Engagement on Keeping Schools Open: Discussion (Resumed)

The purpose of today's meeting is to have a discussion on ensuring schools are open in a safe and sustainable manner. On behalf of the committee, I welcome Ms Áine Lynch, CEO of the National Parents Council Primary; Ms Mai Fanning, president, National Parents Council Post-Primary, and Mr. Reuban Murray, president of the Irish Second-Level Students Union, ISSU.

Following on from the committee's previous engagement with the school associations and the Minister, the witnesses will discuss the important issue of ensuring schools remain open in a safe and sustainable manner. Before we do so, I would like to highlight another landmark for this committee. Mr. Reuban Murray, a secondary school student, is here to represent the voices of young students throughout the country. This is important. The committee is committed to ensuring that young people's voices are heard. It is a great honour to have Mr. Murray here today. I can assure him that the committee will listen to his valuable insight and the concerns of the ISSU. Mr. Murray has an important role to play in making those voices heard. The committee is impressed with and grateful for the survey Mr. Murray conducted to assist it in its work on this issue. This shows his commitment and dedication to Irish education. I also thank Ms Lynch and Ms Fanning for attending to represent primary and post-primary education.

In terms of the format of the meeting, I will invite the witnesses to make a brief opening statement, which will be followed by questions from members of the committee. Each member has a six-minute slot in which to ask his or her questions and for the witnesses to respond. I will cut off witnesses and members after six minutes. Members may put specific questions to witnesses individually.

Senator O'Loughlin, the Vice Chairman, has agreed to chair the committee from 1 p.m. to 1.30 p.m. so that Members of the Dáil can travel to the convention centre for business. I thank members for their forbearance on the revised speaking slots. As the witnesses will probably be aware, the committee will publish the opening statements on its website following this meeting.

Before we begin, I remind members 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.

The witnesses should note that they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their presentations to the committee. This means they have an absolute defence against any defamation action for anything they say at the meeting. They are, however, expected not to abuse this privilege and it is my duty as Chairman to ensure that the privilege is not abused. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory of an identifiable person or entity, I will direct them to discontinue their remarks, and it is imperative that they comply with any such direction.

I now invite Ms Lynch to make her opening statement, followed by Ms Fanning and Mr. Murray.

Ms Áine Lynch

The National Parents Council Primary welcomes the opportunity to makes its submission to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to inform the committee's examination of the topic, ensuring that schools are open in a manner which is both safe and sustainable. To inform this submission, at the end of October last, we issued a survey to parents which remained open for 24 hours. During those 24 hours, more than 11,000 parents responded. It is important to note that these results from parents are in the main very positive about the safety of schools for their children. This survey was conducted at the same time as it was announced the country was moving into level 5 restrictions.

The survey results have been circulated to the committee. As can be seen, parents are in the main happy with the way schools have reopened and with the communications between home and school. Children also are reported by the parents as being happy to be back at school. Parents report being somewhat more anxious than their children about being back in school. Parents reported that more than 80% of children were not worried about going to school. Although parents have more concerns, 77% reported not being worried or only slightly worried. While the results are in the main very positive about the work that whole school communities are doing to keep the schools open safely, it is important to acknowledge that for some parents and students this is still an anxious worrying time and some parents are reporting dissatisfaction with adherence to regulations on school transport and difficulty in giving information to and getting information from the school. A number of parents wanted to see changes to how their child’s school would continue to operate in the context of Covid-19 and one of the frequent themes in the additional comments section included improving adherence to regulations on school transport.

While many parents reported being very happy with school transport, some parents were concerned regarding children sitting wherever they want to and not in the same place each day. There also was a preference that all children should wear masks on school transport and a concern was raised that children from different schools were mixing on the same bus. Parents congregating at school gates and the lack of mask wearing and social distancing was another theme. Many parents noted that while they understand that outside of the school is somewhat outside of the school's remit, they felt at risk dropping off and collecting their children due to parents congregating and not adhering to Covid regulations regarding social distancing and wearing masks.

Development work on remote and blended learning came up quite a bit during the survey. This issue was raised by many parents who felt that their children regressed during the school lockdown time. Their young children could not learn independently and struggled to continue with schoolwork as was set. Parents requested that resources would be diverted to developing effective remote learning methodologies suitable for primary-aged children.

One the issue of teachers wearing masks rather than visors, most parents reported that they were very happy with the safety procedures inside the classroom. However, some parents raised concerns that some teachers were wearing visors rather than masks and questioned the safety of this practice. Although it was acknowledged that this was probably being done for more effective communication, it was the safety issue that they were concerned about.

A significant number of parents commented on the importance of keeping schools open and cited the negative impact that the school closure had on their children.

There were concerns regarding lack of permission for children to socialise and talk to friends at break times with other children in their pod and classes. A small number of parents raised concerns regarding strict regulations for socialising in the school yard, which in some instances meant that children who were in the same pod in the class were not permitted to play together in the yard due to a policy at break time regarding social distancing for all children. Parents referred to this in terms of the mental health and well-being of their children during playtime.

Parents raised concerns about ventilation in the classroom. This was raised by parents in two areas. Some parents were concerned that the classrooms were not being ventilated appropriately while other parents were concerned regarding ventilation and cold classrooms.

Some parents reported anxiety and concern regarding schools staying open. While the majority of parents were concerned about keeping schools open, a number of parents reported that they felt schools should be closed under level 5 restrictions and that there should be more options for families regarding remote and blended learning until a vaccine is available.

Since the closing of the survey, we have had concerns from parents regarding communication, specifically, two-way communication and increasingly regarding concerns of cancelled parent-teacher meetings with no substitute communication being put in place. We are aware that the Department has issued guidelines to schools on alternative options when the parent-teacher meeting has to be cancelled but some parents are suggesting to us that the compliance with these is somewhat ad hoc in the schools.

I thank Ms Lynch. I invite Ms Fanning to make her statement.

Ms Mai Fanning

The National Parents Council Post-Primary, NPCPP, is grateful to the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science for the opportunity to make these submissions on behalf of parents of students attending post-primary schools in Ireland and their children.

The mental and physical well-being of our children always has been and remains the main focus of concern for parents. We re-emphasise the importance of fairness, equality and equity in the delivery of the support for National Parents Council Post-Primary children and their families during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, particularly for those who are disadvantaged or with special needs. We are thankful to our school communities who have worked so hard to re-open schools on time and who continue their committed efforts to ensure that our children can attend school in as normal a way as possible within a safe and caring environment.

Communications we receive from parents, together with trends clear from our back-at-school survey, demonstrate that the anxiety felt as schools re-opened has not abated. Trends in our current survey of parents show that when schools originally re-opened almost 50% of returning students reported anxiety and, as of now, 60% of 5,000 respondents report that the anxiety felt at the reopening has not changed, but for 20% the level of anxiety has actually increased.

Fear of the spread of infection within schools and the risk of bringing the disease home remain a significant concern amongst parents and students. There remains some confusion about the difference between a close contact in schools and that outside. This is exacerbated when parents consider the use of public transport and school buses. Almost 20% of parents in the survey indicate their use of an alternative form of transport to school to previous years in an effort to mitigate these factors. There is also concern that parents are not being fully informed when an incidence of Covid-19 occurs in their school. The National Parents Council Post-Primary has always advocated for clear communications between all involved. This is essential as vacuums tend to create suspicion and misinformation, which can considerable increase the level of anxiety amongst the school community.

This also links to very serious concern at the poor level of support where a student has had to withdraw from school due to a Covid-19 incident. Of respondents to our survey who indicated that their child had to withdraw from school for a period due to Covid-19, 23% indicated that they found no supports at all in place while a further 30% have indicated that the supports offered were lacking, that is, being not good or poor.

Parents with students in State examination years are particularly worried about their children not being able to catch up, with 30% expressing real difficulty in recovering following close down. Sixty per cent of these parents indicate that they are less than satisfied with the support currently in place, of whom 18% indicated they were not at all satisfied. Major concerns around the inability of teachers and students to cover the full curriculum have been expressed. These issues must be addressed to ensure minimal disruption to the 2021 examinations and need to be decided upon and communicated clearly, as soon as possible.

Eighty-eight per cent of respondents indicate that they are happy with the sanitisation regime at their schools but some of the implemented strategies are causing problems. The wearing of face masks all day, particularly when there is no opportunity to periodically remove them or where there is restricted access to the open air during break times, is causing problems, anxiety and a difficulty in social terms, where students cannot see the facial expressions of their peers or the teachers at all.

Another area of serious concern is the weight of school bags which children have to carry. This is an ongoing problem, regularly highlighted by the National Parents Council Post-Primary, but is particularly problematic now given the restricted access to lockers in school. Seventy-five per cent of parents responding to our survey indicate that their child has no access to a school locker.

We welcome the recent announcements about the forthcoming availability of vaccines and look forward to seeing the end of Covid-19 but we are aware that there are still many issues that will arise for students and parents which will have longer term effects.

