Adjournment Matters

Ambulance Service

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House at this late hour. The Minister will be aware of the story of the liver transplant that did not happen at the weekend. We had the media to rely on for the story over the weekend. I would be grateful if the Minister would give the House an outline of what happened. It appears now, although I cannot confirm it, that the girl's father has concluded that in future he will have his own private arrangement in place. I am sure it would be difficult for him to have trust in a future situation.

It is fair to say that a liver transplant is one of the most difficult transplants that can be done. Livers are not easily sustained. There are other organs that in transplant can more readily be organised to do that. For this girl in particular this is not just a communication breakdown. We are talking about her life, and the quality of her life is already poor.

I appreciate that an enormous amount of goodwill has gone into this area over the years. People have spoken out about the way they have been helped by all the people involved in the medical fields, the Irish Coast Guard and so on. I pay tribute to the work that has been done. However, for this girl that is not sufficient.

I would be grateful if the Minister of State would give the House an outline of what happened. Specifically, was either the Government jet or another jet made available at any point? Was it turned down and, if so, why did that happen? Why was Northern Ireland not an option in this train of events? The family happened to live close to the Border and given that this girl was on a list for a long time, somebody might have noted the geographical location of her home.

I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly. I thank the Senator for raising it.

The Minister announced yesterday that an inquiry is to be set up into the events relating to the case of a 14 year old girl from Leitrim who lost an opportunity for a liver transplant due a failure in patient transportation facilities. The Minister has been in contact with the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, which has undertaken to co-ordinate an inquiry into the events and circumstances surrounding the failure by the Health Service Executive's patient transport services to transfer the teenager to London in time for the operation.

HIQA will work with all of the relevant agencies involved. It will clarify the facts that led to this situation and will report to the Minister, Deputy Reilly, with recommendations on how best to operate transport arrangements to ensure such a failure does not occur in future.

The Minister expressed his deep concern and sympathy to the family over the traumatic events that have led to this lost opportunity. The Minister would also like to assure the family that the purpose of the HIQA inquiry is to ensure that their family and others in a similar predicament do not face such a heartbreaking outcome in future. It would not be appropriate to get into the detail of the matter until there is a full understanding of the sequence of events, which HIQA will seek to establish.

An air ambulance service is currently provided by the Air Corps through a service level agreement between the Department of Health and the Department of Defence. The Air Corps service provides for the following: inter-hospital transfer of patients with spinal or other serious injury or illness; neonates requiring immediate medical intervention in Ireland; patients requiring specialised emergency treatment in the UK; organ retrieval teams within Ireland; and paediatric patients requiring immediate medical intervention in Ireland. In this particular case the normal stand-by Air Corps helicopter was unavailable as it had been called to another emergency.

There was a short window of time in which the transplantation of the liver could have taken place. The confusion in arranging transport for the teenager in response to the call that the liver had become available led to a delay. This resulted in the transplant coordinator in London deciding that the young girl would not arrive in time for the transplant to take place and subsequently the operation was cancelled.

The HSE national ambulance service has a maritime and aviation operation manual, which is reviewed on an annual basis. This deals with all types of missions in respect of aero-medical transport of patients to the HSE from the Air Corps and the Irish Coast Guard.

Since January 2011 to date, 41 air ambulance missions assisting liver transplant patients, neonatal patients, serious illness patients and spinal injury patients have been enacted, both nationally and internationally. The Irish Coast Guard has facilitated the HSE with the transport of a transplant patient in the past few months, and has assisted the national ambulance services on approximately 15 other occasions.

The Minister awaits the outcome of the HIQA review in order to address any deficiencies in the current air ambulance service to avoid a similar occurrence in the future.

The Senator may ask a supplementary question but should not make a statement.

I thank the Minister of State. The inquiry is most welcome. Does the Minister of State know how long it will take for the inquiry's report to be published? In answer to my direct question on the jet I was told I could not have these details because of the HIQA inquiry but the story may well be covered by the media. This may cause a difficulty further down the line. My specific question is when will the report be available.

I understand it will be made available as quickly as possible to ensure the services which were required in this instance will be available in the future.

Irish Sign Language

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to take this matter in respect of which I am representing the deaf community. In Ireland, apart from English and Irish perhaps the most significant other language is Irish sign language. The Irish deaf community regards Irish sign language as its primary language. It is the language of the deaf community and the word "Irish" in its name has nothing to do with an teanga Gaeilge. Irish sign language has no official status in Irish legislation and this affects all aspects of a deaf person's life. There is a lack of Irish sign language translated material and a total lack of general understanding of why Irish sign language is so important to the deaf community.

