Group spokespersons have eight minutes to speak and all other Senators have five minutes. The Minister must be called to reply by 3.25 p.m. at the latest and statements must conclude by 3.30 p.m. I call the Minister, Deputy Bruton, who is very welcome. Is it the Minister's first time in our new Chamber?
Well-being in Schools: Statements
The Minister is very welcome to our new Chamber.
It is a very imposing Chamber. I am delighted the Seanad has chosen to debate this subject. Knowing that the Seanad is composed of many people who gave their lives to education before they entered the House, I do not need to tell them how important well-being is as a subject for concern in our education system. It is the key to young people realising their potential and being able to take care of themselves in their lives with all the challenges it throws up. It is key to coping with stresses which are all too prevalent in the lives of young people now and it is key to giving people a proper sense of belonging and purpose in their lives. In every dimension, a young person's capacity to develop well-being underpins their success. It is really important we think of it in positive terms. There are far greater pressures now on our young people than there were in our time. I speak as a relatively older Member at this stage, but it is true even for many younger people. The prevalence of social media, the expectations that young people put upon themselves, the role models they aspire to be like and their increasing savvy and expectations about the world around them have transformed the environment in which they work. While for many young people it is a huge and empowering experience, there is no doubt it puts demands on young people's resilience. We have to look at how we achieve positive well-being. This subject can be more easily thought of in terms of what we do when things go wrong and how good we are at intervening and developing the services to catch things when they go wrong. As in many areas of public policy, we need to identify ambition and targets in a positive dimension of well-being rather than simply looking at our speed of intervention when things go wrong. That is where education can play a hugely important role. Our education services can feel they are expected to produce a response to everything, whether it is learning to drive or learning to cope with every pressure that exists. That can put pressure on our education system. The one thing I have learned since I started to engage in the area of well-being is how much people already working in our schools realise that this is an absolutely vital element of what they do. It is not one of the areas where people feel something is being put upon them. Teachers see every day of the week that these are the problems they confront in their classrooms and they need to know the coping skills to deal with them. I am very keen to put this in a positive dimension. I have spoken to representatives in other countries. None has really developed what they mean by well-being in terms of how we know we are delivering. It will be a challenge for us as we roll out our programmes.
I will speak about some of the things we are doing. There are a lot of very exciting things happening. Over the next five years, every school will have a well-being strategy. There are already guidelines at primary and post-primary level. We are now engaged in the active roll-out. It is supported by a number of national agencies and support services. There are six indicators of success which put front and centre the ambition that every child be active, responsible, connected, resilient, respected and aware. Those are six domains where a school can very positively contribute to the positive engagement of young people in their lives. There have been guidelines sent out to every school and they are now in the process of bringing them to life. There are a number of key support services engaged in helping schools to build the capacity to do this. It comes from the leadership service, the CPD service, the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, and the newly formed Special Education Support Service, SESS. The idea is that schools develop the capacity to do their own self-evaluation and planning and set out a programme looking at the various elements of school policy, culture, curriculum and relationships and the way they can impact on young people. It is a really positive programme. The second area in which we are very actively engaged is strengthening the whole guidance plan that every school at second level now has. We have restored 400 of the 600 guidance counsellors who were taken out of non-DEIS schools. DEIS schools retained them. DEIS schools have had some additional advantage through this roll out. DEIS schools are improving their resources while non-DEIS schools are seeing a restoration.
Very clear best practice is being evolved here. We have specifically piloted student support teams that look at the sort of structures and policies that can make the maximum impact. They have been piloted and are being evaluated. The indication is it is a very positive programme that has been developed. Each school will have year head structures, guidance counsellor led plans, mixtures of whole class, group class and one-to-one interventions. NEPS is supporting this pilot student support team approach within schools which we feel in the long term is the right strategy. We are now undertaking not just an evaluation of these pilot schemes but a survey of how we are deploying within that guidance counselling plan to see if we are getting the very best impact.
The Department has a range of support programmes to strengthen the capacity of teachers within the system to deal with the challenges in well-being. These include a six-year incredible years programme, which is aimed at teachers and helping them to manage within the classroom. There is a two-day friends programme on pupil resilience. There are anti-bullying strategies and every school must have an anti-bullying policy in place.
We are also deploying our inspectorate, which is looking at how to evaluate policies that are successful in the context of well-being within our schools. It is working with 28 schools on a pilot basis to seek to develop the indicators of success in this area. It is not seeking to impose from outside some externally created framework, but is working with schools on the ground to allow us to measure progress in this area.
The other huge initiative we are making this year is to roll out at junior cycle level for the first time a new well-being curriculum. At the moment it is being structured within each school and each school has had to develop its programme. The programme works off the core SPHE programmes but it also integrates those and adds additional curriculum content. The NCCA has issued guidelines, which have been very popular with schools in terms of how to do this. Importantly, it also emphasised the well-being of teachers if they are to be successful in delivering these programmes. Again, a lot of time has gone into CPD, as they call it in the jargon - the continuous professional development and upskilling of teachers to manage these new programmes. This represents a significant shift. The idea is that student support should have three levels of intervention. Every child should get intervention of a certain sort and there are many programmes around that. Some are appropriate at group level, some individual interventions are needed and there is also capacity and knowledge in regard to the range of services to which students should be referred.
