Covid-19: Review of the Reopening of Schools (Resumed)

I welcome the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Foley, who is in committee room 2. She is welcome back to the Covid-19 committee in a different capacity. I thank the Minister and her officials whom she will introduce in her opening statement for attending. I ask her to limit her opening statement to five minutes to allow as much time as possible for questions and answers.

I thank the committee for the invitation to attend today in regard to the reopening of the schools sector. I am accompanied from the Department by Ms Deirdre Shanley, assistant secretary, Ms Aoife Conduit, assistant secretary, Mr. Dalton Tattan, assistant secretary, Dr. Harold Hislop, chief inspector, Ms Yvonne Keating, deputy chief inspector, and Mr. Eamonn Murtagh, director in the planning and building unit; and by Ms Anne Tansey, director, National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS.

Although this is my first appearance before the committee, I have been following its work and I acknowledge the energy and commitment that have gone into its sessions to date as it discusses the response to Covid-19 across Government, State-delivered services and other sectors of society.

As members know, the reopening of our schools has been a number one priority since my appointment. It was not a hope, as some would have characterised it, but a reasonable ambition which, like all ambitions, presented a series of challenges for us to address in order to realise it. I have been fully supported by the Government in putting in place the supports necessary to realise that ambition. In recent days and into this week, we have seen that ambition being realised. Deputies will also be aware of the announcement I made yesterday on calculated grades, which followed a Government decision on proposals I put forward to amend the national standardisation process in the calculated grades model.

Under the calculated grades model, estimated marks will be adjusted, as planned, to ensure that a consistent standard is applied across schools throughout the country when judging the performance of students. The change I introduced removes the use of school-by-school historical data in the standardisation model and places a greater emphasis on the estimated marks provided by schools to individual students. In making this change, I was driven by the desire to ensure fairness for the students in the process.

Our decisions provide additional reassurances to 2020 leaving certificate students that their unique situation has been understood and treated fairly. Fairness must be at the heart of everything we do as a society. From my first day as Minister for Education and Skills, I have been determined that in this extraordinary year the system in place to mark students' achievements of their years in post-primary education would be the fairest possible system under these challenging safeguards.

In July, the Cabinet approved the roadmap for the full return to schools. The roadmap set out how the public health advice provided to my Department on the safe return to school could be implemented at individual school level. Approval was given for over €375 million in additional funding necessary to support the implementation. I provided details of the supports being made available to both Houses of the Oireachtas in the last week of July and the effect of those supports has been seen across the country as schools reopened their doors from last week.

During August, I provided a number of updates on how the planning for schools reopening was progressing. To date, the payments made directly to schools exceed €160 million. My Department brought forward the payment of the annual minor works grant to primary schools, totalling approximately €30 million, which typically is paid in either December or January each year. In addition, an enhanced minor work grant, which matches the 2019 payment, has also been issued directly to schools. This amounts to €60 million, which has now been issued directly to primary schools in minor works grants since the publication of the roadmap. A minor works grant amounting to €42 million issued to post-primary schools in the free scheme.

The minor works grant provides schools with the necessary flexibility to implement necessary physical measures in their school quickly to enable the full school reopening. These measures include, but are not limited to, reconfiguration of classroom space, repurposing rooms to provide additional space, purchasing furniture, altering desk layouts, and the short-term rental of additional space. Given that each school setting is different, individual schools are best placed to decide on the appropriate reconfiguration measures for their school, which are necessary to facilitate school reopening.

The roadmap was developed following intensive engagement with stakeholders from the education sector, including staff unions, representatives of principals and deputy principals, school management bodies, and representatives of parents and post-primary students. This co-operation and collaboration has continued, including at a local level where school communities have worked together to best address their local circumstances. Yesterday, officials met the primary and post-primary stakeholders again to maintain the spirit of partnership regarding reopening. There was also a meeting of the advisory group on the State examinations yesterday emphasising the continued co-operation in this area. I acknowledge the unstinting and selfless efforts of schools communities throughout the country in recent weeks and months to do all that is necessary to reopen our schools. We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to all of them for their generosity of spirit, a reflection of their absolute dedication to their students and the provision of education for all.

The roadmap and its accompanying documentation provided schools with guidance on training, checklists for schools on preparing for reopening and guidance for operating the school safely in a Covid-19 context. Template Covid-19 response plans for schools were also provided to schools. These plans provide clear and practical guidance and support to schools on the range of measures that need to be put in place to bring everyone back to school safely. The Department has produced age-appropriate guidance for students in the form of animated videos, which are intended to help students further understand some of the new routines when they return to school. Guidance is also available for parents and will be available in several languages. These animations are available at gov.ie/backtoschool and also issued to schools to be disseminated to parents.

The HSE’s Health Protection Surveillance Centre has confirmed that all recommendations in the public health advice I published at the beginning of July, including physical distancing guidelines as set out in the roadmap, still apply in all schools, with the exception of the recommendations on face coverings, which has been updated to reflect the latest research and expertise. Teachers and post-primary school students should wear face coverings, similar to those worn in shops or on public transport. Guidance for parents, guardians and families on the return to school is also available on the gov.ie website.

Parents and guardians can direct specific queries to their schools.

A letter was issued to all schools last week, together with a HSE document entitled, Schools Pathway for Covid-19, the Public Health approach, setting out the approach to managing isolated confirmed cases of Covid-19 within the school community and the principles that will underpin the management of outbreaks or potential outbreaks and the aligned testing strategy within an educational facility. It is important to note that the response to confirmed cases or outbreaks of Covid-19 in the community or in a school is the responsibility of, and will be led and managed by, public health and the HSE. All decisions as to the appropriate actions following a confirmed case or outbreak will be made by their teams in the context of a full public health risk assessment procedure according to the principles set out in the document.

Any actions to be taken by the school will be communicated directly by public health and the HSE. School management will be informed as and when such actions, such as the exclusion of children or staff or partial or full closure, are deemed necessary on public health grounds. If the school is not so informed, it has not been deemed necessary by public health.

Children will continue to display symptoms of many other circulating respiratory viruses. It is known that young children often have a persistent cold. A child with a blocked or runny nose but no fever can attend school, but if he or she requires paracetamol or ibuprofen, he or she must stay at home for 48 hours and parents or guardians should contact their GP to assess whether a test is required. Students and staff who have symptoms of Covid-19, including fever, new cough, shortness of breath, breathing difficulties or loss or change to their sense of smell or taste, should not attend school.

The definition of close contacts within a school will be variable and determined by a risk assessment that will take account of individual factors within each school or class. It will not be automatically assumed that a whole class will be deemed as close contacts. Close contacts will be directly notified by the HSE and advised to restrict their movements and present for testing on day zero and day seven. Close contacts will restrict their movements for 14 days even in the event that Covid-19 is not detected in both of these tests.

There is no blanket policy to test entire classes or years. The testing strategy will be aligned to the public health risk assessment, which may recommend widespread swabbing within a class or school under HSE mass testing procedures. In the event of an outbreak, public health will determine between a range of possible interventions, from exclusion and testing of a small group or pod of pupils up to and including closure of an affected facility. All schools are required to have a summary of key information to assist public health in its public health risk assessment ready to be provided on request. Outside the school environment, everyone should follow the latest public health measures announced on 18 August, which are available on gov.ie.

The issue of school transport is an area of considerable interest to Deputies and it is a massive daily logistical undertaking.

I thank the Minister and ask her to conclude.

Okay. Updated health advice from NPHET has an impact on the operation of post-primary school transport services. The Government decided that the arrangements made for primary school transport schemes will proceed as planned when schools reopen and these services will operate fully with additional measures in place, such as preassigned seating and additional hygiene and cleaning measures.

The post-primary scheme has also commenced operation with additional measures in place, such as preassigned seating and other measures I have outlined in line with those required on public transport, which is using 50% of passenger capacity, for post-primary services as required. The Department is rolling out that facility in the shortest time possible.

We have received the Minister's statement and it has been circulated in advance. I want to give Deputies time to ask questions which, it is to be hoped, can be answered. The first speaker is from Sinn Féin, Deputy Ó Laoghaire.

I, along with my colleague, Deputy Conway-Walsh, who will flesh this out, want to flag with the Minister the issue of calculated grades. I do not need a response now and I may raise the issue with her on another occasion. Students who sat the leaving certificate in 2019 are concerned about the implications for their college places. I believe solutions can be found and I will write to the Minister's office with some suggestions. The issue can be resolved and I urge the Minister to act because it is vitally important in terms of being as fair as possible to those students.

The schools are open. We had our first day back with our nine year old on Thursday and it went very well. Earlier today I acknowledged the extraordinary work done by school staff, teachers, boards of management and parents.

I have been very critical of the Department. I will be again. I will be this afternoon. Countless issues and many gaps and areas of concern need to be resolved. It would, however, be churlish of me not to acknowledge the fact that the Minister and her Department staff have worked hard on this issue, and I wish to acknowledge that now.

However, getting schools open is one thing; keeping them open is as great a challenge, if not more of a challenge. What parents, teachers and everyone else connected to schools right across the State want to know is whether the schools will stay open on a long-term, permanent basis and whether the reopening will be sustainable. We have heard throughout the day from representatives of school staff and parents and people advocating for those with special educational needs that there are a range of issues that suggest that the return to school has not been flawless and that there are major risks that could potentially undermine that return. There are a number of keys issues - I have written to the Minister about this - that need to be addressed to ensure that schools remain open safely and sustainably. The first is rapid priority testing. The next is supporting families and parents where a child is displaying symptoms, whether that is expansion of force majeure leave or illness benefit or whatever other measures the Government needs to take. It is essential that parents are supported in making the right choice. They will want to keep their children out when they are displaying symptoms. That should not mean their risking their income or their job, and there is a policy gap there. I appreciate it is not just the Minister's responsibility but she needs to talk to the Ministers with responsibility for employment and social protection. This is central to ensuring that schools remain open. We need to reduce the largest class sizes in Europe. We need to deal with the shortages of teachers, which do exist in some areas, whether or not the Minister chooses to acknowledge it, and we need to ensure that the children who are most affected by the closures of schools are not left behind when it comes to those with special educational needs.

