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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 19 Jan 2022

Vol. 282 No. 1

The Impact of Covid-19 on Primary and Secondary Education: Motion

I welcome the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley. I also welcome the Chair of the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Kehoe. I thank the committee clerk for all the work she has put into this initiative. This is one of the recommendations from a report on Seanad reform that we are implementing. This is the second instance where we have brought in the Chair of a committee and we are delighted that the Minister is here as well. Six to 12 months after the reports have been published and launched we look again at the recommendations to see the progress that has been made on their implementation. Committee members in the Oireachtas and the general public put a lot of work and effort into those reports and it is important that the recommendations that are agreed by all sides are actively implemented. I invite Senator O'Loughlin to propose the motion.

I move:

That Seanad Éireann notes the Report of the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science entitled ‘Report on the Impact of COVID-19 on Primary and Secondary Education’, copies of which were laid before Seanad Éireann on 20th January, 2021.

It gives me great pleasure to propose this motion. I welcome the Minister to the Seanad. We are very pleased to have her listen to our deliberations on this report. I also welcome Deputy Kehoe, the Chairperson of the committee, who has done excellent work in terms of steering this report. The impact of Covid on schools and education settings was very important, not just for the children but for society and family life as well.

The report involved engagement with a lot of stakeholders, in particular with young people. I know that the Minister in her engagement to deal with Covid and to look at suggestions and practical ways of dealing with the pandemic, also consulted with young people. As a committee, we found that hugely important and it formed a large part of our engagement. It was not the first time that the voices of students came to the fore, but a lot of emphasis was put on the voices of young people. Long may this continue. That is very important. One of the areas in the report that has been mentioned is that clear communication and co-operation with everybody in the school community is important, and has been in terms of schools remaining open.

I record my own thanks and on behalf of all of us here to the whole school community. Notwithstanding all the challenges they faced in the past two years, our schools are open and our children are receiving an education.

Our children have the opportunity to be with their peers to socialise and learn all the many different aspects of life that they would not if they were just sitting in their own homes with their PlayStations or whatever.

It is important to say that the Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill 2019 should be enacted. That comes on top of that clear communication I was referencing. The main objective of that Bill is to seek the best possible outcomes for students with regard to their own educational and personal development. It is important that it be made mandatory for schools to have that to keep the voice of the young person and, indeed, the voices of parents central to everything.

Clear communication is hugely important and many parents, as we understand, had anxiety about their children staying in school. At the same time, however, most parents were absolutely happy with schools staying open. They recognised, as indeed we all do and as national and international research suggests, that the best place for a student is in the classroom with in-person teaching. I know at times, particularly coming up even to last Christmas, there was a widespread call for the schools to be closed. I am really glad that schools did not close and that measures were put in place to ensure they stayed open, recognising that it is so important for all children but particularly those who are in vulnerable situations, have special educational needs and who may have disadvantages at home that take away from their whole educational experience.

Regarding other issues that we discussed within this report, obviously, there is a vast disparity between different schools. We have some state-of-the-art schools. Students and teachers in those are lucky to have those facilities with isolation areas and proper green spaces in which to play, etc. Sadly, however, many schools do not have that. We know that 25% of schools at the start of the pandemic did not have warm water in their school toilet facilities, which shocked me. I understand that has been rectified in most cases now but that certainly was a problem. Again, I believe approximately 25% of schools did not have a suitable place for a Covid-19 isolation area.

In terms of the communications that came from the Department, quite a number of teachers and principals said to me that they felt that there were too many circulars coming out, and that it would be better if there was one working document that was updated on an ongoing basis. Perhaps that is one of the lessons we need to learn from this.

I acknowledge the Minister's commitment to keeping schools open as we continue to live with Covid-19 and that she is at all times taking a very student-centred approach to the children. We know that their development regresses or is undermined if they are out for any prolonged period. Obviously, we hope we are getting to a situation where we are not going to be dealing with Covid-19 to the same extent but in terms of lessons learned, we have to look back and take recommendations. I thank the Minister for being here and listening to our report.

I now call the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Paul Kehoe. I thank him again for his work in putting this report together along with the clerk to the committee, Ms Tara Kelly. It is an important piece of work. It was done 12 months ago but it is very timely, given where we are in January with schools and Covid-19, that we look again at the recommendations the Chairman worked very hard to put together on behalf of us all. I thank him very much.

I am delighted to be back before the Seanad again. I thought I had escaped the Seanad on ceasing to be a Minister of State.

There is no escaping us.

Anyway, I am back and it is good to be back. I do not mean that in a disingenuous way, by the way.

First, I am delighted to be joined by the Minister and members of the committee. It is an opportune time to debate this very important issue in the Seanad. I thank the Cathaoirleach and Members for the opportunity today to discuss the joint committee's Report on the Impact of Covid-19 Primary and Secondary Education.

From the outset of the pandemic, the joint committee recognised that the impact of Covid-19 on primary and secondary level education was an urgent priority and agreed to produce a report on three key areas: first, ensuring schools are open in a manner that is both safe and sustainable; second, the 2020 leaving certificate calculated grades and 2021 leaving certificate preparation; and, third, other issues such as the use of reduced timetables in schools, cyberbullying and educational disadvantages, which have had a significant impact on young people.

As we approach the second anniversary of living in a pandemic, I speak on behalf of the committee when I say that we recognise the great suffering young people have endured over the past two years. We acknowledge their great positivity and resilience in returning to school and continuing their education under very challenging circumstances.

I would also like to pay tribute to the Trojan work performed by the other members of the school community, namely, school principals and their deputies, teachers, special needs assistants, SNAs, school secretaries and parents associations. They have managed to provide children and young people with an education despite enormous challenges. They should also be very proud of what they have done for their country.

Returning to the report, though, the committee held several meetings with key education stakeholders on the issue of ensuring schools remain open in a safe and sustainable way. The Irish Second-Level Students' Union, ISSU, contributed to the discussions and represented young people in a real and meaningful way. The committee was briefed by officials from the Department of Education on the 2020 leaving certificate examination and preparations for 2021 leaving certificate. I would like it noted that the committee is currently completing a comprehensive examination on leaving certificate reform and the need for a new senior cycle. A report will be published shortly with concrete, feasible recommendations that I strongly believe can transform the education landscape and give students a very bright future.

Finally, the committee met with the Department of Education regarding the use of reduced timetables and with key academic staff from Dublin City University, DCU, regarding school bullying, cyberbullying and educational disadvantage. I would like to express gratitude both to the Minister's Department and DCU for their tremendous support and continued appearances before the Oireachtas committee. The joint committee was very grateful to all those who appeared before it to give evidence and who took time also to provide written submissions.

I will now refer to some of the ten key recommendations contained in the report. The Minister for Education should formally request the Minister for Health to instruct the HSE to undertake a review of the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, guidelines for vulnerable students and families, including a review of risk assessments and attendant categorisation. There has been much stress and anxiety among at-risk teachers, many with serious illnesses, and vulnerable students or students who live with vulnerable people and feel unsafe attending school. However, the committee is happy to see that these guidelines are being updated on an ongoing basis.

The Department of Education should develop a national online learning programme to be rolled out to all primary and secondary schools as a matter of urgent priority. I feel that there is inconsistency in digital skills and a lack of access to technology and broadband, of which we are all very much aware. This risks leaving a cohort of extremely vulnerable students even further behind. Several witnesses who appeared before the committee stressed the need for online learning to be the same across the country. While it is an ambitious aim, there is great merit in developing a national online digital programme similar to what is in place in the further and higher education sector. SOLAS has indicated a willingness to assist the Department of Education. I strongly urge the Minister and her officials to engage with SOLAS in this regard.