This debate is an opportunity to hear back from Senators, who have immense experience in this area, so I will finish my contribution shortly. I should mention that my Department is a member of the youth mental health task force and we have been involved in the pathfinder project that was identified by Government. The mental health of young people is a crucial cross-Government area where the Government needs to become smarter at working across the traditional silos. We are very involved in the development of the youth mental health task force. We see a lot of what is being done as a really important contribution to a mental health strategy. By working together, not only can we ensure that better connections are built, both at local and national level, but we can learn from the expertise of other fields and bring them into the work we do with schools and colleges.
That gives a bird's eye view of the elements that are out there at the moment and that are in development. We have committed to a 25% increase in the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, which is a very important support service; we have just established the national centre of excellence of support for special educational needs and I am currently looking at the whole area of leadership and professional development to ascertain whether what we are now doing is best practice in this context. It is spread across a lot of different support bodies, including 30 or 31 local teacher education centres, as well as certain national centres of excellence. There have been criticisms as to whether it has sufficient coherence and direction and that is something I hope to evaluate in the course of the coming year with key stakeholders.
We want to make sure we are empowering both teachers and leaders, who are the most influential in any school in having an impact on a child's experience, in order to make sure we apply best practice in the way in which we develop their skills. We spend approximately 3% of payroll in this area generally but we need to make sure that 3% of payroll is getting the impact we would like and allowing for leadership. In any part of this sphere and with any of these initiatives, unless there is good leadership within the school, one will not get the level of outcome. I am convinced that, whether it be well-being, mathematics or any of the other areas in which we have ambition, unless we equip the teachers and the leaders in the school with the capacity and the professionalism and the support to do their job, be innovative and encourage innovation, we will not get the outcomes.
It is a shift to some degree in the way we think about schools. We are very centralised in the way we think about schools and it is very much an input-output model, with rigidly defined lines. We are only starting to see the role of the partner as increasingly empowering those who are working within our schools to do things differently and better, and with better impact, both learning from their own doing and sharing that learning. I see this whole area of leadership and CPD as crucial to the success of the other initiatives we are putting in place in the well-being area. I look forward to the contribution of Senators.
I welcome the Minister and thank him for his presence. There is no doubt in my mind that this is one of the most important issues we have ever discussed in the House and I contend it is one of the most important issues Deputy Bruton will ever deal with as Minister for Education and Skills. The good health and well-being of our children in school is critical to their success, not just at school but also in their lives after school. Teachers play a vital role in the promotion of positive mental health in our schools and we are very fortunate to have such dedicated teachers to do that. Nonetheless, questions must be asked of a system that constantly adds demands on teachers, whether that be in the context of form filling, reduced funding or reduced supports. It is legitimate to ask how we can promote good mental well-being when teachers work in a practice such as that.
As I said earlier, I am constantly amazed and impressed by the dedication of teachers and staff throughout schools at primary level, at the good work they do and at the programmes they undertake for the benefit of their students. Unfortunately, at second level, where the focus tends to shift towards academic achievement and points, there is less time to promote mental well-being and perhaps that is something the Minister could look at in his current role.
To be fair, I listened to the Minister's comments and agree with most of what he had to say. However, it is also legitimate to ask how teachers can be expected to implement all the policies the Minister outlined when they teach in classrooms of more than 30 students. When we look at the European norm of 21, we are very far behind in that regard. It is clear that much needs to be done about class sizes in order for us to achieve what we are hoping to achieve in regard to the well-being and academic success of our students. It is an issue we need to address and I hope the Minister understands this. We simply need more teachers in our classrooms, as I believe we all agree. Resources have to be found to recruit more teachers in order that we can address class sizes and achieve what we hope to achieve in regard to the well-being of our students.
While I am on the subject of new recruits, I ask the Minister to comment on how our new recruits are paid. Has the Minister any intention of addressing the issue that they do a day's work for less than their pre-2011 colleagues?
The other issue is the whole area of special needs. It is fair to say it is an area on which we need to focus as for children to succeed in the mainstream classroom, more needs to be done to assist those students who find it difficult for one reason or another. I acknowledge good work has been done, as the Minister noted, but from speaking to teachers, it is clear a lot more must be done to make sure those children with special needs do not fall behind their classmates sitting alongside them.
The National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, plays a vital role in schools. What is the current position in that regard?
Another important issue is the physical health of students, which covers issues such as healthy eating and physical education as well as the lack of solid alcohol and drug prevention programmes. Expanding the school meals programme by 10% would have a major and positive effect on the well-being of disadvantaged children. We must not lose sight of the fact that a healthy mind requires a healthy body.
Investment in the recruitment of physical education teachers to be allocated across a number of schools to teach children the benefits of physical education would be money well spent. Recent figures show that fewer than 43% of women aged between 16 and 25 years participate in a sport or activity. A network of shared physical education teachers for schools could be established for as little as €2.8 million.
The Irish Heart Foundation, in its submission on this subject, advocates a whole-of-school approach and argues that what is taught in the classroom is vitally important in this regard. We must focus on physical education.
