Commencement Matters

The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, has been called to an emergency Cabinet meeting this morning to discuss Brexit. He had agreed to take my Commencement matter so I have agreed to withdraw it and resubmit it. I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Catherine Byrne, for her understanding in this matter.

Vaccination Programme

I thank the Minister of State for coming in today to take this Commencement matter on behalf of the Minister for Health. I understand that an emergency meeting of the Cabinet is taking place due to Brexit so I appreciate that the Minister for Health could not be here.

I want to raise the issue of VARIVAX. It is a vaccine for chickenpox and is not part of the national childhood immunisation programme at present. The Minister should make efforts to include it in the national vaccination programme for children. As I said, it is not part of the immunisation programme, although many parents are paying privately for this vaccine for their children. It is administered in two doses and is very effective in children under the age of 13. It can be given from the age of one year. As I said, many parents are paying for this privately, but this means that children whose parents cannot afford to pay for it privately are being left at risk.

There are many risks associated with chickenpox such as pneumonia, meningitis and, in later life, shingles, all of which can be very dangerous in themselves. It is part of the vaccination programme in many countries, such as the United States of America. Since its introduction into the national programme of that country 15 years ago, hospital admissions and deaths due to chickenpox have dropped by 80%. That is very significant. There is a reason parents here in Ireland are taking up this vaccination if they can pay for it privately themselves. It saves an awful lot of upset and discomfort for the children themselves and prevents parents having to take two or three weeks off work when a child has to stay out of childcare. There are also very serious risks associated with the disease, as I have outlined.

Children who cannot afford this are not getting it and that is not acceptable in this day and age. I understand that it is an expensive vaccination for children to get, but if it were included in the national vaccination programme, the cost for the State would come down dramatically. I would also suggest that the costs imposed on other areas of the health service would reduce dramatically in line with it because many parents of young children end up going into accident and emergency departments with their children or attending their GPs on several occasions. The saving would therefore outweigh the cost of the vaccination. I would like the Minister of State to consider this seriously and, perhaps, to give an indication today of starting a pilot project in this regard or of including it in the overall national immunisation programme.

I apologise on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Daly. He is in a committee. The Minister, Deputy Harris, is at the Cabinet meeting. I am standing in today. I thank Senator Clifford-Lee on behalf of the Minister and the Minister of State. I know how important this Commencement matter is to the Senator. I will read the written reply and then come back in at the end.

Immunisation is a safe and effective way to protect children against serious diseases. The national or primary childhood immunisation, PCI, programme covers immunisations between birth and 13 months of age. Immunisations covered by the programme are free of charge and administered by general practitioners within their clinics. The PCI programme provides immunisation against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, haemophilus influenzae type B, hepatitis B, pneumococcal disease, meningitis C, measles, mumps, rubella, meningitis B, and rotavirus.

Chickenpox is a common childhood infection. In most cases, the symptoms are mild and complications arising from it are rare. It should also be noted that all children develop immunity to chickenpox after infection. However, the side effects of the disease can be more severe in adults. Certain groups of people are at greater risk of serious complications from chickenpox. These include people who have weakened immune systems through illness, such as HIV, or through treatment, such as chemotherapy. Chickenpox can also cause a range of serious birth defects, as well as severe disease, when a pregnant woman catches the infection. Where a child has chickenpox, their school, nursery or day care should be informed as there may be other children who need to inform their GP that they have been exposed. They should be kept out of school until the last blister has burst and crusted over. This usually takes five to six days after the rash first appears. In 2017, 105 hospitalised cases of chickenpox were notified, most of which were in the group up to four years of age. Males and females were similarly affected.

The chickenpox vaccine, known as VARIVAX, provides protection against the varicella zoster virus that causes chickenpox and is not part of the routine childhood vaccination schedule. The vaccine is only offered to children who are particularly vulnerable to chickenpox. VARIVAX is also known as varicella virus vaccine live. It is a live virus vaccine that is given as an injection. VARIVAX works by helping to protect the immune system from getting chickenpox. VARIVAX is given to people who are 12 months old or older. If the chickenpox vaccine is required, two doses are given with four to eight weeks between doses. The chickenpox vaccine, however, should not be given to pregnant women.