I thank Ms Fanning. I invite Mr. Murray to make his statement

Mr. Reuban Murray

I thank the members for the opportunity to speak to the committee today. My name is Reuban Murray and I am the president of the Irish Second-Level Students Union, ISSU.

The answer to the question, "Are schools open in a safe and sustainable way?" will be different from school to school but we at the ISSU have found emerging trends that highlight issues that we must address. These can be found in our submission to the committee and I feel it is important that in my opening statement, I focus on the following key points.

One such issue, and possibly the most impacting, is the unrelenting and constant over-assessment of students. Students in examination years are currently now finding themselves sitting monthly or even weekly examinations, with schools citing preparing for calculated grades as the reason. These tests, once a way to help students to improve their learning and critique themselves, now take on a whole new level of pressure and stress as students now believe that these class tests may decide their examination results if the State examinations cannot go ahead. This is putting unnecessary and unsustainable amounts of pressure and anxiety on students. If we do not remedy this, it will result in widespread burnout across our schools.

Why is over assessment taking place? It is because we have not provided enough clarity on the 2021 State examinations. There have been no concrete contingency plans communicated to schools. Simple questions such as, for example, what will happen if a school has an outbreak during the examinations, remain unanswered. We need to clearly communicate the contingency plans to schools as soon as we can in order to lift this fog of guesswork, assumptions and uncertainties in which schools are now deferring to calculated grades as the option.

Intrinsic to the contingency plans is online learning. Our schools and students are underprepared to make a transition to online learning. This is not an issue that affects us only in the event of national school closures. Every week students at an individual level are instructed to self-isolate for 14 days. We need a proper strategy now. At present, students have been reporting inconsistent levels of support when self-isolating.

At one end, students are receiving a great deal of support and teachers are going the extra mile but, on the extreme opposite end, students have received no support or the support was withdrawn half-way through. We need to ensure everyone who is self-isolating to protect their peers does not fall behind and that they still receive an education. With the formation of a national online learning plan, we can effectively equip our schools to support all students.

I would also like to advise the committee that the Irish Second-level Students' Union, ISSU, has conducted a survey of 9,538 member students across Ireland in preparation for this meeting. A preliminary report will be circulated to the committee as soon as possible. In answering members' questions I will refer, where possible, to any statistics or data I can. This survey has been done to the highest standard we can do it.

On a final note, I would like to express that the ISSU is a solutions-focused organisation. When we present an issue, we are always willing to work towards finding a solution. It is in this spirit we wrote our submission and in this same spirit that I speak before the committee today. I wish to express our enthusiasm to work closely with the committee and its members in the future. I welcome any questions the committee members may have for me.

I thank the three witnesses for their opening statements. The first questioner is Deputy Farrell to be followed by Deputy O'Callaghan.

I thank the witnesses for participating and for their advocacy. I will cover two or three items as the time constraints will not permit me to cover as many as I would like. I will start with Mr. Murray who ended his statement referring to contingency planning and I accept the points he made regarding the future. The Department of Education and probably most members of the committee are operating on the basis that by next summer we will not be in the position we are in at the moment. The roll-out of a Covid vaccine will most likely be at the end of the first quarter or the beginning of the second quarter of next year. There may be a scenario where an outbreak arises should the seated examinations take place. I accept Mr. Murray's point about known contingency plans and that they should be made available. That is certainly something for which I would advocate.

Regarding his remark about classes having ongoing examinations on the basis of the potential for calculated grades, I ask the three witnesses for their opinions on that as regards the potential for burnout and what solutions they would put forward. I appreciate Mr. Murray's comment about his organisation being solutions-based and I am sure that applies to the organisations represented by the other two witnesses. What would be an optimal level and the supports they envisage would be required to ensure students are not burning out? Mr. Murray might respond first and I ask that he could be as concise as possible.

Mr. Reuban Murray

It is very simple. This is not sustainable. A total of 49.9% of sixth year students have reported they are receiving extra examinations. It will result in serious burnout because they are worried this can affect them in the long run. The solution is to communicate quite clearly to teachers and schools not to over-assess their students - that this is not something we can do. Continuous assessment is a great thing. It is something to which we need to transition in Ireland's senior cycle but that is not what we are seeing. We are seeing unrestricted, unregulated over-assessment, purely in the case of calculated grades. We need to make it clear what the contingency will be.

Mr. Murray is saying he is not aware of whether a firm plan for schools at departmental level is being rolled out. Is he is suggesting that it is haphazard?

Mr. Reuban Murray

The over-assessment we are seeing is not, as we are aware, from a departmental plan; rather it is individual teachers in schools taking it upon themselves to assess their students. A key factor, based on the data, is that if the Deputy took a test, he could get 85%. I could take another teacher's test and get 30%, while the Deputy and I may be at the same level. The test assessments, therefore, are very subjective. If we are going to do continuous assessment, it needs to be standardised for everyone.

I appreciate Mr. Murray's comments. Do the other witnesses have any comments?

Ms Áine Lynch

Notwithstanding that we represent primary level, we are also on the advisory group for the leaving certificate and I will answer the Deputy's question in that vein. Something like this practice arises where there is a vacuum of information. Schools and students were plunged into the calculated grades model last year. Unless there is real clarity that there will be no calculated grades this year, gathering that evidence will continue to happen because teachers, students and parents all want to know that any calculated grade is based on evidence. Last year, we were scrambling to work out what the evidence would be. Currently, the position is that as far as is possible the Department will go ahead with the traditional leaving certificate examination next year. That is the stated position. "As far as is possible" is the problem there. If it does not go ahead completely as a normal leaving certificate would happen, then what is the difference. What would be changed? Will that include some level of calculation grades? If we could eradicate the sense that any calculated grades would be involved, that would reduce the anxiety between teachers and students in doing these continual assessments. That alludes very much to what Mr. Murray said.

Ms Mai Fanning

I agree with the previous speakers. A vacuum arises from non-communication and that is the worry. That is the central problem with which we are trying to deal. That is why it is important a definitive statement be made to schools in order that parents, students and teachers alike would all know what they are heading into. If the Department's position is that the examinations will continue in 2021, as they have done in previous years, we hope, that is not good enough. In that context, "we hope" is not good enough. We must have written in somewhere that there is clear communication that if something untoward should happen again in 2021, whereby the seated examinations are not possible and there will be calculated grading, how that calculated grading would be constructed. Either way the information going forward to teachers, schools and parents must be very clear and it needs to be done quickly.

Regarding Covid communications and the disruption it causes, I accept the Department and schools are in a difficult position because they have to balance school safety versus patient confidentiality, but I get the point Ms Fanning made. There have been issues in my constituency, and no doubt in every constituency, in this regard. What would she deem appropriate taking the two competing demands into consideration? How would she streamline the communication pathway between a school and parent groups or classroom groups? What would be the most appropriate way of communicating the message?

Ms Mai Fanning

If there was a breakout of Covid within a class?

It is difficult and that is why I am asking the question.

Ms Mai Fanning

It is difficult and that is why I would hesitate to come up with a response because there is no easy answer. If there was an easy answer, we would have come up with it a long time ago.

Does Ms Lynch wish to add a comment?

Ms Áine Lynch

If we take the issue of communicating that information out of the context of school communication in general, there is definitely not an easy answer but if there is good communication between students, parents and schools that have a whole-school community and generally good communication, these things are much easier to communicate because the level of trust and understanding between the people within the school is greater. It must be communicated within that context of having really good communication with the school in any event and that trust must be developed. If that is not there and an outbreak occurs, the first thing that will happen is people will become very suspicious and critical of a school, whereas if they feel part of the school and part of the decisions, they will be much more likely to take the information they get and understand that everybody is trying to keep them safe.

I apologise to Ms Lynch but I must intervene and call Deputy O'Callaghan to be followed by Deputy Ó Laoghaire.

I thank Ms Lynch for her response.

I thank the witnesses for coming in. Everyone in this room recognises and accepts the education and development of children was very badly damaged this year, particularly in the earlier part of the year during the first lockdown. We have learned much more about the disease since then. One of the beneficial aspects of this lockdown is schools have been able to open, and remain open, in a safe way. I thank Ms Lynch for the survey she carried out. It appears to be the case that the vast majority of parents say their children are happy to be back at school. Is that so?

Ms Áine Lynch

Yes. That is our headline statistic this time. We also did a survey just as schools reopened in September and the finding was the same then. Children were happy to be going back to school.

In fact, they wanted to go back and their parents wanted them to go back. The September survey showed the anticipation of going back was high but now what we have shown in this survey is that the confidence in schools is very high and both the children and the parents feel they are being kept safe within schools. The survey results are generally a very good news story.

Obviously, people are getting more information about the disease and the impact it can have on children, or lack of impact. I suppose that also is providing greater confidence to parents and children.

Ms Áine Lynch

I think it is. Most of the incidents in schools have been managed very well and that has improved in the past number of weeks. Before the half-term holiday, we were still trying to work out how to manage outbreaks in schools but a kind of regrouping happened with public health, the Department of Education and schools during the half-term, and we have seen improvements in terms of access to information since then. All of that helps alleviate the concerns in the school community.