On the issue of food and the products children consume while at school, the Minister acknowledged in a recent reply to a parliamentary question that the sale of food and beverage products was a necessary revenue stream for schools. While I appreciate that is the case, if we are serious about tackling well-being, we must address what products children are consuming at school. An Irish Heart Foundation survey found that water was not available free of charge in approximately 40% of the schools surveyed, which means students are paying for bottled water or replacing water with less healthy options. It is vital that clean, safe drinking water is available free of charge in all schools.
Effective alcohol and drug prevention programmes make a significant contribution to student well-being. Great work is being done in this area by a number of agencies, for example, the Health Service Executive is working on programmes in conjunction with the Garda and youth services. Before it was abolished, Monaghan Town Council introduced a programme known as "Don't Pour Your Dreams Away", which has since been rolled out nationally. The programme, which focuses on how children doing State examinations celebrate on the night they receive their results, has been a major success and is an example of the good work being done in this area.
I was concerned by a recent report published by the OECD which shows that Ireland had some of the highest levels of depression among students. We must take note of this finding and place greater emphasis on promoting positive mental health among students. The old adage that a healthy body makes for a healthy mind is also relevant in that regard.
The Minister referred to a number of important initiatives. We cannot get away from the fact that more resources are required if we are to achieve our objectives in this area, nor can we expect teachers at primary level to engage with all these issues in a classroom of more than 30 pupils. Teaching should not be about crowd control but about achieving all the aims to which the Minister alluded. While I do not wish to be negative, achieving the goals we would all like to achieve will require additional funding across the board.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House today. As a Green Party Senator and member of the Civil Engagement group, I have not yet had an opportunity to meet him.
I am speaking on behalf of my colleague, Senator Lynn Ruane, who is a member of the Joint Committee on the Future of Mental Health and is unable to attend the debate. I will also raise some points of my own. As a mother of three children who have gone through the primary and secondary school and on to third level, I have some experience of the education system. On the issue of caring relationships in schools, the My World survey, a collaboration between Headstrong and University College Dublin, found that 70% of those aged between 12 and 25 years consider that with one good adult in their lives, they feel connected, self-confident and future looking and can cope with problems.
The education system should operate from a holistic perspective. All those in the school environment - teachers, management and staff generally - should be empowered to recognise the benefit of their position in terms of responsibility and teaching in a caring relationship in schools.
Many children feel under pressure as a result of high expectations. The current system tends to be academically focused, which places many children under severe stress. With regard to some of the points raised by the Minister, we need to take a broader and more holistic approach and look at areas other than academia as well as nurturing relationships in school. The Minister referred to continuing professional development, CPD, training for teachers. We are moving and changing culturally and there is an increasing recognition that school should mean more than rote learning and emphasising academic achievement. Teachers can deliver many more benefits to pupils by teaching lifelong learning skills.
It is important that pupils feel a sense that they belong to their school to ensure it is not a place where they feel constricted in a learning environment. More co-operative learning should be made available, meaning students should learn from each other in a co-operative and collaborative manner to solve problems and achieve goals. This approach leads to more positive interdependence, co-operation, social skills and communication skills, which the students will need throughout their lives.
Schools can offer opportunities for social connectivity by providing sports facilities and clubs to enable children to communicate and interact with each other. We frequently hear in media reports that children are being prevented from running in playgrounds and the time available outside the classroom to access sport is limited. Sport is crucial to the development of pupils.
Team sports allows pupils to interact with their peers. It is critical that sport is elevated in the day-to-day running of schools. It is critical that children are out and about in fresh air learning the skills of sport be it hurling, hockey, basketball, etc. Sport allows children to develop socially and reap health benefits.
The ECO-UNESCO green schools programme is a flag awarding mechanism. It is a fantastic scheme that has operated for a number of years. Every school should work towards being a green school. Walking to school is part of the programme. The primary school in Tramore that is located near to where I live has a walk on Wednesday. On that day the schoolchildren are encouraged to walk to school. They do so in safe way by wearing high-vis jackets and being accompanied by a parent from the parents' council who can provide guidance on health and safety. The scheme is brilliant as it teaches children social skills and makes them aware of road safety. The scheme also feeds into the idea of living towns and living cities. The walk to school initiative encourages children to get out of cars and on to the streets to walk or cycle. The scheme is really positive for children's mental and physical health.
I come from Tramore, County Waterford, and I know the local inhabitants are very lucky to have beautiful green areas. Again, it is absolutely incumbent on the Government to incorporate green areas when developing and building schools so that children can undertake nature walks or beach walks like in the old days, which teaches children about the living environment around them. Such walks also teaches children to recognise the beauty of our environment. I hope, as part of the education system, they are taught to protect the environment. These are all positive areas that can be developed in our schools.
I shall return to what Senator Gallagher said about drinking water. I, too, have read the report compiled by the Irish Heart Foundation that revealed that 40% of schools that it surveyed did not have free drinking water facilities. I was shocked by the finding. It is so fundamental for children to be able to access water. In the old days schools we had little water fountains. It was a good way to get healthy water into children which is far preferable to buying soft drinks or sugar filled drinks from vending machines. It should be a priority that every school in the country has free clean water facilities available to all of the pupils.
I welcome the Minister and thank him for coming here to discuss such an important issue.