Emotional counselling and therapeutic supports should be provided in all primary and secondary schools as an urgent priority. Ireland is out of step with many of its European neighbours in not providing in-school emotional counselling and therapeutic supports. Trauma and mood disorders have been identified as significant factors in early school leaving, and while the services provided by the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, and guidance counsellors are very valuable in their own right, they are not suitable alternatives to on-site therapeutic supports for anxiety, trauma and complex emotional needs. The committee also included this recommendation in its report entitled, School Bullying and the Impact on Mental Health, which was published in August of last year. The Minister discussed this with us on several occasions during her appearances before the committee.

I understand that the Minister is liaising with the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, as counselling services fall within the remit of the Department of Health. I would ask that there is a genuine will and joined-up thinking between the Minister and the Minister of State, between their Departments and between their respective officials to make the provision a reality, even on a pilot basis initially. I am utterly convinced from the evidence I have heard, from a diverse range of organisations and individuals, that this service is urgently and desperately needed across the country. One trusted individual on site, with the requisite professional training and expertise, could make all the difference in a child or young person's life.

The provision of hot meals to vulnerable students should be expanded to cover periods of school closures and holidays, and a hot meals programme should be rolled out nationally to all schools on a phased basis. I know this is a matter for the Department of Social Protection as well. The provision of hot meals in schools has been expanded from 6,600 primary school pupils in 2019 to more than 55,000 in 2022. The committee warmly welcomes this increase but would like to see it rolled out across all primary and post-primary schools. This would be transformative to children's lives and meet the commitment in the programme for Government to “Work across government to address food poverty in children and ensure no child goes hungry.” Sitting together and eating a hot meal every day would also be very beneficial in fostering a positive school and food culture and good mental health. School meals are the norm in most European countries and I ask the Minister to work with the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, to make sure this is rolled out. I would like to compliment the Minister and the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, for their work in this area thus far and I know a lot more has to be done.

The Department of Education should undertake a review of primary and secondary school funding. The committee believes that schools were faced with significant challenges of closures and reopenings during the pandemic. Proper financial and staffing resources must be made available to ensure the additional leadership and management posts can be put in place. These are fundamentally important as we face into the future. It is neither fair nor sustainable that school principals are, in many cases, being asked to carry the enormous burden of keeping their schools open alone. The Education (Student and Parent) Charter Bill 2019 should be enacted as soon as possible and then fully implemented as a key priority for Government. The committee believes that this Bill would play a pivotal role in improving how schools engage with students and their parents. It also sends out a strong message that parents are valued members of the school community. I would ask the Minister to proceed with the Bill's enactment as a matter of urgency.

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, senior cycle review advisory report was to be published by the end of June 2021, with due regard to the need for continuous assessment, increased vocational options and international best practice. The report still has not been published. I have urged the Minister and her officials to publish the report and I know a lot of work is going on behind the scenes in the Department of Education on this issue. I again urge the Minister to publish that report as soon as possible. The Department of Education should have published the final guidelines on the use of reduced timetables in schools by the end of March 2021. The committee is happy to note that these guidelines were published in September 2021.

The Department of Education should update the 2013 anti-bullying procedures for primary and secondary schools to include guidelines for addressing homophobia and transphobia. School bullying, including cyberbullying, increased during Covid-19. This is a real issue that the committee discussed, specifically the issue of online bullying during the pandemic. The joint committee went further in examining the 2013 report entitled School Bullying and the Impact on Mental Health and the proposed audit of the action plan on bullying, also from 2013. The committee is happy that school bullying is being treated as a wholly separate item in school inspections and that there will also be incidental bullying inspections.

I also commend the Minister on announcing that the inspectorate will publish a composite report on the inspections. In addition, the committee supports the Minister in her efforts not simply to tackle school bullying but to foster positive school cultures, where mutual respect prevails and bullying is simply not tolerated. I am also pleased with reports that the Minister will shortly bring proposals to Cabinet to establish a steering group on the issue, taking account of the committee’s report and recommendations. I thank the Minister for taking the committee’s work on board. I know she feels strongly about it, as do her Department officials and everyone in the Department. It is a real issue, which is clear to anyone who saw the story on “Prime Time” last night on the effects of school bullying. I would like to compliment the parents of that child for coming out last night to tell their story and for having the strength to do so. That is the only way we will combat school bullying, which was a huge issue during Covid-19.

Air monitors and meters, or both, should have been installed in all primary and post-primary schools by the end December 2021, ensuring proper ventilation in classrooms. Before I finish, I would like to refer to an issue that the joint committee was not aware of when publishing the report. The Libraries Association of Ireland, LIA, school group branch has corresponded with the committee recently regarding the need to increase the number of school libraries. I strongly believe that encouraging reading and developing a love for books is fundamentally important, especially, as I think we all agree, as children and young people are spending far too much time on technological devices nowadays. That feeds into school bullying and access to social media platforms, etc. I encourage the Minister to look at the proposal from the LIA. Libraries are safe and calm places that encourage learning but also foster positive mental health. I implore the Minister to honour the commitment from the 2005 DEIS action plan to extend the number of junior certificate school programme, JCSP, libraries from 30 to 50, with a view to further rolling out school libraries nationwide. The goal of the JCSP library project is to foster a lifelong joy from reading and to give students the tools they need to successfully navigate their world as 21st century learners.

The joint committee asks that immediate action is taken to implement all the recommendations in the report. I know it is difficult to implement all of the recommendations and I know the Department is working on some of them. There are some important recommendations in the report that can be implemented and that would make a huge difference to the lives of students and teachers and to school life in general. It is imperative that these key national issues are treated as a matter of top priority by the Department of Education. As I have said before, young people are our future. Let us use the lessons learned in the pandemic to give them a future that this country and our citizens can be proud of. I thank the committee members, the Cathaoirleach, the Minister and her officials for appearing before the committee. I know they will continue to do that into the future.

I thank the Deputy for outlining those ten key recommendations, the elements that have been implemented and those elements that are awaiting implementation. The proposer will be able to come back in again but in the meantime the Minister can address the issues that have been raised.

This is my second time in this Chamber today.

I apologise to the Minister for a bad scheduling error on my behalf.

I am happy to be here. I took the opportunity earlier today to extend my good wishes for the new year to everyone gathered in the Chamber and I do likewise now. It is always a pleasure to be in the Seanad. I particularly thank the Cathaoirleach for the invitation to join Senators to reflect on the joint committee's report, one year on from its adoption. I am pleased to be joined by the Chair of the committee and I thank him for his presence and his presentation.

As Senators know, the continued safe and sustainable operation of schools has been a key priority for me as Minister for Education, and for the Government, throughout the pandemic. That we are discussing the report on the first day of business for the Seanad in this new year speaks to the importance that Senators also attach to this, and I want to acknowledge their ongoing and significant commitment to all issues pertaining to education.

I also acknowledge the hard work and commitment of the education partners, working together with the Department of Education and with public health, to ensure that our schools have reopened following the Christmas break.

Since the report was published, a number of additional measures have been put in place in schools, and I wish to use the opportunity today to inform Senators of those measures. As outlined, the report was divided into three modules. I will speak first about module 1, which dealt with "Ensuring that schools are open in a manner which is both safe and sustainable", with a focus on Covid measures in particular. Module 2 dealt with matters relating to the leaving certificate and module 3 dealt with a number of non-Covid related items.

On module 1, and as I have mentioned previously, the continued safe and sustainable operation of schools has been a key priority for me and for the Government. The approach to supporting schools to operate safely during Covid-19 has been to follow and implement public health advice. In its report, the joint committee emphasised the importance of adequate funding at both primary and secondary level. I am aware of the very significant costs incurred in keeping schools safe during Covid-19 and my Department has committed to ensuring that the full range of measures necessary to allow schools to operate safely in the Covid-19 environment will continue to be available for the 2021-22 school year.

