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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 5 Jul 2012

Vol. 216 No. 9

Adjournment Matters

Early Childhood Education

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, and compliment him on the great job he is doing as Minister of State with responsibility for horticulture and organic foods. Senator Leyden spoke to the Minister of State today and passed on compliments from Mr. Stephen Cope of Lir Chocolates for the Minister of State's understanding of the food industry.

The early childhood care and education programme provides one free preschool year at three hours per day to each child aged between 3 years and 3 months, and four years and six months. The programme was introduced in 2010 by the Fianna Fáil Government. From next September the Government proposes to take away the option which allowed the programme to be provided over 50 weeks. This option suits many working parents. Many women work three days per week, not necessarily by choice but because they are the only positions they can get. Such women are able to use the programme during those three days.

The Minister is inferring that the three hour session comprises the only educational content of the day if a child is in full day care. That is not correct as many teachers, such as those in the community crèche in Athboy, are highly qualified. These teachers also educate through play during the long day so the Minister is incorrect to state that education only happens during the three-hour session. This is a retrograde step and I am disappointed the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, allowed this to happen. It is against working mothers. We have to continue to promote gender equality so the women who want to participate in the economy are allowed to do so.

A report published two years ago noted that our child care costs were the highest in Europe. This is a serious matter and one frequently hears how expensive child care is. We have to give women the freedom to participate in the economy.

I produced a document on a new approach to child care. I gave the Government full marks for those areas it had improved. In a previous document I referred to the extension of preschool education to all three year olds. This was subsequently done and there is no doubt that families in Meath exerted pressure for this development. One could almost say that this initiative to provide free child care was driven by the parents from Meath.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue and for her compliments earlier. I will return them because I know the kind of businesswomen she is. Moreover, when she gets up to speak on a matter it is because she is deeply concerned. I take on board the Senator's comments and when someone believes in something so strongly, it is crucial to continue to fight for it.

Although my own children have gone far beyond this stage, I know where the Senator is coming from. I will bring back the message to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, and will discuss it with her. Members must excuse my spectacles but they were the only pair I could find.

I will be taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. The early childhood care and education, ECCE, programme, which provides one free preschool year to each eligible child, is implemented by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. The decision to introduce this programme in 2010 was a major step forward and marked a very significant milestone in the provision of early childhood care and education in this country. The programme is open to all community and commercial child care providers and children aged between three years and two months and four years and seven months on 1 September each year can enrol in a participating child care service and avail of the preschool provision. Nearly all preschool services in the country are participating in the programme and approximately 65,000 children, which constitutes approximately 95% of the eligible cohort of children, are availing of the free preschool year.

When the programme was introduced in 2010, a number of transitional measures were included to make it more acceptable to the child care sector and to ensure that each eligible child had access to the programme. One of these measures related to the number of weeks over which the free preschool year could be provided. At that time, approximately 30% of children in the relevant age cohort were in full day care, which generally was provided over a 50-week period. In order to facilitate full day care services in the early years of the programme, services were permitted to choose between providing a 38-week or a 50-week model. Those services that chose the 50-week model were required to provide the free preschool provision for two and a quarter hours each day, five days each week over 50 weeks. However, it should be noted that the majority of children availed of the free preschool provision in sessional services for three hours a day, five days a week, over a 38-week period between September and June.

It was always intended, once the ECCE programme had bedded down, to introduce a standard 38-week model. This is the optimal model in terms of ensuring a high-quality early years experience for preschool children. The Síolta programme, which provides clear practice guidelines on all aspects of delivering high-quality early education and Aistear, the national curriculum framework for early childhood education, were developed to support this objective. The early childhood care and education programme is designed to be delivered across 38 weeks. The curriculum cannot be quality assured across a 50-week period when children spend less time each day availing of it. Consensus from research is that only high-quality early education experiences in preschool will make a sustained difference to children's lives. The focus of the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, therefore, is on introducing changes that will bring about an improvement in the quality of the early childhood care and education services provided in this country. We need to consolidate the preschool year by ensuring that it is a quality experience for young children. For this reason, from September 2012, all services participating in the early childhood care and education programme will be required to provide the programme on the basis of three hours per day, five days per week, over 38 weeks. The capitation fee payable by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs will not change, as the child will spend the same number of hours in the programme.