I suppose we can all reference our own childhoods. Our primary school days were very different in that there was no well-being programme or co-operation between teachers, parents and families. I welcome one initiative that has operated for quite a while. I refer to the Incredible Years programme, where the teachers, parents and families work together to ensure there is positive mental well-being, particularly as some of the parents may not have grown up with positive well-being in their own homes. A pilot scheme was run in my own area in Our Lady of Lourdes primary school. During that time I visited the school on several occasions when some of the parents told me that the programme was incredibly positive. The parents appreciated the fact that they have been brought in, involved and included in the well-being and education of their children. Also, their families have been consulted. Parents and families have been taught about healthy lifestyles and advised about what to eat in terms of diet. Moreover, there are dance and music programmes. The programme has been a very positive whole-of-school approach while at the same time bringing families and the community on board. There is a community centre located quite close to the school and different groups, ranging from Active Age groups to youth clubs, have visited the school.
Many of my colleagues have referred to fizzy drinks and water. I note that many schools have decided to ban fizzy drinks, which is a positive move. I agree that water is important in all of our diets and we have all been encouraged to drink more water. The Department of Education and Skills now works with other Departments. Such co-operation did not happen a number of years ago. Positive well-being is now heavily promoted but for that to happen people must have a healthy diet. The Delivering Equality of Opportunities in Schools, DEIS, school programme has been positive in many schools in terms of promoting healthy eating. When I went to school one could buy fizzy bars that were loaded with food additives that had E numbers and many other things. Now nutrition in schools is about eating fruit, eating properly and having proper healthy options. In terms of our own mental attitude and that of our children, it is important to focus on diet.
The active school flag initiative is also very positive. The three-year programme includes physical education and extra-curricular activities in schools. In order for a school to achieve the aims of the programme it must provide extra services. Nowadays children are more involved in sport compared with a number of years ago, which is a positive step. Sport in schools gives families an opportunity to support their children. When school teams or groups meet to play a match and participate in other initiatives the children's families and friends can come together to provide support.
I welcome the commitment to increase to 25% in NEPS and the comments about a leadership and professional development programme. It is very positive that the Department supports teachers to develop professionally. Children cannot progress for their families unless teachers progress and are trained in ways to work with families and students. So many teachers now participate in professional development courses. These are very worthwhile and good programmes that are being encouraged by the Department.
In terms of positive learning there must be positive outcomes. Bullying was referred to by the Minister and cyberbullying is quite common nowadays. Many young people use mobile telephones, iPads and computers. I know that schools have policies aimed at tackling cyberbullying. It is important that schools and parents take an active interest in what children post to their social media sites and ensure everything is above board. Many schools are very good at monitoring what is going on but it is important that families also monitor the social media activity by their children.
The well-being initiative started off in primary schools but it has been extended to secondary schools. Well-being goes through our minds at all stages of life, from the young to not so young. A positive frame of mind and being relaxed helps with education and ensures a better learning outcome. A positive mental attitude and a healthy eating regime help one to retain information and are especially important for facing exams.
It is a positive programme. Well-being stays with us right throughout our lives. Even in this Chamber, when we are all in a good place in terms of well-being, we are all willing to learn. It is about lifelong learning, as well as a lifelong healthy attitude.
I am deputising for my colleague, Senator Gavan, who has to attend a committee. He apologises to the Minister for his absence.
I thank the Minister for making such a positive contribution on what is a welcome initiative and endeavour on his part and that of his Department in this regard. Fadó, fadó, once upon a time, I had one of the most important jobs in any school - I am sure Senator Ó Ríordáin will agree - when I was a classroom assistant for several years in a gaelscoil in west Belfast. I appreciate the significant and positive impact a scheme such as this will have on many of our young people.
I welcome the introduction by the Minister and his Department of well-being classes as a subject in the new junior cycle curriculum. Sinn Féin's position is that schools should play an active role in ensuring the social, physical and emotional well-being of students. Accordingly, we support the introduction of the new well-being classes as a move in the right direction on the part of the Government. To my knowledge, the new subject will include the learning in classrooms of skills and abilities that will aid students in looking after their own mental health. These skills will almost certainly be invaluable to them throughout their lives.
Research published earlier this year in the Irish Health Behaviour in School-aged Children study indicates that 28% of children in our schools reported feeling low every week or even more often in the past six months, while 43% of all students felt pressurised by their school work. Colleagues have touched on some of the influences and the reasons why they may be feeling like this. Further research presented to the Joint Committee on Education and Skills indicates that while people can experience mental ill-health at any time in their lives, mental disorders tend to peak during adolescence and young adulthood. This was supported by findings that one in three young people will have experienced some type of mental disorder by the age of 13. However, what is perhaps the most telling research was provided by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in 2013 indicates that skills developed by children at a young age will help them cope better with stress and challenges later in life. These findings appear to be common sense, but for too long the State has failed to provide such skills to students in its schools.
As I was listening to earlier contributions to the debate, I could not help think of that idea from the important book on education in Ireland, The Murder Machine, by Pádraig Mac Piarais. It is one that helped me in my approach as a classroom assistant. One never lowers oneself to the level of a child; one always raises oneself to his or her level. I always found that an inspiring and important idea from that essay. If we have so many young people who find themselves low, down or suffering in their environment, which is contrary to very environment we want to create for them, then that is a stark wake-up call for us and for those who can play a role in changing that experience within school life.