A range of supports is being made available to schools to provide for enhanced cleaning, PPE and hand hygiene, as well as enhanced supervision. For example, more than €122 million of capitation funding has been made available to primary and post-primary schools to cater for PPE and hand sanitiser requirements up to the end of the current school year. This enables schools to have available a stock of adequate PPE, where required, on an ongoing basis. Payments in regard to the second term of the 2021-22 school year, which covers the period January to March 2022, issued recently to all schools.

Since the report was published last year, NPHET has also reviewed its advice on face masks in the context of the Omicron variant. It has been advised by the CMO that all face coverings, including cloth face coverings, offer significant protection against Covid-19. The CMO further advises that anyone who wishes to wear a medical grade face mask or respirator mask instead of a cloth mask should do so. Schools have been advised that where staff prefer to wear medical grade face masks, they can be sourced from the procurement framework in place for schools. Children in third class and above now also wear face masks in school, as advised by public health.

Strong communication with schools and strong engagement with students, parents and staff is vital to ensuring that the experience of our schools is one that is as positive, responsive and supportive as possible for both students and their parents. This is of critical importance, both during exceptional circumstances such as the current pandemic and more generally. A communication and awareness campaign has been launched to remind parents and the wider school community of important public health messages aimed at reducing the impact and spread of Covid-19.

As I am sure Senators will be aware, since the joint committee recommended in its report that air monitors should be installed in all primary and post-primary schools, the roll-out of CO2 monitors to primary and post-primary schools commenced in August 2021. Over 37,500 CO2 monitors have been dispatched to schools nationwide. The Department of Education has provided schools with detailed guidance about the practical measures schools should deploy to ensure good ventilation while ensuring an appropriate balance between ventilation and comfort. To provide additional support in the context of Covid-19, the payment of an enhanced minor works grant totalling €45 million for primary schools and special schools, plus once-off Covid-19 minor works funding of €17 million for post-primary schools, was issued in December 2021. Given that each school setting is different, individual schools are best placed to decide how best to use this funding to address their particular needs. Specialist advice or assistance of a chartered engineer or registered architect is an important source of support for schools. This will help to ensure that appropriate solutions are being put in place to address specific ventilation issues, including advice on whether a HEPA air cleaner unit is required to deal with a poorly ventilated room. My Department continues to engage with expert groups to ensure guidance provided to schools is based on the most up-to-date information available. The Department also continues to engage with and support schools on this matter.

The Covid-19 pandemic and associated school closures have had adverse consequences for many children and their families. However, the effect on children with complex special educational needs and those at greatest risk of educational disadvantage is even greater. My Department provided a number of additional supports for children with special educational needs and those at risk of educational disadvantage in the 2020-21 school year. This included provision for enhanced digital communication, teaching and learning platforms. Additional guidance was provided for schools on how to provide for the continuity of schooling for pupils with special educational needs. The Department also put in place a supplementary programme to provide additional support to pupils who have complex needs, which was availed of by over 14,000 pupils, and an expanded summer programme which saw an increase of 65% in the number of pupils availing of the programme. The Covid learning and support scheme, or CLASS, has been introduced for the 2021-22 school year to mitigate the adverse effects on pupils' learning loss and well-being arising from the periods of school closures.

Given the current case numbers, the Department recognises that schools will continue to require additional substitute cover in the period leading up to the mid-term break to assist in dealing with absences during this phase of the pandemic. A range of measures have been put in place to assist schools in this regard. Schools have been advised that they should maximise the provision of in-person teaching and learning for as many students as possible in these circumstances.

With regard to school transport, the Department engaged intensively with Bus Éireann in regard to the logistics for the safe operation of school transport scheme services for the 2021-22 school year. In line with the lifting of restrictions on public transport, implementation commenced after the October mid-term break for post-primary school transport services to resume operating at 100% capacity. All other measures relating to hygiene, pre-assigned seating, cleaning and the wearing of masks by post-primary students remain in place, subject to further review. With regard to primary transport, measures relating to hygiene, pre-assigned seating and cleaning continue to be in place also. The Department continues to provide funding for all additional hygiene measures required on school transport services, including the necessary funding to ensure all bus drivers and bus escorts receive the requisite PPE. The required funding to schools and school bus contractors has been provided for this purpose. With regard to post-primary special needs transport services, the Department is working with schools on a case-by-case basis where such services may be required to continue operating at 50% capacity.

With regard to the impact of the pandemic on last year's State examinations, in particular the leaving certificate, I am very aware that all students have experienced a degree of disruption to their teaching and learning. A key priority for the Government was ensuring that the 2021 leaving certificate cohort was treated as fairly and equitably as possible, having regard to the adverse impact of Covid-19. Students were offered both the option of doing the leaving certificate examinations and receiving accredited grades.

Looking ahead towards this year's examinations, in response to the ongoing degree of disruption to students who are due to sit State examinations in 2022, details were announced in August 2021 of adjustments to the assessment arrangements for the junior cycle and leaving certificate of 2022. The adjustments made ensure that the overall structure of the examinations remains intact but will allow for greater choice for students. The level of adjustment is similar to that applied to the assessment arrangements for the 2021 examinations that were announced in December 2020. I also announced that an alternative set of leaving certificate examinations will be run in 2022, shortly after the conclusion of the main set of examinations. This will be available to certain students who are unable to sit the main set of examinations due to close family bereavement, Covid-19 illness and certain other categories of serious illness. On 20 December last, a further announcement was made regarding the arrangements for leaving certificate oral examinations in Irish and the modern foreign languages, and the practical performance tests in leaving certificate music. These will now take place outside of school time over the first week of the school Easter holidays, with the examinations running in schools during the six-day period, Saturday, 9 April to Thursday, 14 April, inclusive.

Holding these examinations over Easter and outside of school time will minimise disruption for students and schools. The State Examinations Commission, SEC, will issue further details regarding the 2022 examinations, guided by prevailing public health advice.

The Department of Education continues to engage with education stakeholders in relation to planning for the 2022 State examinations. The advisory group on planning for the examinations has been and continues to be centrally involved. The membership of this group includes representatives of students, parents, teachers and school leaders, as well as representatives from the SEC, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, the Higher Education Authority, HEA and my own Department. A further meeting of the advisory group is planned to take place tomorrow.

In my remaining time I would like to address briefly the recommendations in the final module of the joint committee's report. In particular, I wish to deal with the recommendations on reduced timetables and their use in schools. I am happy to confirm that guidelines and a circular on the use of reduced timetables were issued to schools in September of 2021. Having allowed time for implementation, these guidelines came into effect from 1 January 2022.

A new online course for primary and post-primary teachers addressing the topic of cyberbullying is under development. The course will be provided this year by the Professional Development Service for Teachers, PDST, technology in education team on its online platform teachercpd.ie. I have also asked my officials to commence a review of my Department's 2013 action plan on bullying and the 2013 anti-bullying procedures for primary and post-primary schools. This review will take account of developments and relevant research since the action plan and procedures were published in 2013 and will specifically consider areas such as cyberbullying and gender identity bullying. The review will also give detailed consideration to the recommendations contained in the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science report on school bullying and its impact on mental health, which was published in August 2021. I am very aware and fully appreciate that any case of bullying is one case too many. It is an area of important work that we will progress as a matter of priority.

