Recent Education Announcements: Statements

I welcome the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, to the House.

I welcome the opportunity to address the Seanad on how we propose to achieve the second goal that I have set out for our education plan. As Members will be aware, I set the goal that we would have the best education and training service in Europe within a decade. I have five goals but I do not propose to go into all of them now.

The second goal is to develop a pathway to ensure children of social disadvantage or with a special educational need receive equality of opportunity through education. I think this is an ambition we all share. The ambition to be the best in Europe in terms of our education plan is a way of changing the conversation about where we are and where we need to get to. It is important that we would have ambition in this field. It is fair to say that we are building on a base of good experience in this field. We have come some distance from the time when the State contested the right of a child with special educational needs to have an education within his or her service. We have come a considerable distance in that regard. The level of investment we now make in integrating children with special needs into our education system is very substantial, at €1.5 billion, or 20% of our entire education budget. We have developed good models for supporting such children through resource teaching, special needs assistants and so on.

We have also developed the delivering equality of opportunity in our schools, DEIS, programme which came into force in 2004-05 and builds on other initiatives such as Breaking the Cycle. The impact of this scheme has been very positive in terms of the improvements in literacy and numeracy in the schools involved. We have invested approximately €160 million in the provision of these supports across approximately 800 schools. This is a very significant investment that is delivering results. It is particularly encouraging to see its impact on reducing school drop-out levels, which have fallen from 32% to 17%. Some of my Fine Gael colleagues will recall that when the director of the Peter McVerry Trust came to speak to the party on how to tackle homelessness, top of the list was the need to end school drop-out. According to the Peter McVerry Trust what happens to a child during his or her early school years affects his or her later experience, which highlights the importance of this area.

We are also seeing significant improvement in the progression of people in our third level system. This is particularly encouraging in the context of the extraordinary pressure on resources in the third level system. There has been a good improvement in the participation of people coming from non-typical backgrounds. In addition, in the context of the experience we are building upon, according to the PISA figures, which look at the performance of Irish 15 year olds across the system, and the TIMMS figures which relate to the primary experience, one of the areas where Ireland is strong is in the performance of the lowest cohort in the class.

Those children who have the most difficulty do better in the Irish system than they do in virtually all other European countries. Some of the high performers do not do so well in Ireland, but we are good at managing the weaker pupils compared with our counterparts. This is a good base, but there are no grounds for complacency or assuming that we have by any means delivered on the goal of equality of opportunity. We need to set out our ambitions, as I have done in the education plans, including the recently published DEIS plan and the new programme for allocating resource teaching, to continue improving literacy and numeracy among children from disadvantaged areas, to continue improving completion rates, which we hope to raise to the average level, to close the gap between DEIS and non-DEIS schools, and to have much stronger pathways of progression for people from disadvantaged or special needs backgrounds. These ambitions will go through our whole system.

The Leas-Chathaoirleach referred to our recent reform announcements. The first of two main announcements relates to the new model for resource teaching. This is a significant change. We employ approximately 12,500 resource teachers, who have largely been deployed on the basis of a certain amount of jam for every school, as it were, and a rigid diagnostic test whereby a child needs to have had a diagnostic test done before getting access to support. Often, children from disadvantaged backgrounds or schools in disadvantaged areas cannot afford that testing, which means that the resource is denied to children. The current model also results in an unnecessary and undesirable labelling of children as being of a particular category. We are trying to move away from that. The new model will allocate a resource much more closely to the profile of the school and the needs that it encounters. I am not just referring to the very complex and special needs of some children, but also to the general learning difficulties that children experience for all sorts of reasons. Each year this will see progressively more resources being made available to follow those children with the greatest needs. This is the right principle to guide how we disperse our moneys.

The same principle is behind our new approach to DEIS schools. Previously, the allocation of resource teaching to DEIS schools was based on principals doing a return. Whether returns were made or were collected at all was arbitrary. We are moving to an objective way of identifying schools with the greatest level of social disadvantage. It relies on CSO data on unemployment, occupation, lone parenthood and all of those factors that designate the level of disadvantage in a community. Our resource is going to follow the areas of greatest need. For the first time, we have been able to include 80 schools that have the greatest need but were not in the system after the first run. They meet the highest threshold. We recognise that there is a further spectrum of schools that have a strong case for support, but we need to refine our model. This will bring the system to a fairer point.

Regarding another major issue, we are trying to encourage on both sides a better deployment of the resource, be it into resource teachers for children with special needs or the DEIS programmes. We want to encourage a whole-school approach to the deployment of that resource so that a child is fully integrated. I visited Marino College, a school in my constituency, where we launched this programme. It was one of 47 schools that had been running the pilot programme. The way in which every staff member had bought into the importance of supporting a child with special educational needs was transformative. It was not some sort of withdrawal model that was solely an issue for the resource teacher and that child and with so many hours to be allocated over and above.

Rather, they genuinely embraced the provision of support for the whole class. They used flexible approaches, with children taught in groups, mainstream classes and, occasionally, individually. It was a more integrated approach. The fact that the school leadership could deploy the resource more flexibly transformed the way in which it addressed special educational need in its school. I hope that this new resource model will, by putting the schools more in control of the way in which resources are deployed, transform the effectiveness of the work.

In the same way, we hope to encourage innovation in the DEIS programme. We have explicitly set aside money to encourage clusters of schools to work together and embrace pilots on leadership in schools, mathematics teaching and how schools relate to sporting and other organisations in their communities that make the difference between a child being successful or unsuccessful in a programme of education.

We are trying to deploy our resources more fairly and follow the highest priority children while also encouraging innovation at school level. I am constrained by time, but I will outline how we will support that. We are trying to examine what constitutes best practice in the deployment of resource teaching and the support of children from disadvantaged backgrounds within the school setting. We must entrust those at the coalface with greater ability to decide which programmes will be most effective for their children. Not only are we encouraging clustering and innovation, but also self-evaluation. Our inspectorate, which still sounds like the cigire of the past who came to a school with a red pencil to find fault, has transformed into a supporter of better practice, change and improvement within schools.

We cannot design a perfect scheme in Marlborough Street. It must be designed by those who are at the coalface, but we can support it by having exemplars of best practice and examining how the teaching model is being transformed internationally to make it more engaging, particularly for children who come to school without the same sort of preparation that others have because of the richness of reading and the like in their home environments. Fortunately, technology supports the transition of teaching from the old model, in which the monopoly on knowledge was held in the hands of the teacher and in the textbook, to one in which children have access to knowledge from all over the place. This is a question of helping to create an environment in which young people learn, build competences, learn to work with one another and learn to develop other aspects of their talents than just the ones that we tend to test in final examinations.

This is an exciting time in education. Fortunately, a little bit more money is coming back into the system and we can afford to undertake ambitious reforms. Technology is changing the way we deliver education by making it more accessible, particularly for children who come to the education system with more problems than others.

I thank the Seanad for giving me time to discuss this matter. Following the example of the Peter McVerry Trust, if we can crack educational opportunity, no barrier can stand in our way. We can break down communities of disadvantage and open significant opportunities for young people in terms of careers and success in public service and their communities. Education will be a pivotal investment in the coming years, given that we are encountering challenges in Europe, the US and the political system. We must ensure that we invest in an education that builds a strong and resilient citizenship that can deal with the many challenges coming our way.

Ba mhaith liom fáilte go dtí an Teach a chur roimh an Aire inniu. I congratulate him on his work. There have been many good announcements, but the old adage about the proof of the pudding being in the eating springs to mind. I do not know whether the Minister will be in situ to reap his harvest, given that he might be in the process of filling in an application form for another job shortly. If that is the case, then I wish him well.

I will touch on a number of subjects, the first of which is DEIS, which the Minister mentioned. Fianna Fáil welcomes its reintroduction. We had been pushing for it. DEIS was introduced by Fianna Fáil in 2006 and has played a key role in tackling issues of disadvantage and social inclusion. As the initiator of this programme, Fianna Fáil sought the restoration of and enhanced support for vital educational disadvantage programmes in our communities when facilitating the minority Government. We are delighted that this commitment has been progressed by the Minister.

