy to help one another. On a fortnightly basis in my school we welcome delegations of teachers from other schools who come to learn how to use technology and see how we do it. We have no problem in doing this; we welcome them. That is one suggestion.

I will address the issue of broadband provision.

In my house where four people live I have a 120 Mbps connection, as I suppose many of us do here. In my school, where I have 300 pupils, I have a 12 Mbps connection. There are times when my pupils are using tablets, a laptop trolley, white boards and all the other pieces of equipment. The children are using them so much, I cannot send an e-mail from my office. I have to wait until later in the day when numeracy and literacy lessons are finished. That is not good enough.

Why is that? What is the background?

Mr. Robert O'Leary

It is because the capacity is not wide enough to serve the needs of my school.

That is in the school.

Mr. Robert O'Leary


What happened when it was being installed? Why is there so little capacity?

Mr. Robert O'Leary

I am lucky to have a 12 Mbps connection. Two years ago I had a 3 Mbps connection, and I could not do my job. Two years ago I had an opportunity to visit a school in Finland which, by coincidence, had the same number of pupils as mine; at the time I believe it was 287 pupils. I had a 3 Mbps connection at the time. That school had a 100 Mbps connection.

I am sorry for interrupting but if a home can have capacity of 100 Mbps, it is not hugely expensive to get that connection. What went wrong that resulted in the school-----

Mr. Robert O'Leary

This is the cause of huge frustration to schools.


Mr. Robert O'Leary

No. It is nothing to do with that. My school is in a designated DEIS band 1 disadvantaged community. The vast majority of my pupils have far faster broadband at home than I have in the school, which is in the centre of the community.

I do not understand the reason for that.

Mr. Robert O'Leary

Neither do I.

Is it the case that less money was spent on it-----

Mr. Robert O'Leary


-----in Mr. O'Leary's school or what?

Mr. Robert O'Leary

I have a 12 Mbps connection. I am doing quite well.

I will mention Finland again because Finland is often mentioned as the country to which we should aspire. It is the country that consistently scores well in the PISA scores to which we are compared. It is not a coincidence that when I visited there was a 100 Mbps connection in that school.

To develop the point about the PISA scores, in 2009 there was a huge hoo-ha in the media where the education system was castigated because our schools had fallen down the list of OECD countries. We improved again in 2012. Deputy Cannon mentioned the fundamental jump being made in countries in Southeast Asia, namely, Singapore, Shanghai, China, and South Korea. They are the countries that are making this fundamental, huge investment in their education systems.

If we look at the PISA scores we will see the countries that rank above Ireland. We are doing very well, relatively speaking. The only European country that consistently outperforms Irish schools in numeracy and literacy is Finland. The other countries above us - looking down on us - are those Southeast Asian countries, namely, Korea, Shanghai, China and Singapore where they have put in the investment.

I may come back to Mr. O'Leary and before I call Ms Murtagh, do members have any supplementary questions?

The opportunity for young people that I mentioned, Mathletes, is run on the Khan Academy platform. The Khan Academy is free. It does not cost anybody anything. Mr. O'Leary was correct to point out that unless one has a suitable broadband connection it is nigh on impossible to make it function within the classroom setting but where it does, it is a powerful learning tool.

We had a one teacher school on the border between Galway and Mayo, Cloghans Hill national school, which excelled in that Mathletes competition and went on to win a national award. We had a two teacher school in Cloghan, in Donegal, which also excelled because there happened to be an exceptionally talented and passionate teacher at the helm of the school and it happened to have just enough broadband to make it work. If we provide the tools, resources and support for the teaching community there are more than enough teachers to make this happen.

Mr. O'Leary is correct in pointing out that the digital schools of distinction programme is a powerful one in that it holds up certain schools engaged in best practice as an example to others. They are beacons to adjoining schools. This was achieved through collaboration between the Departments of Education and Skills, Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard, HP. We are only beginning to scratch the surface of what is possible when we combine the expertise and the talent and the passion of the tech industry in Ireland - we have a serious presence here when it comes to the tech industry - and those teachers who really want to forge ahead to make substantial changes in the classroom. That is what happened with the digital schools of distinction programme. It is also what happened with the MATHletes Challenge, another industry-State collaboration that is working exceptionally well.