I am pleased that budget 2022 provided for an allocation of €18 million for 2022 and €32 million for 2023 to extend the DEIS programme to further schools with the highest levels of disadvantage. This represents an increase of over 20% in funding for the DEIS programme and will enable an expansion in 2022 to additional schools. This package follows an extensive body of work that has been undertaken by the DEIS technical group in relation to the development of a model to identify the concentrated levels of disadvantage in our schools.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for the invitation to attend today. I assure Senators that I and officials in my Department continue to work hard to address the many challenges of Covid-19 and to support students and school communities throughout the country. Again, I reiterate my thanks for the hard work being done by public health and our school communities to support all the children and young people we serve every day in the education sector.

First, I compliment the work of my Wexford colleague, Deputy Kehoe, and the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. I also compliment the Minister on her work in this area.

In the context of online bullying, while I welcome the new strategy with regard to bullying, a lot of our concern is not so much about the bullying that takes place in the playground but the bullying that takes place in the online space. The Minister may be aware of the tragic case of Eden Heaslip that was covered on "Prime Time" where the bullying that happened in the community continued in the online space. We need to be able to address that. The online safety and media regulation Bill will be before the Houses quite soon, and one of the issues the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Martin, is considering is the introduction of an individual complaints mechanism. She is going to set up an expert panel that will include children's rights representatives to consider how such a mechanism could be introduced. It would be important for the Department of Education to reflect on the concerns expressed in the joint committee's report but also the concerns expressed on behalf of the education community as to how that individual complaints mechanism should work. The social media companies have not been responding in an effective way to address this problem which is why we need an independent complaints mechanism. I hope the Department of Education will engage with the process when the Minister announces the expert panel and when the legislation is being debated in the Houses.

Whatever about the question of the leaving certificate model for 2022, it is accepted that leaving certificate reform is necessary and I welcome the fact the Minister is committed to it. We need to look at new ways of assessing how students have performed at second level, particularly in terms of measuring core competencies and key skills. The traditional model, which has effectively been in place since 1925, needs to be changed significantly. I welcome the fact the Department is beginning that process. I also welcome the Minister's collaborative approach and the fact she is always very keen to involve as many people as possible.

In one sense, we have been lucky with the leaving certificate for the past two years, even with some of the grade inflation we have seen, because the Government has expanded the number of higher education places and significantly improved the apprenticeship and further education and training models. The fact that, two years ago, 5,000 additional higher education places were provided and, last year, 3,000 additional places were provided made a real difference. While I appreciate this is not directly the concern of the Minister for Education, we still have to address the crisis of funding in the higher education space. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, said 2021 would be the year the issue around higher education funding would finally be addressed, five years after the Cassells report was published. As I said, I appreciate this is not the direct concern of the Department of Education but it obviously relates to some of the concerns being expressed about the leaving certificate at the moment. I would ask that the concerns expressed in this debate would be taken on board by the Government. While we welcome the fact there has been an expansion in the number of places, we want a quality higher education experience for students. The Government needs to address the funding question in higher education.

I wish to turn now to the crucial issue. We are all talking to many people within the education community at the moment, especially students. The Minister has adopted a very collaborative approach. It is important to listen to all of the views of all the partners in education. The Minister has been right to listen particularly closely to the views of the Irish Second-Level Students' Union, ISSU. Given the extent to which students and young people have suffered, not just academically and educationally but also in terms of a range of other areas affecting their personal development over the past two years, it is appropriate to consider the hybrid model or adapting the leaving certificate exam so that students are given more time or more choice in the papers. The main thing is to get a decision very soon as to what is going to happen in June. Clarity must be provided within the next two to three weeks so that everybody knows the rules of the game over the next few months. The Minister is right to engage with everyone and to listen to their concerns but do we need clarity. It is only fair, not just to the leaving certificate students but also to junior certificate students. They need to know the rules of the game so that they can prepare accordingly.

The Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science expressed concerns around the issue of educational disadvantage. We do not know the full extent, as yet, of the impact of Covid-19 or the fallout from it.

There are students who will have had no problem keeping up as they learned at home and I was very struck by the remarks made by Professor O'Mahony. However, there are students who will fall behind if they do not have access to their teachers or a classroom environment. Educationally, emotionally and socially many students have been unable to develop to the full of their potential. It is critical for society generally but, in particular, the education system that we ensure that over the next number of years supports are put in place so that if young people have lost out during the period of Covid, it is not something that will have an impact on them for the rest of their lives. Yes, we can never replace what has happened over the last two years. I know that the Minister was able to do it with the July provision and a lot of the work that was there but we have got to ensure that no student or young person is left behind. We have got to be sure that coming out of this, and recognising the sacrifices that young people have made, we as a Government and a country provide the maximum number of opportunities for young people. The Minister's approach in putting the student and the learner at the centre of that discussion has been the right one, and I am certain that she will continue to do so.

Finally, I wish to reiterate, as colleagues have done, that the decision, regardless of what it is, should be made as soon as possible to provide certainty.

I know that colleagues are questioning some of the format of this. As it is entirely different due to the fact that we have the Chair of the committee and the Minister here, it does not run in the normal format that we would all be used to. I know that Members are talking about education and the report itself but the motion is about the recommendations of the report and the report so I ask Members to continue to look at those recommendations. I thank the Minister again and colleagues for outlining the various modules and the recommendations that have been made, and what has been done in terms of each of them.

I call on Senator Rónán Mullen and he has eight minutes.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire agus roimh Chathaoirleach an choiste, an Teachta Kehoe.

As a member of the education committee, I am very glad that this report is before the House. As we see talk of the removal of restrictions in the coming months I hope that we take the opportunity to look back on all aspects of how the pandemic was handled, particularly the impact of Covid-19 on the education system. While much of this report is, by its nature, specific to Covid, many aspects will continue to be relevant in a more general sense into the future. I refer, for example, to the digital divide, equitable access to learning technology, the issue of cyberbullying in schools and the structure of the leaving certificate, which the committee has looked at and is looking at. These are all issues that will require our attention on an ongoing basis into the future.

I am glad to see that the report explicitly mentions that NPHET has stated that schools should remain open even during a full level 5 lockdown. I welcome the recognition that there is a cost to restrictions. I mean that decisions made in terms of them must balance this cost against their benefit.

The report recommends an update to the 2013 anti-bullying procedures to include guidelines for addressing homophobia and transphobia. It was an eye-opening experience to listen to accounts of bullying suffered by students in schools and in the online spaces where students share their lives. I refer to the module that we did on bullying. However, I would caution against being overly specific when it comes to enumerating the pretext for bullying for two reasons: first, because it varies from situation to situation; and second, because it can end up giving the impression that there is a hierarchy of concern. This is an issue that should always be driven by student welfare and not by the prevailing politics of the time. Let me give an example. The education committee heard that there is evidence that people are being bullied because of their religious commitment or affiliation. There is some evidence of that which has come forward. I do not want to see a culture where people suddenly see themselves as victims of bullying. I want to see a culture where there is zero tolerance of bullying. I want to see schools being supported with strategies that apply to all sorts of pretexts for bullying, whether it is a person's physical characteristics, perceived sexual orientation, religious commitment, nationality or whatever it is. The more specific we get, the more we risk saying to some groups in society that they are less important or the problem they might have is less important than the problem somebody else has. I caution strongly against that. We need to focus on new areas where bullying takes place or new contexts for bullying, and cyberbullying pre-eminently. We must take account of the fact that from time to time there will be different types of pretexts for bullying but what is important here is to give schools the resources and the strategies that will apply to any kind of bullying. I say that because the fundamental idea is that what we are here to do is promote a culture of equal respect for each person. It does not matter what the pretext for bullying is. It is a general strategy against bullying of any kind that we always need to keep the emphasis on.