I will move on to my questions. The first relates to that first priority I raised with the Minister in writing and just now, namely, priority testing. It was reported by Emma O'Kelly of RTÉ news that this had been agreed. Subsequently she clarified that the Department was now telling her that it had not been agreed. She stands over the fact that this was reported to her but, whatever the position and whatever the Department told her, the Department's current position, as I understand it, is that there is not yet priority testing. That is not good enough. That needs to be resolved. When will there be priority testing for children and school staff?

In general, I wish to acknowledge the questions and the original points the Deputy has raised. On the question of whether schools will stay open and whether they will do so on a long-term basis, he has raised an important point. Experts, including our Chief Medical Officer, CMO, Professor Philip Nolan, and others have said that schools by their nature are essentially very safe places and all the measures that need to be put in place in terms of a Covid-safe environment have been put in place, with substantial funding of €160 million already gone into the schools for a variety of measures to ensure that the best possible safety measures are taken in schools. Could I-----

I apologise. I do not mean to be disruptive but I have limitations on my time.

I will come specifically to the questions.

They are very simple questions, so if the Minister could please-----

However, I do want to make the point-----

-----that there is a community responsibility in making our schools safe. It is hugely important we recognise that if the community wishes for our schools to stay open in the long term, the community must accept responsibility for supporting schools and the good work they do.

We have had a number of engagements with the Department of Health and the HSE and, just some time ago, a high-level engagement where we raised the issue of priority testing. Priority testing will be provided where there is an outbreak in a school. Schools will be treated no differently from other environments where priority testing is being provided where a situation of that nature occurs.

That is welcome but it is not consistent with some of the previous statements that have been made. The Minister is confirming there will be priority testing. That is vitally important and I hope we will see that happen for students and staff where it is required, within 24 to 48 hours and as soon as possible.

I will speak about high-risk staff as well but I wish to raise with the Minister the issue of high-risk families. I was contacted by many relatives of schoolchildren and school staff after the roadmap was published who were astonished that there was no reference to them at all. They still have not had that gap addressed. I sent correspondence to the Minister on behalf of one family with a parent who has leukaemia. The Minister's office responded to them saying it was the responsibility of the board of management.

That is not good enough. The fact is there is no guidance whatsoever. There is guidance for very high-risk children. There are issues with high-risk staff that need to be resolved and I will return to that. It is, however, incredible that there are parents whose children are worried about going back to school because they are worried about bringing the infection home to those parents and they have had no guidance at all. They feel ignored and neglected. It is not good enough to bounce the issue on to a board of management, which has no basis on which to make a decision because it has got nothing from the Department on it. That is a gap that needs to be resolved. Can the Minister tell me that she is going to do that?

The issue the Deputy has raised is the specific case of parents or family members who are categorised as being at high risk. I absolutely appreciate the difficulties, the trauma and the worry for people who are in a situation of that nature. However my suggestion would be - and it is appropriate - that they would take guidance from their GP and discuss it in a medical context. The advice that is being made available to us is that child-to-child transmission and child-to-adult transmission of Covid-19 is very low.

As we are aware, studies have shown that students who have been out of school since 12 March need the opportunity to return to school. This is necessary not just from an educational point of view but from a socialisation one and we must recognise that within the system as well. As I have said, where there is anxiety, a GP should be consulted in the first instance and there should be a medical decision made around that. In the second instance, there are well-being resources available for parents and for students who might have particular concerns around the issues the Deputy has raised. As such, we cannot take a blanket approach with this because each set of circumstances is unique and individual to the persons concerned but in the main, this is where we stand.

I am not looking for a blanket approach. I am not looking for a one-page email or a one-page statement. I am looking for some kind of guidance, that is, some kind of documentation or a process but there is nothing for these people. Even the stuff the Minister said about GPs has not been provided. The school has no basis on which to say that it should accept the letter of a GP. The school is in the dark and the family is in the dark. I urge the Minister to address this because that is not a good enough attitude.

To clarify, in our roadmap we are clear about the supports that are out there. We are clear that issues will arise with children or indeed parents being anxious about the return to school and we are clear about the supports that are there for that. As such, there is no absence of clarity but if there is an individual case the Deputy wishes to raise, I have no difficulty in looking at that individual case. We are very clear, however, about the supports we are making available and all that we will do to ensure that a child is safe and happy within the school environment.

I appreciate that there is a lot of guidance on various situations but there is nothing about this category. I will leave it at that and ask the Minister to consider the issue because it really does need to be considered. There is no reference anywhere to this category of family.

My final question relates to school transport. It is chaotic. It is a bit of an issue every year, as I am sure the Minister knows from her own county of Kerry where I am sure there are many issues with it. However, this year in particular it is extremely messy. There are such diverse levels of social distancing and private operators are offering potentially different distancing depending on the price. What is the latest update on additional capacity for school transport and will the Minister engage with the non-publically funded sector because that is a lot of traffic-----

I thank Deputy Ó Laoghaire.

Will the Minister seek ways to try to bring them into the system in order that this can happen safely and sustainably?

I thank the Deputy. I ask the Minister to answer very briefly and succinctly.

On school transport, the Deputy will be aware of the original advice from NPHET, which identified children as a single cohort in a controlled environment. That meant there was no requirement for social distancing other than for masks to be worn by second-level students on buses. The additional resources were made available for hand sanitiser, PPE for the bus driver, measures for cleaning down the bus and all of that. A number of days ago, the NPHET advice changed on second-level schools and as a consequence of that we are working with Bus Éireann to roll out, as speedily as possible, the 50% capacity.

Some of that is already operational. Indeed, our further education and training service is already being supplied at 70% capacity. An additional 1,600 buses and drivers will be required. We are providing funding to make that possible. In the interim, we have offered to compensate parents who wish to provide transport themselves.

With regard to the private operators the Deputy mentioned, Bus Éireann may have a relationship with private operators but that is a different matter. Private operators who have a private arrangement with parents are not within my remit. The Department is only charged with overseeing the school transport system as operated by Bus Éireann. Private arrangements between parents and private operators fall within the remit of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport rather than the Department of Education and Skills.

I welcome the Minister and recognise the time and attention she, her Department and all teachers, parents and children are giving to preparing for the return to school every single minute and every single hour. I recognise the significance of that. I particularly think of families who have members going to school for the first time. Different people have different experiences but I met a parent regarding a child who faces great medical challenges. The national school gave the parents special attention a week prior to the child coming to the school. It has been exceptionally aware and fully supportive of their parental needs. I hope that has been the experience of others as well.

I have some questions for the Minister. This morning we heard about the challenges facing teachers who have significant and, in many cases, life-threatening illnesses. That is the situation as I understand it from some of the contributions of the unions. The issue arises of how such teachers appeal a decision if they have such a diagnosis and believe they have not been adequately dealt with. It is a question of the appeals process. It is very important that there be a specialist or a team of people to which such cases could be quickly referred for an ultimate and final decision in the case of disputes. If the Minister has not already made such an arrangement, I encourage her to do so. That is my first question.

I thank the Deputy. I again acknowledge his appreciation of the work schools are undertaking on the ground to engage with and meet the needs of pupils as they arise. With regard to the specific question on the categories of high-risk and very high-risk school staff, in the first instance, adjudications on such cases are independent medical adjudications carried out by persons separate from the Department of Education and Skills. It is very important that we are clear on that. With specific regard to the very high-risk category, 750 applications by persons to be categorised as very high-risk have been made. To date, 547, more than 73%, of these people have been given that status. I appreciate the point the Deputy has raised in respect of those who did not meet those criteria. Of course, as the Deputy has said, there is an opportunity for such cases to be looked at again. Such appeals will be adjudicated upon by an independent panel of four occupational health physicians. Those who are asking for their cases to be adjudicated upon have the opportunity to present previous medical evidence and additional or new medical evidence which they feel may add to their case. It is our expressed view that, where a case is on the border between the high-risk category and the very high-risk category, the panel is to err on the side of caution and deem such cases to be in the very high-risk category. I want to be clear that the mechanism is in place and there is a facility for cases to be looked at again. I reiterate that it is a case of an independent medical analysis by persons separate from the Department of Education and Skills, which is as it should be.

I was not aware from this morning's contributions that there was total transparency - perhaps there is - regarding the point the Minister made there that they will err on the side of the person with the condition. Is that available in writing? That is a very important issue which goes to the heart of teachers going into the classroom. I acknowledge the Minister's integrity on the issue. I ask her to clarify that for me.

As the Deputy will be aware, the system is being run by Medmark and this is the information we have gleaned from Medmark to date. I emphasise that it is overseeing the system which is independent from the Department.

I reiterate to the Minister the concern that was expressed this morning. I am not an expert and know nothing about the company she mentioned. I would like to see an independent medical expert with specialist knowledge appointed by the HSE. I am not saying that the people the Minister is talking about do not have that knowledge. It is just a deep concern.

The criteria being used are the criteria that have been adopted by the HSE across the public service, -----

I just make the point-----

----- including front-line health workers. They are the same criteria. We are not asking for an exception.

----- strongly to the Minister.

We are asking for the same standard to be applied.

An issue arises as a result of the Covid. I mentioned the case of a child with an exceptional disability. They have been assessed and the school, medical personnel and the family believe they need a full-time SNA. The appeal has been turned down by the Department with what is called an SNA exceptional review to take place. However, because of Covid it has not taken place. Neither the school nor the family can be given a date. This wonderful child who has this disability wants to attend school. The child needs this care and attention and cannot be in a positive learning situation without it. I ask the Minister to urgently review the timeline to have such exceptional reviews carried out immediately. Some of the letters I have seen relate to Covid and school etc. If the assessment needs to take place outside school, it should be given an absolute priority.

The highly valuable resource of the SNA in schools is incalculable. I acknowledge their importance to the educational system.

The allocation from last year has rolled over into this year. On the provision of an exceptional SNA as the Deputy mentioned, I am not aware of the case he raised there.

The Department is aware of it.

I will take note of it if the Deputy gives me the details afterwards. We have a very strong pool of SNAs. A large number of SNAs work in the system. On a case-by-case basis as needs change we will absolutely look at that.

My last question is on the impact of Covid on enrolment policies and numbers. One school in my constituency, Rampark national school, which lost ten pupils following the opening of a new national school in the area has lost two teachers as a result. St. Patrick's national school in Harestown has 197 pupils but needed to have 201 and all classes are now overcrowded as a result. Notwithstanding the additional 1,000 teachers, which I welcome, does Covid offer the opportunity to reconsider overcrowding in classrooms as a result of teachers being lost, particularly the two I mentioned?