Ms Fanning mentioned in her opening submission that she still sees levels of anxiety among secondary students. When we look at this objectively, we have interfered with their social lives, their sporting lives and their pastimes, going to dance classes or drama classes. To what extent are those consequences of the restrictions creating the anxiety, as opposed to concern about the disease itself?

Ms Mai Fanning

It is a mixture of both. Teenagers, as we all know, are a social group and that is a very important aspect of their life and development. Certainly, they are happier to be back in school, and there is no doubt about it. However, many of them have physical problems within the school. One of the main things we saw was the lack of access to a school locker, which meant many children had to carry that weight around with them all day. There is also the issue of wearing face covers all day. People can only interact so much with just the eyes visible, and they do not see the facial expressions. This was causing a certain amount of, let us say, social disquiet and upset in that they could not have that same interaction. One of the big things that has cropped up in our schools is that, due to the need for ventilation, classroom windows are open. It depends on the school whether the school would allow the children to wear extra warm clothing or not. For all these things, the academic side has been interrupted but we have these physical things going on as well, so there is much added anxiety that perhaps could be addressed. They are not huge issues.

As the Chairman said, Mr. Murray is the first teenager and secondary school student we have had before the committee. On my own behalf, I want to acknowledge what the people of his age have done and what they have been through, and I want to apologise for the changes we have imposed upon their lives.

What is the view of young people on these restrictions? Presumably some are magnanimous about it and are prepared to accept it, but others, and we should not categorise them as selfish, are annoyed that their social lives, their sporting lives and their development have been affected by this. What would Mr. Murray say on behalf of those people?

Mr. Reuban Murray

It is important to realise that students in general want to be safe and they want schools to be safe. Obviously, there are some cases where we can do this in a more sustainable way. For example, if students are being told that at lunchtime, they have to stay in their base classroom and cannot go outside, that it is going to frustrate people and that is going to be hard. There are ways to do this, such as staggered lunchtimes and staggered break times, so people can get out and move. There is frustration where there are more creative solutions that can cater to all stakeholders, and that is where we need to focus. It is important to realise that every single student in Ireland wants to be safe, wants their peers to be safe and wants schools to be safe.

Does Mr. Murray believe they are safe?

Mr. Reuban Murray

Currently, they are functioning but we need to improve in several areas. We asked students to rank their preferential scenarios, and I do not have time to go through all of them. However, one was for schools to remain open with no changes, and that was the least popular overall. Students feel schools need to stay open but that some changes are needed.

Are secondary school students concerned about getting the disease themselves or concerned about the interference in their lives, being forced to carry heavy bags because they cannot get to their lockers and being forced to have to do constant exams?

Mr. Reuban Murray

I would put the point that they are not mutually exclusive. They are worried and they want to be safe, but there are certain things like over-assessment and lockers. There are ways to turn this around and still make it work. They are not mutually exclusive.

To conclude, and Mr. Murray does not have to reply, I understand the concerns of people doing State exams in 2021, but I am sure I speak for everyone on this committee when I say the committee and the Minister are committed to ensuring those exams take place safely.

Mr. Reuban Murray

I totally agree. The issue we are finding is that that message needs to be conveyed to students and teachers at the local level because that is not the communication in the classroom for the students, and they are being over-assessed.

I welcome the witnesses. I point out that some of us will have to depart early as the Dáil is convening in the convention centre.

We are doing this because this committee shares the view of the witnesses, school staff and, I think, the population as a whole that schools being open is important and welcome, but that we need to do an awful lot more to ensure that happens on a safe and sustainable basis. We are trying to make a positive contribution by hearing all the voices concerned with or connected to schools in order to draft a report so we can make recommendations to advance this. That is why we are doing this, and it is important that all voices are heard. It is welcome that we had both parents councils before the Covid committee and it is welcome to have the Irish Second-Level Students' Union here to give the voice of students.

I will ask my questions together and perhaps the three witnesses can respond in turn. On a question to the National Parents Council, Primary, the survey results are very interesting and they chime broadly with my experience of parents of primary school children. The biggest category of parents who are concerned and frustrated at this time, in my experience, and this is anecdotal and not based on statistical evidence, is parents of children with special educational needs. They feel, first, that they lost out significantly during the lockdown and I have also come across issues of frustration about the lack of integration between units and the mainstream class, special educational teachers being pushed from pillar to post and various issues like that. Ms Lynch might comment on whether that is something that is coming up with the National Parents Council.

On a question to the National Parents Council, Post Primary, remote learning where children have to stay at home is an issue where the guidance has not been clear enough. I have been contacted by parents who are themselves either at high risk or very high risk and, consequently, their children are staying at home. We can all have a view on whether that is a decision we would take or not, but in the context of the pandemic it is at the very least an understandable decision. The position of the Department is that those children are not to be provided with remote learning. I think that is unnecessarily obstinate and it is denying those children an education, or denying them an adequate education. Is that something Ms Fanning has come across?

Ms Fanning also makes the point about the vacuum of information and rumours. That is a very important point, but it is not just at a local level and there is a global issue in terms of the school system as a whole. Would Ms Fanning have a view that perhaps the Minister and the Department need to be more visible in tackling some of the rumours, the speculation and the vacuum that are apparent? Other Ministers and Departments have had midweek briefings. Should the Department of Education be doing more to tackle this head-on and make it clear what the picture is and what the processes are?

On a question to Mr. Murray, I think this issue of constant evaluation is a profound one. I had a conversation with Mr. Murray on this and I have come across it with students as well. This constant assessment means students are trying to do a marathon sprint the whole way and it is not sustainable. On the point made by Ms Lynch, we need to know what the contingency plans are but calculated grades need to be taken off the table, in my view. It did not work and we do not need to repeat it. While there is a need for contingency, I believe, much of the contingency needs to be premised on ensuring it is very clear that the overwhelming desire is for a written exam.

There needs to be contingency for a student who is self-isolating on the day of an examination, including an oral examination. This will arise. This is an aspect of the contingency we need. Where written examinations are concerned, we need to expand choice further. Some welcome moves have been made in that regard, but we need to do more to take cognisance of what has been lost.

Ms Áine Lynch

The Deputy raised the issue of children with special educational needs. It is hard to group children because there are always children with needs that do not fit neatly into groups, that are hidden and that we do not know about. If we have to group children, however, we should note that there are two groups that suffered most during the lockdown and that continue to suffer the most, that is, children with special educational needs and children from areas of considerable disadvantage, including educational disadvantage. The latter probably have less of a voice in the system at present. We are very concerned about that. The group has fewer advocacy groups. We raise this constantly. The children in question fell massively behind at the beginning and they are still struggling. Their homes do not always have the resources to support them with their education.

There are children with special educational needs who are not integrating fully with other children in school. Some schools are doing really well in this regard, but others find it more difficult. There are directives from the Department to the effect that schools should operate in a way that is as near to normal as possible. Schools need support in doing that.

Ms Mai Fanning

I am going to refer again to our ongoing survey. When we have the results, we will circulate them. The survey concerns remote learning. Families with a high-risk member within their household have taken really hard decisions. They have made the very difficult decision not to send their children back to school. This is where we find there is a problem. Some 23% said they had no supports at all in place, and a further 30% said the supports were bad or very poor. This is having an impact on a whole cohort of students who would normally have been in school, effective and studying for exams. Within that group, there are educational disadvantage and special educational needs. The problem is exactly the same in each case; it is the lack of support for those who are not actually within the school. Blended learning and remote learning have not been cemented down into a format accessible to everyone. One of our main issues at the very beginning, about which we have always spoken, is equity. It does not matter whether 23% or 1% get no support in that, in both cases, there are children who are getting no support. The quantity does not matter; what matters is the fact that it happens at all. It should be addressed.

Mr. Reuban Murray

On expanded choice in examinations, we are starting to realise more choice needs to be offered. We hope to investigate that further. I am not in a position to comment yet on whether calculated grades should be used. We want to consult students before taking a position.

On special needs, we want to examine the matter further. Regarding high-risk families, it might be interesting to know that, in our ranked scenarios, students who are high risk or who have a high-risk family member score highest in terms of the need to provide online education. We have been advocating for this for a long time. It is coming from other stakeholders. It is important, and it is an essential step for the future.

Cuirim fáilte roimh na ndaoine. I thank Ms Lynch, Ms Fanning and Mr. Murray for being here with us today. We heard from the teachers' unions at a previous session. It is important that the delegates are present, not least because the public health statistics are a testament to very high compliance in a really important sector of society. That does not happen by accident. Obviously, there is a lot of governance work taking place. If it were not for teachers, parents, students and the sacrifices everybody is making, we would be in a very difficult position. I thank the delegates for being here and for what they represent today, which is a great sacrifice being made at a very difficult time in our country.