There has been much discussion recently about changing the culture and showing respect to people. That acknowledges a truth that acts of violence or targeted attack, verbal or physical, do not happen in a vacuum and instead are a product of a culture that has not instilled a sense of the inherent dignity of every man and woman, and fails to instil a respect for that dignity. We must rediscover the golden rule to treat others as one would like to be treated oneself. That rule has to be front and centre. I would love to see a move towards bringing about a culture of respect and honour among peers in our schools, and I think that the schools are already doing great work in that area. I mean that the idea of carrying out an act of bullying would be seen to be always something out of the question and beyond the pale of respectability, regardless of any traits, perceived traits or difference in the other person.

In a related vein, the report recommends the provision of "emotional counselling and therapeutic supports" for all primary and secondary schools. The mental health of all people has had more attention paid to it over the past years than ever before, and the health of our children is of the utmost importance. Much of this rising awareness has to do with the rising prevalence of mental health issues. More and more young people experience problems with their mental health than ever before. Perhaps in the same way as with the issue of bullying, we would be well served by taking a step back and asking ourselves why this is happening and what the causes are. As I asked in an earlier debate today, we rightly champion and celebrate the ways in which society appears to have improved over time but are there questions that we need to ask ourselves about how society and culture has disimproved? We need to be very honest and analytical about that.

It is vitally important that those who need targeted help in the area of mental health receive it, and schools will certainly have a role to play in providing this for their students. At the same time, it would be prudent to investigate what can be done to foster and encourage lifestyle choices that may lead to fewer people requiring such targeted services. I say that because we know that our mental health is well served by many things, including getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, limiting time spent on screens and using digital technology, having a balanced diet, engaging in physically and mentally engaging hobbies, and having close personal friendships, etc. This needs to be seriously emphasised across society. Of course, students are very important vectors for the facilitation and encouragement of those goods.

The idea of the digital divide, and the different levels of access to technology, or IT devices, across schools and families, will only become more pressing as time goes on. There is an increasing prevalence of blended learning, with online teaching forming a part of the teaching and learning process. That had to be the case during Covid. It is good in many ways but risks leaving behind those students who cannot engage in such learning for various reasons. Sometimes the reasons are economic or familial, or relate to their social circumstances. Sometimes there are personal reasons. We must be aware that blended learning can be a blessing and a curse. While it will take some amount of Government expenditure to address the digital divide and furnish disadvantaged students with devices to access online learning, for example, we must go there. I feel that there are few better ways to spend Government funds than to ensure every child can receive an education.

Lastly, as we look to the future, the experience of the past two years of the leaving certificate has raised questions about its format and how that can be improved. The committee will produce another report on that very topic.

It has been interesting to hear the ideas put forward by witnesses and I look forward to seeing what changes could be made. As bizarre as it may sound, we need to take advantage of the opportunity that Covid-19 has presented, for all the ills it has brought to us and our society.

I am sharing time with Senator Maria Byrne.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Foley, to the Seanad. This is our first motion of 2022. I also welcome Deputy Kehoe from the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science.

This report deals specifically with impacts during the first part of lockdown. This report was produced this time last year, on 14 January 2021. It refers to the impact on our children and young people in primary and secondary schools. I acknowledge the work that has been done in the Minister's office and the Department of Education in the nearly two years that have passed since March 2020 to allow students to study from home and to prioritise the opening of schools, where possible. I acknowledge our teaching staff, principals, caretakers and everyone else who helped schools to reopen and maintain safe social distancing. However, we know that absences from school have been detrimental for our children. There have been challenges in terms of the changes in routine for all children, including those in special needs schools.

In the Minister's contribution to the Seanad, she mentioned three modules before she spoke to the recommendations of the report. I welcome the €122 million of capitation funding that was made available to primary and post-primary schools, as the Minister mentioned. She also talked about face masks and their importance in reducing the spread of Covid-19.

Communications arose as an issue on the most recent occasion the Minister was in the Seanad Chamber with regard to the tenor of some of the circulars that were provided to principals. We would like that to be improved within the Department in the year ahead if further circulars are required.

The Minister also mentioned ventilation and the numbers of CO2 monitors that have gone out to schools. She also spoke about the minor works grant for primary schools and special schools, totalling €45 million. Of course, that funding is absolutely crucial because the numbers of students in some of our primary schools are getting higher, especially in some rural areas, at a time when we do not have enough teachers to meet the demand.

The Minister also spoke about substitute cover and I would like to learn a little more about how that process is working now at primary school level, considering the Covid-related absences we are seeing. She mentioned previously that we are going to be bringing in final year students to give support in that regard. She has also referenced school transport.

The Minister also spoke about the notice we are going to get about the leaving certificate. I understand well the challenges we have in terms of the lack of data for the cohort who will sit their junior certificate examinations this year. We need greater choice for students. The Minister mentioned that the approach will be similar to that taken last year in terms of the questions on the examination paper. However, we need information about the assessment arrangements and so on as soon as possible. It is causing distress and anxiety for students, particularly where I come from. I regularly meet students who tell me that.

Senator Malcolm Byrne mentioned funding. I was pleased that over 6,000 places for students were provided within our higher education institutes over the past two years to account for the accredited grading system. It is going to be very challenging to provide something like that again this year. Over 6,000 places have been provided by our higher education institutes and by the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science.

The issue of bullying was one of the recommendation points I wanted to bring up and the Minister has referenced it. She mentioned the PDST technology and education team. My question relates to FUSE, the evidence-based programme from Dublin City University, DCU. We heard from representatives of FUSE, the anti-bullying and online safety programme, at the education committee on numerous occasions last year. FUSE had a very strong programme. Is investment going to be rolled out for that particular programme, particularly at regional level? It has engaged with only 4,000 schools at secondary school level. Barnardos' Roots of Empathy programme is another strong programme. Are supports available for Barnardos in its efforts to address bullying at primary school level?

One of the other recommendations was gathering data. The Minister has spoken about reviews that will be done in the Department and, of course, I appreciate the value of reviews and gathering evidence. However, we also need to gather data from our schools on the incidences of bullying in those schools. The committee Chairperson, Deputy Kehoe, mentioned the programme that was shown on "Prime Time" last night and the issue of bullying that is happening in many of our schools. The Minister mentioned that one case of bullying is too many. The committee, in its report, suggested one in three students, if not more, has experienced bullying. There are high levels of bullying at a worldwide level. It is incredible that it is happening in our schools, particularly in online and cyber forums.

The Minister mentioned that €80 million is available for the expansion of the delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, programme. What is the timeline for that? We have a DEIS level 1 school in Ballinasloe. There are no supports for DEIS at secondary school level. When will that be done? When will those schools be included?

Digitalisation is important as we see acceleration in many areas. We need broadband rolled out for our schools. I will pass over to my colleague, Senator Maria Byrne, and if there is time, I might come in again at the end of her contribution.

I am delighted to have the Minister and Deputy Kehoe here. Having served previously on the education committee, it is an area close to my own heart. I am still involved in a school in Limerick. I read the report and found it very interesting. It took an amount of work on the part of the committee so I compliment all who were involved in putting this report together. Two or three things stood out for me. The first related to special needs assistants, SNAs, and the support around them. The report also suggested SNAs, principals and school boards should be consulted on decision-making. That was one of the recommendations in the report.

The expansion of hot school meals is also mentioned in the report. The pilot scheme has been expanded. There is a recommendation that it should be expanded further and that is something I would like to highlight.

I turn to consider bullying and online bullying. We saw the episode of "Prime Time" last night to which Deputy Kehoe referred. It is frightening. The school I am involved with in Limerick has used iPads as a method of learning since the very start of the pandemic and it has been very successful. However, because the students have been using iPads from day one, it is part of their education and they see it as an educational tool. The challenge is to find ways to show students that media and IT equipment are forms of education and how they can be used for the purpose of education.