Substantial resources have already gone into primary and second level schools with €375 million between the two. We have looked at a variety of Covid measures within both environments.

The Deputy specifically raised the pupil-teacher ratio and the teacher allocation. Between 2014 and 2019 at primary school level, the pupil-teacher ratio has been reduced from 28:1 to 26:1.

It is a commitment in the programme for Government to look to do that even more so going forward. I will commit to fulfilling the objective of the programme for Government.

I am sorry but could the Minister please repeat that last bit?

I just said that between 2014 and 2019, the pupil-teacher ratio reduced from 28:1 to 26:1 in primary schools. It is a commitment in the programme for Government that we will look at the pupil-teacher ratio and I certainly will be doing that.

The final point I will make to the Minister is that when one school lost ten students due to there being a new national school in the area, it lost two teachers and that is not fair or equitable. While the other school has lost one teacher, there is overcrowding in all the classes now. I can send the Minister and the Department the details of these schools but I am sure my colleagues have other examples as well. Schools need to be as safe as possible. They just want what they had last year if at all possible.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Foley, to the committee. I thank her for all the work she has done since taking up her portfolio, together with her officials and the various stakeholders. I know it has been challenging, in particular in recent months. I hope that as we see the schools reopen in a safe environment, we will see the fruits of that work.

Earlier today we had sessions with several unions – the TUI, the ASTI, the INTO and Fórsa. I praised the work of principals, deputy principals and the school staff, in particular during the month of August, in getting schools prepared and ready for reopening. The Minister mentioned the €375 million that was available for that purpose to most schools. I will come back with some questions on that but praise must be given to those staff because of the tremendous effort that has been put in by all involved in schools.

Later, we heard from Inclusion Ireland and the National Parents Council Primary and the National Parents Council Post Primary about their needs and challenges. If I have time, I will put the questions to the Minister that came up in those earlier sessions. I also commend the work of the Minister and her officials on their drive and ambition in getting the schools reopened. When we last met the Minister in this committee in June, there was scepticism on whether schools would reopen in time in September and she has achieved that, so I commend her on it.

That is not to say there are not challenges. We know there will be challenges going forward. The scale of the challenges facing the education sector should not be underestimated. The Minister touched on some of those in earlier contributions about the leaving certificate and, in particular, the calculated grades. Information for parents and students is essential. The information that was released some weeks ago was very welcome. Some schools, including in my constituency, did excellent information videos, targeted mainly at junior infants, those who did not get an opportunity to have their first day in the classroom with their parents. They targeted that and they did it very successfully and I commend them on that.

I have a number of questions and the Minister may not have time to answer them. I think there is an issue with the sound which I hope will be addressed when the committee next meets. It seems to be between the committee room and here. If the Minister does not have time to answer all the questions she might please come back to me.

Similar to the previous question about Deputies being contacted by teachers, especially with concerns about their own health and that of the students in their care, what is the process that they must undergo if they are displaying symptoms? What supports are in place for them, including the provision of substitute teachers? That is a big issue.

The second question I have touches on the contributions from the unions in an earlier session today. A school had a lack of warm water. Surely the €375 million that was available could be used for that kind of thing, because a school is not Covid-ready without warm water. I ask the Minister to comment on that. I do not have the details of where the school is but that is immaterial.

The Minister is aware that I have raised mental health and well-being in schools in particular at post-primary level as a real issue, especially in the face of Covid. Could the Minister elaborate on what supports are available, in particular in terms of the student support service and the National Educational Psychological Service?

I ask the Minister to please answer those questions. She is very welcome before the committee.

The Deputy raised an instance where a staff member or student takes ill in school. The guidelines for this process have issued to the schools and there is absolute clarity around them. A student who feels unwell will be taken to the isolation space. The parent or guardian is called and contact is made by them with a GP. That GP will determine if a test is required and if it is, and proves positive, public health will then engage with the family and school. The public health team will make the decision as to what happens next. Representatives of that team will come and do the testing and tracing, and determine if a single class, a larger group or a year group is exposed to infection. All decisions about what happens next will be overseen by public health because it is at that stage that the infection becomes a public health issue. That is no different to what operates in any other environment or workplace.

I am glad that the Deputy raised a question about warm water. In excess of €160 million has already issued to the schools, including an amount for minor works. Schools were free to do whatever they felt necessary with that particular budget to ensure, insofar as possible, that they would remain free of Covid-19. Schools could reconfigure space in classrooms and so on and so forth but that funding was specifically available for works in schools where warm water was an issue. I would have to say, equally-----

I thank the Deputy and the Minister. If there is any additional part of the Deputy's questions-----

The Minister might come back to me directly.

-----to which the Minister wishes to respond, she might reply to him in writing before the end of the week.

I thank the Minister. The next speaker is Deputy Murnane O'Connor.

I know that these hard times are very challenging. We addressed representatives of the teaching unions this morning and I brought up the following matter which I think is important. The Minister reached an agreement that three primary substitute teachers will be available for every 12 schools across towns in the country. In the likely event that the three substitute teachers are already allocated and a fourth and fifth school require a substitute, what options are available to those principals to secure cover? Could the Minister come back to me on that point?

As the Deputy is aware, we have rolled out the primary school substitution panel to ensure that children will not be subdivided from one class into another should an issue arise. It was a pilot scheme that worked very well last year and we have rolled it out throughout the country. There are 101 panels currently operating, including specific ones for the Gaelteacht. The teachers are based in a base school from which they work and operate.

I can tell the Deputy that these arrangements will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and if there is a determination that further substitutes are required to be placed on that panel, we will do that. We are determined that this substitution panel is there to support schools and if additional resources are needed to give more support, we will supply them.

Those panels are only one source of substitution for a school. Nearly all schools would have their own traditional resource upon which they would draw for substitution. The TextaSub panel is also available. There is no issue of supply for primary schools from what we are hearing on the ground. This is just one measure that we have put in place but it is there to supplement the other measures and resources that schools have used before now.

My concerns are about rural towns and counties. My daughter is the school principal in Myshall. That school did not make the panel so it, and other rural schools like it, must look for substitute teachers. A panel was not put in place for them and the Minister might look at that issue in the long term.

The Minister also spoke about the minor works programme. Her announcement that funding has doubled this year is very welcome but the bigger picture is important. An issue might arise when older schools get double the money but, as other speakers have said, have problems with water or old pipes.

The Minister needs to look at the minor works programme whereby new schools and old schools do not get the same allocation. She will be aware that it depends on how many students a school has and therefore a school with 300 pupils will get whatever amount is allocated. If an older school is getting that it is different. It is not as beneficial to the newer schools although I am aware that newer schools need works done too. Will the Minister look at setting up some other form of funding for older schools through the Department, whether it is through the minor works programme or whatever?

I will raise another issue because my slot will be gone quickly. I asked the Minister for Health last week about random testing in schools and he replied he did not think it will happen. Will it happen and is it something the Minister for Education and Skills is in favour of? Will the Minister look at saliva testing for children as it is said it is not as invasive as the other testing? Will the Minister come back to me with those two answers?

We have all been contacted this week by private bus and coach operators who could certainly do with the business. Has this been explored with the transport operators? We have received correspondence from many private operators and they need the business. Is there something we could do for them?

Regarding schools that did not make the panel, the idea is that a panel will be based in a particular area but will serve a much wider area. Again, I will not repeat myself but we do not see the difficulty in the availability of substitution.

There are older schools and newer schools and I appreciate that. The money was made available and schools made their best judgment as to what works needed to be done. If there was addionality in terms of something extra that might be required they referred back to the Department. That is the system that has been put in place.

Regarding random testing in schools and the type of testing that will take place for children, to be fair, that is a medical decision and medical expertise will be required. As regards the type of testing, the public health team will make that decision and I would not presume for the Department of Education and Skills to stray into territory it is not an expert on. I will leave that best judgment to the medical experts.

On private buses I again reiterate that our arrangement is with Bus Éireann which may then subcontract. Private bus operators who make private arrangements are not within the jurisdiction of the Department. Guidance as to how they operate and what they need to do can only come from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport.

I thank the Minister for coming in to address the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response. I echo previous speakers in acknowledging the work that she, her Department and those more widely in the education sector have done. Principals, boards of management and teachers have put huge work and effort into getting children safely back into school this year and it is important that is acknowledged.

This builds on an issue raised by Deputy O'Dowd which is the 30 September cut-off for the primary online database, POD, returns that will decide staffing, not for this year but the following year. As we are aware there may well be children who will be homeschooled for this year and who will be kept at home because they are in a high-risk category. This may artificially depress the numbers of students within a particular school and that will have a knock-on impact for staffing numbers in 2021. I raised this with the Minister's predecessor in the Dáil. Is it on the Department's radar and will it be resolved?

I appreciate the point Deputy Ó Cathasaigh makes about the October returns but the system is that we deal with the numbers that are in place at that time.

To address some other points that have been made, we are doing all we can to facilitate the maximum return to school of all of our children for all of the right reasons, not just from an educational point of view but for their socialisation, well-being and so forth. We are looking at the maximum return of students which is what we are seeing at this point. I imagine over the next number of days it will reach that maximum return and that is the criteria.

Does Ms Shanley want to add anything?

Ms Deirdre Shanley

Regarding staffing allocation, there is an independent appeals board which will take account of any additional students, such as those who may not have been in a school for a year and who then come back the following year. That process will be in place as well for the returns for this year. In the context of the cut-off date of 30 September, the Department will also be conscious of the unique nature of this year and of any schools having difficulty because of students who remain out. As the Minister stated, however, we will be supporting a full return to school for all children.

I would like that aspect to be borne in mind by the Department because I am aware of several schools which are very close to that cut-off point. This could have an adverse effect on staffing in the year beginning in 2021. A related question, in some senses, concerns the responsibility of the boards of management. Members of boards serve voluntarily. I have served on the board of management of my local school and it is quite a responsibility to take on in a voluntary capacity. That is particularly the case this year in light of the seriousness of the decisions that need to be made. An example mentioned earlier was the case of parents who are high-risk.