The success of the preschool year to date attests to the huge importance of investing in the early years sector. One of the aims, despite the current economic situation, is to ascertain how to move forward and further support and develop early years provision. The Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, is pleased to have been able to maintain the preschool year as a universal and free programme for qualifying children. She is confident the new early years strategy currently being developed by her Department will provide a framework to enhance the early years experience of all children and establish a positive foundation for engagement with the school environment and beyond.

I intend to bore down deeply into this issue and have made an appointment in Navan to meet Ms Fiona Healy, the Meath County Childcare Committee co-ordinator. Thereafter, I will meet Ms Gráinne Black, the boss-woman in the Athboy child care centre. I intend to pursue this matter and go into greater depth on it to understand precisely what are the issues as what is happening is complicated. Go raibh míle maith ag an Aire Stáit and I wish him continued success.

Having heard the Senator's remarks, I know she is serious about this issue and will follow it up.

I note the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, is under extreme pressure of time. If possible, can the matter to which he will respond be taken next?

Yes, if it is acceptable to Senators Moran and Reilly that Senator Colm Burke's matter be taken first. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Flood Relief

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy O'Dowd, to the House.

I wish to raise the issue of the recent flooding in Cork city, particularly in Blackpool, north central Cork, which is an old part of the city, Park Court in Ballyvolane and Meadow Brook, Riverstown, which is in the county area. In the first instance, I thank the local authorities for the manner in which they responded to the emergencies that arose. In particular, I thank Cork city and county councils for the manner in which they have approached this problem. However, there is a problem in that some of the areas affected, particularly in Blackpool and Park Court, were unable to get insurance for flood damage and I note extensive damage again occurred in this case. Work had been carried out previously by Cork City Council, under the guidance of the Department and the Office of Public Works, in which culverts were put in place. However, it now appears as though they are inadequate to deal with the increase in the flow of water as a result of the bad weather conditions. This matter must be dealt with immediately to ensure there is no recurrence of what has happened. Small businesses have suffered substantial damage and householders in Park Court ended up with more than five feet of water in their houses. I have shown some of the photographs of the area to the Minister of State and as they demonstrate, the flooding was extremely serious. It is important that the Government respond in a proactive way, working with the local authorities, to try to come to a solution to the problems that exist.

An issue also has arisen in respect of insurance cover, both up to today's date and into the future, for all these areas. For instance, Meadow Brook in Glanmire will not be insurable for flood damage in the future and the question arises as to how this problem will be dealt with. There are a number of issues, the first being that there already was no insurance cover for small businesses and households in the Blackpool and Park Court areas and second, that no insurance cover will be available in the future. The question now arises as to how these problems will be dealt with to prevent a recurrence of the flooding. I visited a number of the affected houses in Park Court and in Meadow Brook in Glanmire in which the water had risen up to the level of the kitchen worktops. It is a fairly frightening experience for everyone involved to have had floods of up to five feet of water.

I thank Senator Colm Burke for raising this matter and my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee for facilitating this arrangement.

On behalf of the Government, I express my sympathy to those affected by the flooding in Cork last week. While, thankfully, no lives were lost, the flooding has had a significant impact on homes and businesses in various areas of Cork.

I commend the tremendous work of the council staff, An Garda Síochána, the HSE, Civil Defence, Irish Red Cross and all others who responded so professionally and speedily when their communities were in danger.

As flood waters receded, the immediate priority of the various agencies and bodies working on the response was to achieve a return of critical utilities and road systems to communities as quickly as possible. This required the restoration of electricity supply by the ESB to 11,000 homes, which had been disrupted by water damage to two substations, and the reopening of roads rendered impassable in places, particularly the N25, the N27 and the N71. Cork City Council and Cork County Council immediately activated their clean-up response crews. From early afternoon on 28 June, in the worst affected areas such as Blackpool and Ballyvolane, the councils provided assistance to residents with the clean up of property as waters receded. Civil Defence crews assisted people affected, particularly in the Ballyvolane area of the city.