The programme for Government states it will examine various mechanisms to promote the recognition of Irish sign language. What type of mechanism does the Government intend to examine? In what timeframe does it expect to complete the examination? When does the Minister responsible expect to be in a position to meet and consult the Irish Deaf Society? Irish sign language, along with British sign language, is recognised in Northern Ireland and in 2004 was formally recognised under the Good Friday agreement. Recognition of native sign language is being progressed quickly in other European countries such as Hungary, Iceland and, closer to home, Scotland. The Irish deaf community has approximately 5,000 members who use Irish sign language with approximately 40,000 people supporting them. It would not cost the earth to make the lives of these 5,000 people better.

In 1998, the European Parliament passed a resolution on sign language and in 2010 the Brussels declaration on sign language in the European union was signed. Will the Government examine these to see how we can advance Irish sign language? The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has been ratified but not signed into law in Ireland. When will this happen? It contains four articles specifically relating to the deaf community on accessibility, expression, education and participation in education. The European Parliament initiatives on sign language are welcome but in Ireland we must look to countries such as Hungary which recently passed legislation and Iceland. Recently I was excited to read in a newspaper that ISL had been recognised but it was referring to Icelandic sign language and not Ireland. I ask the Minister for Education and Skills to follow Iceland's example and get Irish sign language recognised.

Reference to equality in education usually relates to third level. However, for deaf people who seldom have people to speak for them, we need to include preschool and primary school in the discussion. I was part of a small group which established the model school for the deaf which was a pilot project for three years and has ceased. It can be resurrected. Will the Minister for Education and Skills examine initiatives such as these? People in the deaf community who do things for themselves should be helped and Irish sign language should be supported. Deaf children do not have access to Irish sign language in schools and because of this they do not have access to a full curriculum or reach satisfactory levels of education. This is according to deaf people themselves. We must do something for them and advance this issue in the House.

A second requirement for equalising opportunity is to enable deaf students to do their examinations through Irish sign language. If our society is really interested in the deaf community and abolishing discrimination will the Minister for Education and Skills please consider what I have said?

I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue as it gives me an opportunity to clarify the position on Irish sign language, ISL. First, I wish to clarify for the Senator that section 2 of the Official Languages Act 2003 states that the official languages of the State are the Irish language, being the national language and the first official language and the English language, being a second official language as specified in Article 8 of the Constitution.

Irish sign language has formal recognition in the Education Act 1998. Under the Act, it is a function of the Minister for Education and Skills to ensure, subject to the provisions of the Act, that there is made available to each person resident in the State, including a person with a disability or who has other special educational needs, support services and a level and quality of education appropriate to meeting the needs and abilities of that person. This includes provision for students learning through ISL.

A number of initiatives which seek to promote, develop and implement ISL in order that it will achieve greater recognition and use in the education system are in place. These include funding for an ISL weekly home tuition service whereby deaf tutors visit the homes of deaf preschool children and deaf schoolgoing pupils to provide training in ISL for the deaf pupils, their siblings and parents.

Funding is also made available through the special education support service to enable individual teachers and whole school staff, including staff in special schools for the deaf, to undertake courses in Irish sign language which are available throughout the country through a variety of providers. In addition, the visiting teacher service for children and young people with a hearing impairment is provided by the Department of Education and Skills from the time of referral through to third level education. The visiting teacher service provides advice and support to ensure the needs of children and young people with hearing impairment are met. This service is available at preschool, primary and post-primary levels.

The Senator may be aware that assessment, rehabilitation and information services for children with a hearing impairment and their families are funded by the HSE, either directly or indirectly. Services provided include communication therapy and lip-reading classes as well as sign language classes.

The Department of Education and Skills, through the Higher Education Authority, HEA, has established and funds a centre for deaf studies in Trinity College, Dublin which provides diploma courses for ISL and English interpreters and deaf tutors in deaf studies. The course modules deal with issues such as sign linguistics, bilingualism and sociolinguistics of sign language. The course is delivered in seminar sessions and group work and the award of the diploma is based on continued assessment and a project and course design. The HEA has allocated €387,000 in core funding to the centre in the current academic year.

I wish to advise the Senator that the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, has commissioned an external high-level review of the issues surrounding deaf education. This review will focus on models of provision with reference to evidenced-based outcomes and the implications of adopting various approaches. I know the Minister for Education and Skills looks forward to receiving the policy advice from the NCSE in this regard.