Regarding the types of sacrifices being made, reference was made to students not being able to see each other clearly because of face masks. We often fail to remember the importance of non-verbal communication and how much of our communication with one another is non-verbal. I am struck by the difficulty caused by the lack of socialisation in schools, whereby students are in pods and not allowed to congregate at a certain time. Congregation is a natural part of our learning, development and humanity. Students will do it regardless, it might be said, under the supervision of adults or otherwise. Have any of the delegates thoughts on what can be done to improve students' ability to socialise while at school? I would certainly be interested in hearing about this.

In recent days, people have been talking about the challenges people face. I refer to the ordinary human things, such as the ability to hug granny and so on. These are the things we take for granted that we are not able to enjoy in life.

I presume the delegates will all agree that there is merit in the proposal that the schools close a week before Christmas so students will not have to be in school on the Monday and Tuesday of Christmas week. Christmas Day falls on a Friday. Closing a week before Christmas is not a panacea for everything but the proposal has merit. I would be interested in hearing what the delegates think about it.

With the rise in working from home due to Covid, much has been said in other circles, including business circles, about the importance of an appropriate workstation. I cannot imagine how it can be possible for people to function in a classroom that is cold and where windows must be open for ventilation. There are certain basic requirements, such as heat and enough food in one's belly, that are really conducive to the normal learning experience. Is there better advice that we can give, or more that can be done, in this regard? Only today, we received a letter from a provider of ventilation systems so people are obviously seeing the business opportunity in this area. Fair play to them. I am interested in hearing what the delegates have to say about that.

I echo the concern over special education and home learning, particularly where a family member, rather than the student, has challenges or health issues that need to be facilitated.

Mr. Murray is saying that continuous assessment is one thing and that over-assessment is another. I disagree with Deputy Jim O'Callaghan in that we saw this year that the leaving certificate was going ahead until it was not. We must be realistic, and we are not being fair if we do not say that bad stuff could happen in the new year and that we might be facing similar circumstances. Given that there is at least a possibility that we will not be able to have the normal leaving certificate examinations, is there not an argument for constant assessment? I do not believe Mr. Murray would disagree with that but he is saying the assessment should be standardised in some way. Am I correct?

Mr. Reuban Murray

In answer to the Senator's last question, what we are seeing are class tests that are assigned constantly. This is different from continuous assessment, which is like a leaving certificate examination but stretched out. What we are seeing is individual teachers assigning their own examinations. It is different in that it is subjective.

On the cold and the open windows in schools, there is more we can do. It has been indicated that a circular is to be issued specifying that all windows do not need to be open at all times. Added to that, staff and students need to be allowed to wear an extra layer or coat. This should be indicated in a circular to schools. It is an issue in schools normally. Some 85% of students indicated in response to our survey that windows are open and that it remains very cold.

Socialisation is mentioned in our submission. It is a very hard time for students overall. The lack of any social activity is hard. If we could provide for some kind of space in the school, it would prevent social activity from happening outside. A possibility is to have staggered lunchtimes whereby students could get out of the classroom instead of being confined to it, as is happening in some schools. We should consider the model used at third level to allow for social activity, whereby students could meet after school over Zoom to talk to each other and get to know each other a little more.

Ms Áine Lynch

I will take socialisation first. I think more can be done, such as aligning the policies within schools so that if children are in pods in the classroom, they would be able to mix.

In terms of a longer Christmas holiday, we are not in favour of that. We feel that children have missed out a lot in school this year and they should come back to as normal a school experience as possible. It is important that they get the benefit of school. School is more than just the classroom and the curriculum; it is everything else that goes with school at Christmas time, as well. That is important.

On cold classrooms, there is guidance on opening the windows when children are on breaks and closing them when the children come back in, having increased heating in the classroom. There are also, as Senator Mullen said, devices that can monitor the quality of the air in the classroom, so there is more that can be done there.

Ms Mai Fanning

We are not in favour of extended Christmas holidays either, because our students have lost enough classroom time. Even though the classroom time immediately before Christmas may not be curriculum-based, it will be school community-based. We feel that they need to spend as much time in the classroom as possible. They will be heading into mock exams immediately after Christmas and every moment and interaction they have face to face with their teachers is important for the whole school.

I thank the witnesses for their attendance and their statements, which were interesting. I thank them also for keeping our schools open. The effort to keep schools open is shared among boards of management, school principals, teachers, special needs assistants, school secretaries, school caretakers, school wardens, and, obviously, the parent body and student body. Without their co-operation and their rowing in, it would not work.

I have a few questions. I will ask Mr. Murray to start. The issue of over-assessment has been raised by a colleague of mine, Senator Wall. A number of sixth year students have said that in the absence of a clear statement from Government, teachers are in a position where they need back-up material to assess their students on, in the event of an assessed grade for 2021, which, to be honest, none of us wants to see. I was one of those who believed we should have gone ahead with the written exam in 2020, rather than going down the assessed grade route. What type of language would Mr. Murray like to hear from the Department? What type of statement would he like to hear from the Minister and the Department in relation to the certainty he or teachers need to ensure this over-assessment can stop?

My second question, and I ask this of the National Parents Council Post-Primary as well, is on what type of acknowledgement the leaving certificate class of 2021 should get, considering there was a break in March, April and May of 2020. What would the witnesses like to see from the Department in acknowledging that break in tuition when assessing the leaving certificate class of 2021? Those questions are for Mr. Murray and Ms Fanning.

Mr. Reuban Murray

On over-assessment, we need definitive language. We need a statement that clearly says not to over-assess students. It will result in burnout, it is not sustainable and the practice needs to cease or, if not, to be scaled right back. Paired with that, we need to know what will happen with the leaving certificate. This is born out of a place where students are worried. If I am a close contact during the exams or if, during my orals, someone has Covid-19, what will happen? That is why this is happening. It comes from a place of wanting to protect students and teachers and to make sure they can provide a calculated grade. We need to make it definitive but also make sure the answers to the questions are there.

Mr. Murray is looking for clear guidance from the Department, such as a circular or something to stating it is aware that over-assessment could be taking place for sixth year students and clear guidelines. I appreciate the Department will be reluctant to categorically state there will be a written exam. We understand that is a difficult thing to say in any given year but that is the type of reassurance Mr. Murray would like.

Mr. Reuban Murray

Even a circular stating: "Please stop over-assessment". It is causing some people to crash and burn.

What acknowledgement does Mr. Murray believe the Department should give for those lost months?

Mr. Reuban Murray

We also need to look at the students who have lost 14 days self-isolating. That is a significant chunk of senior cycle. We need to provide extra choice in the exams. We need to evaluate what extra choice can be made now on top of what was already provided. That is the conclusion we start to find ourselves being drawn to.

Ms Mai Fanning

As far as the 2021 exams are concerned, I am part of the advisory group looking at that contingency plan at the moment. These are the various issues that we are looking at. It is my hope we will be able to have a definitive statement brought forward. We also need to be pragmatic and if there is a situation where we have to have calculated grades, there needs to be a statement as to where those grades will be taken from and how they will be created. We also have to look at the leaving certificate, at the questions and how they are put forward, and take into account the time that has been lost. That is important because, as Mr. Murray alluded to, students are in a nowhere land of continuous assessment and not knowing where they are going and there is no standardisation in that. That causes many problems and issues.

I will spend my remaining time asking Ms Lynch about the lessons that can be learned from this. Initially when the crisis hit, there was much speculation around whether parents would have to start fundraising for personal protective equipment, PPE, where schools would get resources for what they would need to have and on the question of the underfunding of education.

Ms Lynch has spoken eloquently in the past about how the relationship that parents have with schools is too often a financial one. It restricts the capacity of parents to go to the school gate or to a parent-teacher meeting if they are constantly being asked about money. Parents associations are often fundraising committees, or they feel like they are. Does Ms Lynch feel we can come out of this crisis with a better relationship between parents and schools that is not based on fundraising and finance?

Ms Áine Lynch


She thinks we should, though.

Ms Áine Lynch

I think we should but I am not that optimistic. We are getting many queries to our helpline and our organisation about whether it is okay to fundraise for certain equipment that is needed and how to fundraise in a Covid situation, so they are still clearly seeing themselves or being given-----

Is the National Parents Council Primary being asked by parents about fundraising for PPE?

Ms Áine Lynch

PPE and high-efficiency particulate air, HEPA, filters and everything else. We are being asked if it is okay for them to do that. That might be a misunderstanding on their part but they are asking us if that is possible to do and they are asking for imaginative ways they can fundraise while there are lockdowns and things like that. Our answer is always the same that that is not their job in the school. They can support the school with any fundraising efforts but that is not their job in the school. Their job is to support children's learning and that job is more important now than it has ever been. That relationship between the school, the parent and the child regarding learning is more important than it has ever been. We are finding that now, when that relationship is more important, parent-teacher meetings are being cancelled and communication is reduced in many circumstances we are hearing about. That is incredibly concerning.

Is the Deputy finished?

I assume so because my time is up.

Does Ms Fanning want to come in on anything the Deputy asked?

She might have a comment on the financial relationship as well.

Ms Mai Fanning

It is not something that has been brought to us but one of the things that has been brought to us is the worry in the schools that they could run out of money for heating if all of the windows are open all the time. Many schools are predicting that, after Christmas and in the spring, they will have difficulties meeting running costs because of what they are doing at the moment. We need to think about that.