Although the vaccine is not part of the routine childhood immunisation schedule, it is in other countries such as the US and Germany. In Ireland, the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, makes recommendations on vaccine policy. These recommendations are based on the epidemiology of diseases in Ireland and international best practice in respect of immunisation. The effectiveness and potential of the chickenpox vaccine and other vaccines to be included in the national childhood immunisation programme are kept under continual review by the advisory committee, the Department of Health, and the HSE. The most recent additions to the programme were the meningococcal B disease, MenB, vaccine and the rotavirus disease oral vaccine, which were included in 2016. I will come back on some points. I am sorry about the mispronunciation of some of these medical terms. They are not my favourite.

I thank the Minister of State very much but my question was not really answered. I understand that the MenB vaccine was included. I had a child in 2014 and she did not get the MenB vaccination, while my child born in 2018 did. I realise that it is under constant review but I really want the Minister to suggest to the NIAC that it undertake a study on the feasibility of adding the VARIVAX vaccination to the national schedule for children. I will write to the Minister in this regard because it is a very serious issue that certain groups of children in Ireland are getting vaccinated while other children from less well-off families are not.

As a parent and grandparent I understand the importance of any vaccination given to children. I believe all vaccinations should be given to children when they are very young and in school. As the Minister's statement has outlined, however, at present this vaccination is not part of the national immunisation programme. In saying that, I will take the Senator's concerns and views back to the Minister, Deputy Harris, and I will ask him if he will even look at a pilot project. It can be difficult to pinpoint areas in which to run pilot projects as people get concerned that their areas are not included, but I will bring the Senator's concerns and views back to the Minister and ask him to issue a letter to her or to contact her. I urge her to write to him or email him as well if she wishes. I will tell him that she is going to do that. I am sorry I do not have a more comprehensive answer for the Senator.

School Staff

I do not think this is directly in the Minister of State's area, but I am very glad that it is Deputy Byrne who is here-----

The Senator is very kind.

-----because she has an understanding of deprivation and of the marginalised areas of Europe and has fought like a tiger for them. This is another case. I know she will not be dealing with this directly but I urge her in the strongest possible way to pass on the material I am providing.

This matter refers to a small school in Marlborough Street which I have visited on many occasions. On the first occasion I visited the school I was very apprehensive because I had been asked to bring some small physical object related to a book that the children could handle. I brought down Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, which was a Beatrix Potter figure that my mother had given me when I was nine.

I absolutely cherish it. I thought they would break it or smash it or lose it or something else but they were so extraordinarily polite. "Please, Sir may I hold Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle?" There was not the slightest damage done. They were so respectful. They were so beautifully presented by their parents, so neat, so alert that and I thought how frightfully sad that without this school all these children in ten years time would be on the needle and on their way into the gutter and the grave. We are talking here not just about the education but about the lives of children in the north inner city which is the most depressed area in educational terms in the city.

I have been contacted by the management of the school because there is a problem about the retention of an additional teacher. Everybody agrees that good teacher–pupil ratios and early intervention are essential in helping these children. The principal writes: "The children in the school are losing out due to the disparity in teacher allocations that exist between this school and all the other DEIS schools in Dublin 1." In other words, there is an anomaly. There are other schools that have things they call "legacy posts". They managed to get in early and got extra teachers. This school does not have those. We cannot have a bureaucratic response when people's lives and welfare are at stake. The principal continues:

It is not without precedent that the provisions of circular 0010/2018 are not being applied. The fact is that it is not being applied to any of the DEIS 1 schools in Dublin 1. The Central Model Infants School to name but one example has 21 teachers with 170 children. [We have] statistics of low ratios that apply to the other DEIS 1 schools in Dublin 1. Scoil Chaoimhín is the exception in this case and the attached letter from the inspector will highlight this. [I have the letter from the inspector for the area who is outside the situation and is looking at in a clinical way and it is extremely forceful on the side of Scoil Chaoimhín.] We would be grateful if the Department could approve the retention of the teacher we had on a temporary basis in order to bring about some level of parity with the other schools in the area.

In other words, this school is accidentally disadvantaged within the system. There are two opportunities - we can behave like the English at the time of the Famine and apply a rigid economic theory and practice to this situation or we can behave like Irish people with a little bit of flexibility in the known interests of the children in this area. "We would be grateful if this could be dealt with as soon as possible in order for us to hold onto the teacher we had as she is still available for the moment." Here is somebody who is still available but who will not remain so for very long. There is an urgency about this situation. "To this end we would be grateful if you could respond to the Minister’s office without delay as the loss of the teacher to the school would likely become an issue with the parents of the school." There is also a possibility that a real row and mess would be created from this and that the parents will go to the media. I do not think any of us wants that. I certainly do not after my experience of the media. They are only in it for the story most of the time. We have not yet reached the stage when the media should be involved by the parents but I cannot guarantee that the parents will not go to them.