One line in the report that stood out to me was, "Trauma and mood disorders such as depression have been identified as being significant factors leading to early school leaving." We have all heard various reports in that regard. The families of children who have been self-harming or with whom there have been issues have come to me. Covid has contributed to an increase in some of those behaviours. It is about increasing well-being and support to students who end up in this situation. Some schools have wellness classes. I know they have been rolled out to many schools but not all of them have embraced those classes properly. Perhaps the Minister could think of ways to encourage schools to embrace them fully.

My last point refers to blended learning. I would like to see an early decision made on the leaving certificate. I have been inundated with calls from students from across Limerick and the country. They want to see a hybrid leaving certificate.

The Minister is welcome. I thank the Chair of our committee, Deputy Kehoe. I have enjoyed sitting on the committee. We work well as a team and do in-depth work. Some of the other committee members have spoken before me. It has been eye-opening to see things from everyone's perspective. We have disagreements and people come from different perspectives.

One of the things we can agree on is that there are changes needed in the education system. Work is under way on a report on reform of the leaving certificate. I would welcome an update from the Minister on that. There is a little bit of siloing going on regarding leaving certificate reform in terms of where it sits and who is making the decisions around it.

Some Senators spoke about online learning. I believe that the future of education increasingly will be online. The Department needs to embrace that. There is no way of educating our young people unless they are allowed to use those devices. Senator Maria Byrne spoke about the school she is involved with, where since the start of the pandemic students have been using iPads or other similar devices. Likewise this is happening in a school which one of my children attends. It is about teaching a healthy respect for devices, electronics and online learning. It can go really wrong. It was heartbreaking to watch the parents of Eden Heaslip speak about their devastating loss and the bullying of Eden that carried on after school into his homeplace, which led to him to feel there was no other option but to take his own life and to die by suicide. We all know of those stories. So many are related to bullying. There is no doubt but that this has continued on throughout the pandemic and, largely, gone unseen. We probably do not know the full extent of it, although we all know that it is a matter that is close to the Minister's heart. I welcome her announcements in regard to dealing with and tackling bullying.

The Union of Students in Ireland, USI, came before the committee. They told us that one of the issues that they felt was a real legacy of the pandemic was isolation and a lack of communication with young people. As members will be aware, I have been chairperson of Home Education Network Ireland. I know hundreds of families across the country who choose to home educate their children and have done for many years. It is really successful. It is not always the best place for every family. Every family has to make a decision. Constitutionally, they are entitled to make that decision about how to educate their children, but so many were given the opportunity to make that decision and it was foisted upon them and their children. That has not been good for some families, particularly those that are already struggling and young people who are already struggling. On the day the Minister was last in the Seanad before Christmas, the report of the Joint Committee on the Key Issues affecting the Traveller Community was launched. The low number of Travellers who reach leaving certificate is of huge concern, as are the numbers of Travellers who go on to third-level education. In primary and second school, the number of children who are not getting a full night's sleep because of their living conditions is also a matter of concern. One particular family is living in a one-bedroom house where four children are sleeping on the floor, another is sleeping on the sofa and two others are sleeping in the bedroom. The teenagers in that family fall asleep on the sofa in the afternoon because of a lack of sleep. That has to be tackled. We need to make sure that this report and other reports from the Joint Committee on the Key Issues affecting the Traveller Community are constantly reviewed. That is a commitment. The chairman of the education committee has given an assurance that chairpersons of committees across the board will meet in regard to the Traveller community.

Earlier today on the Order of Business I raised the Yellow Flag programme. I have written to the Department of Education with regard to supporting it. I understand that the Minister of State with responsibility for rural and community development, Deputy Joe O'Brien, has today spoken to the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, in regard to further support. This is a programme on which both Departments could collaborate in some way. The programme is about seeking to educate young people, children and teachers, about not only identity-based violence but racism leading to bullying. Some 27% of Traveller parents said that their children had experienced bullying that was identity-based. The parents of Eden Heaslip have testified that some of the bullying he endured was around religion. The issue of bullying in regard to religion came up at the committee. It is something I had not considered before. We have to make sure we are not segregating our children and that we are educating people together to appreciate and tolerate other people's beliefs. That is important. The Yellow Flag programme has been turned away by 150 schools because they do not have the resources to support it. The programme is dependent on funding from local authorities and, therefore, it is very much self-selecting. This means that schools where there is a real diversity of children coming from many different areas are the only ones providing these programmes. We should ensure that all schools, children and teachers understand identity-based bullying, which may often lead to violence of various sorts. Those are a few of the issues that are really important to me.

Another issue highlighted by the pandemic is our high dependence on school transport. Owing to the pandemic, we had to reduce capacity on school transport, and while that was the right decision it meant that many children had to be driven to school. I would like to see a collaboration between the Departments of Education and Transport in this area. I made a budget submission for additional funding for school transport. If we had a revolutionary school transport system in this country, it could end congestion and emissions problems. Some 30% of traffic in the mornings is attributed to children being brought to school. Children are entitled to school transport if they live 4.8 km from their local school based on ethos or 3.7 km from their local primary school. That means that within cities and large conurbations there often is no school transport and this is creating significant congestion. This would be healthier for our children in that they could walk to a bus stop and no longer be stuck in cars. There would be less idling of cars outside of schools and this could contribute to the emissions reduction that the Department of Education has committed to under the climate action plan.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I also welcome Deputy Keogh. The report was published last January following a series of sessions of the education committee with children's rights groups, students, teachers' unions and student unions. Many of the recommendations centre around providing additional funding to schools for Covid safety measures and to allow students to catch up on missed time when schools were closed in 2020. The report predated the additional school closures from January to March 2021.

Many vulnerable students fell behind while school buildings were closed. The report shows that some 4,500 children did not return to school when it reopened following Covid closures last year. There is no doubt that contained within this number are vulnerable students who may have become disengaged through those closures. The Covid learning support scheme the Minister mentioned is welcome but Sinn Féin believes it does not go far enough to ensure children who are at risk of becoming disengaged are supported and included. It would be naive to believe that the regression can be reversed with an additional week or two of tuition in the summer or a small number of additional teaching hours through the class scheme, although I acknowledge it will undoubtedly be beneficial.

We have an underfunded and overcrowded education system, with the highest class sizes in the EU and one in every five primary school children in a class of over 30. This overcrowding continues at similar levels in post-primary education. Valuable summer programmes and temporary increase in teaching hours will not prove adequate unless backed up by ongoing investment. Without a drastic reduction in class sizes across the state, our children will continue to miss out. Without a corresponding increase in set allocations in our schools, summer provision alone will never achieve the aim of fully supporting children with special educational needs.

Without an increase in funding for school completion and home school community liaison programmes, many vulnerable children may be at risk of becoming disengaged from education entirely. Significant long-term investment in these areas will be crucial to ensuring a generation of children do not lose their education to this pandemic. The main causes Sinn Féin have made and which we included in our alternative budget in 2022 were: to provide hot meals to all children attending DEIS primary schools; a comprehensive review of special education teacher, SET, provision, beginning with a 4% increase in SET allocation, or 554 additional special education teachers, and the recruitment of 100 additional home school community liaison co-ordinators; and to increase investment in the school completion programme.

Another issue mentioned in this report is putting air monitors in schools by the end of December 2021. Many schools are still waiting for HEPA air filtration. Sinn Féin has been calling for this as far back as Christmas 2020. On 13 December, the Minister announced that schools would be receiving additional minor works grant funding which they could use to purchase HEPA filtration devices. However, couching HEPA in terms of minor work grants has added massively to the workload of school leaders. It puts HEPA - we have long known that Covid is airborne - in competition with other essential projects within the school, for example, fixing a leak or a broken window. Some principals have used this funding not for HEPA but to meet the additional heating costs in the school due to windows being kept open, which is causing conflicts among teachers and school leadership about where this money would be best spent.