I thank the witnesses for their statements. It is great to see Mr. Murray here. Safety is paramount to all that is being done in schools. I want to talk to Ms Fanning about her opening statement and, in particular, what is deemed a close contact.

If I were to sit 1 m apart from our guests at a meeting all day, I would be considered a close contact. What I find confusing as a parent and a public representative is why, when that is taken into a school setting, I am not then deemed a close contact. I am also concerned because I have heard from teachers and parents that while a GP may deem the person who has been in the room to be a close contact, public health officials and the HSE say the person is not. Do our guests know which is the case?

Ms Mai Fanning

No, I do not, and I do not know how to answer the question. I have come up against exactly the same problem as the Deputy. This is why it needs to be defined. We do not know what "close contact" means. This is why the communication coming from schools to parents is so blurred, and parents become very disquieted about the information coming from the school. As a result of this lack of clarity, a lack of trust is also creeping in. That is unfortunate because we have to work together as a group and trust our teachers and schools to give us the information we want. They are trying their best and it is not their fault if they do not know what that definition is.

Do Ms Fanning or Ms Lynch feel that Covid, or the way that communications in respect of Covid have been handled, has damaged the relationship between students and parents? Do we need to do something about the vacuum of information?

Ms Áine Lynch

Our survey suggests not. Parents in the main seem to be very happy with what they are experiencing with regard to schools. Small numbers of parents have said their children had to go back to school without any information from the school, but the vast majority of parents have told us they are very happy with the safety in the school and the information they have got and that their children are happy and feel safe going into the school.

The relationship between parents and schools is very precious. For the record, I have not spoken to any teacher who wants additional days off at Christmastime. Such a suggestion is not helpful in making divisions between parents and students. Nevertheless, we need clarity, and as a committee and as public representatives we will seek that. We also need clarity about a child who goes home and then feels unwell. We cannot get a clear answer, although our guests may know. Is such a child deemed to be a school-infected case or a household or community-infected case? It is important that we establish that. It feeds into the openness and transparency that we need in order to have positive relationships. Do our guests know the answer?

Ms Mai Fanning

We do not know. One of the main issues is the definitions of "close contact" or "community based". How can transmission be defined as community based if the child has come home with the virus from school? Was it brought from the community into the school? They are all unknowns but they need to be clarified. This concerns everything, from the health side to exams. We need answers for everything.

Mr. Reuban Murray

I have some information that may help the Deputy. The reason for the confusion about close contacts in schools compared with other settings, in my understanding from asking the Department, is that public health officials carry out a detailed risk assessment. They evaluate the position of the class and school in depth. It is not what would be done in, say, a rugby club, where everyone would be blanketed as close contacts and have to self-isolate. It is done to a much higher standard. I have been assured that the officials cast the net more widely. Our concern is that where someone is sitting close to someone else, there is a worry that confidence may be lost if infection is detected two weeks later.

While I am conscious of time, I am confused about the clinical advice that a child received from a GP as opposed to that from the HSE. Where there is conflicting advice in that regard, it would be helpful to have transparency.

My concern about the exams is that they will be examinations not of the ability of the student but of the duration of self-isolation or the level of illness that the student has suffered. I hear what our guests said about over-assessing. We put that to the Minister for Education, who said there will be greater choice in the exams, but I take our guests' point that this needs to be communicated directly to schools. Much more needs to be done in respect of communication.

We have asked the Minister that during the Christmas period, the Department would install whatever ventilation and heating are needed within schools in order that there is an atmosphere that is conducive to learning rather than the other way around.

I appreciate there is much more in our guests' statements than we have had the opportunity to discuss in our allocated time. As a committee member, I am really glad for them to appear before us. We will continue working with them to find solutions to these issues as they arise, notwithstanding the fact that parents, children, teachers and everyone else are happy to be in the school setting. Nevertheless, we should not be blinded by that and not address the issues that we can. Many of these issues can be addressed.

I have a number of questions for our guests. I am not sure if I heard Ms Lynch correctly. Did she state that parents have been asked to raise funds for PPE?

Ms Áine Lynch

We have been asked by parents whether they can raise funds for different equipment for the school, such as for ventilation and heating.

Parents have never been asked by students or boards of management to raise funds for PPE.

Ms Áine Lynch

We have not had any reports that they have been asked to raise funds.

On the issue of calculated grades when there was no leaving certificate in summer 2020, what is the ISSU's view on ongoing assessment, perhaps to replace the leaving certificate? This debate has been ongoing for quite a number of years. There was no leaving certificate in summer 2020. The Minister, the Department, teachers, the committee and everybody else are determined to have a leaving certificate in 2021. I put this question to some school and union representatives and the Minister to hear the views of the Department and the associations on introducing ongoing assessment to replace the leaving certificate. From a student point of view, what are Mr. Murray's views on it and what has he heard back?

Mr. Reuban Murray

For several years, the ISSU has been conducting a review into the senior cycle process, which would be a great topic for the committee to examine. There is a need to transition to a leaving certificate that caters to other kinds of learners, which it does not fully do at present. Some of these ways relate to assessment and we should examine them to determine and evaluate how we can incorporate them. That is the position we have. We are actively working on it and I encourage the committee to work with us on it too.

As Chair of the committee, I propose we could examine that work in the future, when we might seek the ISSU's input. It is something that should be seriously examined. We should hear everybody's views on it, not least those of students.

The ISSU is at the coalface of the mental health issue. Has Mr. Murray found that the mental health of students deteriorated in any way when they were away from school, unable to socialise and so on? Were there more cases of mental health issues among students in recent months? Does he have any specific suggestions on how to improve the well-being of students and also the well-being programme?

Mr. Reuban Murray

I do. A total of 30% of our respondents cited inadequate mental health supports, but for sixth years, that increased to 44.62%. There are several sides to this, one of which is the increase in guidance counsellor services that was announced as part of the stimulus package for education. I encourage the committee to engage with the Institute of Guidance Counsellors, IGC, on this because the guidance that has been issued needs to be clearer about the fact that those hours are meant for guidance counsellors, not just in the area of guidance, and the support they can then give to their students.

In addition, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, over-assessment is one thing that can be tackled very quickly to reduce the mental health impacts on students, which is important. Also, there is a need to re-evaluate the well-being plan that has gone to schools. One of the key resources was the slow down to catch up initiative, which gives students a chance to breathe and to get back into the swing rather than rushing. We have seen nothing to suggest that this has been implemented. Given the numbers coming back and the mental health supports we are hearing about from students, that is worrying.

I do not believe there is one size that fits all. What is needed is for stakeholders and the Department to engage and examine this in an in-depth space, where we can evaluate different ideas and the practicalities. One thing that works for students might not work for principals or teachers. That is an important space that must be provided for.

On the well-being of parents, it has been a challenging number of months for parents, specifically parents of students sitting examinations, be it the leaving or junior certificate. Did the National Parents Council Post-Primary receive much feedback from parents who were concerned about their sons or daughters and the general mental health of students? Was it happy with the assistance from the Department, school boards of management or principals?

Ms Mai Fanning

One of the glaring issues we identified is that parents do not know where to go. They do not know where they can get help. They only understand the leaving certificate in the traditional format which we all grew up with and went through ourselves. The more we interact with parents, the more they see that the concept of a terminal examination at the end of one's school life puts ridiculous and unnecessary pressure on their children. Many parents see the unfairness of it when they think that their child is doing very well all through school, but when the child has to go in and sit the two-hour examination, the child's world and concentration fall apart and he or she does not do well. The involvement of the ISSU on issues like this is becoming more important. The students are the future and they are the people who are going through this. Their voice, what they want and see as being learning and what they understand education to be are important. We must learn how to implement that, embrace it and go forward with it.

Mr. Murray spoke about the extra hours that were supposed to be given to the guidance counsellors in the schools. They have not always been given to the guidance counsellors in all schools. They have been given to counsellors, who could be anyone from physical education, PE, teachers to the chaplain or someone else in the school. They would not necessarily have gone to the guidance counsellors. We were trying to get the hours for the guidance counsellors back up to the level they were at in 2012. They are less than that. Considering the year we are in and the world we live in at present, that should be addressed and those hours should go back to guidance counsellors because this is where students need support. They need to know where they are going. It is not just those in the examination years, it is also students who have to make subject choices. They need proper guidance to know where they are going in life and what options and choices are available to them. They will only get that if they get the necessary hours with the guidance counsellors.

On continuous assessment - this is similar to a question I asked Mr. Murray - and given there was no leaving certificate in 2020, does Ms Fanning hear much from parents about ongoing assessment and perhaps something in that vein replacing the leaving certificate? I am sure her association and parents have spoken about this. Perhaps she would briefly comment on it.

Ms Mai Fanning

They have, but the problem is that they do not understand the ongoing assessment. They do not even understand how the calculated grades were arrived at. It has to be clearer.

Did they find that it was a solution from the Department that was not fully explained to them?