Schools serving disadvantaged populations that are allocated additional funding under DEIS, which are less likely to receive voluntary contributions from parents and their families, have substantially fewer economic, cultural and social resources than those in non-DEIS schools. However, more transparency is required, given that there is a great deal of confusion. The data that the Department uses come from the CSO, but the process seems to be shrouded in secrecy, with little information given to schools about what criteria are being used. The document issued by the Department gives no detail of the methodology used or any explanation as to why some schools are successful while others are not. There are no criteria whereby a school that wishes to appeal a decision can do so. This matter needs to be considered. Has the Minister any intention - I hope he does - of introducing an appeal system for DEIS and, if he does, when would such a system be in operation?

I wish to discuss the new model of special education to which the Minister referred. I welcome his initiative in this regard. The cuts of up to 15% in resource hours for children with special needs have yet to be redressed. Some confusion surrounds the new model. Many in the education sector are unclear as to what exactly it means for schools and their pupils. To assuage their fears, they were told that there would be no change for two years, but I have been contacted by a number of school principals who at this time of year would normally be making applications to the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, for resource hours for children with various diagnoses, such as autism and speech and language disorders. As the Minister probably knows, there is currently no application form on the NCSE website and principals are being told that, if they send in applications, they will be returned.

One principal with whom I spoke recently had a conversation with a special educational needs organiser, SENO. She informed the SENO of a child with a diagnosis who had just arrived in the school. She also advised the SENO that she expected a few more pupils in September. The SENO promptly told her that there was no need to apply and that she should include them right away. That sounded good until he dropped the bombshell that there would be no new extra hours for these children. They would have to be accommodated within the existing bank of resource hours allocated to children already in the school. This is where a problem arises. The same number of hours will have to be spread around more children. One deduces from this that some children will lose out. Perhaps the Minister will examine this matter.

On top of this, principals are of the opinion that, in two years' time, the level of special needs in many schools will increase by a third or a half of current numbers. There is a feeling that the new model that is being touted as a move to a more "equitable" system - this may be the case - actually means that there will be less all round for the children involved.

Can the Minister relieve people's fears and say that no school will have fewer hours for any new child that requires special needs assistance?

The other issue is the school admission policy and baptism barrier. The Joint Committee on Education and Skills and our colleagues here on it are doing some work on that. I do not know how far we are from arriving at a conclusion to this issue. Fortunately, in the part of the world that I come from and, dare I suggest, most of rural Ireland, this is not a problem. It is a problem in schools in this city and indeed elsewhere and we look forward to a solution being put forward by the Minister. I know that the Joint Committee on Education and Skills is receiving presentations about that at the moment, but I look forward to the Minister's thoughts.

The other issue is the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, which plays an important role in supporting schools and children in trying circumstances. The Action Plan for Education, which was announced last year, promised to hire 65 educational psychologists in the first quarter of this year. Unfortunately, this has not happened to date. The action plan that was mentioned some time ago talked about hiring ten additional psychologists in the second quarter of 2017. Unfortunately, none have been recruited to date. Some 199 schools, catering for 34,575 pupils, do not have access to a psychological service as things currently stand. Many schools that do not have an assigned educational psychologist are severely disadvantaged. Teachers are not qualified to diagnose. They need assessments and recommendations from NEPS in order to put programmes in place. I look forward to the Minister's comments on the issue.

Another issue I have raised on a number of occasions is the lack of substitute teachers. We have a severe problem with that at the moment. It is also noted that some schools may have no choice but to close because of this issue. Does the Minister have any plans to address this? Most of our teachers are moving abroad, having been offered very attractive packages in Dubai and other such exotic locations. That is somewhere that we are competing with and it is a serious problem in the schools that we need to address.

The other issue is the ongoing strike by the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland, ASTI. I know that some pupils are very concerned that those taking English are going to lose 10%. That is very unfair and I am sure the Minister would acknowledge that himself. Does he have any plans to address that issue so that those students who would be stressed enough with exams taking place will not have to worry about that?

The issue of Brexit creates many problems for this country. It covers every Department, but particularly the Department of Education and Skills. I am concerned about what effect this will ultimately have on us. What plans does the Department have for Brexit? What areas does the Minister see as threats to the educational system, and what opportunities exist?

I welcome the Minister. I also welcome the recently launched Action Plan for Education for 2017. The most important thing in it is that it is going to improve the learner experience and the success of learners. The introduction of the new model of allocating teachers to improve mainstream support for special needs children is important, because no matter what school one is in, there are always a number of people with special needs. I am glad the area is being addressed, as well as that of educationally disadvantaged learners. The plan refers to helping to deliver those services to continuously improve and build stronger bridges between the educational and wider community. The setting up of the Parent and Student Charter is important because it is going to improve national planning. It is important to have a link between the wider community, the parents and the students who are the key to it.

The plan refers to the goal of well-being and mindfulness. I would like to refer to a mindfulness programme that was on RTE there recently on the six o'clock news. It was introduced in the primary school in Moyross. It has been a success story for the introduction of this programme. The principal was heard to have said that it created a calmness, and that the children are much more engaged and active. I would like to see it rolled out across all schools, because it is very positive.

There is a better choice of subjects in the junior cycle, and the Minister is introducing guidelines on mental health. I recently went to the launch of the Cycle Against Suicide programme with the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee when she was in Limerick. It was an all-island approach. All the secondary schools were there. It was a positive programme. It is an area that needs emphasis. It also helps in reducing the stigma around mental health. It was a fantastic programme, and fantastic to see how engaged students and teachers were. They also listened to what was happening on the stage as well.

The early years programme in the Minister's plan is most important, because we have to engage with students at an early age and to continue that participation as students go forward. I have been at Our Lady of Lourdes national school in Limerick for many programmes, and it was one of the original pilot schemes for the early years programme. The level of engagement between students, parents and teachers was so important. It also brought the families on board as well. It encouraged them to get involved in the education of their children.

Under Goal 3, leadership, best practice and innovation are mentioned. They are key areas. Enterprise and greater career choice are also mentioned. Nowadays, people are looking towards what they are going to be down the road. Introducing both innovation and enterprise into the programme is positive.

We had a debate in the Seanad recently about history. The Minister's Department ran a history competition. It was a great success story. It was across both primary and secondary schools.

I refer to the school building programme. This is part of the plan. I welcome the Minister's announcement today of Thomond primary school in Limerick receiving its allocation of funding today. The Model primary school also received it recently. These are two schools that are delivering. One is in a disadvantaged area and the other is a mainstream school, but they are both delivering a worthwhile programme. There are people queuing up to get into these schools. It is important that this schools building programme be rolled out as money becomes available. It is to be welcomed that there will be 60,000 additional school places under that programme.

Another initiative is the tackling of the cost. A survey found that it cost €800 to send a child to secondary school and approximately €300 to send a child to a primary school. The possibility of generic uniforms is being looked at, which takes the emphasis off those who cannot afford to go out and buy the proper school uniform or accredited school uniform. In saying that, the Minister is looking towards helping out people with the book loan scheme, and also passing on books from one to another.

The Music Education Bursary Scheme has not been mentioned here today. This is most important. While children are being educated, our culture and our sport are important. There is encouragement for the education of these. Music has been introduced in all schools now. A very successful programme from my own experience in Limerick has been the involvement of the Irish Chamber Orchestra with many primary schools. It teaches children with the Sing Out with Strings programme. This has been very successful. It is to be welcomed if we can encourage more of these programmes.

Encouraging more of these programmes is to be welcomed.

On the expansion of the DEIS programme to 79 further schools, I know some schools were very disappointed they did not qualify on this occasion but the fact the Department has encouraged schools, which are not happy they did not qualify, to engage with it is a very important message to send out.

I refer to the retention rates at second level and the emphasis on numeracy and literacy. No matter what school a child is in, numeracy and literacy are so important and they come into every subject.

I refer to the launch of the apprenticeship and traineeship programme, with a target of 50,000 apprenticeships and trainees by 2020. This is a very ambitious programme, which is very close to my heart and in which I take a particular interest. We now have craft-based apprenticeships - I think there are 27 in the programme - and there is a proposal to increase the number over the next number of years. Aiming to achieve 100 apprenticeships and 50 traineeships is very important but one area that has been highlighted to me, and think I raised this with the Minister before, is the shortage in the area of culinary skills. Our tourism sector is so dependent on people having traineeships and it is an area I would like the Minister to take a look at because the hospitality industry is concerned that there is a shortage of chefs and people in other areas.