This programme is a step in the right direction. Will the Minister consider implementing similar well-being classes into the primary school curriculum through the medium of social, personal and health education, SPHE? I raise this point due to the ever-growing amount of academic research which suggests that the most important years in which we can proactively deal with preparing a child to deal with mental disorders is actually between the years of seven and 11. Accordingly, the junior cycle will miss this key period in a child’s life. Has the Department considered this?
Will the Minister address concerns regarding the implementation of the new well-being class in secondary schools in the junior cycle? Are all schools mandated to allocate time for this subject in the timetable for 2017-2018? Will there be delays in the full integration of the subject? If so, does the Department have a timeline to which schools have to work? How does the Department plan to monitor the programme's implementation?
There is still much more we can do to support the well-being of children and teachers in our schools. There is little point in trying to educate students on mental well-being if we do not provide the supports and services through which they can access help. Currently, 544 schools in this State do not have access to NEPS for the purpose of carrying out assessments on students. For this reason, parents are advised by schools to go privately or else face waiting so long on an appointment that the consequences are not worth consideration. Will the Minister tell the House if the Government will adequately provide for NEPS in this year's budget or will this deficit in mental health services continue to obtain?
We also continue to witness the ongoing consequence of the Government no longer providing school guidance councillors on an ex quota basis. This was a service that provided exceptional value for money and a wide range of supports to students who otherwise have to wait up to two years before being seen by outside agencies. Our young people need these supports. The idea that a well-being class can simply replace both counsellors and NEPS is short-sighted. Has the Minister any plans to address these two areas of supports?
Some Senators have touched on the well-being of teachers and classroom assistants in our schools. What supports does the Government intend to provide to schools in the context of teachers' well-being? Teachers are being obliged to deal with increased class sizes and heavier workloads, while, as Senator Gallagher indicated, simultaneously having to deal with pay inequality. Will the Minister please outline the Department's plans to address teachers' well-being and any supports the Government plans to introduce?
Will the Minister comment on the mechanics of the well-being classes and what they will entail? I recently read an interesting article about a school in the States which replaced detention with mindfulness and meditation which led to significant social and psychological benefits for the school community. What are the practicalities of well-being classes being delivered to our schoolchildren?
I welcome the Minister’s initiative, which deserves support. I spent 11 years as a primary school teacher in north inner city Dublin, three of which were as a primary school principal. From going around schools speaking to principals and teachers, as the Minister does, I have noted many of them will not speak openly about the day-to-day traumas they witness because they do not want to give the school a bad name or impinge on its reputation. This is because the nature of our school system means they are all in competition with each other. It is my experience and that of people I have worked with, that schools cannot cope with children they are trying to help. It is wrong to assume that any school can adequately deal with the needs of a child. If one takes two four year olds in primary school, one knows that in nine years' time, one will have a better chance of success than the other. One child will be presented as clean, rested, fed and interested, while the other will not. If we are going to talk about the well-being of students, we have to have a wider approach in dealing with parents. It is a well-known fact that the average three-year old from a poor family has one third the oral language capacity of a three-year old from a rich family. There is only so much teachers can do because they do not live in schools.
The reality is that children will have a different perspective on life once they go outside the school gates. They know and are well-trained and well-drilled to give the right answers at the right time to the education professional in front of them. Once outside the school gate, however, or when dealing with their families in their home environment, the reality is sometimes different.
There needs to be a wider discussion of all the actors who deal with families and young people who are in difficulty and dealing with trauma, and to intervene at a much earlier stage. I also agree with the Minister when he says that teachers cannot do everything. They are asked to solve every single social ill in society. If there is an issue with sex education, it has to be the teachers who will teach about it. Driving was mentioned. With issues around mental health, smoking, drugs or teenage sex it is the teachers in schools who are told that they are ones who must deliver the message. There is, however, a wider societal involvement here, as the Minister will appreciate.
Many schools cannot cope. They are dealing with situations where the children literally cannot cope with the situations they are in because of their background or because of something that has happened to them. What does a teacher in his or her 20s do when he or she has to deal with a child whose father has just been shot dead by the Garda? How can they deal with that situation? Consider a child who has a family member who has been killed in a gangland situation, or the child who has had a suicide in the family. It is very difficult to build a robust defence mechanism within that child in the classroom if one is not communicating with the parents, the wider community and wider society. There is no quick fix for this issue.
I shall now turn to the issues of drugs and alcohol. In our schools we are failing to deliver a coherent message that might actually resonate with young people. This falls into the idea of well-being because it is what young people will turn to when trying to find some relief from the pain they feel. When one feels pain, one reaches for something. What will these children reach for? They might reach for alcohol or drugs. These young people say to me that they would believe what they hear in schools if it was not such a damned lie. They look around them, they look at their parents and their grandparents who all might have overdosed on drugs and alcohol - alcohol is a drug - and they see a society that is completely addicted to alcohol. However, they are the ones who are told to "just say "No"" and told of zero tolerance, etc. They do not believe this message. They certainly do not believe it when it comes to drugs either. We are going to have to have a much more honest connection with young people when it comes to our messaging around drug and alcohol use. Whatever message we have at the moment is not hitting home. There is a much more attractive message outside the school gates and a different message is potentially being given in the home. I am not sure if all those messages are connecting.