Here is a quote from the letter from the inspector: "As assigned inspector for the school, I am aware of the disadvantaged socio-economic background of the pupils almost all of whom Iive in an area which is characterised by high unemployment and deprivation." I live in the middle of that in an area where I have struggled to support, improve and regenerate a beautiful 18th century street. That puts me on an island of privilege in an area of gross deprivation. The divisional inspector "reported that a number of pupils in the school are currently resident in emergency and temporary accommodation and that this is presenting additional challenges for these pupils' learning opportunities and outcomes". Can the Minister of State imagine that? They are in emergency accommodation. They are living in hotels. Did we not see recently, a week or so ago, the wonderful, remarkable girl on television who was talking in tears about how, despite being a bright intelligent girl, she was being held back because she could not study in the kind of situation that is being described here?

The Senator has made a great case.

"The principal has also highlighted-----

The Senator has gone two minutes over time.

-----the significant progress that has been made in terms of an increase in school enrolment, and this is most evident in the steady increase in pupil numbers in the infant classes." Numbers are increasing. There should be another teacher. "The school appropriately affords a high priority to early intervention and aims to keep the class sizes at infant level as small as possible [...]. The recently published Follow-Through inspection report notes that the school is making good progress in raising the standard of achievement of pupils and in fostering a culture of improvement." Can we stop this? Can we afford to stop this where, in the most desperate circumstances, with children from the most deprived areas living in the most difficult circumstances, they are making improvements? They need the retention of this teacher.

The school board writes:

The pupil-teacher ratio for Scoil Chaoimhín is significantly higher than for other DEIS 1 schools in the Dublin 1 area [...] our appeal for an extra teacher is supported by the school's district inspector and divisional inspector [.] The workload on the staff and the stress associated with it cannot be sustained in the medium and long term without extra teaching support. The extra teacher would in some way recognise the truly exceptional circumstances that the school finds itself in. The school is poorly resourced to deal with the trauma it faces on an ongoing basis amidst the gangland violence of the North East Inner City.

I thank the Senator.

I gather I am being-----

The Senator is actually three minutes over time.

I see. I do apologise.

I want to say, however, that the Senator has made a great case, as only he can do. The Minister of State's responsibility in the Department of Health, as I am advised, is health promotion and the national drugs strategy, and given her own Dublin constituency, I am sure she has total sympathy with the case the Senator is making. I would like to be able to call on her now.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach very much. I shall sit down and listen to the Minister of State. I am very glad that this Minister of State is in the Chamber because she knows the circumstances and the area. She knows the city and the problem.

I thank Senator Norris for his kind words.

Unfortunately the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, cannot be here this morning because of the Cabinet meeting and he asked me to take this on his behalf. I am delighted to. It is always nice to hear Senator Norris speak. He speaks with such drama and respect.

Passion, that was going to be the next word out of my mouth.

On behalf of the Minister, Deputy McHugh, I would like to thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to outline to the House the position on staffing in primary schools and, in particular, Scoil Chaoimhín, Marlborough Street, Dublin 1, which I know well. The criteria used for the allocation of teaching posts are published annually on the Department of Education and Skills website. The key factor for determining the level of staffing resources provided at individual school level is the staffing schedule for the relevant school year and pupil enrolments on the previous 30 September.

The staffing arrangements for the 2018-2019 school year are set out in circular 0010/2018 which is available on the Department's website. The staffing schedule operates in a clear and transparent manner and treats all similar types of schools equally, irrespective of location. The DEIS urban band I has a more favourable staffing schedule than other schools. DEIS urban band 1 junior schools operate on a general average of one teacher for every 20 pupils. Schools with senior classes with DEIS urban band I status operate on a general average of one teacher for every 24 pupils. Schools such as Scoil Chaoimhín, which is a school with vertical classes, operate on a general average of one teacher for every 22 pupils. Scoil Chaoimhin had an enrolment of 59 pupils on 30 September 2017 which allows for an allocation of a teaching principal and two classroom teachers in the school for the current school year. The enrolment required for the appointment of a fourth teacher in the school is 67 pupils on the previous 30 September.

The staffing arrangements for primary schools include the provision whereby schools experiencing rapid increases in enrolment can apply for additional permanent mainstream posts on developing grounds using projected enrolment for the following September, in this case September 2018. Scoil Chaoimhín applied for a developing post and was advised that an enrolment of 74 on 30 September 2018 would be required to retain the developing post which would provide a fourth classroom teacher to the school.