I am also concerned that social distancing is simply not possible in some classrooms. There may be 34 children in a small, confined space and it is not possible to observe social distancing in that situation. The school principal in the case I have in mind has been advised that that classroom is forming the bubble. Members of that school's board of management are worried about liability and that, if there is an outbreak of Covid-19 in that classroom, somebody will come back to them and state that social distancing was not properly observed. Can the Minister give a certain amount of comfort to boards of management and principals that find themselves in this situation by stating that they will have the support of the Department if they take every step possible within the physical confines of their school buildings? If they take all reasonable steps, will the Department be fully behind them in making those decisions?

I also acknowledge the excellent and voluntary work done by members of boards of management across the country and how integral and valuable a resource they are to the education system.

Regarding issues relating to social distancing, the Deputy will be aware that, on the basis of the NPHET guidelines, social distancing is not regarded as possible at primary level for the first several year groups we are dealing with because of the age of the students involved. We are looking at a distance of 1 m, where practical, for older age groups. There has been excellent ongoing engagement with our Department. On specific issues, we have invited schools to engage with us where there is an opportunity for departmental officials to work on the ground in the unique circumstances that apply to each school. We are happy to do that on an ongoing basis and our helpline remains open.

Equally, however, for purposes of that nature, moneys referred to previously, such as those relating to the minor works grant, were made available to facilitate schools in reconfiguring and reimagining spaces. I refer, for example, to taking away excess furniture that might be in rooms. In essence, therefore, if there is an individual case of concern, I invite that school to engage directly with the Department. I assure the Deputy that my Department will certainly engage proactively in return.

I thank the Minister. Finally, because my time is short, I echo the concerns expressed by Deputy Ó Laoghaire about grade inflation and, in particular, its impact on the 2019 cohort. Students who sat the leaving certificate in 2019 should not miss out on college places to which their results would otherwise have entitled them.

I thank the Minister and her officials for attending. I will use the short time I have to focus on school transport. There is great concern across the country, including in my constituency of Dublin Fingal, regarding the provision of school transport and its future, and, indeed, if we will have sufficient school transport for the entire academic year of 2020-2021. My first question concerns something that took place on 20 August, when the Bus Éireann portal for the registration of and payment relating to school transport shut down. This has never happened before. We all know this is a busy time of year and, as public representatives, we have all dealt with school transport issues in August and September in previous years.

As regards the shutting down of that portal, was the Minister briefed on it by either the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport or senior officials in Bus Éireann, and what was the thinking behind shutting it down at that time?

As I already outlined, our arrangement is with Bus Éireann, and from a school transport point of view, we cater for 120,000 children and 5,000 vehicles. Some 14,200 of those children have special needs. We engage with them on an ongoing basis where issues arise, in particular issues that have been flagged by NPHET in the recent past in terms of additionality and capacity. Specifically, in relation to the ongoing negotiation and discussion with Bus Éireann, I will ask Ms Aoife Conduit, who has responsibility for that, to speak.

Ms Aoife Conduit

I thank the Deputy and the Minister. Directly in relation to the portal, when the updated health advice was given to us, it became clear to us that there was a very significant piece of work to be done by Bus Éireann in assessing hundreds of routes and assessing where additional services and buses were required and where services and routes needed to be reconfigured to allow for the 50% capacity on the post-primary services. It was agreed with Bus Éireann that as an exceptional measure, in an exceptional year, the portal would be closed so that it could take out the children in cases where eligible children had been allocated their tickets and concessionary tickets had also been allocated where there were seats available. It was also agreed that a route-by-route analysis would be undertaken to see exactly how many buses were required and to put in place the systems that would allow Bus Éireann to subcontract out, and its contractors to source the additional vehicles. That was agreed with Bus Éireann.

How has it been agreed with parents? There are parents who have paid money. Some money still remains with Bus Éireann and they do not know if they are going to get a service. Other parents who have paid, I believe, under €175, have had their money sent back to them, so they are wondering if they will get a service at all this year. Can Ms Conduit make a commitment and give a timeline? Will every student who requires school transport have it in two weeks’ time, by the end of September, by the end of October or will they have it at all? I ask Ms Conduit to please give me a timeline on that.

Ms Aoife Conduit

Children who are allocated concessionary tickets on the school transport service are never guaranteed a place from year to year. By their nature, they are concessionary tickets; they are given where there is available capacity on a service. All children who are eligible for the scheme and who have paid and applied on time, are guaranteed a school transport service, and that is no different this year from any other year.

Some 400 out of a total of 2,100 of post-primary services are in a position to operate at 50% capacity at the start of the academic year 2020-2021, so when is that number likely to increase, how is it going to increase, and will the 2,100 post-primary services number be met at all?

Ms Aoife Conduit

Yes, we intend to fully implement the health advice on a rolling basis. The decision was taken given the late advice from NPHET that we would not withdraw services on the post-primary scheme while that was done. It was decided that we would continue to roll out the services, we would offer a grant to the parents of eligible children and we would offer a refund to parents who had paid for tickets and were not happy about putting children on a service that was not yet operating at 50%. However, there will be a time lag for some services. Bus Éireann advertised last weekend for additional vehicles and for contractors who are interested in providing additional services.

What sort of time-----

Ms Aoife Conduit

We are implementing it with-----

Sorry, what sort of timeline? Are we talking about a week, two weeks or a month?

Ms Aoife Conduit

Just to be clear, it will vary from route to route. There is a very complex route analysis being undertaken by Bus Éireann and the regional offices. As buses, vehicles and drivers become available, they will be put in place. For some routes that has been immediate, and this is continuing and will be updated week by week as Bus Éireann works its way through those routes. Our ambition absolutely is to implement the 50% capacity on all services as soon as we possibly can.

I am out of time. I appreciate the response, but I do not think it is going to provide much comfort to parents and to students throughout the country.

I thank Deputy Duncan Smith. The next speaker is Deputy Gannon.

I thank the Minister for appearing in front of the committee today and I want to acknowledge her work to date. I understand the pressure must be immense and while we certainly differ in approach, I appreciate the work she has contributed so far. The last line of the Minister’s statement stated that “now, more than ever, we need to stay in this together”.

My Sinn Féin colleague, Deputy Ó Laoghaire, raised the issue of a family where the mother is suffering from chronic lymphocytic leukemia, CLL. They cannot send their two teenage children to school because the mother is at such risk. I do not believe the Minister's answer was satisfactory. I will ask her again: what exactly are we providing for parents who have extreme underlying health conditions and cannot send their children to school and, because it is they who are suffering as opposed to their children, they cannot access remote learning. How are those families being supported? They are in severe situations and we cannot leave them behind.

To clarify again, we as a Department will operate with the guidance we receive from the HSE. I have full sympathy and understanding for families who find themselves in a situation where there is a member with particular health issues. I appreciate and acknowledge that there will be anxiousness around that in terms of the return to school.

I only have five minutes. This is not about anxiousness.

The Deputy asked a specific question and I will give a specific answer. We will be guided by the HSE advice that is available to us. The HSE has advised that children with immediate family members, including parents, who are regarded as being extremely medically vulnerable can return to school and that it is important for children's overall well-being. This is consistent with public health advice internationally relating to at-risk family members. Equally, these households will be advised-----

International public health advice regarding CLL, which the mother suffers from, is to remain cocooned. That is not possible if they are sending two teenage children to individual schools. The one-size-fits-all model does not suit this family and they are being left behind. They have written to the Minister and an official from the Department wrote back, telling them to get in contact with the board of management of the school. The board of management does not have the expertise, nor have the members received guidelines from the Department telling them how they can cater for that family's needs. We need to protect them. The Department needs to intervene here. It is not satisfactory. I am happy to arrange for the Minister to have a meeting with the family. They will meet her any time and we can create guidelines to alleviate their genuine worry that they will catch Covid-19 and that will have devastating consequences for their family. This is beyond anxiousness and it needs to be addressed.

Again I will say that the priority is that we facilitate all our children and young adults returning to school. Where there are issues such as the individual one the Deputy raised, I have outlined the HSE advice given to us, which is that in such situations, it is generally in the best interests of the children or young adults to return to school, and the family can be advised on best practice to minimise the risk of coronavirus at home and all of that. Equally, as I said earlier, if there is a specific and individual case, we invite medical evidence such as a discussion with a GP and an engagement with the school and we will take it from there. The Department will engage on a one-to-one basis in relation to that but I must emphasise that these are the HSE guidelines that have been given to us. Regarding those who are categorised as extremely medically vulnerable, it is still advisable for the children or young adults to return to school.

I will highlight the fact that there is a contradiction between the HSE and NPHET guidelines, which state that very high-risk people should remain cocooned and limit interactions. That is in direct contradiction with this family's individual case.

I will move on as I have other questions. I refer to the ranking system that will be announced next week following the leaving certificate. When did the Minister become aware that the individual rankings a class would achieve - whether a student came first, second, third, fourth, fifth - would be available to all the students and that they would be able to see the ranking the teacher gave them and the individual mark for the leaving certificate? Does the Minister think that is fair? If she does not - and she probably does not, as the unions certainly do not - how can we address it before next week? It is a genuine concern and anxiety for teachers grading leaving certificate students next week and they were not told about this in March or April, through this committee or by any other means. The goalposts have been moved for teachers and that needs to be addressed.

The calculated grades process was first mooted - and I need to give the Deputy this context - by parents and students.

There was further engagement with the partners in education, including teachers, managerial bodies, principals and deputy principals. It was an agreed approach. Following this, how that mechanism would work was agreed. I suggest that in all of the documentation on the calculated grade process and the availability of information it is included that the percentage marks awarded by the school and the rank order would be made available. Students are entitled to their personal data. However, I will say that a query has been raised on the issue of the rank order and we are taking advice on it. That is where it stands at this point in time.

My only concern is with regard to rank order and I hope it can be addressed. I thank the Minister for engaging with me.