We are only beginning to scratch the surface as to what is possible. The industry is crying out to help us and there are teachers who know exactly what needs to be done. It is not as if we need to reinvent the wheel. Those teachers in CESI, the Computers in Education Society of Ireland, organise conferences year after year at which they share incredible resources, mostly for free and work with one another. Yet somehow, those teachers are treated like some witches' coven on the periphery of the education system. They should be embraced and brought into the heart of delivering this strategy. Their wisdom and expertise, garnered over 40 years, needs to be brought into the heart of this strategy. CESI made a submission but it needs to be more deeply involved than that. These are teachers for whom education is their life. They want to share the knowledge they have accumulated. They are doing it every day, every week, meeting and teaching one another. The ETBs, education and training boards, and other sets of beacons should be supporting CPD, continuing professional development, through these extraordinary teachers and should provide the technical support that has been referred to.

Schools in Århus in Denmark use the BYOD, bring-your-own-device, model for teaching ICT. Those teachers who made this model work go to other schools across Denmark to pass on their knowledge, teaching them how to use it. However, it must be acknowledged that Danish schools have exceptionally powerful broadband. Northern Ireland has just introduced Minecraft into every single post-primary school, another courageous and highly innovative move which will provide another learning opportunity for young people. It is a game young people, including my five year old nephew, are already using.

At the Excited Digital Learning Festival last year, a primary school principal in Gorey, County Wexford, blew me away with his account of teaching the history of the Famine to third class pupils. The school uses iPads for all its educational delivery. A month before he intended to teach the course, he asked his students to do their own research about the Famine on the Internet and bring it altogether in a one-minute video on YouTube. They all watched each other’s videos on their iPads and discussed them a month later. They debated topics such as how could the Famine have been prevented, did the British state react in an appropriate manner, is there any way famine can be prevented in the future and how is famine happening in the rest of the world. It was a far more detailed learning experience than he could ever have envisaged. He told me that he realised there and then that he was no longer teaching history but creating historians.

That is fundamentally the difference between what is possible if we get the right resources, the broadband and, most of all, the investment into our schools. Those drawing up this strategy are doing exceptionally valuable work. However, they need to be supported. If this strategy is not accompanied by a huge investment on the part of the State, then there is no point in printing this document.

I thought Mr. Peter Mullen's suggestion of the education and training boards, ETBs, taking over the provision of technical support was an excellent idea. I ask that it be examined by the Department and possibly piloted. I am sure some ETBs such as Mr. Martin O'Brien in the Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board would be more than willing to give it a go, as would other ETBs. Have the delegates examined the ETB model in that context?

I wish to tell Mr. Seán Cottrell that this is one of the best short articles I have read on small schools and well done to him on that.

I have a brief question for the Department. It indicated that under the new tendering process there will no satellite connections for primary schools. What might the arrangements be for those schools? A number of them are in peripheral locations. How will they be served and what type of broadband speeds can we expect them to have?

Before Ms Karen Murtagh replies, I want to ask her about the €46 million that was spent in 2009 and 2010. Will an audit be carried out to identify the gaps in the schools similar to the way the book rental scheme was examined to try to fill the gaps as opposed to returning to schools that had already received funding even if the books might have been out of date? The delegates have a few questions to respond to as well as the one that Senator Craughwell asked about whether the Department monitors a forum on Twitter.

Ms Rita Sexton

On the ed-chatty forum on a Monday night, we do not monitor it as such but we are aware of the discussion threads on it. It is something we like to follow.

In terms of the funding to primary schools, the last round of grants were in 2009-10 and €46 million was issued to primary schools at that time. We asked schools to purchase a teaching computer and digital projector and if there were funds over they had flexibility on what to spend and schools had to make their returns on what they spent. As that goes back to 2009-10, we will not be looking at that in the context of the new grants. We are aware that PCs that were bought in 2009-10 will need to be upgraded.

I recall that I was told by a person when I was knocking on doors at one time that their school got funding of €10,000. It seems unfair to go back and give the same schools funding if other schools did not receive any funding.

Ms Rita Sexton

All schools got grants at that time and it was based on their pupil numbers. We had a baseline grant and there was a per-student amount. Every school in the country received a grant on the same basis. DEIS schools received a higher level of funding at that time.

Ms Karen Murtagh

The question of broadband connection was raised. The Department runs the schools' broadband programme which is for primary schools. We have a framework of 14 suppliers in place. Every school is tendered for with these suppliers and the best connection offered by the market within budgetary constraints is provided to the schools.

In Mr. Robert O'Leary's case, he received his 12 Mbps connection. There was no 100 Mbps connection available to the school. The connections one can get depends on where one is based in the country. A person living five minutes down the road from someone could get a 100 Mbps connection but that connection would not be available up the road, as there is not the technical capacity to provide it. We are constrained because of that.