The extra money for third level is to be welcomed. I was at a launch recently at the University of Limerick, which related to STEM subjects. There has been collaboration between the universities and industry and this should be encouraged. It is very important that is rolled out. Senator Gallagher referred to Brexit and I would also like to raise that issue.

I refer to the increase in grants for ICT. ICT has been introduced in a number of schools and, in terms of a changing global economy, this is most important. Coding and Mandarin have been spoken about, which I welcome. I also welcome the fact computer science has been introduced to the leaving certificate.

I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for facilitating the statements on education. I took the time to look at the Action Plan for Education, particularly at the key issues for 2017. I said earlier in respect of another Minister that it is a brave thing for a Minister to set out targets, deadlines and deliveries per quarter. That is really refreshing in terms of Rebuilding Ireland and the housing programme and the Action Plan for Education. We are seeing realistic targets, delivery times and responsibilities being set, and I think that is really important. Not everything will be reached within the deadline but there is a process by which one can look at and monitor it. It also instills a certain amount of confidence in the thinking and the direction behind the education policy into the future.

I want to deal with six key items I identified and in which I have an interest. The first is well-being in education, which is referred to in this policy document; the second is disadvantage; the third is skills; the fourth is after-school care provision, which is set out in terms of targets for 2017; the fifth is infrastructure; and the sixth is special educational needs, SEN. I will ask the Minister questions to which, hopefully, he will be able to respond, or perhaps we can make contact at a later date.

Again, I thank the Minister for launching the plan. He has clearly set down his action items. On well-being, the policy document states that every school will be required to have a dedicated guidance counselling time available to students. The Minister will implement the junior cycle well-being programme, he will appoint an additional ten National Educational Psychology Services, NEPS, psychologists and he will establish the well-being steering committee to develop policy statements and identify the gaps in the service. I am interested to hear what progress has been made on that. It is early 2017 but where is the Minister in terms of his targets and the delivery? How does the Minister see that being rolled out in the next few months?

On disadvantage, the Minister stated that in 2017 he will publish a plan for future supports to tackle educational disadvantage but particularly for building and developing existing services in the DEIS supports with the new schools being emphasised for DEIS starting next September. He will also develop a schools excellence fund and commence a pilot scheme initially in the DEIS schools. The Minister might elaborate on that and tell us how that is progressing.

On skills, the Minister will develop 30 new apprenticeships and two new traineeships in 2017. He will review work experience at post-primary, develop innovation and responses to address skills shortages in ICT, languages and biopharma, which has to be welcomed. He will engage actively and in a collaborative way with the enterprise sector in education. I really like the emphasis on enterprise and the economy in terms of education because it is not just A, B, C, and 1, 2,3, education has a far wider span and the Minister seems to acknowledge that throughout this programme, which is to be commended.

On the after-school provisions, the Minister said he will publish guidelines for the use of school buildings out-of-hours, which has to be welcomed. The days of having public school facilities empty on holidays, at weekends and at night and not open to other forms of community involvement, education or recreation is over and should have been over long ago. I would be interested in how the Minister is developing that in terms of the possible conflicts with the authorities of these buildings and schools and the various vested interests around all that. We should have a very flexible approach to the use of school buildings in terms of promoting education.

On infrastructure, the Minister will complete 46 large scale building projects and provide 6,000 additional permanent post-primary places in 2017. That is a very ambitious target and one to commend but could the Minister give us some idea of how that is going and what mechanisms are in place in terms of rolling that out? That is a highly ambitious target and a brave one to put out there.

On special educational needs, the Minister will introduce new models to allocate teachers in mainstream schools to support children with special educational needs. He will also establish a new, inclusive support service and complete comprehensive assessments of the special educational needs in terms of the SNAs.

We know we are ambitious but education is about realising ambition for ourselves and our families and our children. We also know that education is a powerful instrument in terms of social inclusion - that is a really important statement - and addressing many of the disadvantages that young people face. However, education does not stop with young people; it is an evolving process.

The issues on which I touched are important. They resonate with me and I have a particular interest in them. I acknowledge that budget 2017 secured an additional €458 million in funding for education, and that is positive. This is a very ambitious plan and it is a brave Minister who will set it out as clearly as the Minister has done and I wish him well. I would welcome comments on the issues I raised. Again, I thank the Minister for coming in and, more importantly, for his time.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House today. Having read the plan and the proposals for the education of our children, I also thank him for them. We need much more action to address the chronic underinvestment which currently cripples our education system. In the past, this was known as the land of saints and scholars but hopefully we have lost the saints. For the scholarly, however, it depends on one's postcode. Inequality is very much in existence.

What we have today is simply a rerun of last year's education plan and a DEIS update which leaves out a whole host of disadvantaged schools, with thousands of students left behind because of underinvestment. TASC launched a report in autumn or winter last year for 2016.

It states that inequality is not noticed at birth, at one year or at three years old but it starts to creep up after that and begins to show in the child. The saddest thing I ever heard was that, by the age of 13, children in disadvantaged areas give up psychologically on their dreams of being princesses, going to university or being rocket spacemen. This is through disadvantage and the lack of a secure education for them. We need to bring this back into our education system for all our children.

The most disturbing part of the decision is to provide only ten NEPS psychologists even though 600 schools are currently without access to them. In the course of my own lengthy experience in psychiatry and during the workshops I gave to schools in Crumlin and Dublin 8 it was harrowing to see the number of children with mental ill health and ill health is rampant in some schools. There is a lot of suicidal thought and it is even more worrying to hear of hidden thoughts of self harm, especially among girls. We desperately need psychologists if we are to help them from an early age.

The Minister will be aware of the lack of psychologists but it is disappointing that he has failed to fund them adequately. Is it because parents will do anything - beg, borrow or steal - for their distressed children that we do not budget for this? That may be a cynical point but there has been so little effort on behalf of the extra 600 schools which need these services that it appears to be true. This is not how we should treat our children. In Sinn Féin's alternative budget, we provided for €3.5 million in education for psychologists and full restoration of guidance counsellor provision because students' mental health, from the cradle upwards, is very important.

The Minister's document gives no detail on the methodology of the allocation of resources under the new model for special educational needs. Several schools have contacted our spokesperson, Deputy Carol Nolan, seeking certainty on the resources to be allocated and the methodology the Department will use to decide what is allocated to whom. They also want to know how accommodating the Department will be when schools undergo a change in circumstances. These plans are being rolled out in September so schools need to know what is happening as soon as possible. They need to know how they can appeal against decisions they feel are unfair.

The goalposts seem to be changing in terms of deadlines and targets for access to higher education. When is the review of the student assistance fund going to be published? I understand the target date was the end of 2016 but there has been no report yet. The data plan for monitoring access to higher education was due by the end of the year and a report on barriers to lone parents accessing higher education was due before the 2017 budget. Neither has been published yet. Individuals from lower socioeconomic groups have been severely and unacceptably under-represented in higher education and the Department has failed to meet three deadlines for reports which potentially highlight access issues. These need to be done as soon as possible.

I welcome the fact that the DEIS scheme is bringing in new schools for the first time since 2009. There is a lack of clarity as to the criteria the Department is using to pick the schools and some schools which have not been included in the scheme feel they have a right to be included. Can the Minister explain the criteria and say how to go about an appeals mechanism in which the Department will look at a decision again? The DEIS scheme is a fundamental part of providing equality to our education system and it should be funded proportionately with that in mind. We must change the face of higher education. Last year, Senator Ruane remarked on the difference between listening to somebody from a wealthy background tell of how they were getting on in life, in secondary school or university, and the experience of counting the number of her own friends who had died because of suicide or depression. This fundamental difference in society is due to poverty and we cannot stand by and leave our children in poverty or they will never have the dreams or the hopes, or the encouragement and empowerment, to improve their lives. We have to tackle inequality and poverty but we are not doing it in the right way, across health, housing or education, which are the three fundamental areas in which we all need to feel secure, protected and supported.

In our submissions last year we set aside funding for increasing SNAs and resource teaching hours in the area of special educational needs because we need to put those needs first. I hope the Minister will take on board what has been said today and take another look at his Department's action plan. As it stands, it will not sort out the issues about which we have spoken. Education for all, access for all and equality for all are at the forefront of everything we do.