Ms Mai Fanning

It was not fully explained to them by the schools, perhaps, in certain cases. Some of the schools did explain, but it was not clear enough that parents could understand. A few people referred back to us because they were shocked at the results their children got and they could not understand it. I was one of them. I could not understand or make head nor tail of the result my daughter got in her leaving certificate. This is about clarity and communication. We are back to the same point all the time. This must be communicated in a clear manner.

Regarding continuous assessments in schools, as Mr. Murray said, they are set by the teacher in the classroom. There is no standardisation in that regard. It would be disingenuous to think that those figures would be part of a calculated grade. We have to find a way that is clear and concise and that people will understand. It will cause less disquiet and anxiety into the future.

There was a note in Ms Lynch's statement or in one of the briefing notes about parents keeping their children home from school and the advice they are being given if children have a cough, sneeze or sore throat. Is the National Parents Council Primary getting much feedback from school boards of management or principals that parents are not adhering to the advice and that they are sending children to school who might have Covid symptoms, but it might not be Covid?

Ms Áine Lynch

No, that is not being raised with us as an issue by schools or parents. Can I comment on the mental health issue at primary level?

Yes. I was going to ask about that as well.

Ms Áine Lynch

It is a very important issue at primary level. We have heard from many parents about the increased anxiety and difficulty for children, particularly children who may have had existing issues with anxiety or mental health concerns before Covid-19. We carried out a series of webinars in October to try to address this. There were four webinars and over 7,500 parents attended them, which shows the level of anxiety that exists. It also indicates a reflection on mental health supports for children under 12 years old. I know that is not the remit of this committee, but inability to access supports is a particular issue for children under 12 years, as well as mental health supports in the system for children under 12 years old. Those children are in our primary schools and it is difficult for the schools to support children who have significant mental health issues at a young age and their parents when the mental health supports are not in the community to support them. That is having a knock-on effect and it is being exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

I know I am taking a liberty here, but I have a question for Mr. Murray. In his statement he referred to the need for a national online learning plan. Will he specify the key measures that must be part of the plan? The other witnesses have ten seconds each if they wish to comment on that as well. It is an important issue, particularly over the last number of months. I have three children in primary school. Suddenly I turned politician-teacher, although it was mainly my wife who turned into a nurse-teacher. It is very difficult. It was totally stressful for some parents who are working from home. I understand the stress. They felt that they had to give the same academic learning to their children. This applied more to primary school than secondary school, because secondary school students know how to learn themselves. They know how to use Google Classroom and the like. It was difficult for primary school children. I am interested in getting a brief comment from the three witnesses on that.

Mr. Reuban Murray

This is an important point, but I will be brief. What is key is what constitutes online learning, what is the bare minimum level of education somebody needs to receive. Second is the training programme, because we need training for students as well as teachers. Sometimes people assume students know all about Google Classroom whereas it is not so much the case in rural schools in some cases. Also, we must have a plan on how we can transition to it quickly and it must be clear how that works. Those are the key areas, as well as the possibility of a centralised online learning system and how we could deliver from the one point to all. It is a personnel issue, not just a financial one.

Ms Áine Lynch

The issue to which the Chairman and Mr. Murray have alluded is significant at primary level because children are not independent learners. The pressure on parents came up constantly with us. There was also an equity issue because not all parents are in a position to provide the same level of support. We feel that specific resources need to be developed and it is in our submission that it happens at primary level. We cannot just organise Zoom classes. Children work well together and we know this through the way they use technology. They work well together creatively online but the resources are not supporting that kind of learning when schools are closed. We need to develop specific resources.

Ms Mai Fanning

The need to develop interaction within the classroom was one of the main things that we found during the period of school closures. Another related to the lack of broadband. Students could not get continuous access to broadband to spend their time in class, which was a major problem. We need to look at that and how it would have to be addressed. We would need to put in place remote learning hubs or something like that for students who would not be able to attend schools. A national online learning plan certainly needs to be looked at and addressed.

I will ask to Senator O'Loughlin to take over as Chairperson. Before I leave, I thank the witnesses for coming in. Mr. Murray is a credit to his educators and, more important, the school he is attending at the moment. Let me to say to the principal of the school, if she is watching, that Mr. Murray is a credit to all the students and, more important, to his school. I say that genuinely. He has been brilliant. I have no doubt that he might be sitting in this chair someday but as long he does not take my seat, I do not mind.

Senator O'Loughlin assumed the Chair.

I echo those sentiments. I apologise for being late but I was over in the Convention Centre Dublin, speaking on a different topic. I have no doubt that a number of my questions have already been asked so I apologise in advance. I was a school teacher for 15 years and keep in constant contact with boards of management and principals with whom I worked. I have a fair gauge of what are the issues. I know that our guests have already spoken about the leaving certificate because I think I heard it when I was coming down the stairs. There are going to be particular concerns and the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, has been asked on a number of occasions to clarify what she envisages will happen next year. I welcomed her statement that she would like the normal, traditional leaving certificate to proceed as best as can happen, so long as it can be done safely. What has been Mr. Murray's experience, and that of students generally, with the calculated grades leaving certificate? How would the union like to see the exams proceed next year?

Mr. Reuban Murray

We are part of the advisory group on the contingency plans for the leaving certificate which held its first meeting yesterday. We need to make sure that the exams are fair, equal and safe. When I say "safe", I mean mentally as well as physically. We need to look at how we can credit students in that way and that is key here.

Calculated grades were a necessary contingency when it was no longer equal or safe for exams to be held. It was necessary to introduce calculated grades. With the forthcoming exams, we need to look at how we can cater to students more. We are hearing from the members of the union I represent and from the Teachers' Union of Ireland, TUI, that there needs to be more choice on the exams. We have students who have missed 14 days through self-isolation and three months during lockdown. Oral and practical exams need to be added in here. Two weeks is a massive amount of time to someone who has a practical exam. Those final four or five weeks is when a student gets his or her project done.

This meeting has been about the position if schools are opened in a safe and sustainable way. A conversation with all stakeholders around the actual leaving certificate examinations next year would be beneficial for this committee.

I raised the issue about greater flexibility around oral and practical exams with the Minister and her officials when they were before the committee a couple of weeks ago. Irish orals do not stringently need to happen in the week typically designated in a specific school. On that occasion, the Minister and her officials committed to offering greater flexibility than has been the case in typical years.

I have a question for the parents' representatives. There are anecdotes of people congregating at school gates at drop-off and collection time. What is our guests' experience of that? Is it just anecdotal or is it clearly happening? What can we do to prevent it or discourage people from doing it?

Ms Áine Lynch

I am happy to reply first. This issue came up in our survey and it very much seems as if it is happening. Some parents are not happy with the fact that it is happening and feel at risk when dropping their children off or picking them up because other groups of parents are not adhering to social distancing or wearing masks. It is difficult because it is outside the school but if it is affecting the entrance and exit of the school, and parents picking their children up safely, we would consider the school community a part of the solution. Like everything, better solutions are found when the school community is working together on an issue. If a school has a parents' association committee, it must be involved in finding solutions to that problem with the principal and the board of management. We must have those conversations because saying that it is outside the school gates and therefore difficult to deal with is not good enough for parents who drop off their children every day. There is obviously a significant issue at primary level.

In our guests' experience, are many schools providing staggered collection and drop-off times?

Ms Áine Lynch

Many schools are doing that and some are using different entrances and exits to make sure that there is not only one grouping of parents. It is probably a reflection of what is happening in society and we cannot take schools out of the context of the communities in which they are located. With all the level 5 restrictions, schools provide an opportunity for people to meet when they are not meeting normally. Human beings being the social creatures they are, those parents take the opportunity to socialise. If the schools could have those conversations with the parents' associations or groups of parents in the school, we could find creative solutions to make sure that socialisation is managed in a safer way and that people understand the level of risk for some parents in that situation.

Ms Mai Fanning

The main issues and problems at second level do not necessarily arise at the school gate but at wherever the school buses are picking up. The school buses pick up at certain centralised urban areas and might take children from two, three, four or five schools. The issues that have been brought to my attention have arisen when students from different schools are waiting for the bus to come. They all congregate and many do not wear masks. They put masks on when they get onto the bus but have already been standing in close contact groups. School communities have to interact and communicate with the parents and students and give advice. The question is how to deal with that in the community in general.

My final question is to all three representatives. Much of this is anecdotal and I have no doubt that 99% of people are compliant but, on occasions, I hear stories of parents sending children to schools when they might be displaying some symptoms. Something similar has happened in meat factories over the past eight or nine months, particularly in cases of people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who need to be present at work in order to get paid. Have there been instances where people have been sending children to school when they have been displaying symptoms and taking that kind of a risk? Have our guests had much experience of that?

The Deputy has gone over time so I will give each of our guests 30 seconds to respond.

Ms Mai Fanning

I will quickly jump in there.

I have not had experience of it but I have experience of parents phoning their family doctor to get guidance as to whether their child should go into school that day because the child had some kind of a cold or sniffle.

That is fair enough too.