Does the Minister think that protecting the health of Deputies is 50 times more important than protecting the health of children returning to school, teachers and parents? I ask this question because 50 times more public money is going into ensuring social distancing among Dáil Members than the Minister is putting into ensuring social distancing, funding safety in our schools and minimising the possibility of Covid-19 transmission. In total, €375 million is being allocated per year and we have 1 million students. At present, we are paying approximately €50,000 a week for the Convention Centre to ensure 160 Deputies can physically distance fully in accordance with NPHET guidelines. Of course, the consequence of this much lesser investment in protecting our students and teachers and the parents of those students is that many of the guidelines for the schools include the phrase "where possible", such as references to 1 m distance where possible and not sharing work stations and tables where possible. "Where possible" is not applied to us but it is applied to schoolchildren. Does the Minister not think this is just not good enough and that we are not providing the resources, a sufficient number of teachers or the physical space necessary to ensure that pupils, teachers and parents of pupils, particularly those with underlying conditions, can have some sense of assurance that the return to school will not pose a very serious health risk to them?

I thank the Deputy for the question. The €375 million which, by the time we have finished will be in excess of this and passed the €400 million mark, has been universally acknowledged as a huge endorsement and resource for the education sector. I have visited many schools and this has been the universal opinion of those whom I have met. It far exceeds what many Members of the House had originally sought, imagined or suggested would be made available to education. It is a phenomenal resource. With regard to everything in the roadmap, our schools operate on the basis of the public health guidelines and the best medical advice being made available to us, and not on something we conjured up ourselves. It is on the basis of the best medical health advice available to us. This is how we are proceeding and using the funding we have secured from the Government. With regard to what operates here, it is a matter for the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission and how it operates and what it does. How things are operating in our schools is on the basis of the advice we have received from NPHET and we are following it.

The phrase "where possible" is a get-out clause from public health guidance. We hear stories from everywhere.

We already had massively overcrowded classrooms, massive underinvestment and a huge physical infrastructural deficit before Covid-19. The term in the guidelines that states things should be done "where possible" is not possible. We are putting pupils and, in particular, teachers and the parents of pupils with underlying conditions, at significant risk. The only way we can minimise that risk is to dramatically increase investment, reduce class sizes and have more teachers and more physical infrastructure so that we can have the sort of social distancing that is possible for Deputies in the Convention Centre but is clearly not possible in schools.

I have a brief supplementary question on public transport. The current guidelines for 50% capacity present a significant problem. Taxi driver representative groups have, I understand, written to the Minister and asked her to engage with them. They have very little work at the moment and would be very keen to talk to her about how they could assist with the school transport crisis and deficit that exists given the Covid-19 guidelines. Is the Minister willing to respond positively to their request to discuss this with her?

I ask the Minister to reply very briefly.

I will be brief. I must reiterate that the guidance that we received was written by public health officials rather than by us. The wording the Deputy might take exception to was not written by officials in the Department. It was written by public health officials and we are abiding by that.

On school transport, I must reiterate that our arrangement is with Bus Éireann and we are dealing and engaging with it on that issue. We are doing what was outlined by Ms Conduit in terms of rolling out capacity for second level to mirror the 50% capacity on public transport. I again reiterate that the operation of school transport at primary school level remains as is.

I thank the Minister. The next speaker is from the Regional Group, Deputy Matt Shanahan.

I congratulate the Minister on her appointment. I have not had an opportunity to congratulate her. I commend the work she and her Department are doing.

I wish to highlight that I wrote to her a couple of weeks ago with respect to concessionary tickets for Blackwater Community School in Lismore, County Waterford. The Department gave a commitment to come back to me and I would appreciate if that could happen. A number of children there are essentially stranded and parents are in very difficult positions. I am sure there is a way to accommodate students in the school bus system.

The Department of Education and Skills approved funding of €11.3 million to support hygiene, PPE and sanitisation for school transport. However, it has transpired that just 50% of this fund, approximately €5.5 million, has gone to private operators despite the fact that they supply 90% of school transport over the 39 weeks of the school year. Private bus operators are being offered between €4.50 and €8.50 each day to provide sanitising equipment to clean their buses, any PPE and whatever else is required. Some buses will do multiple runs. This is wholly inadequate and is something the Department needs to revisit.

I know the Minister will say that school transport is operated by Bus Éireann, which is under a tender system, but that is certainly not good enough. We are asking bus drivers to behave like serfs. They have to clean buses on an hourly basis for €4.50. Private bus operators received a number of quotes, the cheapest of which was €30 for one bus clean. I ask the Minister to examine this situation. It is not sustainable and is taking from the services operated by private operators. The situation is not equitable and I ask the Minister to do something about it.

I note the Minister's comments that the school transport scheme operates through Bus Éireann and the Department feels it has no role to play. I disagree. The Department must take into account private bus operators who are dealing with family groups. If NPHET says that the 50% capacity has to be implemented how will that be borne by hard-pressed families? It is not fair that the Department has passed the buck on this issue.

In addition, a large number of scheduled bus operators in the private sector are still waiting for contracts to be issued by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. This is despite the fact that Bus Éireann is picking up a lot of that work and probably doing it for three times the cost. Again, the issue involves crossover with other Departments. I ask the Minister to consider these matters.

The other issue I raised earlier today - I think the Minister heard what I had to say - relates to psychological services for children with autism and those on the autism spectrum. I highlight again that there are very hard-pressed parents who are paying for private consultations in order to have their children evaluated and then the Department or the HSE do not take those tests as being valid unless they have been done through the schools. This is despite the fact that a large secondary school - it is usually a secondary school - might be allowed only two NEPS consultations per year. This is something the Minister really has to look at. Perhaps she would like to comment on it because I have met a number of hard-pressed families in this situation. They are at their wit's end. They are trying to do the best for their kids and ultimately they feel they are being stonewalled by the system while their children regress further. I ask the Minister to comment on that matter.

The Deputy is correct in that we have made a fund of €11.3 million available to Bus Éireann for the additional safety measures that will be required on buses, that is, PPE, hand sanitiser and the cleaning down of the vehicles, as the Deputy said. We continue to engage with Bus Éireann on this and other issues. Where matters need to be reviewed, we will review them. That is where we are at this point. Everything is being reviewed.

I said it needs to be reviewed-----

Everything is being reviewed on an ongoing basis.

Regarding the private bus operators, I reiterate that our contract is with Bus Éireann, which may choose to subcontract where necessary. On our buses that cover the official school transport system, we are operating on the basis of the NPHET guidelines and rolling out measures for post-primary in respect of those guidelines. That is how we choose to operate. We are following the NPHET advice. As regards the private bus operators, with the best will in the world, private arrangements are not something in respect of which the Department of Education and Skills can intervene. That would be more the jurisdiction of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. We have to cater for those who are on the official bus routes with us.

I see the Chairman would like to come in on NEPS, etc.

Will the Minister provide that answer in writing, please? We are running over time.

That is fine. I thank the Chairman.

I thank the Minister and her officials.

I have a number of questions but I will read out what I have to say initially and perhaps the Minister might pull out some of the points that need to be clarified. First, I thank her for all the help she and her Department have given my constituency, Cork South-West. She has only been in her ministerial position a short time. I assure her that the funding that has been provided because of the urgency of the situation - in many cases due to the Covid crisis - has been most gratefully received in Scoil Mhuire na nGrást, in Belgooly; Bandon Grammar School; Scoil an Chroí Ró Naofa, in Castletownbere; Dreeny national school, in Skibberreen; and Rath national school. These schools and the staff, pupils and parents are very grateful. We do, however, have some more schools that still need help because of Covid-19, and perhaps the Minister might take these on board. We have been in contact with her office. They are Scoil Bhríde, in Ballydehob, and Our Lady of Mercy national school, in Bantry. Both these need an extra teacher each, both have too many students in one classroom and both have empty classrooms where the students could be more socially distanced if they had an extra teacher. In Our Lady of Mercy, in Bantry, one of the students, a little girl, has special needs and cannot go to school because there are too many in the classroom. The Minister might be able to have a look at both these schools. As I said, I have contacted her office and I hope we will have the same success we have had regarding many other issues in recent times.

The issue relating to school buses is a whole other nightmare. The Government's original plan was to run the school bus system the same as in former years, with the addition of masks, visors and hand sanitisers. This was a woefully inadequate response to the virus, many feel, because it was clear from the spring that social distancing would be obligatory on school buses. Now that there must be social distancing on buses in the wake of a recommendation from NPHET, Bus Éireann will have to play a lot of catch-up trying to roll out perhaps 1,200 to up to 1,600 school buses on a phased basis.

There is no guarantee that the required number of buses will be in place any time soon. It may even be after Christmas and more clarity from the Minister is needed in that regard.

On a more local note, I have had parents on the phone day and night. This concessionary ticket is a scandalous nightmare. People from Kinsale, Bandon, Clonakilty, Enniskeane, Coppeen, Bantry Skibbereen, Sheep's Head and throughout west Cork do not have places on buses for their children and have no way of getting their children to school. We need to get school transport up and running so we are not leaving children behind.

The Minister also indicated there was a grant available for those who decide to avail of post-primary transport services. How much will that grant amount to per day? When will it be available and how do parents apply for it? Can parents hire a private taxi to transport their children to school? These are questions that are being asked of us on a regular basis.

To be fair to the Minister it was always going to be difficult to get children back to school and this has been done, but some children are literally being left behind. I would welcome her comments and solutions. This evening, I had parents ringing me to say that a Bus Éireann bus from Bandon to Kinsale was at 100% capacity. It was full when it should have been at 50% capacity. The lack of social distancing on school buses could undo the best efforts of schools to protect their students from Covid-19. Another factor is that in many cases a bus delivers students to more than one post-primary school, thus increasing the potential to spread the virus. The Minister might have a chance to answer some of those questions.

I ask that the Deputy leave the details of the two schools to which he referred with me and the Department will look at those specific cases.

I reiterate that there has been superb engagement with schools on the ground. We have received between 3,000 and 4,000 calls to our helpline and thousands of emails. There has been very good engagement. Where difficulties have arisen, I am very pleased to say that many of them have been sorted out at this point or we are continuing to work through them. We will certainly look at the two cases the Deputy raised about which he might give further details.

On school buses, I reiterate that the guidance on their operation was, from the very beginning when the roadmap was issued, based on the guidance given to us by public health. This is how it was envisaged the buses would operate. Children and young people were being regarded as a single cohort in a particular environment and that it was safe for them to travel as they normally would. Additional measures would, however, be employed, for example, the use of hand sanitiser and the provision of PPE for the bus driver. Another additional measure suggested, in fairness, by Bus Éireann was pre-allocated seating. That continued to be the case up until just recently. Some time last week, new guidance was issued by NPHET and this refers only to second-level bus services. It was determined by the Government that we would proceed as planned and on a rolling-out basis there would be capacity of 50% to mirror public transport. That is exactly what we are doing and we are doing that as speedily and quickly as we possibly can.