The Department of Social Protection is actively involved, under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, in assisting those families and individuals affected by the flooding. The scheme in question provides for exceptional needs payments to help meet essential, once-off, exceptional expenditure which people could not be expected to meet from their weekly incomes. Furthermore, there is provision for assistance in the form of urgent needs payments. In certain circumstances, these payments can be made to persons who would not normally be entitled to supplementary welfare allowance. The Department also has provisions for humanitarian assistance, designed to provide hardship alleviation assistance, as opposed to compensation, to people affected by an emergency event, such as flooding, and is based on a means test. Humanitarian assistance is not intended to compensate for all losses and does not cover risks that are covered by insurance policies or cover business or commercial losses. The decision to provide humanitarian assistance is a matter for the Government upon submission from the Minister for Social Protection.

The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport has confirmed that he will facilitate any revision by Cork County Council to its restoration improvement programme for 2012 to accommodate rehabilitation works on the roads damaged by the recent floods and the deferral to 2013 of less critical works. The Office of Public works is carrying out a catchment flood risk assessment study of the south-west river basin district area which includes County Cork. This will produce a prioritised list of measures to address areas of significant flood risk and assign responsibility for their implementation. The study will also incorporate the recommendations of a pilot study already completed by the OPW on the River Lee catchment. I understand that the OPW has been in ongoing discussions with the Irish Insurance Federation regarding flooding insurance issues, particularly where insurance cover has not been provided in areas where flood defence or mitigation works have been carried out.

The Minister for Finance and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform are considering ways in which we can assist the Red Cross in the provision of humanitarian assistance. They have also asked the financial institutions to help, if at all possible, the small number of businesses which have been affected, particularly those with no insurance. Local authority budgets cannot provide for all of the costs that can arise. The costs incurred by Cork County Council, Cork City Council and Clonakilty Town Council during and following the flooding last week are being assessed at present, and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government will be considering the position in this regard with relevant Government colleagues as quickly as possible. I can also assure the Senator that the ongoing work with local communities in the clean-up and with those individuals and families who have been particularly affected will continue.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I raised a concern last week that insurance companies are tending to drag out the payment of any compensation to householders and businesses. I suggested that as a minimum, every insurance company should pay out a sum of €3,000 within 14 days from the date of receiving a claim form, in order to tide people over. It is a very small amount but it is the minimum amount of damage that would have been caused to any property.

In my own job as a solicitor, I have come across situations where claims drag on for 12 to 18 months. People are on very tight budgets and they have suffered huge damage. All of the families affected in Meadowbrook in Glanmire and in Park Court in Ballyvolane are now renting alternative properties at the moment, in order to allow remedial work to be carried out in their houses. They have had to pay one month's deposit up front and one month's rent in advance. Representations should be made to the Irish Insurance Federation on that matter immediately.

I thank the Senator for bringing that issue to my attention. I will ensure that the Minister is made aware of it immediately. The quicker all claims are settled, the better. What can be done must be done quickly.

School Accommodation

I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House and taking this matter on the Adjournment on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills. This is the second time I have raised the issue at St. Mary's national school in Virginia, County Cavan. When the Minister announced details of his infrastructure plan for 2012 last December, the school was omitted. When he announced his five year infrastructure plan in April, which outlines the major projects needed to cater for demographic growth, the school was again omitted. I would like to focus on the school's concerns about this issue and in particular, the use of the GIS system by the Department.

The major growth experienced in Virginia and surrounding areas has resulted in an influx of families and an increased demand for school accommodation. The most recent census figures indicate that there has been a 31.6% growth rate in the population of Virginia between 2006 and 2011. This is largely due to its location along the commuter belt and its close proximity to Dublin. In March the school enrolled its 80th student since September and enrolment now stands at 380 students, but the board of management and community do not believe that this is reflected in the school building programme for 2012.

School enrolment has doubled in the last few years and as a result, there has been massive expenditure on temporary accommodation. We are now at the stage where some of the prefabs need to be replaced with additional accommodation. The project was included in the 2011 school building programme and was at an early architectural planning stage, but it seems to have been stuck there for a long time. Now we want to move this project and get it to the next stage. Due to population growth, pressure is coming on primary school accommodation earlier than in the secondary school sector. As well as that, 77% of the fifth and sixth class pupils in St. Mary's national school were born outside of the parish, so there has been a large influx of primary school students to the area. Fifty two local authority houses have been built and they are on the verge of being allocated. From my dealings in Cavan and in the area, I know that many young families will be moving into those houses. In a county ravaged by emigration, it is good to see that there is population growth, but we need to make sure that the facilities and the services are up to date to deal with it.