Ms Áine Lynch

It is not an issue that has been raised with us. To be honest, if it was a significant issue, I am sure there would be a number of bodies trying to contact us to get messages out to parents. It may be a localised issue but it has not been a significant one for us.

Mr. Reuban Murray

We have not had reports on students with symptoms going into school. We have a concern around the high pressure exam years especially. If a student is instructed to self-isolate for 14 days and does not receive any support tuition, that is worrying and scary. If we fail to provide such tuition, it could result in students who may have a little worry saying they are fine because they do not want to miss out on those 14 days. Two weeks off school is a big hit in all of our curriculum, especially with the speed at which teachers move through it. This issue has not been raised with us specifically, but we have a concern in that area.

I welcome the witnesses. It is great for Mr. Reuban Murray that he is the first teenager at this Oireachtas committee. It is a wonderful honour. Ms Lynch and Ms Fanning are also very welcome.

As mentioned earlier, the reason for this discussion is that it will feed into the report we will deliver on the key impacts of Covid-19 on the primary and secondary education sector. The witnesses' input and submissions are crucial for that.

Following on from the points that have been made, I attended the first meeting of the Joint Oireachtas Sub-Committee on Mental Health this morning. It discussed the impact of Covid-19 on mental health, which will be one of the areas on which the sub-committee will focus. That sub-committee heard that Jigsaw, which serves the 15 to 25 year-old age group, has had a 50% increase in engagements and that the child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, has had increased engagement. I welcome the webinar that was done for primary schools also, which may not have been captured.

Some of my questions were already raised. I have a query on career guidance. What options are being offered to students outside of the traditional option of going to university, for example, further and higher education? What are the witnesses' opinions on that? I put this question first to Mr. Murray.

On anticipatory regret, how will we work to incentivise students? As noted earlier, there were issues with lack of mask wearing by students in unsupervised areas, inside and outside schools. Using anticipatory regret, how can we incentivise people? Nobody wants to be responsible for passing on Covid. How do we work to do that?

On the assessment in examination years, we would all wish to have more clarity on what will happen. We would all like to see what will be position in some months' time. In thinking of what happened last year and this year, what might a new version of the leaving certificate look like, for example, with respect to continuous assessment? What ideas and opportunities are available for us to explore that? I put this to the parents' representatives and to Mr. Murray.

Reference was made to adherence to regulations on school transport. The Government, through the Department of Education, is investing close to €9 billion in education this year, including funding for 1,065 extra teachers. More teachers will come on stream in secondary schools but there is a challenge with access to classrooms. Where will we put the students? Are there extra classrooms in secondary schools? This is also a major challenge at primary school level. Additional funding has been provided for school bus drivers. Have the witnesses seen any difference in school bus transport?

Mr. Reuban Murray

On continuous assessment in the leaving certificate, it is the view of the ISSU, and that of the members at our annual assembly, that the leaving certificate is in need of reform. It needs to make a transition to a more modern assessment. Ireland is leading in several areas, so let us make it a leader also on final exams.

I cannot give an in-depth answer on higher education but it needs to be looked at. There can sometimes be a snobbery towards other forms of education and this needs to be tackled head on.

On the adherence to regulations by students, part of this issue is in areas where the regulations are going overboard. This needs to be mitigated, for example, where students are not allowed to go outside or to leave their classroom and have to carry so many books. This creates a negative attitude towards all of the regulations. These issues can be solved in different ways that have the same impact. What really came through in our survey was the differences in culture. There are two ways in which schools enforce guidelines. The first is by being very strict and having consequences, while the second is where there is a community of culture where all the peers seek to keep each other safe and the approach is based more in everyone being in this together. This became very clear in our survey.

I thank Mr. Murray, and well done today.

Ms Áine Lynch

On the continuous assessment and a new version of the leaving certificate, last year, which seems an awfully long time ago now, we did a consultation with parents and children in fifth and sixth classes about changes they felt should be made to the leaving certificate, on the basis that any changes made in the next couple of years will impact their children. The overwhelming response from the children and parents was that they did not want the final exam when they reached that point. There is a lot more rich data in that survey but it was an overwhelming decision by parents and children that the leaving certificate needed to change. I can give the committee more information on that if members want it.

On school transport, not as many children at primary level take the school bus. In our survey, most parents were happy with the way the system was operating. There was, however, a significant minority - I say "significant" because the concerns raised were significant - who said no rules were applying on the bus, children could sit anywhere and could move places each day, and that children from different schools were mixing on the bus. There were concerns about all of those issues. As I said, these views were expressed by a minority of respondents, but there were significant concerns. I am not sure whether funding addresses those issues but perhaps more training would help.

Mr. Murray spoke of balancing risk, which is very important. Recently, there have been some pilot inspections from the schools inspectorate around children adhering to the guidance. The inspections have, in the main, been viewed very positively by the schools that have engaged in the pilot. It would be very good to get some of the experiences from that to support other schools in how they can adapt some of the measures they are taking.

Ms Mai Fanning

On school transport, more than 20% of the parents in our survey said they had changed to an alternative form of transport for this time because of their concerns around travel on the school bus or on public transport. I agree that addressing the congregation of schoolchildren at bus stops has to be a community effort involving community care. We are working together and we all have to play our role and accept responsibility.

Senator O'Reilly will now join us from her office.

As I am not in the Oireachtas, I do not have privilege. I thank the committee and the secretariat for facilitating me in joining the meeting this morning.

I thank the three witnesses for joining us. I acknowledge the work their organisations have done over the past year. The effort by school staff and the organisations represented here in tackling this problem has been unprecedented.

It is sometimes missed in these conversations but it seems clear from the contributions that parents and students are overwhelmingly happy with how things are proceeding and with being back to school.

Is that correct? I would like to direct that question to Ms Lynch first. I will proceed on the basis that it is and if I am wrong, I ask Ms Lynch to let me know. There are some details that are not moving smoothly. We may be able to facilitate the witnesses in bringing these problems to the attention of the Minister.

A couple of witnesses mentioned people with vulnerable family members. Ms Fanning made particular reference to this. The witnesses' survey states that 23% of students who are at home because of a vulnerable family member feel they are not getting support. To clarify, are these students registered for home schooling or do they continue to be registered at the school without actually attending?

Ms Mai Fanning

They are registered in schools but they are not attending. They are not necessarily home-schooled. Schools will try to facilitate remote learning for these students to the best of their ability but it may not always be possible. It depends on the facilities and supports individual schools can provide rather than a coherent nationwide approach to online learning.

I thank Ms Fanning. That was the point I intended to raise. Does the National Parents Council Post-Primary have statistics showing how many people are in that situation, not because of their own vulnerability but because of that of a family member?

Ms Mai Fanning

No. Unfortunately I do not have those statistics.

Does Ms Fanning believe this is happening throughout the country?

Ms Mai Fanning

Our organisation feels that the degree of prevalence does not actually matter. The important point is the fact that it is happening at all. Throughout the pandemic, our aim has been to leave no child behind. We need to ensure equity for all children. It does not make any difference whether this affects 100 children, 50 children or one child. Those children need to be looked after.

I agree. I have raised this with the Minister on a couple of occasions, particularly referring to situations where someone is on dialysis and is particularly vulnerable. Does Ms Fanning agree that if a student has a vulnerable family member at home and is not able to attend school, he or she should be supported?

Ms Mai Fanning

Yes, absolutely.

I believe Ms Fanning is saying that students should not go to school if their families do not feel comfortable with it, but they should be supported in remote learning. Is that fair to say?

Ms Mai Fanning

That is a fair statement. In general parents are very happy that schools are open. They are very happy for their children to be integrating again. However, there are singular situations where parents have had to make the very difficult decision to keep their children at home. According to the parents who have contacted me, this decision is not taken easily. It is difficult to remove a child from his or her group of friends and the school community. Remote and interactive learning is so important because such students are not able to interact with their peers.

I thank Ms Fanning. This needs to be addressed. All of our witnesses are welcome but the presence of a teenager at this hearing is an historic moment. It is stunning that a committee that discusses education has not taken this step before, but it is great that we are starting now. I hope to see more representation of young people in this committee.

I am not entirely clear on the Irish Second-Level Students Union's figures. Mr. Murray noted that 49% of sixth year students say they are receiving additional exams. How many schools are operating this additional assessment, which Mr. Murray views as excessive?

Mr. Reuban Murray

I can give the Senator the breakdown. We asked students in sixth year to indicate which of a series of situations was relevant to them. One answer referred to students facing additional examinations in the event that calculated grades must be used again. To ensure we were not asking a leading question we also referred to the contrary situation, with students facing a similar amount of examinations to previous years. Some 58.06% of sixth years said they had received additional examinations in the event of calculated grades. Among students in examination years, that is, sixth years and third years, the figure was 49.97%. The overall figure for students of all years was 30.05%. I do not have the statistics on how many schools that covers. The survey encompassed 9,538 people overall. There was a validation process. I can get those data to the Senator after this meeting.

That would be really helpful. As public representatives, we like to know the geographic breakdown of these issues to see if there is a particular incidence in one area or another. I thank Mr. Murray for those figures.