I want to address a couple of areas and hopefully get some answers. One relates to the fact that over 6,000 children live in care, some for short periods while family difficulties, such as the illness of a lone parent, are resolved but many grow up in care. How are these children doing educationally? How many sit the leaving certificate or go on to further education? Why are there no data for this specific group? The State is responsible for these children but it is not asking questions around education. We have an obligation, as a society, to children in care to increase their future chances and education pays a crucial role in this. Can the Minister change this deficit in knowledge about kids in care and their educational journey? Scotland, Australia, the US and Northern Ireland gather data on educational attainment of children in the care of the state and publish them regularly.

We are discussing the Cassells report at the Joint Committee on Education and Skills and I call on the Minister to provide a technical report to go with the Cassells report. It is all very abstract and we need a technical report to look at the three different options, how they are rolled out, where the funding comes from and who funds them. We have no understanding of how each would work in practice and this piece of the investigation into third level education is missing.

Many children with dyscalculia, the mathematical equivalent of dyslexia, receive no diagnosis of, or resources for, the condition. We need to recognise it on the same level as dyslexia but there are no supports at leaving certificate stage for anybody with dyscalculia. We are doing a lot in mental health in schools and this is a positive step that I welcome but I am concerned about the sustainability of teacher capacity in the area. Teachers are the carriers of change in this area but they have a fear of intervening. I submitted an inclusive model for teacher training to the Department, which would mean teachers would do work placements in mental health provider centres, youth clubs and domestic violence centres so that they really understand the context in which they are working before they are placed in schools.

Another question relates to disadvantaged students who attend private colleges such as Griffith College. They are living on the margins yet State funding in terms of SUSI does not extend to them. Could the Minister indicate whether there will be any movement in that regard?

I refer to the many recent comments about Ireland being one of the biggest losers in relation to Brexit. Could the Minister outline the plan for the Department in terms of what is being put in place to support Irish universities that suffer following the negotiations on Brexit?

I commend the Department on extending the period Indian students can stay in Ireland. Will a similar extension be extended to other nationalities as it is a positive step in terms of attracting foreign students to universities in this country?

I welcome the Minister and commend him on his ongoing work. It is unusual for a Minister to arrive into the House and not to read from a script. He is obviously very much on top of his brief. I thank him for coming to the House.

For the education system to be truly equal, fair and inclusive, every child must have the opportunity to fulfil his or her potential, regardless of circumstances. We must strive to ensure that every child enjoys the optimum health and well-being in which he or she can thrive personally, socially and academically. Last week's announcement of the DEIS plan 2017, in addition to the action plan are very welcome. The latter centres on using the potential of the education system to break down cycles of disadvantage. As the Minister said, it builds on the experiences of existing DEIS schools and draws on international best practice. It also sets out new targets. In my view, however, as important as academic success is – most of us would take that as a given – the priority must also be on the promotion of health and well-being among children. A child's health has such a huge bearing on his or her performance in school and on how he or she will achieve and turn out in life in general. I commend the fact that the Department of Education and Skills is involved in a number of measures to promote the overall Healthy Ireland agenda that is being led by the Department of Health. It is only with a cross-departmental approach that we will get to the bottom of the problem.

I recently attended some meetings in Amsterdam. The Dutch had a problem with childhood obesity as well but the incidence is one in eight and it is moving towards one in ten now, whereas the incidence here is one in four, which indicates a much greater problem here. We are doing a report for the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and I would be happy to send that on to the Minister when it is available if he considers it helpful.

The work that is being done by the Department of Health feeds directly into the work relating to student well-being and mental health. The Department of Education and Skills is co-operating with the Department of Health on specific areas relating to the Healthy Ireland initiative. There are three parts to the initiative. There is the special advisory group on obesity, SAGO; the actions under the sexual health strategy and actions under the national physical activity plan.

I have long been a strong vocal advocate for the urgent necessity to tackle the scourge of childhood obesity. That needs to be done at a very young age. Could the Minister clarify whether objective 1.1 in the report to which I referred, which relates to wellness subjects is intended for primary schools or secondary schools? I get the impression that there is an opportunity to make submissions and that it has not yet been decided how the subject will be ultimately decided. I feel strongly that children in primary schools must be educated as to what is healthy so that they know good food is fuel and if one eats well one will be healthier and therefore perform better at school and in sporting activities. A subject such as well-being in schools should encompass awareness about sugar and alcohol. I will come to some related issues shortly.

Currently, one in four Irish children is considered to be overweight and obese. In fact, we are on target to be the most obese nation in the world by 2030. I have also highlighted the fact that Irish children are consuming far too much sugar. We hear a great deal about that. It is the opposite to where we were 20 or 25 years ago when fat was the enemy. When fat was considered to be the enemy it was taken out of food which was then pumped with sugar and salt. We need to be careful about the extreme hate agendas which go against certain foods.

I wish to highlight the gap that was recently exposed in a recent report which indicated that fourth year male students are 41% fitter than their female counterparts. I do not think that is acceptable. That is due to all sorts of reasons, including academic ones. I would be interested to hear a comment from the Minister in that regard.

In my view, tackling obesity must encompass both diet and exercise. We must target children at a very young age. In more deprived areas or where parents are not as aware of nutrition as they should be we could target parents through children. I have so much to say to the Minister but I am aware that I am under time pressure. I will conclude.

I did some work last week on synthetic drugs, which are a growing problem. In 2015 a total of 50 deaths were attributed to synthetic drugs, for example, U4. Even people who deal with drugs find it very difficult to get their heads around them. With cocaine, heroin and other such drugs at least there is an appreciation of what they are dealing with, whereas synthetic drugs are being bought on the Internet and sourced in other ways.

Thank you for your indulgence, a Leas-Chathaoirligh, I will finish on this point. We should improve awareness of drugs as part of a well-being subject where we cover issues such as healthy eating with a positive focus. We could invite speakers to schools who have had a negative experience with drugs or alcohol so that we can teach children early. They will make decisions as they go through life but we should arm them with the requisite information as early as possible. I am grateful for the indulgence of the House as I spoke for longer than intended.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I also welcome the opportunity to debate the subject of education with him. I thank him for his opening statement. As he said, it is an exciting time for education in Ireland. We are facing immense challenges but some very positive developments also, in particular as we are coming out of the recession and seeing an increase in resources available to the education sector. I think I am correct in saying approximately 1 million people are accessing education at all levels across the country. We have seen significant demographic growth and that has brought its own challenges.

What I wish to focus on, in the brief time we have, is equality of access. First, I wish to note some very positive aspects in my sector, which is third level. I note that we have a very good record in terms of third level achievement. A total of 48% of 25 to 34 year olds have a third level qualification, which places us very high indeed in the EU rankings. We have met EU targets for third level achievement and we also have good records in terms of resourcing programmes to ensure greater access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. We have seen particular success with programmes such as that run in Trinity College, the Trinity access programme, or in DCU with the Ballymun Initiative for Third Level Education, BITE, among others. However, it is clear that a great deal more could be done to ensure greater diversity of access to third level.

I wish to also reference the Cassells report, which Senator Ruane mentioned, because many of us have a concern about a fee-based model, which is one of the options addressed in the report. The danger is that it would have a detrimental impact in terms of ensuring greater equity of access across various sectors of society, and in particular that it would be a disincentive for people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. We had a number of seminars on the issue in recent months in Trinity and many of us have a real concern about that.

In terms of research and research funding, we are seeing very positive developments in terms of increased resources, which again I very much welcome. It is noteworthy that Science Foundation Ireland, in its presentation to the all-island civic forum on Brexit in Kilmainham in November was one of the very few entities on the island to express some positivity about the impact of Brexit. I was at a briefing with Science Foundation Ireland last week, which other colleagues attended, and it again expressed guarded optimism about the potential for gaining access to EU research resources and funding as a result of Brexit. That is not to say there is anything positive about Brexit, as most of us are deeply depressed about the prospect of it but it is good to see that there may well be some positive impact in terms of science funding and in terms of prospects for collaboration and the ability to attract top level scientific researchers.

That is something to note.