The concessionary ticket is exactly that - a concession. Those who are eligible and paid on time received a place on a bus. Those who were not eligible in the first instance became eligible for a concessionary ticket where there was additional capacity on a bus. That is the position. We are in the process of rolling out and meeting the requirement to operate at 50% capacity, which will probably require in excess of 1,600 buses. Once that has been done, if there is additional space on those extra buses, we will look at students who still require a seat.

The grant is an opportunity for those who may wish to avail of it. It is a small recompense of probably €25 per week or whatever. My officials may wish to provide more detail on that.

I am afraid I must ask that the additional detail be provided to Deputy Michael Collins in writing. The next speaker is Deputy Conway-Walsh.

The Minister does not get the issue of school transport at all. There are hundreds of children who cannot get a seat on the bus. I am not talking about concessionary children, although it is abysmal to categorise children in that way. Many of those the Minister refers to as concessionary are the children of our front-line workers who cannot get to work because their children do not have a seat on the bus. What would the Minister say to the mother of four children who has contacted me? Her children are 15, 13, ten and eight years old. She missed the deadline by two days because she was having surgery. She has no transport and it is a distance of 20 miles to the school. How are those children going to get to school? The Minister does not get the urgency of the situation. Everybody has raised this subject today. Will the Minister talk to Bus Éireann and get it to act as a matter of urgency? People are being pushed from Billy to Jack. Bus Éireann's reply to this mother indicated that payments to it cannot be processed at the moment because it is unsure if there is any spare capacity and that it will have a further look at the matter in a few weeks. For heaven's sake, these children have been off school for months already. It is just not good enough.

I welcome the Minister's comment to the effect that the system used for calculated grades will give primacy to the teachers' grades rather than to the algorithms or to any other process such as those used in the other four jurisdictions. It would have been reckless to do anything else. The Minister has said, however, that the appeals process will not examine the accuracy of the teachers' or schools' judgment in awarding grades but will simply check the accuracy of the data. We do not know what the data are. I will ask the Minister a very specific question. Why will she not tell us what data are being used? Why will she not tell us what model is being used? I ask her to please not speak around the model but to tell us why.

What provision has been made for students who sat the leaving certificate examinations last year? We are five days away from the results being released. Some 20,000 students are affected by this and they need to know.

What contact has the Minister had with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection regarding the eligibility for unemployment payments of those who choose to sit their leaving certificate examinations this November and have to go to college?

What does the Minister have to say to the approximately 10,200 students who will receive a grade that does not reflect their hard work and ability? They will now have fewer points when seeking places that may demand increased points. As a mother of somebody who is doing his leaving certificate this year, I want to know whether he will be one of the 10,200. Will we have to wait until Monday to find out?

I have spoken about the issues of transport eligibility and the appeals process. I also want to ask the Minister about the ancillary grant. She has talked about the money being given to schools but I know of schools whose €5,000 ancillary grant has been taken away because of the arbitration agreement in 2015 which covered the period from 2016 to 2019. Will the Minister tell me whether this grant will be restored? Will she tell the school how it can pay a secretary and a cleaner out of €10,000 per year?

The supply panels for substitute teachers are not working in many rural areas. They are not enough and must be expanded. Ballina is the nearest panel to the area of Erris, in which I live. This distance of 50 miles is far too great to be workable. I ask the Minister to answer those questions and thank her.

I thank the Deputy. On the issue she has raised in respect of the bus service, the specific case she has mentioned is exceptional. I would appreciate it if the Deputy would bring details of any such exceptional cases, such as where somebody has been ill, to us. If there is availability of space on the bus, these children will certainly be catered for. There will always exceptional circumstances of that type. The important thing is whether there is availability on the bus. With regard to additional capacity on the buses, as the Deputy is aware, there was a change to the NPHET guidelines. Bus Éireann is reviewing its routes and determining where bigger buses and so on will be required. Where possible, extra capacity will be made available.

On the appeals process and the calculated grades, the Deputy also asked about the information used by schools. As she will be aware, schools were invited to provide an estimated mark and a rank ordering. I will defer to the chief inspector in a moment. I understand that schools had to complete a form showing the information they used to make that determination, which may have included Christmas and Easter tests. All that information was recorded within the school. In the event of an appeal, that will be made available to the appeals process. That information is retained within the school and the basis for the percentage mark is very clear and precise.

Regarding last year's students competing with this year's students, the calculated grades represent an extraordinary measure in an extraordinary time for the education system. However, it is the process that has been employed so that the students of 2020 will have a leaving certificate that is as close as possible and comparable to that of 2019 and, indeed, of 2021. The calculated grades incorporate a standardisation process for that reason. Just as there was a standardisation process in the 2019 leaving certificate, it will also be part of the 2020 calculated grades process and, therefore, there will be comparability.

The Deputy asked how last year's students would feel about the present calculated-grade students and their results. They are as close as they possibly can be in the first instance. Perhaps there will be an element of stronger subject profile, but the standardisation process will have ensured there is comparability between last year and this year. As the Deputy will be aware, there was an announcement yesterday of additional capacity with an additional 1,250 places at third level.

She asked about the need for the supply panel to be expanded. I have referenced that. The primary school supply panel was a programme that worked successfully in the past year. We have no evidence of any difficulty in recruiting staff for that panel. As I mentioned earlier, this is an additional opportunity for schools to draw down from that panel. Equally, schools have their own resources and pools from which they have drawn substitute teachers in previous years. That might have been a local arrangement or "Text-a-Sub".

The Deputy also asked about the written exam in November. At this point we do not know how many students will opt for that. That determination will not be made until students receive their results and their CAO offers and all that will entail. The student will be able to take the better grade achieved either in the November written exams or in the calculated grade and that will form their leaving certificate as it were.

I also asked about the €5,000 ancillary grant.

The cleaning grant in a Covid context provides dedicated funding for an additional four to six hours cleaning per week in the school. That is a singular funding in a Covid environment that is being made available to the schools.

Was €5,000 taken from some schools?

I am not aware of that.

If there is a particular individual case that the Deputy would like to bring to my attention, I will certainly ask my officials to take a look at it. Again, I must say that the resources being made available for cleaning in schools is substantial. We are talking in terms of tens of millions in order that schools will have the opportunity to have a minimum of between four and six additional hours a week for the purposes of cleaning. It is a substantial fund. If there is a specific case the Deputy would like to bring to my attention and that of my officials, I would be happy to receive it.

I thank Deputy Conway-Walsh. The next speaker is from Fine Gael. Is Deputy Colm Burke the only remaining Fine Gael speaker?

Yes, I will take about seven and a half of the ten minutes. First, I thank the Minister and wish her well in her job. I know it has been a very difficult number of months in dealing with the current challenges in the education sector, at primary level, secondary level and third level.

I wish to touch on an issue that has been raised already, namely, school transport. Like many other colleagues in my constituency of Cork North-Central, I too have had quite a number of problems in areas, in particular in the rural area from Glenville across to Grenagh and Burnfort. A lot of people do not understand how decisions were arrived at. Has a target date now been set for the resolution of the outstanding issues in the school transport system?

Where one child in a school has been accommodated on a bus and there are two other children from the same family, are they are being treated as one unit of three rather than as three separate individuals? I know they are three separate individuals but I wonder if the situation could be clarified in terms of the way we are dealing with school transport given that the three individuals are coming from the one family. If there are a number of families travelling on the bus and we are trying to retain 50%, it is a very small number of families in real terms that are travelling because there are two, three or four from the same family. I wonder if that issue has been looked at.

While I accept that some seats are provided on a concessionary basis, when there be a more definitive idea of what is available and when will parents be made aware of availability?

I raised earlier the issue of getting the message out to young people. I am aiming it at secondary school students. Third level students will be returning to colleges in the next week or two. Will a focused message be sent out from the Department together with other Departments? In the Minister's constituency in the past week, we saw many young people socialising. That is not surprising given the time of year. In the area I represent around University College Cork, UCC and Cork Institute of Technology, CIT, one has a lot of socialising in the first six weeks of the academic year. Is there a targeted campaign to deal with that issue?

Some speakers raised the issue of leaving certificate students. That situation needs to be clarified further for those who sat the leaving certificate last year but who are now sitting it this year. There seems to be a lot of uncertainty and we are receiving a lot of queries in that regard.

Earlier today we heard that substitute or replacement teachers are available in schools but that in some of the larger urban areas, there is a significant challenge in trying to get the necessary numbers to fill the gaps in the event of teachers not being able to be at work who need to be replaced. Is any additional incentive being proposed to get teachers in those areas where teachers would find it expensive to live due to high rents?

Is anything being proposed by the Department to deal with that shortage? It is difficult to find a replacement for a teacher who is unable to be at work, whether as a result of illness or otherwise, in areas where there is not a sufficient number of substitute teachers. Will an incentive to deal with that issue be put in place?

I will deal first with the issue the Deputy raised about young people. We have been very clear within the Department and used a variety of different means to speak with the young people in our care. A variety of videos, for example, have been issued. They include animations for the younger children and more age-appropriate material for older children and those at second level. We have done likewise for parents. We have also disseminated leaflets containing information to parents and families in co-operation with the guidance from the HSE and public health. Information has also been translated into a wide variety of languages. We will continue to do these things. I also acknowledge that schools are doing excellent work in introducing stay-safe measures and reinforcing those messages within schools.

The Deputy also referred to young people in secondary school and specifically raised issues about third level students. As he will appreciate, the matter of third level students falls within the remit of the Minister with responsibility for higher education, Deputy Harris, whom I have heard discuss issues about communicating the message at third level colleges. As those institutions reopen, I have every confidence that there will be clear communication. In my own area of responsibility, we will be communicating on an ongoing basis and keeping that under constant review to reinforce the message.

I will say to the Deputy the same thing I have said to previous contributors, namely, that our schools and colleges require effort from the whole of communities. It is not a matter that is confined to the young people who attend primary school, secondary school or third level. The wider community must play its part and we all have a part to play. Personal responsibility to keep the virus at bay falls upon all of us.