The geographical information system, or GIS, used by the Department has its strengths, but we have concerns about it that we would like to be borne in mind when decisions are made on replacing the prefabs. We believe that the figures fail to take into account when one family moves from one location to another. The last time I raised this issue, child benefit was mentioned as an example. However, the child benefit payment does not require a change of address, so the GIS capacity and facility is only relevant if the bank details change. There is no bank at all in Virginia at the moment. Most people do not change their bank due to online banking facilities. We need to be careful about this and due to the influx of people into Virginia, the community is being affected by the lack of movement onto the next stage of planning.

To recap, the school was originally built for six teachers but it now has 20 teachers and nine additional support staff. It is an intolerable situation for the community, the pupils and staff. There is a high level of frustration about the delay and I urge the Minister of State to bring this back to his colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, to try to expedite the project and highlight once again the discrepancies in the use of the geographical information system. I hope this project will move forward because the school has been waiting eight years for new accommodation to be built. If it is omitted, as it already has been from the current five year programme, it will be at least 2020 before the new accommodation is built. With such large population growth this is not a feasible option for the town.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. I come from an area not too far from Virginia and I remember when it was a six-teacher school. I hope the community will not have to wait as long as the 25 years they did in Laragh down the road. The Senator is correct to raise the matter which is very important. Not alone has there been an influx of people to Virginia, being on the edge of the M3, but it is a very strong agricultural area with many medium to small farmers and I have no doubt they, as well as the people in the town, will have children. If the Senator has any further information I suggest she keeps pushing the matter. The same situation arises in the neighbouring area of Mullagh. The principal there has been in touch with me. The people there were a little disappointed. I suggest the Senator keeps raising the issue because those who lobby hardest get results.

I thank the Senator for raising the question relating to St. Mary's national school, Virginia, County Cavan. The Department of Education and Skills introduced a geographical information system, GIS, in 2008 and this technology is used to assist in planning school requirements for the future. The GIS contains information on all schools in the country, geo-coded to their location. The information is then linked to the relevant demographic information for these areas. Typically the demographic information will be from the Central Statistics Office census data, the general register of births, the Department of Social Protection, An Post's geo-directory and information supplied by local authorities through development plans. The system allows the Department to view, understand, question, interpret and visualise data in many ways that reveal relationships, patterns and trends. The external sources of demographic data are further enhanced by the Department's own enrolment data, and all sources are checked against each other to ensure they provide as accurate an overall picture as possible for future enrolment projections.

To meet the needs of our growing population of school-going children, the Department of Education and Skills must establish new schools as well as extending or replacing a number of existing schools, particularly in those areas where it has been identified that most future demographic growth will be concentrated. To ensure that every child has access to a school place, the delivery of projects to meet future demographic demands nationally will be the focus for capital investment in schools over the coming years. The five year construction programme outlines when 275 selected major projects will progress to construction over the next five years as part of a €2 billion capital investment programme. These projects will account for most of the capital funding available from now until 2016.

The Virginia feeder area has five primary schools. Enrolments at primary level have increased over the past decade from 590 pupils in 2001 to 2002 to 1,142 in 2011 to 2012. However, based on an analysis of the above information sources, the Department of Education and Skills has projected that future enrolments in the Virginia feeder area will remain relatively stable to 2018. In fact it is anticipated there will be a slight decrease in enrolments for the catchment area up to 2018. The current enrolment at St. Mary's national school, Virginia, is 380 pupils, increased from 350 in 2007. While enrolment levels have grown significantly at the school since 2000, they have increased by less than 10% over the past five years. This project is at an early stage of architectural planning and will continue to progress to complete the detailed design, secure planning permission and prepare tender documents.

All school building projects not included in the five year construction programme, including St. Mary's, will continue to be progressed, where possible, to final planning stages in anticipation of the possibility of further funds being available to the Department of Education and Skills in future years. However, it is not possible to progress this project to tender and construction at this time. I thank the Senator for raising this matter.