On 30 September 2018 the school had an enrolment of 61. As this enrolment did not meet the developing post requirement, the post was suppressed on 26 October 2018 in accordance with the published staffing arrangements.

It is important to note that not only did the school not meet the developing post requirement, its enrolment on 30 September 2018 did not reach the appointment figure required for the fourth teaching post in the school. In addition, with its current enrolment of 61 pupils and three classroom teachers, the school is operating on an average pupil-teacher ratio of one classroom teacher to every 20.33 pupils, which is lower than the average 22:1 which is used when allocating mainstream staffing to DEIS urban band 1 vertical schools.

The staffing arrangements include an appeals mechanism for schools to submit an appeal under certain criteria to an independent appeals board. Scoil Chaoimhín submitted an appeal to the October meeting of the primary staffing appeals board. The appeal was refused by the appeals board on the basis that the grounds of the appeal did not warrant the allocation of an additional post under Circular 0010/2018. The primary stalling appeals board operates independently of the Department and its decision is final.

The Minister, Deputy McHugh, thanks the Senator again for the opportunity to outline this process to him and the House.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, for her understanding.

On 30 September 2018 the school had an enrolment of 61. The number required was 67. For six students, they will close it all down. If one looks at the circumstances under which the pupils are living, many of them are in hotels or hostels where they cannot work properly.

When one has people from the coalface talking so passionately about it, it warrants quoting them. A paragraph from the district inspector's letter states:

As District Inspector for a number of schools in Dublin's north inner city, I am aware that the pupil profile for Scoil Caoimhín as described by the principal is similar to that of other schools in the north inner-city area. I am aware also that these schools have been successful in applying for and retaining additional teachers.

There is a discrepancy. Why are they getting it? It seems extraordinary that this school, in the heart of the most troubled area of the city, with drugs, with gun battles between people, with broken homes and with homelessness, should not get it when the other schools are getting it. The district inspector continues:

Therefore, in respect of fairness and parity of resource provision for similar schools and in respect of this school's particular needs, I would ask that very careful consideration should be given to this school's appeal and granting retention of the additional teacher. From the evidence provided by the principal, I am satisfied that there are strong arguments in favour of granting this post to the school on a temporary basis.

That is all we are asking for, namely, the granting of this post on a temporary basis in a situation in which the advantages of the children are being severely restricted by bureaucracy. Let us have an end to bureaucracy. Let us listen to what the inspector has to say. Let us listen to what the teachers have to say.

The Minister of State can have my imprimatur on the wonderful outstanding work that this school is doing in an area of devastation. As somebody who lives in the north inner-city area, I was proud of those children. They are wonderful.

I should not speak until the Minister of State responds but I suggest that the Senator must follow that up with the documentation he himself has with the Minister. I am sorry, Minister.

That is grand. I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach.

I hope the Minister of State will also bring this back.

I will indeed. I again thank Senator Norris. Whenever I hear Senator Norris speak in this House, he speaks with the reality of life. The Senator speaks clearly and loudly, as he has done today.

I certainly will raise the issue with the Minister, Deputy McHugh. As has been outlined in the reply, it is an independent process. When schools are not successful, it is difficult to take it any further.

In saying that, I agree with the Leas-Chathaoirleach that Senator Norris should forward the paperwork that he has been reading from to the Minister, Deputy McHugh, including his clear indication of how passionate and committed are those who are part of that school about this problem.

Considering my own background and the community I represent, I would say on a personal level to Senator Norris and him speaking about the north inner-city that on a daily basis I meet school principals and get letters from constituents on how numbers have figured, particularly in DEIS schools. I have a personal view of DEIS schools which I will not go into now but I believe that there are certain communities and schools that need to be looked at in a different light. When my own children went to school in my parish, the numbers - there were only 13 in a class - made such a difference to their lives and to their education as well. Sometimes we have to look again in a different way at schools that have such complex needs.

I compliment the Senator again on how articulate he is about the homeless problem. We all understand. As a parent and grandparent, I never want to see my child or my children's children living in a hotel in a room where they do not have the space to be taken aside to do their homework.

I will bring back to the Minister the Senator's clear views and concerns. If Senator Norris would send on the material to the Minister, Deputy McHugh, I will say it to him as well.

I thank the Minister of State for her suggestion. I will certainly do that. I thank the Deputy for her very humane response.