I want to focus on the issue of equality of access at primary level, a subject on which I have worked for many years and which is currently the subject of great debate. I refer to equality of access on the grounds of religion, the so-called baptism barrier, about which the Minister spoke on 16 January and again at the Equate Ireland conference yesterday in Croke Park. I very much welcome his remarks and initiatives in establishing a consultation on this, in which I participated as a parent of children at primary level.

All of us are very familiar with the statistics, namely, that of the 3,200 primary schools across the country, 96% are under religious patronage and 90% of those are Catholic. A mere 81 schools are under the multidenominational patronage of the Educate Together school body. Of the Educate Together schools, it is important to note that 26% are DEIS designated. There is a diversity that is not just about religion. In terms of Educate Together schools, of which I am a very strong proponent and supporter, it is important to note they are not just about equality of access for children of all faiths and none. Rather, the model also ensures that faith formation classes remain outside the school day, the children learn about all religions without being instructed in any one and education more generally is child-centred and parents have a strong role. It is not just about religion.

This is an issue, in particular at primary level, which the Minister has noted. We do not see the same stark figures at secondary level. Some 45% of secondary schools are not religious run. The disconnection between the high level of schools under religious patronage and the fact that we are now seeing over one third of couples choosing to marry in non-religious ceremonies and more parents are voting with their feet and choosing Educate Together schools, many of which are wildly oversubscribed, shows the need for change. As I said, the Minister has acknowledged that. It has been a very slow process.

I am conscious that the former Minister, Ruairí Quinn, my Labour Party colleague, initiated the national forum on pluralism and patronage in the primary sector in 2012. As part of that process, there was a proposal that divestments would take place. I was the chair of a local school start-up group in the Dublin 8 area which led to the divestment of a Catholic school, the Basin Lane Christian Brothers building which reopened in 2014 as Canal Way Educate Together school. The school is thriving, I am delighted to say, and is multidenominational.

Divestment as a broader process has been very slow, despite the fact that where surveys of parental demand were carried out following the national forum and Professor John Coolahan's report, a large majority of parents voted for change to a multidenominational model. Yet, there is a real difficulty with actually achieving divestment, largely due to the fact that school buildings remain in the ownership of religious bodies or lay trusts established by religious orders to manage their affairs. That has led to significant problems for the State in practice, in terms of trying to achieve change and greater pluralism in the patronage of schools. The Minister and his officials are very aware of this issue.

A very positive initiative was taken by another Labour Party colleague, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, the Minister's predecessor, who took the decision to abolish rule 68 in January 2016. It had been a particular issue for many parents, given the fact that it required the curriculum be infused with a religious ethos in Catholic run schools. It was a positive move. However, the initiative the Minister announced in his speech on 16 January marks a new process.

As I said, I have participated in the consultation process and I very much welcome it, as well as the fact that he spoke yesterday at the Equate Ireland conference. At the conference, we saw a real momentum for change. Professor Bielefeldt, a former UN rapporteur on education, spoke about potential breaches of human rights, given the fact that there is a barrier in terms of access to education because of the religious patronage of many schools. We all need to acknowledge that it only becomes an issue where schools are oversubscribed, an issue many have spoken about. It is a particular issue in Dublin. About 20% of schools are oversubscribed and can and do limit access to children of particular religions. That is untenable. It is a breach of the human rights of children and we need to move to a position whereby we have change.

I would favour repeal of section 7(3)(c)of the Equal Status Act. The Labour Party brought forward a Private Members' Bill seven months ago to address the issue, which the Government supported on Second Stage while expressing some doubts about it. How does the Minister see the process gathering pace, given the slow momentum we have had in the past and the fact we have been criticised by international bodies over successive years for our failure to address the religious dominance of school access for primary pupils? How do we move to a target the Minister noted we need to move towards, namely 400 multidenominational schools by 2030?

Some are advocating a community school or interdenominational model. The problem with that for many parents is that it still requires children to attend faith formation or religious instruction classes during the school day. For many of us, the principle is that faith formation for children is a matter for parents in accordance with their religion, and should take place outside of the school day. The national school curriculum should be about giving children a broad education on all forms of religion, as well as humanist and atheist beliefs, but not instruction in any particular faith. That is a very important principle for many of us involved in the movement for change.

I thank the Minister for coming to address the House today. I have raised the matter of DEIS schools in the House. I very much welcome the expansion of the programme. However, as some of my colleagues have pointed out, there are some issues regarding transparency and the criteria required for entry onto the scheme. The DEIS expansion is something welcomed by Fianna Fáil. It is a programme that was initiated by it and plays a significant role in tackling social exclusion and helping disadvantaged children.

Selection criteria is a significant issue, and the process seems to be shrouded in secrecy. I met the Minister earlier this year regarding a school in Walkinstown, the Assumption Junior School, which lost a class on the basis that it did not have enough pupils. It was awarded disadvantaged school status. The school to which I refer is an island in a sea of DEIS schools in what is probably one of the most deprived areas of our city. The school had not been awarded DEIS status on the basis that the teachers work very hard to get good results for the children attending the school. It is a fantastic school, but one which faces many challenges.

There have been some interesting discriminatory factors regarding how a school is awarded DEIS status. For instance, the girls' and boys' primary schools and the girls' secondary school were not awarded DEIS status, but the boys from the primary school attend a school across the road, Drimnagh Castle, which was awarded DEIS status. There is direct discrimination between boys and girls. Boys attend a DEIS school, which has a smaller pupil-teacher ratios, home liaison services, the school completion programme, better access to literacy and numeracy supports and other such benefits.

The principal of the Assumption Junior School in Walkinstown questioned the Higher Education Authority as to why it was excluded and received a very interesting reply. The HEA recommended that the principal check the POD data to ensure that all pupils had full addresses and Eircodes, where available. I have a small business in Crumlin village and have tried repeatedly to get an Eircode for my premises, without any success. For the HEA to tell a school that because it has not provided Eircodes it cannot be awarded DEIS status is something I cannot believe, and it needs to be challenged.

That the schools to which I refer have not been awarded DEIS status is shameful, when there are social issues in the area and other schools around the country have been awarded DEIS status despite being in much more affluent areas. These children deserve a chance. Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí; cáin an óige agus clisfidh sí.

It is a real kick in the face of these schools, the teachers and the pupils who attend them.

I ask the Minister to consider this school in particular. Perhaps he might reassess its status using a POD system or whatever else and grant it DEIS status.

I welcome the Minister and his action plan. I very much welcome the strong focus on the continued integration of children with special needs and from disadvantaged backgrounds. There are real problems in retaining such children in school. The school completion programme has played a critical role in achieving the goal of keeping children in school for as long as possible to avail of an education. The facts are startling. As mentioned by other Senators, higher educational attainment, tangentially, leads to a higher paid job. Many children, including those with special needs, can excel if given the right support at the right time, for example, by SNAs, the number of which the Minister has increased on a yearly basis. The responsibility to meet the increasing demand for speech and language and behavioural therapy lies more with the HSE. As children only have one childhood, cross-departmental co-operation is required to deliver services. The Department of Education and Skills has improved in leaps and bounds in this regard.

I especially welcome the Minister's comments on DEIS schools and his examination of the synergies between schools to provide the best support for children. The measure is innovative and novel and bound to lead to good results. Many children with special needs or from disadvantaged backgrounds can excel if given the right support, the provision of which can involve multiple agencies and Departments. I have mentioned the Department of Education and Skills, the Department of Health and the HSE in this regard. Other organisations and Departments include Tusla, the local authorities, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the Department with responsibility for the environment and the Department of Justice and Equality.

Schools and parents will always worry about losing services. Striking a balance between rewarding a school that has achieved great results through its teachers and staff working hard and, on the other side, providing resources where they will make impact the most and are most needed is difficult, but it is a task that must be watched closely. I agree fully with the move away from diagnosis towards need in determining the support to be provided. When I was Minister for Health and former Deputy Kathleen Lynch was Minister of State at the Department of Health, we promoted this initiative.

On a broader and brighter note, it is great to see cranes in Balbriggan and Lusk where schools are being built. I welcome the news that tenders have been issued to proceed with the second phase of Lusk community college. I know that St. Michael's in Skerries is anxiously awaiting a new premises for its students. When I visited the school, I discovered that conditions there were very poor. If ever a school required a new building, St. Michael's deserves one. The students include some of the most vulnerable in our society and it will reflect on us if we do not look after them and provide them with the educational environment they desire and deserve. The staff at the school do a wonderful job in difficult circumstances.