Without being prompted, a couple of witnesses also raised the question of whether there should be more days off over the Christmas period. They have said that they are absolutely not in agreement with that. What has prompted this? Have the witnesses' organisations been approached by the Department on this issue? It is my firm view and that of the Green Party that it is not warranted. As Mr. Murray has said, people are concerned about missing the days they spend in isolation if they feel it is not necessary. Has the Department suggested to the witnesses that this may happen?

Mr. Reuban Murray

To clarify, we did not comment on the extra two days.

That is true. It was the other two organisations.

Mr. Reuban Murray

This has not been raised by students. We believe there is merit to the argument. The argument that swayed me personally was that the idea that the extra days would allow students to isolate more before seeing family members at Christmas. We are not actively campaigning for this but we do not oppose it either. The Department has made its position on the matter very clear. It does not attend to allow for it. However we do see merit in argument for the measure.

Ms Áine Lynch

We did not bring this up voluntarily. We were asked about it by Senator Mullen.

I thank Senator O'Reilly. I would like to make a few comments. As the witnesses are aware, we have had several engagements with various arms of the world of education. It is hugely important to hear from the whole school community, of which parents and students are very valued parts. The last committee did a lot of work on the Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill 2019, which aims to ensure that parents and students have a strong and valued voice. This is already the case in many schools but the Bill would put it on a statutory footing. It is a shame that this has not yet come into being. It would have been quite helpful to ensuring a true partnership approach in the past few months. That is not to say that there has not been a true partnership in most situations. Listening to the experiences of different schools, parents and teachers, it seems that boards of management have been very proactive in some cases and not in others. The student and parent charter is a hugely important measure. The committee should put that issue on its agenda to help ensure it is put in place very soon. This is about partnership and trust between all the various groups and sectors.

I have been a member of this committee for the past four years and it was always a highlight to have both second and third level students come in and to hear their voices. Mr. Murray has excelled in that regard and I thank him for his considered approach to all the research he has done to inform us in as authentic a way as possible of the concerns, challenges and wishes of young people in secondary school.

I have one or two questions. We have spoken about issues inside and outside the school gate. Schools and boards of management can only control what happens inside the school gate but anecdotally, and I have witnessed this as I drive by schools, parents are congregating outside schools and young people are gathering when they come out of school. That is natural behaviour but it is something we have to be concerned about. It has been aired very well in terms of what Mr. Murray has said. It is about a whole community approach but it is concerning to see a defined line inside and outside. He might want to comment on that.

We have addressed the area of vulnerable parents and students. Do the witnesses have any suggestions on how that could be dealt with better, or on how we could approach the Department of Education on this important issue?

The over-assessment Mr. Murray talked about is concerning. Having received emails from secondary school students, I am aware of a level of anxiety that is very concerning. The Minister for Education has made it very clear that it will be a normal leaving certificate. It is important to continue to emphasise that but does Mr. Murray believe there is a role for some type of continuous assessment within that, taking on board lessons learned, when we are looking at reforms of the leaving certificate, even apart from Covid-19?

Regarding well-being programmes, students are lacking the socialisation they normally have, which is a big part of student life. Do the witnesses have suggestions in that regard? There is only a short time remaining in which they can respond so we might start with Mr. Murray.

Mr. Reuban Murray

I will be as brief as possible. On the point about vulnerable parents and students, our suggestion would be that when we move to higher levels such as levels 3, 4 and 5, students who are high risk or whose family members are high risk can learn from home. That was the highest preference overall from students. I will send that information to the committee.

On the question of over-assessment, there is definitely a space for continuous assessment. If we are going to do it this year, it has to be standard and regulated from the top down. That is an essential part.

On the well-being programme, the best suggestion I can make is a working group involving the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, the IGC, our welfare officer and union and the different stakeholders coming together to figure out a way to address that because it is an issue that needs some thought given to it from every stakeholder's perspective.

On gathering outside of school, the implementation of staggered leaving times is something that we have not necessarily seen across all schools. Encouragement of that might be a good way to mitigate such behaviour.

On the parent-student charter, the current policy around student voice and student councils is, dare I say, anti-student voice in that a board of management can wipe off, so to speak, any project and close down the council. It is stated in our statute book that the student council is there in the interest of the school. There is a good deal that needs to be done in terms of the actual policy. The attitude, as we have seen here, is great but the actual policy needs to reflect that also.

Ms Áine Lynch

On the point about inside-outside school, the Vice Chairman explained that very well in terms of the demarcation that certainly happens and also her reference to what the school can control. We need to change our way of looking at that. This is not a control issue; it is about the school being part of the solution within the community. The school is part of the solution but the wider community is also part of it. It is not only parents of children who are congregating. It is also people passing by who see somebody they know. There is a lot going on around a school gate and it is about being part of a solution rather than who controls what.

Regarding vulnerable parents, students and other vulnerable members of the family, we have to be very careful about that. If somebody believes there is somebody vulnerable in their family they can withdraw their child from a school. There are many risks involved in that. We saw from the lockdown that withdrawing a child from a school is not a no-risk situation. That has real risk for the child who is withdrawn. We have to be very careful that wherever a child can attend a school they should attend. It is very unfair for either parents or principals to make decisions about vulnerability of family members. That has to be a medical decision-----


Ms Áine Lynch

-----that should be in writing, and it should go to the school. There would then be clarity about who should and should not be in school. The issue is in this more generalised conversation in terms of vulnerable people at home but we have to be much more specific. The Department of Education should not be defining who is vulnerable. That should be left to medics and it should be very clear. The last situation we want to see is principals making those decisions. Where there is a lack of clarity, that is often what happens. Principals are put in very difficult positions and we do not want that.

That is a fair point.

Ms Áine Lynch

On the well-being aspect, there are very good programmes already in place. NEPS and the Department of Education have got an entire strategy around well-being so we should not feel that we have to recreate something. We need to see how the implementation of what we have is happening. That has been thrown into disarray at this time in terms of what was being planned and what is now needed but there are many good programmes and strategies already in place that we need to make sure are implemented.

I thank Ms Lynch. Ms Fanning will have the last word.

Ms Mai Fanning

I will revert to something Ms Lynch brought up, which is very important. It is being left to families to decide on medical definitions. That has happened with a couple of families that came to us. There has been a difference between what is coming from the Department of Health on the definition of "high risk" or "very high risk" and what a family's own doctor is classifying as "very high risk" within the family group. That has happened. Three families have contacted me directly about this because of that difference in definition and they did not know. We come back to the same issue here. We need clarity in communication to the family doctors, the GPs and the schools. The schools are not taking decisions in that regard. In one case I am aware of, under the HSE guidelines a child was not "very high risk" or "high risk", but under the GP guidelines the child was "high risk". The school was stuck in the middle in that case and did not know what to do. It had to decide that the child should be in school and the parents had to decide whether they would send the child to school because if they did not send the child to school they would not get any remote learning. These are practical, singular issues. They may not be of great quantity, yet this happens so it needs to be addressed. That is where clarity of communication and so on comes in.

In terms of mental health, between NEPS and Jigsaw there is a good deal of support available but that needs to be communicated to families through schools so that parents and students know where to go, especially when parents realise something is happening and need some advice from somewhere. A wellness package or something like that might be put together for schools to ensure they would be able to send that out to their parental body. That would be useful and it would possibly tie in with the parents' council within that school.

I am glad the Vice Chairman brought up the student and parent charter because that is an issue that is very close to our hearts. Our aim would be that every school in the country would have a parents' council in situ.

It would be a parents' council that would be able to be autonomous and would not be controlled by a principal or deputy principal in a school. An ongoing issue raised with us on a weekly basis is with regard to constraints and that the workings of the parents' council are dictated by management. This causes disquiet in the school community rather than the community working as a whole together. It would be much better if everyone felt they had an important role in the community and it would work much better.

I thank Ms Fanning. All three witnesses have made valid points. We will finish our meeting now. I thank the witnesses for coming before the committee today and it was enlightening to listen to their perspectives, which will inform how we respond to the Minister-----

Mr. Reuban Murray

If I may, I would like to make a brief point.

Mr. Reuban Murray

We have a key concern about the supporting the safe provision of schooling programme in that it does not recognise students as part of a school. There is no engagement by the inspectors with students whatsoever. They meet principals, teachers and the lead worker representatives but not students. Schools are treated as a workplace and not a place of learning. A school is not a factory or a restaurant and we need to acknowledge this. We have a very simple ask, which is that the inspectors engage with the student council chairperson in the same manner in which they engage with the lead worker representative.

That is a fair point.

Mr. Reuban Murray

If there is one thing I could ask the committee to act on it is to support this recommendation. Other stakeholders are doing the same. There has been much said about how we value the student voice. That is all well and good through a microphone but we need to see it in policy and in action. Right now what students are seeing is that they are not part of the school community in this programme.

Well said and we will certainly take it on board. The discussion in general has been very beneficial and certainly will inform us.

The joint committee adjourned at 1. 35 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 3 December 2020.