I thank the committee for its invitation to appear before it. I am joined by the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, as well as a number of departmental officials who can help support our engagement.
Last Thursday was my first appearance before the select committee and there was discussion about splitting the financial allocations between my Department and the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. In addition, officials of my Department appeared as witnesses before this committee on the subject of the leaving certificate and I am sure we will touch on these matters again today.
The programme for Government sets out immediate priorities for the Department of Education and, on taking up my role as Minister, the Government moved quickly to achieve the reopening of the school sector, to provide an expanded summer programme for eligible students and to complete the calculated grades process to issue results and allow the 2020 leaving certificate students to progress.
We have hit significant milestones since the publication of the programme for Government. We have seen over 12,000 students with special education needs avail of this year’s summer programme and 9,000 avail of the summer programme for DEIS schools – both significantly ahead of previous years; had almost 1 million students and nearly 100,000 school staff return to their classrooms, playgrounds and school campuses in late August and early September; issued calculated grade results to over 60,000 students, allowing this year’s leaving certificate cohort to progress to the next stage of their lives; and reached agreement with the representatives of school secretaries and caretakers on an understanding for a pathway to progress the issues before the WRC, comprising several key strands. There is continued engagement with stakeholders and enhanced support responding to the needs of our school communities. Schools successfully returned following the mid-term break against a backdrop of level 5 restrictions being in place and yesterday, 16 November, the leaving certificate 2020 examinations began.
The Government’s commitment to education has been underlined by this year’s budget for the Department of Education, which is just short of €9 billion. This budget will facilitate key actions, such as a reduction in the average pupil-teacher ratio at primary level from 26:1 to 25:1; increased numbers of SNAs; continued Covid-19 financial supports for schools, with €232 million provided in 2021 for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year; and a significant capital programme of over €740 million into 2021.
What has been achieved since July is a testament to the hard work and dedication of everyone in the schools system and in our school communities across the country. We could take it for granted, but it is worth acknowledging that we are all working differently now from in previous years and currently living and working under level 5 restrictions. In a world that feels so different in many ways from the previous normal, the benefits to the students and wider school communities of having classroom learning functioning as normally as possible can be seen as a signal of hope for society as a whole. Decisions taken by the Government have been taken to support school communities, and while all concerned can be justifiably proud of what has been achieved we have to meet the challenges that continue to be faced. We are best placed to meet those challenges by continuing to engage with each other and bringing our different perspectives, but with a common goal in mind. We have seen tremendous flexibility and responsiveness across the system.
The Department is in ongoing discussion and engagement with the partners in education and school communities. In response to concerns raised by education partners relating to contact tracing and the public health response to positive cases in schools, my Department and the Department of Health have put in place enhanced schools teams. These are dedicated resources and supports for school leaders where a positive case of Covid-19 has been identified. These teams are led by public health professionals and are further supported by members of my Department.
I appreciate that this is a challenging time for all in the school community, staff and students alike. The Department has sought to bolster well-being supports through a number of initiatives. While much support has been provided to support teacher well-being through Spectrum.Life and other departmental support services, it was agreed that additional support for school leader well-being might be valued and a focus is being brought to this area now by the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, with the professional development service for teachers, PDST, and teacher education centres.
While most students are happy to be back at school, some students have experienced anxiety and concern regarding Covid-19. For this reason, the Department has created 17 additional NEPS psychologist posts for schools as well as 120 whole-time equivalent guidance counsellor positions. NEPS psychologists have been asked to support with reluctant school attendance behaviour, although the number of cases emerging is fewer than had been initially anticipated. NEPS psychologists are also focusing on supporting the inclusion and participation of children with special and additional needs through their casework and consultation service. Furthermore, a well-being toolkit has been provided to teachers as further support with user-friendly materials to promote student well-being in the classroom.
Today’s engagement with the committee is particularly timely given that the Department is currently engaged in consultation towards the development of a three-year statement of strategy for 2021 to 2023. The strategy will be accompanied by an annual work programme which will contain significant actions against which we can measure our progress. A wide range of submissions and responses have been received, including from the general public, key stakeholders and other Departments. Our new statement of strategy will build on the long-term strategic priorities for primary and post-primary education in the context of a fundamentally altered operating environment due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We will continue to manage the pace and sequence of change in partnership and consultation with key stakeholders.
The priorities set out in the programme for Government closely reflect these longer-term strategic priorities, including improving standards of teaching, learning and assessment, inclusion and meeting the needs of those at risk of educational disadvantage and continuously improving the quality of the learning experience and outcomes for all learners. I would welcome the committee's views on these priorities, which can help to feed into the work on the statement of strategy. I look forward to the discussion with committee members on these and other matters.