St. Joseph's secondary school in Rush has provided classes on coding for a number of years. Many students participate in them, even though the subject is not on either curriculum.

Let me highlight a real problem in Swords. The Minister has answered parliamentary questions on the topic. I will read a letter I received from a resident:

My family and I life within five minutes of the Holy Family school in River Valley. We are, therefore, local residents and Catholics so we fit the criteria for a school place. On Thursday we received a letter from the school to inform us that our daughter, four in November, was not a successful applicant and she has been placed on a waiting list.

The waiting list includes up to 100 children. Owing to the unprecedented numbers applying for admission, in the end the school decided to go by the age of the child. Any child whose date of birth was beyond 4 November was placed on a waiting list. There are other schools in Swords where clearly there is a problem, but the Department states otherwise. The problem needs to be highlighted. Holywell national school also has a waiting list. When the family in question rang to inquire about a place, they were told there was a waiting list but no number was given. Another primary school in Swords is Scoil an Duinnínigh. Again, when the family inquired about a place, they were told there was a waiting list and that following the making of an application, their child would be 30th on the list. St. Cronan's junior national school is at full capacity. Gaelscoil Bhrian Bóroimhe is in its second round of offers and there is a waiting list but, again, no number was given. Old Borough national school is at full capacity. St. Colmcille's girls' national school will be accepting applications until March. Thornleigh Educate Together national school is in the second round and there is a waiting list. Swords Educate Together primary school has a waiting list of 135.

The Department has stated the problem of finding a school place is not as big as we believe it is, but people on the ground have had a different experience. It would be great if the Minister were to visit the constituency as it would afford him an opportunity to see all of the cranes and the great work being done by his Department. He would also be able to learn about the challenges that remain. The constituency has the fastest growing population of young people in Ireland, if not the European Union. As such the provision of school places will continue to present real challenges. Therefore, we must plan for the future. There is a landbank in Fingal which is the obvious place in which to provide for future expansion.

I ask Senators to stick to the time allocated in order to leave enough time for everyone. As the Minister is due to respond at 6.20 p.m., I am under pressure to include every Senator who wishes to contribute.

I welcome the Minister and compliment him on hitting the ground running when he was appointed Minister for Education and Skills. Thus far the signs have been good and I am not saying it to boost his chances as regards anything that may happen tomorrow. He has done a good job.

Equality of access has been discussed. Frankly, the nonsense of teaching religion in national schools must stop. Let me give an example. The other day I talked to a national schoolteacher who had prepared her class for First Holy Communion. Each time she tried to get her students to focus on religion, a little girl would say she wanted to talk about her dress or hairdo and the method to be used to travel to the church. On the day of the First Holy Communion the teacher looked around but there was no sign of the little girl in the church. She thought she must have fallen ill with excitement. When push came to shove the child did not show up. The students were instructed to wear their First Holy Communion gear to school to have a photograph taken. The little girl arrived in school with her hair beautifully done. The teacher said, "Oh my God, Julie, you were not at the church on Saturday. What happened?" The girl replied that her mum had booked a hairdresser to call to their house but they arrived late. When the girl's hair had been done, the family were too late to attend the church and went straight to the hotel. What does that say about our view of religion and where we are going?

It is time we kicked the practice aside and stopped the nonsense and did what I saw happen in Finland when I visited a school there two years ago. The trip around the school included a talk about fitness and well-being. I was told that, regardless of the weather, the children spend every Monday in the forest behind the school. Another Senator and I were assigned a 12 year old kid to show us the resources available in the school. As we walked up the stairs to the music room, the child stopped dead at the middle of the stairs, turned around and said: "I am terribly sorry, Senators, but I should have asked you how Ireland was coping with the crisis?" I asked him to what crisis he was referring. He said he had meant the economic crisis and I replied that I was delighted to report that we were recovering. He said that gave him great faith because Finland would have to cut its budget in the following three years and that if Ireland could recover, Finland could. He smiled and trotted off towards the music room. When we reached it, I told him that his English was extremely good, for which he thanked me. I asked him whether he also spoke Swedish. He said he spoke Swedish, Finnish, German and English but that his Russian was bad. In the light of Brexit and our commitment to the European Union, we would be better off teaching children here coding, as mentioned by Senator Reilly, and languages. If people want to have their children taught religion, I suggest they attend Sunday school or that time be provided after the school day when a religion teacher could teach the subject. That is my view on national schools.

I want to talk to the Minister about further education. As a former president of the Teachers Union of Ireland, I was hammered for making the following suggestion.

We have the finest further education institutions in the country, catering for some 30,000 teachers, and yet we close them every summer and in the evenings unless there are evening classes. The McIver report, which was published in 2004, provided for the opening of further education colleges for the 12 months of the year from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. We can revisit that model and start making those colleges work for the general good. We were talking about third-level colleges and how well they are doing. We have a huge attrition rate because we have devalued apprenticeships and we have devalued further education. As someone who came through further education rather late in life I have tremendous respect for what goes on in those colleges, and I would ask that we might at some stage reinvigorate the ideas in the McIver report and have those colleges open late in the evening 12 months of the year.

I welcome the action plan for education and particularly the focus on the disadvantaged. My first job was in Finglas, working in the Youth Encounter project, which involved looking after children who had dropped out of mainstream education. That theme has followed me throughout my working life. I worked in England setting up Sure Start centres which focussed on educational disadvantage. When working with the Simon Community in Cork I could see the impact of low educational attainment on the people who came through the doors. There is a much higher rate of learning disability in prisons than is found in the general population. Even in dementia, people who have poor educational attainment have higher rates of dementia. It is a fundamental issue that affects us across our lives. I often think of the 2,500 children living in emergency accommodation. How on earth are they to succeed in the world? How are they going to do their homework? How will they be educated?

I want to talk about children with autism. Children and students with autism should be able to access a diverse and suitable education in a mainstream setting. The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs, EPSEN, Act 2004, provides that children are to be educated in an inclusive setting unless this would not be in the best interests of the child. The provision of an autism spectrum disorder, ASD, classroom, which enables students with autism to navigate school successfully, are key to making mainstream education accessible. Allowing students with autism to attend mainstream education has a positive effect on the whole school, providing all students with an insight and understanding of autism. The world is a diverse place and our schools and classrooms should reflect that reality. There is a current chronic lack of ASD classrooms, particularly at second level. At present schools can and often do refuse to establish an ASD classroom when requested to do so by the special education needs co-ordinators, SENO, working for the National Council for Special Education. As a result there is patchy and unbalanced access to education for children with autism. Some students, even in urban areas, are often forced to travel up to 20 km to school every day because local schools will not cater for their needs.

Many students who had access to an ASD classroom at primary school will not get one at second level because of the current gap in provision. Before Christmas I spoke at the first meeting of the campaign group Homeroom in Cork. The meeting was attended by hundreds of parents and teachers. The group has highlighted the fact that in the whole of County Cork there are just 81 ASD classrooms at primary level for 480 pupils and just 41 at secondary level. The difference in places at primary and secondary school, the Cork autism education gap, is 234. Nationally this gap affects 2,366 pupils. As a result some students will lose educational support as they transition from primary to second level. This uncertainty and even loss of access to education for children and young people with autism causes great stress to children who especially need consistency to thrive and learn and make progress in the world. A place in an ASD classroom can be more cost effective than a place in a special school or the cost required to support home schooling.

I believe the solution is to provide the National Council of Special Education, NCSE, with the necessary authority to instruct a school to open an ASD classroom. The NCSE requested this power in a 2015 policy paper, and the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016 gives the Minister the opportunity to actually change the current draft to give that power and authority to the National Council of Special Education Need. This small change in the amendment - I gave the Minister a copy of it before I came in - would make a huge difference to those children with autism who are struggling to get access to education. I hope this will be taken up as the Bill goes through the Dáil, but if not I will be back to propose it. I would like to think that the Minister will spare me the effort by doing the sensible thing now and take on board this useful, simple and timely change to a Bill that is going through.