I reiterate that substitution panels have been formed for primary schools. I appreciate the reference the Deputy made to the expense or otherwise of living in particular areas but our primary concern is to ensure that the panels are up, running and operating. They have worked well at pilot level and we have every confidence that they are going to work on an ongoing basis. As I said earlier, where there is a need for additional members to make up those panels, we will look at that. The panels do not take away from the other resources that schools have in their own traditional supply of teachers.

There is a broader context regarding how we are dealing with these issues, particularly at second level, and a number of resources are being made available to schools. The limit on the number of hours that an individual can work if he or she is job-sharing has been lifted for the first time and schools now have the facility to draw on additional hours from a staff member who is already in place. Career break restrictions have also been lifted. Teachers who were on reduced hours within schools are being offered the facility to add to their hours if somebody happens to absent or out, as the Deputy said. Our professional master of education students are a valuable resource to our schools and will be in a position to make themselves available for additional hours. There is a suite of resources there from which the schools can draw.

The Deputy raised the matter of calculated grades for students this year and potential difficulties facing students who sat the leaving certificate examination last year. I will ask our chief inspector to come in on that matter because I have already referenced the issue.

Dr. Harold Hislop

The calculated grades is an issue we faced with the students of 2020. It is important that given the teachers provided the estimates, the system of calculated grades here has valued those estimates as the primary source of evidence for the giving of scores to students. That said, it is clear that teachers were overly generous in providing those estimates. That is to be expected and hence it is necessary to reduce some of those estimates. The important part of reducing those estimates is concerned with fairness. Those grades have been increased in some schools more than others and sometimes even between different groups of teachers more than others. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary to even out that unfairness within those grades. To do that one must reduce some, but by no means the majority, of the grades. In fact, almost 80% of the grades will remain unchanged and just over 4% of them will be increased. If we must reduce grades, and we estimate approximately one sixth of the total might have to be reduced, then the degree by which one does that reduction is linked in an important way to preserving student acceptability and confidence, as well parent and public confidence, in the system. If we reduce them too severely, as was attempted, for instance, in the UK, and insist on strict comparability with previous years, then the system simply will not work. The whole objective of calculated grades to allow young people to move on will not be achieved.

The Minister has made a decision about a delicate balance that must be achieved within bringing fairness for the cohort of 2020 yet retaining public acceptability and student confidence in the system. It means the set of grades that will come out for 2020 will be higher than they would be normally but they will be nothing like as high as if the teacher estimates had been issued unaltered. If that were to happen then huge unfairness would be dished out to the 2020 students as well as others, and a huge disparity would exist between 2020 students and those of previous years. This is the best balance of fairness that can be achieved for the 2020 cohort while retaining some degree of comparability with previous cohorts of students. One of the background and contextual reasons referred to by the Minister in her opening address was the enormously upset year and the trauma those students have gone through in 2020, which has been quite extraordinary. Certainly, in the advisory committee a huge emphasis was placed on the concerns for those students.

If someone did the leaving certificate in 2019 and repeated it in 2020 is it possible they could get a lesser grade in 2020 because of the restructuring of the grading system?

Dr. Harold Hislop

Some candidates who have results from 2019 are also, in fact, candidates in 2020. They are competing already in the 2020 cohort. They are entitled to calculated grades and may do better or worse, just as they would have in an exam. However, given the grades arising, in some cases they are likely to do even better out of the calculated grades than they might have done in 2019.

If they have entered for the 2020 leaving certificate, they are also entitled to sit the written paper in November if they so wish. They can have the better of those two grades, be it the calculated grade or the examination grade of 2020, accredited to them. If they are entitled to, they can combine the 2019 and 2020 grades.

We are in unprecedented times and the Minister has faced many challenges in the past couple of weeks.

Issues were bound to arise when we tried to reopen schools in such difficult circumstances. While I will raise several issues, I acknowledge that, so far, a very good job has been done in reopening the schools, which many critics said could not be achieved.

In July, the Minister announced funding of €11.3 million to support hygiene, PPE and cleaning requirements on school transport. This was a necessary step and was much welcomed. However, 90% of school transport services are operated by private bus operators. It was expected that they would be allocated funding proportionate to their size in the market to meet public health measures. It has now transpired, however, that private bus operators will receive just 50% of this fund, €5.5 million, over the school year of 39 weeks.

When that figure is broken down, every school bus operator in the country can expect between €4.50 and €8.50 per day for an enhanced cleaning regime on school buses. This is grossly inadequate. It is less than the minimum wage and does not take into account the cost of cleaning supplies. One month later, the money has not yet been delivered, with bus operators forced to take on the burden of the expense when their cash flows are at zero.

These private bus operators are often small, family-run businesses and this situation is putting them under great financial pressure. To meet public health standards in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, buses first require a deep clean, followed by daily cleaning and disinfection of touch points on board and then a deep cleaning every weekend. This deep clean will take two people one hour to complete for every bus every weekend. If the coaches get a deep clean to start off, then the running cost will be €22.13 per coach per day for disinfecting and cleaning, plus a weekly deep-cleaning cost of €55 per coach. The cost of the first deep cleaning of a coach can vary in cost up to €170. Why were private bus operators only allocated 50% of the fund, when they operate 90% of routes? Can these funds be made available upfront to private bus operators so they can cover additional costs? Why are Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann getting up to €50 per day per vehicle for cleaning, while school buses are only getting a fraction of that amount? Why this inconsistency?

A decision was taken last week to reduce bus capacity to 50% to allow for social distancing on buses carrying secondary school students. This means that additional buses are now required to deal with demand. With schools reopened, operators still do not know if they will be required to provide more services or whether new contracts will be placed with different operators. This lack of capacity means that students, who had been travelling by bus to school for years, are now being refused spaces. I am aware of numerous instances from all around my constituency, from Hollyford, Shevry, Upperchurch and Gortagarry to Ballingarry, where students who previously travelled to school by bus are now being denied places. Dozens of young people and their families are being affected by these decisions. Changes were made to the way that pupils with concessionary tickets were dealt with in 2012-2013, and that needs to be revisited. Given the year we are in, when we are dealing with Covid-19, there is an obligation on us to ensure that all pupils have a place on school transport to get to school.

I also refer to the portal payment system and the way it was shut down in a guillotine fashion. That decision also needs to be revisited, because parents did not realise that was going to happen. This situation needs to be urgently revisited. Can the Minister provide clarity so that operators can ensure adequate provision of buses and every child who needs to be transported to school can be guaranteed a place?

Another issue arising concerns bus drivers being hired to run additional services. Can their vetting process be prioritised to get them on the road as soon as possible? Roughly 25,000 pupils go to school on services provided by private operators, for various reasons. If these buses must operate at 50% capacity, as we would expect with social distancing, the parents involved must get some help to carry this cost. This issue also needs to be addressed. Can we get clarity, therefore, regarding private school runs and what additional help will be provided?

In the past few minutes we have addressed the 20,000 pupils who sat the leaving certificate in years prior to 2020. There are pupils who, for various reasons, did not take up their college place in 2018 or 2019 and now intend to take up a place in 2020. They are worried that they will be at a disadvantage regarding the predictive marking that is being calculated this year. Can the Minister give further clarification on how she will ensure fairness in the system for pupils who sat their leaving certificate in 2018 or 2019 and are now seeking a college place and that their results from a previous leaving certificate will be adequately reflected to allow them the access they would have had if they had sat the leaving certificate in the normal manner in 2020?

The Deputy is out of time. Would it be okay to receive a reply in writing?

Yes. That is fine.

Can the Minister reply to the Deputy in writing, as he raised a number of points?

That is fine. He might communicate them to us directly and we will do that.

We can send the Minister the transcript.

That is perfect.

We will send those to the Minister by tomorrow. Is that in order with the Deputy?

I call Deputy Pádraig O’Sullivan.

I thank the Chair. I was letting Deputy Cahill know that many of my questions overlap his so if he hangs on, he may get some clarification.

I welcome the Minister. She has had a tough brief since she was elevated and that needs to be acknowledged. She has done sterling work, despite all the criticism that the Department has received in the media and so on. The main motivation has been to get children back to school and we have achieved that successfully so far, so the Minister and her Department are to be commended.

I will start with school transport, as previous speakers have also done. I have been in touch with the Minister and I appreciate her feedback and that from her Department over the past few weeks. As Deputy Cahill alluded to, we are in extraordinary times. This issue recurs every year. I recall last year the then Minister of State, John Halligan, committed to a review of the school transport issue. He is no longer with us so that review fell by the wayside but I hope that, given the problems we have had this year, that review and a root-and-branch reform of the system can be looked into for next year. The school transport system needs to reflect the demand for a bus to go to a specific area rather than getting the metre stick out and measuring how close someone lives to a school. That needs to be reflected in any future policy.

I will touch on what previous speakers have said. As the Minister will be aware, I have a number of villages in my area, including Watergrasshill, Glenville, Carrignavar, Whitechurch, Blarney, Grenagh and Bottlehill. Almost 100 children do not have a bus place in those areas. I understand the restrictions of the service and the responsibilities of Bus Éireann in rolling out that service but, as Deputy Cahill has said, these are extraordinary times. Given it is the year of Covid and the restrictions on capacity, we need to think outside the box. This year, even if it is just taken on its own, additional rooms need to be put in place and additional funding needs to be found from somewhere. The children need to get to school. I urge the Minister, if at all possible, to re-examine the issue.

I refer to the leaving certificate. Similar to the Minister, I was a teacher for many years. While many Opposition members have spoken negatively about various decisions that have been made, many of them were cheerleaders for the predictive grading system. Now that it has happened, they have been the first to criticise. I was a firm believer in the old conventional testing method but that race is run. Now that we are where we are in terms of predictive grading, on the question raised by Deputy Burke, can the Minister provide reassurance for students who sat the exam last year that they will not be disadvantaged this year?

What assurance can the Minister give that this will not be the case?

The issues of substitution panels and staffing levels have been touched on. It depends on the size of the school. Many schools have 600, 700, 800 or more students and many have up to 100 staff. While the additional resources dedicated to substitution and sick leave for teachers need to be acknowledged, in the event that there is a resurgence of the virus over the winter or a bad winter flu, and multiples of the teachers required for cover are also absent due to various illnesses, will the Minister be open to revisiting the matter or supplementing the substitution panels if it becomes necessary? I would appreciate it if the Minister gave me clarity on these points.