For those who choose to purchase HEPA filters, the scientific jargon in the guidance documents to principals is like another language. The Department could have provided access to expert advice which stated in plain English what they needed to buy and where they could buy it. We continue to call on the Minister to procure centrally and distribute these devices.

Another key recommendation was reform of the leaving certificate. I raised the call by students for a choice in the leaving certificate for 2022 between calculated grades and written examinations. The ISSU has called on the Minister to put in place a hybrid leaving certificate model this year. In a survey of more than 40,000 students, 68% of leaving certificate students said they wanted the hybrid leaving certificate. Leaving certificate students have made it clear they need a choice. The Minister cannot ignore the voices of students in this regard. I will leave it there. The reality is the level of disruption varies greatly from student to student based in the most part on factors entirely outside of their control. Some students may not have missed any class with their teacher while others may have missed weeks. The only way to ensure fairness in terms of the class of 2022 is to give students a choice between written examinations and calculated grades.

I welcome the Minister to the House and welcome the Chair of the committee. I will only cover a couple of points from the report and the recommendations. It is a hefty report and the Deputy read out the ten recommendations from it.

I flag, first of all, the concerns regarding the ability of special needs assistants to maintain social distance. As I stated to the Minister previously, I am in a number of education chats and there are many issues coming up. That seems to be something that is still raising concern in terms of special needs assistants, SNAs, feeling constricted, conflicted and unsure of how best to protect themselves. They are doing their very best but it seems to be a conversation that is still happening in terms of special needs assistants and the additional personal protective equipment, PPE, they need to be able, as they sometimes do, to get down close with students. It seems to be a conversation that is still ongoing and I am wondering whether the Minister has had any further engagement or whether there have been further recommendations in that area in relation to SNAs.

There is much reference to online learning, how students are able to learn online and the need for online learning to be standardised throughout the country so that students have the same opportunity of learning. This is slightly outside the remit of the Department. We do not have a publicly owned national broadband service and there is disparity in connectivity. As I said, this is beyond the Minister's remit but this digital divide is inevitably, as we know now, affecting children and young people and their learning opportunities. Not that it is the Minister's problem to solve, but has she had any conversations with the Minister overseeing the broadband roll-out about her concerns? It is certainly something we have heard of in terms of students not being able to access the learning. Now students are back into schools, it is to be hoped it is not too much of an issue. It is something for the future. Students are learning online all the time now, not only, as we referenced, in the at-home learning that happened for a brief period.

It would be remiss of me, of course, not to talk about the leaving certificate and - something that has not a huge amount of airing - the junior certificate. Not to put another question on the Minister's plate, given she is up to her oxters with the leaving certificate conversation, but has there been a conversation around that? There is a big push, as the Minister will have heard from a number of people, around the hybrid leaving certificate and what that will look like. Has there been a conversation about, if there has to be a change, what that change will look like at junior certificate level? The Minister has indicated the option to sit examinations at a different period etc., but has there been any conversation along the same lines as that around the hybrid leaving certificate?

I will also briefly reference school bullying. We all saw that desperately sad video about Eden Heaslip. I was watching it on my way in this morning. It is dreadfully sad. This is somewhat tied to the digital issue. On digital literacy, there is a difference between the technical know-how of how to get online and how to do things and, without wanting to put too lofty a term on it, ethical know-how, digital literacy or digital skills that we simply must get to grips with. This is the generation that is growing up online. The proper training and support for teachers is important, as is that digital literacy education and how we are supporting, teaching and educating our young people on how to behave online and what to do online.

Senator Pauline O'Reilly mentioned the Yellow Flag programme and Senator Flynn talked earlier on today about the Yellow Flag programme and the Traveller mental health strategy. We have talked a lot in this debate about people falling through the gaps - disadvantaged students. There is no question about the impact Covid has had on the Traveller community, particularly young people in the Traveller community. A young girl who was only 12 years old took her own life in the past week in the Traveller community. I want to put to the Minister the importance of programmes such as the Yellow Flag because we are coming out of Covid, our young people's tensions are high ,and people are frazzled learning how to interact and behave online. All of these programmes or measures, such as the Traveller mental health strategy and the Yellow Flag programme, will be very important as we try to adjust to life post Covid and ensuring our young people are able to engage with each other in a mature and grown-up manner that is reflective of the diverse society we have today.

I note it is mentioned in the report that emotional counselling support and hot meals and services should be an integral part of the education system overall. I note that the pilot programme has been run, but will it ever be truly a viable option for every school to have a hot meals programme? Is that something the Minister would see the Department striving towards? Is it realistic given the physical constraints in many of the school buildings? That is not putting the Minister on the spot. Is it genuinely a goal of the Department to have that for every single school?

To return to the issue of the leaving certificate, Dr. Niall Muldoon, the Ombudsman for Children, stated a few hours ago that he is fully supportive of the demand among leaving certificate students to a hybrid approach to assessment this year and indicated students must be listened to. Moreover, ISSU survey results indicate that two of three students are calling for a hybrid leaving certificate this year. It is important to reiterate these are not normal times. The leaving certificate is a two-year cycle. It does not include the junior certificate and cannot be shortened to one year or simply fixed with some additional tuition.

Despite the best efforts of the school community, the Minister and her Department, there have been high levels of disruption, mental health challenges and classes missed. Can we honestly say we can return to a "normal" leaving certificate, as if the past two years have been normal when we cannot honestly say they have been? Can we, therefore, with a straight face, look to young people and say we will go ahead with the exams as normal, even with the amendments the Minister has proposed? Either we have a student-centred approach or we do not. We cannot champion the idea students have a voice and then ignore them. The Minister will hold a further meeting about the issue tomorrow. Will she put forward that student voice such that two of three students have said they want the hybrid option, that is, a choice between calculated grades or going the whole hog, if that is what they wish?

I am sharing time with Senator Conway.

I welcome the Minister and Deputy Kehoe. I congratulate the committee on a fine report into which, clearly, a lot of hard work went. In anticipation of the motion, I canvassed the views of principals and deputy principals in my home region of Dublin South Central in light of the recommendations in the report to ascertain their feelings and experiences. The replies summarise both primary and secondary schools and offer some feedback.

The first issue on the minds of all the secondary school principals and deputy principals relates to exams. A timely decision on the leaving certificate and accredited grades, including in respect of the junior certificate, needs to be made, but it cannot be something that has flexibility and uncertainty. There cannot be a plan A and a plan B. At this point, we do not know for sure that a new variant will not arise and the scientists cannot reassure us of that, so we have to make one plan that anticipates that as a possibility given we are still at a precarious stage of Covid, even if it is, as I hope, the tail-end of that. If the decision is that we do not provide a hybrid model, although I acknowledge all the indications from students are that this would be their preference, an amended curriculum and sample papers need to be provided immediately. We cannot delay on that. We have to remove all this additional Covid-related uncertainty and allow students to sit down and get stuck into doing what they are supposed to be doing, namely, studying for this big, final exam. That is the most important issue to highlight.

The circumstances of living with Covid in classrooms and minimising risk are less than ideal. Ventilation funding has not been sufficient. Some principals feel there is no clear guidance on HEPA filters and at this stage it is entirely unsatisfactory that there still are not enough CO2 monitors to provide for every classroom. Students cannot be expected to endure cold classrooms, sitting there in their coats. That is just not acceptable as an ongoing plan. There is a dearth of information regarding the current self-isolation periods. As of Monday night this week, which is when I last spoke to people who are informed on the matter, no up-to-date guidance on self-isolation periods had been sent to schools. One principal reported that 9% of her student population were out with Covid and she had seen a stark increase in Covid numbers.