Regarding third-level education, we have the Mayo campus of Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT, located in Castlebar in Mayo, and there is much concern locally that the campus is being downgraded to the benefit of Galway. I have met recently with Dr. Fergal Barry, head of GMIT, and the local head of campus, Mr. Michael Gill. It would seem that the problems of GMIT apply both in Mayo and in Galway, and that they share difficulties and challenges that IT colleges around the country share.

It would seem that there is scope for GMIT Mayo and Galway campuses to get more involved in research and development, but the funding made available by Government, which I understand is €150 million, which allows universities to seek co-funding from businesses and to set up funding for particular projects, is not available to the IT colleges. This clearly will impact on their ability to engage in research and development projects, and as I understand it part of our success in terms of investment, job creation and growth has been in the area of research and development. In my own neck of the woods, Ballina, we see some of our multinationals engage in research and development. This is adding value to their products and is also adding jobs. I understand that this funding is not available to IT colleges. What is the rationale for this and can it be addressed? This presents a structural problem for the IT colleges if they cannot access the same funding. Evidence of this is that within the past ten years we have witnessed a fall in funding to the IT colleges of approximately €1,700 per student compared to €250 for the universities, which would seem to underpin or verify the case that is being made that the IT colleges are not being properly supported equitably. How can this be justified?

With regard GMIT and the Mayo campus, this college is critical for rolling out vital third-level courses in our region. We spoke earlier about disadvantage. The issue of the logistics of people travelling and being able to afford to go to college also arises. The location of the campus makes third-level education accessible which people might not otherwise avail of. Perhaps the Minister can give some assurance as to how GMIT can make up this shortfall and truly engage in a sector that it is ready, willing and able to engage with. It has two research and development projects under way but they have to seek 100% funding.

I welcome the new Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, support programme. There are many schools around the country which are relieved they will get the extra supports and benefits and help them tackle educational disadvantage in the areas that they serve. It has been pointed out that some schools are disappointed, and I welcome the engagement that will take place between the Department and the schools. One school in particular that has been included this time around is Inver national school. I am asking the Minister that additional interim supports be given to the school.

The reason is that the school has been excluded from the DEIS programme since 2005, quite simply because the person responsible for filling out forms did not return them, notwithstanding reminders from the Department. This is all tied in to the Corrib project, the Shell to Sea campaign, etc. The whole region, the barony of Erris, was devastated for a while in that there was much conflict within the community. Since the time in question, many wrongs have been put to right, thankfully, and many issues have been settled.

Every other national school in Erris — they all have a similar profile — acquired DEIS status. I have contacted the Minister's two predecessors, Mr. Ruairí Quinn and Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, but nobody could state why the school, through no fault of its own, was never included. A whole generation of children has lost out on school supports and capitation grants. It is not enough that the children will get the support in September 2017. Some interim support should be given where there is clearly disadvantage. The school has been vindicated by being included this time and it has had a case throughout. At the time of the refusal of DEIS status, the school was not even allowed to appeal because of the approach taken by the person responsible, who has long departed from the school. I commend the head of the board of management, the principal and the community, all of whom have not given up and have not become too cynical about the fact that they have been ignored.

I ask the Minister to put this wrong to right. Many wrongs have been put to right. I ask the Minister to examine this matter. There is no other school in the country, in any region, that has experienced what has been experienced in the school in question. I ask the Minister to examine this with fresh eyes.

I appreciate the opportunity to contribute. I was at a meeting of the finance committee so I was not able to be present for the whole debate. I want to touch on one aspect, that of admissions. I represented Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, many of whose schools are quite oversubscribed. I am on my fifth term on the board of management of a secondary school. I have been on the boards of two different secondary schools over five terms. This is my third term as chairman. Therefore, I have a fair understanding of the issues concerning admissions policies. The difficulty is that if 270 people are applying for 90 places, 180 families, including parents and children, will be discommoded. No matter how we change baptism barriers or other barriers, it will be a question of supply. It is a bit like the housing problem in that we need supply. We want people who want their children to be educated in a faith-based school to have access to one. Equally, we want people who do not want a faith-based ethos or who want a multidenominational or nondenominational ethos, to be allowed that.

I ask the Minister to take account of the issues in south Dublin. I have never seen a school that was not full that refused anybody because he or she was not baptised. They let pupils live. The Government is moving deckchairs on the Titanic; it needs to increase the supply based on the relevant needs of the area and provide extra schools. That allows those who want their children to have a faith-based education to have it and, equally, it gives those who do not want their children in a faith-based system to have this choice. I thank the Minister for tackling the issue.

A considerable number of issues were raised. I will try to deal with them as quickly as possible.

Senators said there was confusion over how decisions on DEIS status were reached. The criteria used are based on a statistical model. It is some form of HP model. Essentially, the ingredients are population decline, dependency ratios, the educational levels of parents, which are based on two measures, lone parenthood, overcrowding of the home, social class, occupation and unemployment rates. The authorities consider the pupils enrolled in the school and the background from which they are drawn, and then they apply the measures I have listed. The system is applied uniformly to every school in the country. Therefore, there is no question of me or any individual favouring one school over another. Any school can request a review of the way a calculation was undertaken. The criteria are based entirely on using a fair model. The previous model was based on principals making returns, often, as Senator Mulherin indicated, in an arbitrary or incomplete way. What we are now doing is a first step; it is a first round. We are clearly opening the programme to other schools.

Senator Catherine Ardagh complained about an individual school in Walkinstown being left out. Dublin 12 had 15 DEIS schools. Five additional schools there have obtained DEIS status out of a national total of 79. At primary level, two of the schools are in Greenhills and one is in Moran Road and, at second level, the schools are in Greenhills and Walkinstown. That was based on a fair selection. It was not prejudiced against anyone. The same rules were applied everywhere.

Resource teaching was raised. We are providing 900 additional resource teachers. We are guaranteeing that no school will lose. On top of that, we are obviously protecting the resources for children with complex needs. Resources in this regard will continue to be allocated. We are deploying the 900 additional teachers in the schools that demonstrate on an objective basis, taking into account literacy standards and such measures, that they have a higher level of learning need than other schools. Therefore, the schools with the highest level of learning need will be the ones that will gain the additional resource teachers, and all the others will keep what they have had. A school will continue to have a resource for any child with complex needs. If a school feels it does not have sufficient resources for individuals, it can apply to the NCSE, which will review the matter. A new support service is being established in the NCSE to support schools in making this a success. It is a good model and it is worth supporting.

I fully agree with several Senators who raised the well-being programme in many contexts, from obesity to mental health. The programme is crucial. I acknowledge schools cannot provide the whole response but we are investing substantially in rolling out the junior cycle well-being programme. We are providing 22 hours' support for the teacher to roll out the programme, as with all junior cycle measures. There will be an effort to develop resilience in the schools. Every school has got a seven-point plan, on which it is asked to engage to ensure this gets embedded in a high-quality system. We are backing that with the support in the psychology service. We made a commitment to put guidance counsellors back in the schools. Therefore, we are putting in resources.

Senators said we should be expanding NEPS faster. I would love to be able to do so. There was no commitment to have 65 staff in quarter 1. This is the first extension. We are recruiting ten staff and we hope to expand the service by 25%. We are taking the pressure off the service because we are no longer requiring diagnostic tests. Much NEPS time is spent on diagnostic tests on children. This involves writing up reports simply so they may be submitted to the NCSE to draw down resources. We are doing away with the need for all those reports. The diagnostic model is being left behind. We are freeing up the resources of NEPS to go into the schools and support them in a much more positive way.

I cannot accept that the plan is a rerun of last year's plan. The first plan was a three-year plan but we have specified what we are going to deliver in each quarter of 2017. We met 85% of last year's commitments, and we hope to do better than that this year. This is not a rerun and the objectives are entirely new.

I do not accept that children in disadvantaged schools are giving up on their dreams. I have been to those schools and I see some fantastic children embracing the opportunities that education offers.

We need to do more of that. To pretend it is all negative is unfair. In many disadvantaged areas, teachers are putting in a massive effort. There are great success stories but we need more of them.

Senator Lynn Ruane raised a number of issues. She is correct that there is no systematic collection of data on children in care. It appears that because the children go to different schools and are not traced, we do not collect data on individual pupils and reproduce them. We do not collect data on a subset of children in care and reproduce them. We certainly do not want to isolate individual children and their data but, as the Senator says, there is a need to ascertain how we are faring in these areas.