With regard to the class size issue it is a fair point to make that we can deliver all the goodwill message we want, and teachers can have as much of a personal relationship with students under their care as they possibly can but if there are too many student, as a professional, the teacher or principal cannot cope. The Government, of which the Minister is a member, had an opportunity to reduce class sizes last year but it did not bother. Next week the Government will have an opportunity to change the situation, and I hope that it does, because schools cannot cope.
My second point has already been alluded to and relates to how this issue might manifest itself in schools and how teachers feel valued within the system. Teachers are told they are valued, teachers are told they have to take on an expanded curriculum and they are told they must deliver the message to tackle social ills. However, within his own rhetoric the Minister cannot commit to the suggestion or ideal of equal pay for equal work. This is leading to a situation within staffrooms that is hurting. It leads to division and a lack of morale.
I know from my own professional background that the fundamental responsibility of a school principal is to allow a teacher to teach. Fundamentally, the most important unit of the school is the teacher's relationship with his or her class. It is not the principal, not anybody else or any other actor who comes in and out of the class during the pupils' day. The fundamental purpose is to maximise the relationship between a teacher and his or her students. If teachers are told by the State that they are not worthy of having a pay level equal to the people they sit beside in the staffroom, it impacts on their self-esteem as professionals. I ask the Minister, again, to revisit his view on that.
I shall recap on what I have said for the Minister because I feel it is important. I welcome the initiative. Well-being is something that starts way before the age of second level school. It is not just a school responsibility. It is a wider community responsibility and it is absolutely a fundamental parental role that needs to be addressed. We must talk about drugs and alcohol in a different way. Whatever message we are giving in school is not working. We must look at the issue of class size with regard to the effectiveness in delivering these messages. We also must look at the parity of esteem in classrooms and in staffrooms.
My last point is from an article by Neil Gaiman in The Guardian that I read some years ago, which stuck with me. It was a piece about a private prison operator in the United States of America and how they assess the cells and prison space they would need for the capacity issues that would be required in 15 years' time. They determined that the best way of finding out how many spaces they would need in prisons in 15 years' time was to look at the literacy rates of ten year olds. There is an absolute correlation between illiteracy rates, a person's sense of well-being and sense of power, the opportunities a person has and a person's ability to succeed in this system we have created for young people. All of these things are intertwined.
I believe that the Minister comes to this issue with the best of intentions. I believe that schools will openly welcome this initiative, as we always will, because schools always want what is best for their students. There are fundamental, underlying issues that we have in our system based on competition, the patronage model and the issues children have before they come anywhere near a school building. We cannot truncate all these issues into a single weekly class. I wish this initiative the best of luck, but I do it with the wish that the Minister would address the concerns I have raised today.
I call on Senator James Reilly. The Senator has five minutes.
I will try to keep within five minutes but it is a huge area on which there is much to be said. I do not wish to repeat what many of other Senators have already said ahead of me but I do want to make a few points. I welcome the Minister to the Chamber and I commend him on this new programme.
Education is, as we all know, a lot more than the three Rs of reading, writing and arithmetic. It is originally from the Latin word, educo, which means to lead and to lead through life. As many other speakers have alluded to, including the previous speaker, this means teaching children life skills, how to learn to live and how to learn. In other words, they are learning a lot of things in school but one of the things they are learning is how to learn, how to inform themselves and how to assess information.
Well-being in schools is critically important. I refer to Senator Ó Ríordáin's quite accurate statement that when a child is three years old there is already a big difference, which is dependent on the child's background in respect of the financial state of the household. This is why the Government brought in the early childhood care and education, ECCE, programme and why it was extended. This is why the Government is looking at other child care initiatives to help address that issue.
I want to focus on well-being from a physical point of view. I have much more positive things to say about what has been achieved by this Minister and his predecessors in terms of all the new schools that have been built. In my constituency we have a new primary school being built in Lusk, a new second level school to be completed and plans for a new second level school in Rush, with schools in Balbriggan and Swords also and across the board nationally. One area that is of critical importance is, as Senator Gallagher has already alluded to, mens sana in corpora sano, a healthy mind in a healthy body. There is no doubt that Ireland's climate is not often conducive to outdoor physical exercise for children and that we need to have physical education halls in all our second level schools, but we do not.
I know this is a huge financial ask but we need a cross-Government approach and recognition that this investment now will save us many billions of euro later for these children who will become our adults and are the future of our nation. They are worth investing in.
I know the Minister is under serious pressure to keep pace with our growing population and this is particularly the case in my own constituency of Fingal where we have the youngest population in the country, if not in Europe. Keeping pace with all the new schools required, rather than educating children in portakabins, is a priority for him and I welcome that. Vending machines provide an income stream in schools and we now have an opportunity to do something I have been seeking to have done since before I became Minister for Health and Children. I refer to a tax incentive for suppliers and operators of vending machines to provide water and fresh fruit, which would mean those products could be availed of cheaply in schools. We all accept that fruit perishes, unlike heavily branded and advertised high-sugar, high-salt snacks. Let us make the right thing the easy thing to do.
The local authority in Fingal is one of the leaders in sourcing sites for schools and, as a quid pro quo, PE facilities for use by the children during the day are open for the community in the evening. That does more than just provide amenities - it binds the school and the community ever closer and that is the success of a school, as others have pointed out.