Under the framework 2,900 of the schools will go out tender by the end of next week to see if we can get improved connections. The remainder of the schools would be schools on lower connections and for those schools we tender every two to three months to see if there is anything better in the market. That brings me to why we are moving all schools off-satellite. We would have got better connections. Many of those schools are located in very rural areas, such as in County Donegal and under the tendering process many of them have got very good connections.

There will be very good 50 Mbps connections installed. We continue to make improvements at all times but we are aware that we need to do something more for primary schools. There are many schools with a 3,200 Mbps connection yet post-primary schools have a 100 Mbps connection. That is part of our priority at the start of the strategy.

On the technical support and the education and training boards, we consulted one of the ETBs as part of the development of the digital strategy. They outlined their technical support model. Again, when we look at technical support we will be consulting with the ETBs as part of that process.

Before I conclude-----

On Mr. O'Leary's point, why has he such a small amount of power in his school?

Ms Karen Murtagh

In that location it was the best connection we could get at the time. When we go out at the end of next week there may be improved connections but there are schools ranging from 1 Mbps connections up to 100 Mbps connections. The average schools would be on is 12 Mbps connections, but again it depends on the geographical location of the school.

His school will be a model for other schools. He might need a bit more.

Ms Karen Murtagh

I know.

Mr. Cottrell wanted to come in.

Mr. Seán Cottrell

I have looked into this in some depth. We are still depending on a copper wire system of telephone cable. There is resistance in cable and the further away one is from the local exchange it gets worse. Unless fibre-optic cable is laid we will always face that problem. It is a resistance issue.

Mr. Peter Mullan

To go back to where we started, the point we all made was about the power of ICT to transform what happens in the classroom, and it needs investment. However, we should not lose sight of what is good in Irish education, for example, the willingness of the teachers to upskill. INTO learning is one of the biggest providers of teacher continuing professional development, CPD. Scoilnet is a huge resource that is valued by teachers and, as Deputy Cannon mentioned, the Computer Society of Ireland, CSI, is a hugely valuable resource that we should mine and use so that we can get the best out of whatever investment we make.

I ask for elaboration on the plans for the retendering. Ms Murtagh indicated that 2,900 schools are to be retendered for next week. Are those schools on a fixed line or do some of them have satellite?

Ms Karen Murtagh

They would be on a range of technologies. It ranges from fixed line DSL, VDSL and wireless providers. That is how many improvements were made at primary school level where the wireless providers came in this time because they are in areas that are harder to reach. We do not know what the market will offer until we go out. It will be out with the providers for about six weeks. The offers come in and then each school will be individually assessed to determine the best connection we can get.

The schools not included in the 2,900 are more peripheral, is that correct?

Ms Karen Murtagh

No. They are schools that were awarded a new contract within the past year under the previous framework because they had lower band width than other schools. We would have awarded contracts for a year or up to three years. They would have had one contract at the start and then an improved contract within the time of the framework agreement.

For the 2,900 that will be retendered, Ms Murtagh is saying that satellite is not an option that is being accepted as part of the tender.

Ms Karen Murtagh


Is there a minimum requirement for speeds as part of that tender?

Ms Karen Murtagh

Our minimum requirement is 8 Mbps on the new one, but not all schools will receive an 8 Mbps connection.

It depends on the location and what is available in the area. Some schools will have a lower than 8 Mbps connection. There are no satellite schools in the batch of 2,900 schools because we have secured contracts to move all schools off satellite, which will be done by the end of June. Those schools will not be in this batch of 2,900 schools because they will be on new connections, be it wireless or-----

Will it be a wireless service, by and large?

Ms Karen Murtagh

I do not know exactly what the split is, but they will be on improved connections.

Mr. Pairic Clerkin

We are always looking for innovative ways to support schools. We have a pilot project in operation whereby through the Irish Primary Principals Network we are supporting five remote and small schools, with remote administrative support. One of the challenges is that we have to free up teaching principals to allow them to focus on teaching as the administrative role, which we feel is better suited to an administrator, can take up a great deal of time. We hope the use of technology might provide a means in the future of supporting smaller schools and teaching principals in particular.

We have had a comprehensive discussion. I thank the witnesses from the INTO, the Irish Primary Principals Network, the Department of Education and Skills and members for their contributions.

The joint committee adjourned at 3.15 p.m. until 1 p.m. on Wednesday, 13 May 2015.