The Cassells report dealt with a considerable issue. Clearly, if my Department can assist the Senator with technical information, it will be happy to do so.

Senator Lynn Ruane raised the issue of diagnostics in respect of a dysfunctional relationship to mathematics. We are moving away from diagnostics and, as such, it is no longer necessary for any reason. If a child exhibits a learning need, the school will have the capacity to deploy resource teaching to meet his or her need, including in a group setting. The Department will endeavour to support the best model in the circumstances. It is no longer necessary to produce a diagnostic label, stick it on the child's head and state this is the gateway. I hope this model will open up schools' capacity to respond to individual children.

Senator Lynn Ruane is correct that we need to invest in the capacity of teachers to deal with mental health and many other issues. I am having a hard look at the area of continuing professional development, or CPD as it is known, to determine whether the current approach reflects best practice. It is very much demand-led. Ambitious and committed teachers can get involved and may not then be deployed to the area in which they have acquired skills. We need to examine this issue and will try to do so in the roll-out of the junior cycle programme, a major reskilling exercise that offers an opportunity to support good practice.

Senator Ivana Bacik who has left the Chamber raised the issue of progress on the baptism barrier and diversity of schools. I will be the first to agree that we have not achieved what the two previous Ministers, Ruairí Quinn and Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, wanted to achieve. As we seek to accelerate the process, we are considering the community national school model as one which may have more capacity. It involves live transfer rather than a land transfer, which means that we would avoid the complex property issues that bogged down the amalgamation and closure approach. We hope this model can be applied. We are taking a bottom up approach by using the 16 education and training boards to identify the views of parents and their capacity to respond. They will then publish a report and, working with the patrons, identify if a live transfer can be achieved. This approach is definitely worth trying.

I recognise Senator Ivana Bacik's point that people have some misgivings about the community national school model where a break in the programme is provided for faith based education. I have suggested the way to solve this is to have a general full-year programme known as Goodness Me! Goodness You!, with parents being able to opt out of the programme to have their child prepared for First Holy Communion or another religious event or instruction. This would be a good model.

I agree that the baptism barrier, as it is known, is an obstacle in some schools, particularly in oversubscribed areas in Dublin. I have issued four options, the first of which is the Labour Party proposal to have catchment areas within which schools would only be allowed to give preference. Other options involve variants of the catchment model, namely, quotas and the nearest school rule. The fourth option is to eliminate religion completely, while seeking in some way to respect the ethos of the school. This discussion is under way.

I take Senator Gerry Horkan's point that the ideal would be to build a school for everyone. This year 20,000 new school places must be provided to accommodate the population bulge and this will absorb 80% of the Department's capital budget. I am not in a position to build new schools to meet different requirements. I must use a model under which new schools will be built in areas in which there are insufficient school places. All of the new schools will be under new non-denominational patrons. However, I am stuck with a scenario in which 96% of primary schools are denominational. We cannot start building more schools as a way of reducing this figure to 65%. We must accelerate-----

Not all of those schools are oversubscribed either.

Even in Dublin, not all schools are oversubscribed.

Senator James Reilly raised a number of issues, including an acute problem in Swords. I will ask officials to examine the data for Swords where there are 13 schools. According to the data, while some schools in the area are oversubscribed, based on population figures, it should be possible to cater for an intake in the 13 schools operating in the town. This view is disputed, however, as there are some schools with waiting lists. I am checking this, but the Department's data suggest the area has a sufficient number of school places.

Senator Colette Kelleher raised the important issue of autism. The Department wants to push the establishment of autism units and has increased the number of such units from 500 to 1,000 or by 100% in the past five years. Given the rapid expansion in the number of autism units, it is clear that there has not been significant resistance to them. We must ensure schools have the capability, resources and capacity to develop autism units. By and large, it is schools which are approaching the Department seeking to build autism units. It is not the case that they have been unwilling to take on this responsibility. I am open to discussing whether the compulsion model is the best one.

I am referring to second level.

There is some resistance to compelling schools to open X or Y.

Children are missing out.

That is precisely the issue. Should we take the legislative route or a different approach? I am open to discussing the issue and my Department will engage with the Senator and others to ensure that, as we move to Committee and Report Stages of the Bill, we will have an understanding of what is the best way to address the matter.

I assure Senator Michelle Mulherin that, in my view, Castlebar must have a future in the Galway and Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT, development plan. This has been made clear and a plan is being developed. The Senator stated institutes of technology did not access Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, research funding. That is broadly true as the research centres are, by and large, located in universities. The €150 million of research funding provided by SFI is not the responsibility of my Department. We are undertaking a journey towards technological universities, which is partly about building applied research capability in the institutes of technology. The institutes of technology are on a journey and must reach critical thresholds in terms of PhD numbers and other factors before they can achieve technological university status. We hope we can get groups of institutes of technology to travel this journey together. That process is well under way.

The way in which the Higher Education Authority allocates funding has been that 40% of the pot is allocated to institutes of technology, with the remainder allocated to universities. This approach is being reviewed. As institutes of technology grew more rapidly than universities, they saw the funding available to them spread among a larger number of students, with the result that the amount available per student declined in comparison with the universities. Ironically, the figure of 40% was arrived at to protect the institutes of technology from being overrun by the universities. It subsequently transpired, however, that the institutes of technology lost out as a result of this allocation ratio. The Department is reviewing the matter.

I cannot select one single school to be given retrospective credit. I have a certain amount of money available and allowed 79 schools through the process, including the school mentioned. I have to be fair to all schools as I am sure other schools among the group of 79 could argue that they stood out for all sorts of reasons. I must apply the rules fairly to all schools.

I asked the Department specifically about this matter and have not received a satisfactory answer. No one has ever contradicted any of my assertions.

We are over time. I ask Senators to allow the Minister to conclude, please.

The truth is that many schools did not bother to apply for DEIS status because they did not want it. Some principals, on whom we rely to gather the data, were not as good at gathering them as others. We are now using an objective method for making decisions which will no longer be based on who was more strenuous in collecting data or anything of that nature. Decisions are based on hard information and statistics which are available. This is the fairest approach. We have to be fair to every school.

I apologise for interrupting the Minister, but would it be possible to introduce an appeals mechanism for DEIS schools?

If a school believes it has been unfairly treated, we will review the decision.

Senator Ardagh asked why postal codes would be relevant. It is if some child was left out - if, for some reason, the child's name and postal code was not provided. It is the postal code that identifies the statistical data they would go to collect. If a child was left out, it is important that not only the name but the identifying code be included so that could trigger the data. It is to review things in case inaccuracies occurred. It is not a political or administrative decision where judgment is applied and where that judgment could be questioned. It was simply an exercise in the numbers and what they told.

A number of speakers raised the issue of Brexit. It is an area where we have opportunities as well as threats in terms of research and attracting more overseas students. The provision regarding two years after study is available to all students, not just Indian students. There are opportunities in light of the UK decision in terms of attracting more researchers to base themselves in Ireland and more foreign students to come to Ireland so, by and large, it is a matter of upside opportunities on the education side rather than many downside ones. There are many other challenges created by Brexit. Opportunities will not fall into our lap. We must make sure that we are effective in developing programmes to avail of those opportunities.

For the record, I did mention that.

I was not sure whether I was under pressure to-----

I have allowed considerable extra time.

If we are out of time, I can deal with the Minister directly.

The Minister was ordered too little time to conclude so I will allow him to respond.

Senator Craughwell's point about further education was that it was-----

Underutilised, for want of a better word. I am looking for the-----

Senator Maria Byrne made the point that we are planning to have 40 new apprenticeships and 30 new traineeships. We will be relying on the further education system to deliver those. That will require an upgrade of investment in them. If there is potential to sweat the assets and use them more intensively, it would certainly be very welcome because, as we all know, capital budgets will be under very severe restrictions for many years to come.

My apologies to Senators. I think the Minister was given too little time to respond so we must ask him to come back in the near future if his schedule allows. I am sorry if he did not have enough time to respond to everybody. When is it proposed to sit again?

Tomorrow at 10.30 a.m.

The Seanad adjourned at 6.45 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 22 February 2017.