I thank the Minister of State for the information. I would not have tabled an Adjournment matter in the House if I had not been prompted to do so by the Irish Deaf Society. I am speaking on behalf of deaf people. To listen to the Minister of State one would think everything was great for Irish sign language. We do not recognise Irish sign language in legislation. Iceland, Scotland and Northern Ireland——

When will we do what is stated in the programme for Government? I asked it previously but it was not answered. The visiting teachers——

——initiative is welcome but I call for the Minister for Education and Skills to meet the Irish Deaf Society to hear the real story.

I will undertake to make the Senator's feelings known to the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn. If he is not available to have such a meeting with the Irish Deaf Society I will undertake to do so myself and take on board its views.

Schools Building Projects

The Minister of State is having an easy evening because I have no intention of speaking for four minutes when discussing this issue which is, perhaps, somewhat parochial. A school in a village called Kealkill, approximately six miles from Bantry, has experienced many difficulties with prefabricated buildings falling down, etc. The local community, school principal and board of management have shown great community spirit by raising money to purchase additional land for a playground. The problem the school now has is that it is using a prefabricated structure as a classroom. While I do not usually raise matters of a parochial nature on the Adjournment, I have strong feelings about this remote, rural school. I ask that the Department, in lieu of renting a prefabricated structure for a long period, consider having a small extension carried out to facilitate the classroom in question.

I am replying on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn. I thank the Senator for raising the matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline to the House the Government's strategy for capital investment in schools building projects and the position regarding Kealkill national school in Bantry, County Cork.

The current staffing level at Kealkill national school is a principal and two mainstream teachers. The school, which also has the services of one learning support-resource teacher, is located in a permanent school building with additional temporary accommodation consisting of one mainstream classroom and one resource room. Its enrolment was 76 pupils at September 2010 as against 64 enrolments in 2006. It is not experiencing the rapid increase in enrolments which has occurred in other schools around the county.

The Department has allocated grants under the summer works scheme to the school to assist it in maintaining the existing school building. In 2005, a grant was approved for ceiling repairs, and in 2008 it received a grant for fencing and in 2010 a further grant was approved for roofing repairs. The Department is not in receipt of any current application for capital funding from the school. Should there be a need for additional accommodation at the school, it is open to the school authorities to submit an application form which can be found on the Department's website.

As the Senator will be aware, all applications for capital funding are assessed in the planning and building unit of the Department. The assessment process determines the extent and type of need presenting based in particular on the demographics of an area, condition of school buildings, site capacity and so forth, leading to an appropriate accommodation solution. The progression of all such assessed large-scale building projects then falls for consideration in the context of the Department's multiannual school building and modernisation programme, having regard to competing demands and available capital funding.

I thank the Senator again for giving me the opportunity to outline to the House the current position regarding Kealkill national school in Bantry, County Cork.

School Curriculum

I welcome the Minister of State. When I went through details of foreign languages being offered in the education system, with particular reference to what I consider to be minority languages, I was surprised to learn that Mandarin Chinese does not feature on the school curriculum. To put the issue in context, in the junior certificate uptake last year, five schools provided Hebrew studies for 165 pupils, while Hebrew studies was provided in four schools for 104 pupils in the leaving certificate. Arabic is being provided by ten schools for ten pupils and in 2010 three schools provided ancient Greek for 20 pupils. While I do not have anything against the classics and I was fascinated by the number of pupils taking Hebrew studies at junior and leaving certificate levels, based on a number of comments made to me and research I have carried out and the growing cultural and trade links with China, it is self-evident that the Department should give consideration to offering Mandarin Chinese as a curriculum subject.

The most recent trade figures show that Ireland trebled its exports to China between March 2010 and March 2011. I understand that while the Chinese embassy website has an education section, the material supplied does not refer to learning Mandarin. I pay tribute to the UCD Confucius Institute for Ireland which has been actively developing and promoting the subject of Chinese and culture for post-primary schools with the result that in the academic year 2011-12 Chinese language and culture will be officially taught in Irish post-primary schools nationally, first as a transition year unit with the aim of expanding to become a full curricular subject.

I am grateful to the Oireachtas Library and Research Service for providing me with much background information, including a copy of an article which appeared in theIrish Independent. The piece was written by Dr. Liming Wang, co-author of the book, Doing Business in China: The Irish Experience. The article notes that China achieved GDP growth of 10.3% in 2010 in the middle of a world recession, has overtaken Germany as the world’s largest exporter and is the second largest economy in the world after the United States. Already, 50 million people around the globe are learning Chinese, with schools showing an ever increasing interest in the subject. However, according to research published in the aforementioned book, lack of language competence and ignorance of Chinese culture inhibits trade synergies between the two sides.