With regard to the recommendations on online and blended learning, other Senators have spoken about them in the context of those who are socially and financially disadvantaged, who have been disproportionately affected. In many instances, they did not have adequate technology to get involved in online learning and this learning deficit has to be addressed. We need to improve teacher ratios and concentrate on delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, schools and the disproportionate effect there has been there. Special education teachers have been diverted into mainstream classes when there are staff shortages and that needs to be addressed urgently. Their students, who were already disadvantaged and needed additional supports, need to get double the additional supports to make up for all they have missed. There have been high numbers of absences among students, and given the continued precarious nature of attendance among teachers, schools cannot schedule work in the way they would have done in order to catch up on this important material. We need to consider special education teacher, SET, hours assigned to schools and see either a reduction in class sizes or an increase in the number of SNAs. While we are at it, we should thank SNAs for their truly heroic work during Covid. They were out there in the classrooms, not always with the ability to social distance given the nature of the support they were giving in some instances. It is important we recognise them and acknowledge the fantastic hard work they have done.

Finally, in the context of this motion, we could not but remember and think about the family of Eden Heaslip. My question on everything that is being brought forward and done relates to where the accountability is for the barbaric treatment of that boy, and of others throughout the school system, who have been bullied and are bullied. Who knows about it and what is being done in real time by the adults in schools? A boy does not come back to class having had his head pushed down a toilet without that being noticed. An accountability mechanism for the adults who know needs to be built into the system.

I echo everything Senator Seery Kearney said, which she articulated very well. This is my first time engaging with the Minister in the Chamber. She is very welcome and I commend her on the work she is doing. I commend also the education committee on this important work led by my party colleague, Deputy Kehoe.

There are many lessons to be learned from Covid. One lesson I hope is learned loud and clear is that the first cohort who should have been brought back to school was those with disabilities who need special interventions and education and who benefit from SNAs, as Senator Seery Kearney mentioned. They were the people impacted most from not being in school. I am someone with a disability who attended school in the 1980s and 1990s, when there were no SNAs, support teachers, resource teachers or anything like that. In my school in Ennistymon, north County Clare - rural Ireland - I got a visit from a visiting teacher for the blind once or twice a year. To be fair to the other teachers, they stepped up to the plate, and I would not be where I am today but for the teachers in Ennistymon, County Clare, who went above and beyond the call of duty.

Teachers throughout the system go above and beyond the call of duty but, in particular, the SNA system and the resource teachers that now exist create so much equality of opportunity. They give people the leg up, the assistance and the supports they need to get to college. I was lucky, I got to college. I do not know how the hell I did but I did. It worked out okay and I am here today to tell the tale, but not everyone is as determined as that or has the support of family, community and so on to achieve that. The one lesson that needs to be learned from the pandemic is that the first layer that must be brought back to school is the pupils who need it most. It is reflective of our education system that the people we brought back first were leaving certificate and junior certificate students.

I can understand why that happened but it is not necessarily the best thing for educating our society. We need a debate and a discussion on the future of education.

I have one final comment, although the Minister is probably sick to the teeth of listening to me talk. We need to look at the hybrid model. To be fair to the young people in fifth and sixth years, the crew doing the leaving certificate at the moment are probably the most impacted of any of the young people who have gone through the system during the pandemic. I know it is complicated. There is no junior certificate to base it off and it is not straightforward but the Minister might take a look at it and see if there is some way of accommodating that model. I wish the Minister well because it is not easy.

I thank everyone who contributed to the debate, and I thank the Minister for highlighting some of measures the Department has implemented. Everybody brought up the issues of bullying, online bullying and cyberbullying. That was part of the report. This is a huge issue. I was bullied in secondary school myself, but fortunately at the time there were no online devices or social media. I was bullied within school, and very badly, by my fellow pupils but I was able to rise above it. I do not often talk about it but it affected me for many years. I therefore have knowledge of the way this affects a huge number of people. It knocks their confidence, not for months but for years and for the rest of their lives. It still knocks my confidence today. Last night's "Prime Time" programme resonated with me. I note the courage of Eden Heaslip's parents, Maggie and Raymond, and his siblings, Chloe and Finn, for having the courage to come out and speak about it, as well as their parish priest who told the story. We often say that something is okay and move on to the next thing. We saw what happened to Ashling Murphy last week and the array of support her family got. Eden Heaslip lost his life as well and I would have liked to see his family get the same amount of support Ashling Murphy's got. That is not to dispel any of that support because it was absolutely fantastic. This does not happen every day but bullying is happening every day in every school throughout the country and it has to be wiped out in some way. I know the Minister will take this issue seriously. She has brought a memorandum to Government specifically on this issue. I know she and her officials will do more but we need to keep this issue alive.

On other parts of the report, communication with schools is important. There has been a huge onus and responsibility on school principals over the past two years. I have spoken to the Minister about the larger primary schools where there is one principal and no deputy principals. Often there is a walking deputy principal just for the sake of talk. In contrast, a secondary school of 300 or 400 pupils could have a permanent principal and deputy principal, and some secondary schools have two or three deputy principals. In my local primary school in Enniscorthy there are almost 1,000 pupils. There is a principal and teaching vice principals. These larger primary schools need help and support from the Department and that is part of the support I would love to see put in place.

I am delighted that work will begin tomorrow on the plans for the 2022 leaving certificate. I commend the Minister on including the students in that debate last year and I know she will do so again this year. I might not have had a whole lot of sympathy for secondary school students, but after speaking to them in a couple of online meetings last year, I did a full 180 and had sympathy for them.

I commend the Minister and the Government on the courage they had in early January to reopen schools. It was absolutely the correct decision. A small number of naysayers blamed primary and secondary schools and third level colleges for the outbreaks and surge in Covid cases in November and December. There is no doubt a large number of cases came out of schools but it was not to the extent they claimed. We saw what happened with the hospitality sector, including pubs and so on, in December when there was a surge of cases right across society. I am glad primary schools have opened safely and that we have not had a surge of cases. Our hospitals have not been blocked up because of primary school children or teachers.

I put up a post on Facebook and Twitter about this and I got a huge amount of abuse, with people asking what I as an elected representative know about the safety of schools. I said that I was an elected representative who has an opinion and that those people should try it and put their name on a ballot paper. It is very easy for all these people to give abuse. Now that they have been proven wrong, they are very slow to come back and say they were wrong and the Minister, the Department of Education and the Government were right. I can only imagine the abuse the Minister got over recent weeks for coming out and saying primary schools would open. She made the right decision and I commend her and the Government on their courage in reopening schools in a very safe way. I was part of the Government when Covid first appeared. We did not always get it right but we were dealing with a disease that nobody knew about and we did our best, as the Minister and her Government are doing at this time.

I thank the Seanad, the Members and the committee members. I also compliment our clerk, Tara Kelly, who is in the Gallery. She has put outstanding work, beyond the call of duty, into compiling this report and all the other reports. I thank all our staff on the education committee. I thank members of the committee for their input and the Minister for her input and for appearing before the committee. I have no doubt we will see her again over the next while.

I thank all Senators who participated in the discussion, especially the committee Chairman, Deputy Kehoe, and the Minister. We are very grateful to her.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to sit again?

Tomorrow at 10.30 a.m.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar athló ag 7.08 p.m. go dtí 10.30 a.m., Dé Déardaoin, an 20 Eanáir 2022.
The Seanad adjourned at 7.08 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 20 January 2022.
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