I thank the Deputy. On the substitution panels, as I have said, we have taken great confidence from the fact that the pilots worked very well in the six areas where they were rolled out. This success has given us confidence. Almost 101 panels have been rolled out at this stage. This is in addition to resources that schools might already have in the pools from which they traditionally draw for substitution, whether in the locality or through the TextASub facility. It has been a very positive move by the Department to provide year long contracts to teachers to make themselves available on a substitute panel so that where there are issues in a school that require access to a substitute, the measure will be there. As I have said previously, these panels will be reviewed as we go on. Everything is in a state of flux. We review, review and review and we amend, amend and amend where we have to.

With regard to the students who sat the exam last year and how they will fare this year, we have made every effort, as the chief inspector has said. The calculated grades are a new measure. They are an extraordinary measure in an extraordinary time. Every possible effort has been made to ensure the 2020 calculated grades will be as close and comparable as possible to the leaving certificate of 2019. As the Deputy is aware, in the traditional leaving certificate there is standardisation and there was standardisation in the calculated grades system. The Deputy will appreciate it is there because teachers will know their students and their capabilities and abilities but it is not possible for them to know the capabilities and abilities of students in the next school or in the next parish or county. Therefore, standardisation is brought in so there is comparability. It is this standardisation that will give confidence not just to the class of 2020 but to the class of 2019 that the calculated grades will be as close as possible. Will there be a stronger grade performance in some subjects this year? Yes, there will but it is as close as we can possibly make it. This standardisation was important so the 2019 students would be able to look at 2020 and vice versa.

With regard to the issues raised by the Deputy on school buses, I appreciate Deputy Cahill also raised these issues. Both Deputies have raised these issues on an ongoing basis with the Department. Bus Éireann is reviewing the routes it has on the basis of the new advice that came to us from NPHET. All along, our roadmap and all we have been doing have been on the basis of the advice available to us on school transport from NPHET. That changed last week. We are now meeting the NPHET guidelines for post primary and rolling out capacity as quickly and as speedily as we can.

When the review has been completed and we add additional buses, if there is additional capacity on those buses those who are eligible, may have paid late or have concessionary tickets will be offered seats at that time. I appreciate the point the Deputy made on issues with the school transport system and the need to examine it.

When we have extra buses in place, we will examine how many more can be accommodated. In terms of issues around that and the capacity this time last year and the number of students in need of a place on a bus, we are at almost half of that capacity at this point in the year. Considerable work has been done in a very short time, bearing in mind that we received the NPHET advice in the last number of days.

I have given some latitude. If additional information can be provided by officials, perhaps it could be provided in writing to Deputies Cahill and O'Sullivan. Is that okay?

Yes, that is perfect.

Before we wrap up I would like to ask a couple of questions. On a personal level, like the previous speaker, I commend the Minister, Department, officials, teachers and boards of management across the country on opening the schools. It is a desperately welcome and necessary step forward.

Like the previous speaker, I would have preferred to have had pupils sit the leaving certificate. It would have been possible to do so at the time and would have provided a welcome and necessary confidence in society generally. That decision was not made by the Minister; she inherited the situation as it was rather than she might have liked it to be. I again commend her on having reopened the schools.

I refer to the wearing of masks by second level students. I understand that decision was taken as a result of advice. Did that advice come from NPHET or another body, such as the HSE, or other bodies that provide advice?

The advice came from the HPSC.

Is the Minister happy to publish the advice or provide it to the committee?

It has been published.

It has been published. My apologies. I thank the Minister.

To be very clear, a student in second level has to wear a mask unless there is a medical reason that he or she cannot do so. If students can provide a certificate from a GP or doctor, that will absolve them from the need to wear masks. Is that correct? Various Deputies, including me, have received information from students who are questioning that.

Absolutely. If a student has a particular medical or sensory issue, there is an exemption at second level.

I thank the Minister. I want to move on to the marking of exam papers. This is a question for the Minister or Dr. Hislop, whoever the Minister deems most appropriate. Some 4% of students will have their grades increased and about 16.66% will have their grades decreased. How will the 4% and 16.66%, respectively, be selected? To what extent will their grades be increased or decreased, respectively? On what basis will they be increased or decreased?

Those percentages are a reference to the grades and not the students. I will allow Dr. Hislop to answer the question.

Dr. Harold Hislop

The Minister is correct. The 16.66% figure refers to grades. There are almost half a million grades to be awarded across the 62,000 students who are taking leaving certificate 2020. Information on the extent to which estimated marks are moderated downwards or upwards will be published in detail once the leaving certificate results have been published.

However, 4% of them will be increased from the teachers' estimates by one grade or more. Very few, less than 0.1% of them-----

How will the 4% that are to be increased be identified? How is it proposed to undertake that process?

Dr. Harold Hislop

That is the second part of the Chairman's question. That is what the standardisation process does. It examines the teachers' original estimates from the schools' data and then combines that with other pieces of data.

What other pieces of data?

Dr. Harold Hislop

One of the most important elements of those other data concerns students in each leaving certificate year cohort in each school. We tracked back what they got at junior certificate level. Very sound research has been published showing how junior cycle scores can be used, on a whole-class basis, to predict the level of achievement likely at leaving certificate level. It gives us a very good indicator, therefore, of what should be the expected level of achievement in that school.

There is also the historical national standard, which influences those data as well. The regression model or prediction that goes from junior cycle to leaving certificate, combined with the teachers' scores, can be compared and contrasted. That gives us a good indication of the extent to which the group of teachers teaching in individual subjects - this is done subject by subject and not school by school - conform to the pattern of results that we would have expected those students to achieve. There are also several protections built in, so that if there are exceptional students that stand out in the teachers' data, for example, parts of the software will pick up those students and ensure that they are adequately rewarded and that their scores are not moderated downwards by too great an extent.

The predictions that we have from the model, therefore, can give us a very close estimate and a good prediction of the class groupings and the scores which should or should not be increased. The details of how all that works, and the mathematical modelling behind it, will be published next Monday in conjunction with the publication of the leaving certificate results. A large technical report completed in April when the original proposals were drawn up will also be published. The details of the model, how it evolved, how it works and its mathematical underpinnings will also be published next Monday.

What are the historical national scores? Will Dr. Hislop explain those?

Dr. Harold Hislop

Originally, two types of historical data, in particular, were meant to have been included in the model. The Minister asked us to look at one of those types, and she made the decision this week to remove it from the data. That was the historical prediction, which would be a reflection of what leaving certificate scores would typically have been in each school, based on an historical pattern. The idea was that we would have used the data from the leaving certificate examinations of 2019, 2018 and 2017, combined those data and the mean of those data or the pattern of results we would normally expect on a school-by-school basis. We have those data and we could have used them. The disadvantage of using those data is that they place a strong emphasis on the historical pattern in each school. It is also a pattern of historical data that has been created by students other than those of 2020. It was for those reasons, as well as the lack of public acceptability and the experience of the overuse of these data in the United Kingdom, that led the Minister to decide to remove those data.

Some historical data still exist in the process, but it is historical data linked to the students themselves. The vast and most important data, therefore, are the estimated marks that the teachers thought students might have achieved.

It is historical data linked to the students themselves, so the vast and most important piece of data is the result of the estimated marks that the teachers thought students might have achieved. The students, though, themselves, of each class group, create a pattern of results in their own junior certificate results of three years ago, and it is that piece of data that allows one to make a prediction as to what those students ought to have achieved, if they had been able to sit a leaving certificate examination in the normal way. Clearly they were not. However, that data can be be very useful to us, and that is is what we used, combined with the teacher estimates, to produce an accurate prediction of what students should be able to achieve. In the United Kingdom, a huge emphasis was placed on making sure that the predictions were very tightly in line with what students would have achieved in historic data sets that the Minister ultimately removed. The consequence of that was a very severe and harsh downgrading of student marks, so that for instance, in England and Wales 40% of marks were downgraded; one third of them in Northern Ireland and in Scotland it was about one quarter. In Ireland, we have adopted an approach that places much greater emphasis on the students' estimated marks, and also on historic data from the junior certificate created by the students of 2020; not created by students from another group, in which these students of 2020 had no part.

I thank Dr. Hislop. There is one more issue that I just want to look at. At the outset, the Minister talked about achievements in reducing the pupil-teacher ratio in primary schools from 28:26. Earlier today the ASTI were in here and its representatives said that 80% of secondary schools in Ireland have poor ventilation and 25% have no hot water, and that Ireland is at the bottom of OECD league in terms of investment in second level schools per capita. She also said that she would look at reducing the pupil-teacher ratio further but I want to ask her if, as an experienced politician, she has ever seen large-scale reductions in pupil-teacher ratios and investment in school programmes at a time when tax take is plummeting, namely, in this time of lockdown and restrictions etc. There is no point debating what is necessary and proportionate, and what is not necessary and not proportionate. My simple question is: does she think the Department can improve pupil-teacher ratios and the standards of secondary schools with less money than was heretofore available to the Department?

I thank the Cathaoirleach. The substantial funding, which at this stage will be in excess of €400 million, has gone directly into the Department of Education and Skills for these present measures, many of which we have discussed here today, and indeed will be on an ongoing basis. It is a statement of the importance that is being placed on the education sector by this Government. It is an investment in the education sector by this Government and it is an investment in the young people we serve in the education sector. It is also a statement of intent of the priority that is being put on education by this current Government.

The Chairman referred to particular issues with ventilation and hot water. Again, specific funding has been made available to schools on the ground to implement measures that need to be implemented such as those the Chairman has highlighted.

The Chairman specifically referred to the pupil-teacher ratio. That is absolutely something we will look at. It is a commitment in the programme for Government. I recognise there is no one single magic wand to do everything, but there is without question an absolute determination on the part of the Government to deliver for education. We have seen the investment - as I said, almost in excess of €400 million now - as an absolute statement of intent of the priority the Government is placing on education. I have no doubt that that investment, determination, dedication and priority to education will continue.

I am in the Minister's hands as to whether we continue. The Clerk tells me we are way over time, which we are. I thank the Minister, Dr. Hislop and the other officials for coming here today, answering all our questions and staying a quarter of an hour over time.

The special committee adjourned until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 9 September 2020.