Dr. Wang notes that a national survey of post-primary schools conducted by the UCDConfucius Institute for Ireland found that Irish schools would like to have Mandarin on the curriculum. Thus far, a national syllabus has not been agreed and courses vary in nature according to the needs and objectives of each school. According to Dr. Wang, the "absence of a formal Irish syllabus or examination course limits the recognition students can gain for their learning". He adds "The growth of the Chinese economy and the enormous business potential to Ireland is far greater than that provided by countries such as France and Germany, whose languages are currently promoted by the post-primary Languages Initiative." Chinese, he wrote, is arguably "more important than even the current ‘mainstream' languages of French and German". I add a caveat to the extent that Germany ranks among our largest three trading partners. Dr. Wang believes the cost of not including Mandarin in an admittedly crowded curriculum would be much greater than the cost of not meeting this challenge and he notes that Mandarin is already a curriculum language in many countries, including the United Kingdom, where its popularity is steadily growing. I agree with his conclusion that if Ireland does not act quickly, it will be left behind.

I am replying to this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn. I thank the Senator for raising this issue.

A range of foreign languages is available on the curriculum in schools — French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Japanese and Arabic — at post-primary level. A post-primary languages initiative has been in place since 2000 with the objective of diversifying language provision in schools, focusing particularly on Spanish, Italian, Japanese and Russian. Some 81% of second level pupils study three languages, Irish, English and a continental language, to completion of upper second level and more than 70% of schools offer two foreign languages or more.

I am aware of the demand for expansion of the range of languages on offer in post-primary schools, particularly in regard to Mandarin Chinese and Polish. However, the fact remains that continued reductions in public expenditure will be essential over the coming years, allied with further reductions in public sector numbers. Of necessity, this must constrain the degree to which additional subjects can be accommodated in our schools.

I appreciate the importance of Chinese language learning in promoting trade and development between Ireland and China as part of the Asia strategy. The core issue is what model of language provision best serves the strategic needs of business and industry in furthering trade and development with China and how scarce resources should be prioritised.

While there are many cultural advantages to widening access to language learning generally in schools, provision of a limited number of hours tuition in the context of the school curriculum would not necessarily equip students with the language skills needed to do business with or in China, nor would it be targeted at a population with this specific need in mind. A more targeted and intensive provision can be provided in further or higher education. Postgraduate and honours degree level programmes in Chinese are offered in University College Cork and honours degree level programmes are provided in University College Dublin and the Dublin Institute of Technology. In addition, a post-leaving certificate course in Chinese with business studies is offered in Ballsbridge College of Further Education and a further 15 higher and further education colleges offer part-time evening courses in Chinese at modest cost. The Institutes for Chinese Studies in UCD and UCC both offer tuition on an outreach basis to schools in their locality, in partnership with the Confucius Institutes. The Department will continue to work closely with the colleges and the Confucius Institutes to support and progress this initiative.

In higher education in the 2009 to 2010 period, a total of 5,200 students were enrolled on programmes with a foreign language component, an overall increase of 16% since 2007. The institutes of technology, or IoT, languages strategy network is adopting a proactive approach to language learning and training, fostering inter-institutional collaboration for languages in the sector. The Erasmus study abroad programme has seen an increase in the number of students who have taken a study visit or placement abroad.

The Department and its agencies will continue to engage with industry to ensure that education responds in so far as it is possible to the emerging needs of enterprise in this area. The issue of additional languages in second level schools will be revisited when the budgetary situation improves. I again thank the Senator for raising this matter.

I am grateful to the Minister for elaborating on the issue I raised. In the continuing review and monitoring of language availability in our schools, I notice Russian is given a priority. However, the burgeoning trade between Ireland and China would suggest, in respect of how other countries are approaching this issue, that there is a need for the Department to monitor how it is developing in terms of the application of Russian, how many students are taking Russian and what impact it is having commercially and to weigh that up against the importance of the Chinese economy.

I will convey the Senator's views to the Minister, Deputy Ruairí Quinn. In the last 12 months there have been increasing trade opportunities with Russia, particularly within the agricultural sector, so we might need to continue focusing on that language. However, I agree with the Senator that we should have an ongoing rolling review of foreign language provision in second level schools to ensure that it best meets the needs of students and of industry and trade in opening new markets in coming years.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.25 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 6 July 2011.