I thank the Minister of State and I ask him to bring back to his colleagues the point with regard to young families moving into the 50 new houses which have been allocated. I also have an issue with the projection of the slight decrease in enrolments. I firmly believe any decrease in enrolments will not be because of a lack of demand for places in the national school; it will be because parents will not want to send their children to a school with 11 prefabs which are cold and in dire need of replacement.

I will bring the message back. The Minister, Deputy Quinn, is doing an excellent job on the removal of prefabs throughout the country, which is a major step forward. I heard what the Senator stated with regard to local authority housing. Along with the agricultural community this will mean more children.

School Transport

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the Chamber to comment on the ongoing school transport problems experienced by a young lady from my constituency whose details I have submitted. She is 14 years old and has a history of monosomy 21, developmental delay and seizures and she is underweight. She attends a special school where she has settled in very well. Due to her medical condition she wears a back brace. At present the school bus collects her at 7.30 a.m. and she must spend an hour and 15 minutes on it before it arrives at school at 8.45 a.m. As a result the child is exhausted before she even starts school. This excessive journey time has affected her concentration and is hindering her opportunity to learn. Her parents have medical reports which support the opinion the present travel arrangements expose their daughter to additional risks of seizure. When school finishes at 2.45 p.m. the long journey is repeated. Therefore the travel time every day for this young lady is two and a half hours.

This is an unnecessarily long day, particularly for a child who wears a back brace which undoubtedly adds to her discomfort. There is a very simple and cost-effective solution to the issue. Another bus travels 2.6 km from the child's house and leaves later in the morning, which would give her and her family valuable extra time. It travels directly to the school and arrives there in less than 30 minutes. The child's parents have been trying to have their daughter transferred to this bus but so far have been unsuccessful. I spoke to the Bus Éireann inspector who reports he has no objection to the proposal. I appeal for some sensitivity in dealing with school transport for children with special needs. Last year I experienced a similar situation with my child and fully appreciate the frustration this family experiences. For parents to have an extra half an hour to help their child in the morning when that child has special needs is like an extra six hours to somebody else. Allowing this young lady to travel on the other bus would give the family substantially more time with their daughter in the morning to prepare for school and would not entail the pressure and strain in place at present.

I thank the Senator and congratulate her for raising a matter on behalf on an individual. They are the people who need most help. If my reply does not deal with the issue I will further it to improve the situation.

I stress that school transport is a very significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills and covering more than 82 million kilometres annually. Approximately 113,000 children, including more than 8,000 children with special educational needs, are transported in approximately 4,000 vehicles on a daily basis to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country.

Under the terms of the Department's school transport scheme for children with special educational needs, children are eligible for school transport where they are attending the nearest recognised school that is or can be resourced to meet their special educational needs. Eligibility is determined following consultation with the National Council for Special Education through its network of special education needs organisers. The child referred to by the Senator is not attending her nearest school and is, therefore, not eligible for school transport. She is availing of transport on a concessionary basis. Under the terms of the scheme, routes cannot be extended nor can additional cost be incurred in facilitating children availing of concessionary transport.

However, Bus Éireann has advised that, following consultations with the school, parent and bus contractor, a later pick-up time on the morning service has been agreed. This arrangement commenced in May and Bus Éireann is continuing to monitor the situation.

I am disappointed with this response. I had raised the issue before with the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, and submitted it to the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Cannon, as it was a school transport issue. It is important issues involving special educational needs are examined sensitively. I will pursue the matter further.

Over the years I have found Bus Éireann to be very helpful and co-operative in this area. I suggest the Senator brings it up with Bus Éireann.

I have spoken with the inspector involved who is more than happy to take the child on the alternative bus.

Perhaps if the Senator went back to the inspector, I will broker a deal if I can. It is worth following as I have found Bus Éireann to be helpful in difficult circumstances.

I agree. I have found its officials are more than willing to help.

If the Senator wants to keep in contact with me on this matter, I will do my bit. We have from now until 1 September. Sometimes a break comes when one keeps at it. The point is not to give in.

The Seanad adjourned at 5.25 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 10 July 2012.