Schools and teachers now realise that they cannot control the problem of social media and bullying by just looking at the school. What happens outside the school is hugely important too and the school has a huge role in influencing that. I commend the involvement of parents, volunteers and teachers in supporting their school and educating our next generation. I wish to take the unusual step of paying tribute to a woman who served on the board for 40 years and more at Rush St. Joseph's secondary school, Bernie Mahoney. Her outstanding volunteerism is like a beacon to the rest of us and, like so many other people, her commitment was 100% and never in question.
I emphasise the need for physical education to be an element of this. Exercise is not only good for the body, but is also good for the mind and for mental health. It will help children to be more at ease and to learn better. We have fantastic supports for young people in the shape of volunteerism, youth organisations, the National Youth Council, Foróige the GAA, the FAI, the IRFU, and others such as Scouting Ireland who are there for the children who are not into contact sport as much but who can learn skills and team building. We talk about inclusivity and the scouts are an example of this. They welcome children with disability and intellectual challenges with open arms and bring them into the community. Everybody wins by that. The young children who sit beside the child who looks different from other children begins to learn that difference can be a strength and both sets of children learn from it. I was speaking to John Lawlor earlier today and he said the whole ethos of the scouts is to integrate, not to isolate.
I congratulate the Minister on all the work that has been done, the huge amount of capital expenditure, the increased number of teachers and the fact that we have an increase in NEPS and SNAs. Let us not forget about the other areas we need to address, just because we are making progress, such as physical well-being, which impacts on mental well-being, the whole-school approach to guidance and the effective student support teams led by guidance counsellors, effective student and parent consultation and the authentic listening to students' voices. Appropriate curricula to suit the needs of students are critically important as we are not all the same or have the same strengths. We all need a baseline but we need to encourage children in the things they are interested in. It is a truism of life that it is only when one is engaged in something about which one is passionate or in which one is hugely interested that one will excel. All our young people need to bear this mind. Their first job is not their last and may be the route to finding where their interest really lies.
I thank the Senators who contributed to the debate, which was really worthwhile. I will try to respond in the short time I have available. Senator Robbie Gallagher welcomed the well-being initiative and the wider well-being strategy but asked how we can expect teachers to implement it. Since I became Minister, we have put 5,000 additional teachers into classrooms and provided 2,000 special needs assistants. There has been a reduction in primary pupil-teacher ratios, most of which went into resource teachers, targeting children with special needs, guidance counselling, targeting children in their career choices and mental resilience. We put money into DEIS schools, targeting those which had the greatest disadvantage. We put money into the junior cycle so that we could shift away from a system that is focused on exam-based learning to have a wider portfolio of achievement. I would argue very strongly that this was a correct priority. These are things we need to see happening in our schools. Well-being is a whole-school responsibility and is not about reducing a class size by one and hoping that, suddenly, a well-being programme will emerge. Well-being has to be introduced as a programme whose leaders, that is the teachers, need to be equipped so that it becomes a whole-school responsibility. The Government put 7,000 additional staff into schools but I would also defend the way we put them in. We tried to target it at areas where there is real difficulty so that we respond to real need. That is not to say that reducing the pupil-teacher ratio is not important.
I was also asked about the NEPS expansion. We have ten additional people coming on board this year and that resource will be focused on DEIS schools and the areas where we believe children have the greatest needs. All the contributions stressed the importance of PE. We are introducing PE as both an exam subject and a non-examination subject at senior cycle. PE is an element of the well-being programme but I hear the ambition of Senators who wish to see more investment in that space.
Senator Grace O'Sullivan was right to say we should take a broader approach than to just concentrate on exams and that is what we are trying to do in junior cycle. She is absolutely right about the concept of one good adult. One of the core pillars at the heart of schools tackling well-being is relationships. Schools are expected to respond in all areas, namely, culture, curriculum, relationships and their own school policies. Of these, the relationship piece is probably the most important element and there has to be a one-good-adult approach. It is not a question of assigning someone but of developing it in the form of a classroom head, a tutor or someone else but the space has to be found. We are also seeking to evolve the concept of office hours so that there is a period when any student can walk in and get access to the guidance counsellor.
It is also right to emphasise the way young people learn and that is the biggest challenge to teaching at the moment. Known as "flipping the classroom", it is about an education system in which students learn together while satisfying their curiosity.
This is certainly an approach that can be more enriching, although it is obviously challenging and harder to do in an examination focused system. We must move towards the new junior cycle and have it endorsed.
Senators Grace O'Sullivan and Maria Byrne emphasised the various flag initiatives, including the green, active health and active school flags. I recently launched a yellow flag programme which is related to integration and diversity. Schools are engaging in many good endeavours and taking responsibility for these initiatives. It is important that we value them.
Senator Byrne also noted that the new DEIS programme encourages healthy eating. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, the Minister for Health and I recently announced guidelines that will become mandatory in all schools accessing the various breakfast clubs and so forth. These guidelines emphasise a more healthy approach to food.
Senator Byrne also focused on the importance of the teacher as the leader of the learning environment. We are trying to create a better learning environment in which people feel more valued and engaged. This is key.
Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile made a number of positive and supportive points. He also asked whether well-being should be on the curriculum at primary level. A well-being strategy is being implemented at primary level and there is a social, personal and health education, SPHE, programme in place in primary schools. The possibility of having a so-called titled curriculum element of well-being has not yet been considered. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, is reviewing the time allocations across primary education and it will be possible to assess this option.
All schools are mandated to introduce the well-being subject. There will be a time in which they will move from the current allocation of 300 hours to 400 hours. While I am not asking Senator Ó Donnghaile to read the document, it provides guidance on this issue and sets out the activities that could take place in the additional hours. It also addresses the role of other elements such as art, music, home economics, food and health studies. A large amount of rich material could be introduced. A number of speakers emphasised reaching outside the school community to populate these programmes. This is a very worthwhile approach and one of the core goals I have set is that we build stronger bridges from school communities to the wider community, whether enterprises, the public service or voluntary and sporting agencies. These bridges can be important from both directions.
The difficulty of diagnostic assessment was raised. We are moving away from diagnostic assessment as the gateway to resource teaching. While it remains the gateway for special needs assistance, we are also reviewing the SNA model. The idea that nothing is done until a diagnosis is obtained was wrong. From September last, access to resource teaching has been provided without diagnosis and is based on the school's assessment of the child's learning needs. The school has the resources and it assigns them. A large amount of money was wasted under the previous system, which was inequitable because some people had access to assessments, while others did not. We are eliminating the latter approach.
Teachers' well-being is a clear consideration. In the rolling out of the junior cycle, we are arranging for 22 hours of professional time to allow teachers to step back and plan their programme. The new system will be different. While consideration of teacher well-being is built into the system, schools should also consider the issue when developing their plan. We are also creating some space in the curriculum.
While we have ring-fenced two thirds of the guidance resource, we have not provided that it can only be delivered by guidance counsellors. We have strongly defended the idea that guidance is a whole-of-school responsibility. While the resource must be delivered for guidance in the guidance plan, it does not, in every case, have to be delivered by a guidance counsellor. The plan is led by a guidance counsellor, however. This approach gives flexibility, which means career guidance may sometimes be handled by a science teacher, for example. I accept that people will dispute the decision to provide flexibility in this regard.
Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin asked whether we were focusing on a young child who is already at a disadvantage at the age of three years and Senator James Reilly responded on that point. The early childhood care and education programme and the new child care support available where the provider has been registered with Tusla will be provided on an income-related basis. The payment will be €1,000 for most families but can be up to €10,000 for families on low incomes. The scheme is targeted at families who have the greatest need.
For the first time in eight years, we have expanded the DEIS programme to include more families. We are trying to target children who start education at a disadvantage. We need to strengthen this approach and I do not doubt that the quality of preschool education and child care can be significantly extended. To this end, we have developed Aistear and Síolta, one of which is a curriculum for early childhood education and the other sets out standards of approach to teaching at early childhood level. We are trying to lift standards with these new programmes in order that the experience of young children who participate in them will be considerably enhanced.
Senator Ó Ríordáin is correct and I take my hat off to some of the initiatives in this area, for example, the ABC or area based childhood programme in Darndale and other programmes in receipt of support from Atlantic Philanthropies. In a number of cases, these programmes work with parents before their child is born to try to develop a quality intervention. This makes a difference when the child starts school.
The point is well made that the messages we try to teach are sometimes divorced from reality. The challenge for all of us is to try to develop programmes that correspond to the reality of people's lives. As Senator Reilly knows more than most, the policy on alcohol is competing with messages coming from outside the school gates.
Senator Ó Ríordáin is being disingenuous when he states the Government has not considered reducing class size. Last year, the Government funded a reduction in class size at primary level. We have also provided teachers where there are genuine pinch points in the system. We must balance the reduction of class size as an undifferentiated policy intervention against targeting some of the areas where Members from all sides believe there is a challenge to be met.
I was asked why I did not buy into the rhetoric of equality. I am the first Minister to close the pay gap for teachers. The Department negotiated with the teaching trade unions an agreement to close the gap between new entrants who were recruited during and those who were recruited before the crash. We have closed 75% of the gap and the new pay agreement recognises that further negotiations will take place on this issue. However, the issue must be negotiated with all trade unions. We had €900 million to spend on pay over a three-year period and we negotiated an agreement on how to allocate this amount. The agreement has been accepted by the trade unions. Obviously, some people will prioritise new entrants more than others and I respect the hope among teaching unions that they will be able to deal with the issue. However, it must be done in the context of the Government dealing with other expectations, including those of the very children to whom Senator Ó Ríordáin referred, namely, those who come to school at a significant disadvantage and those who need guidance or have special needs. I have to weight the resource and there can be no absolutes whereby one issue takes precedence over everything else. The art of politics is compromise and balancing conflicting demands. Everyone knows this is the balance we must strike.
Senator Reilly raised the issue of vending machines in schools. Guidance on this matter has been issued to schools and I hope it is having an impact.
I thank Senators for their contributions. Well-being is an important element of the education programme, although it is in its early years. There are plenty of gaps and I would be the first to admit that we have not resolved the issue.
However, we have a tús maith, as they say - a good start - which, I hope, will be half the battle and we will build on this base.
I thank the Minister on behalf of my colleagues as he is one of the few Ministers who make themselves readily available to us in this House, whether for Commencement debates, legislation or statements.