Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Questions (57)

Maureen O'Sullivan


57. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Education and Skills the way in which outstanding issues relating to primary education here, that is, class sizes, grants and ending pay inequality, for example, will be progressed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29221/18]

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Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Education)

I am asking the Minister how he plans to progress outstanding issues in primary education. I refer to class sizes, grants and ending pay inequality.

The Action Plan for Education outlines a series of actions to be taken to make the Irish education and training service the best in Europe. Since May 2016, we have cut the pupil teacher ratio at primary level twice, provided for 3,000 special needs assistants and more than 5,000 new teaching posts, with an additional 1,280 posts for the coming school year as a result of budget 2018. We have also provided 1,300 new middle management positions at primary level, 1,300 at post-primary level and provided summer works and minor works grants worth €125 million.

On pay equity, any further negotiation on new entrant pay is a cross-sectoral issue and not just an issue for the education sector. The Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020 contains a commitment to consider the issue of newly qualified pay within 12 months of the agreement’s commencement, and that process has started with all the teaching unions involved. The Public Service Pay and Pensions Act 2017 provides that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform will lay a report before the Oireachtas on the cost of, and a plan to deal with, pay equalisation for new entrants within three months of the passing of the Act.

I have been able to win substantial extra resources for primary education in the past two years, and it is through the annual budgetary process each year and in future budgets that further progress will be made. I also draw the Deputy's attention to the recently published national development plan which provided €8.8 billion in investment in school buildings over the coming ten years. I will be seeking additional resources in this autumn's budget and it is the overall resources available to the Government, divided across all Departments, that will determine the scope of the improvements I will be able to make.

I hope those additional resources will make a difference. From my own experience teaching at second level and chairing a board of management at primary level, I know the hard work and commitment of teachers. They enjoy their work in the vast majority of cases and I think that is reflected in the way young people also enjoy school. Like many others here, however, I attended the most recent briefing from the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO, in the National Museum of Ireland. The message coming across was that they feel undervalued by the Department. The progress made in class size was acknowledged but we still have a way to go with that.

On capitation grants, there is a major disparity between primary and second level. Teachers and their classes enjoy fundraising for causes outside of the school but they are now fundraising to pay some of the bills in school. The inequity of losing tax relief on their union subscriptions, while the relief remained for some in business and for farmers, was also mentioned. Another point relating to middle management is the extent of the paperwork required. How is that contributing to the quality of teaching? On retention and recruitment, does the Minister have any idea of the numbers that have applied for career breaks this year?

There are many questions there. On class sizes, from 2018 we will have the lowest class sizes in primary schools ever in the history of the State. It is a significant first and it was welcomed across the House. In prioritising resources, we have to look at where the boot is pinching most. This year, there was €550 million to be allocated right across the education sector and half of that went in restoring pay. The remainder went to improving services. I outlined the types of things that we have done. We redesigned the model for allocating resources to children with special needs and it is a better model involving more resources going into special needs assistants and teaching resources.

We have extended the delivering equality of opportunities in schools, DEIS, to an additional 110 schools and we have strengthened leadership in the schools to help them manage better with paperwork. It is paperwork but much of it is designed to protect our children better and keep them safe by implementing rules that apply throughout our whole system such as vetting of teachers and implementing data protection, which is important for the confidentiality and privacy of citizens. I acknowledge that many of these things are challenges but we have to manage them rather than pretend they can go away. That is why I am investing in leadership across the areas with the greatest priorities and I recognise that capitation is an area of pressure.

Teachers are all policied and planned out. There is a limit to what they can deal with. I was in the audiovisual room yesterday and I heard part of the Minister's reply to Deputy Thomas Byrne about teaching principals. It was disturbing to learn of a survey they had done. One aspect of it found that 89% of teaching principals feel adversely affected by the stress of the workload, the increasing mountain of paper and the onslaught of legislative and curricular change. That was what they said. They also mentioned there were 84 circulars last year alone. Teaching principals are caught between the two roles of working as a teacher and as a principal. They have to leave their class to do the work of the principal, the class is being left behind and then there are problems with parents who do not like that. They also earn less than deputy principals in schools with administrative principals. Teaching principals need release time and is that something that can be addressed?

As I said to Deputy Thomas Byrne, I did increase the release time to teaching principals. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan mentioned the onslaught of curricular change but many others would say that we are reforming a curricular system that was not serving pupils as well as it should. Much work has gone into improving the reading programme at primary level and we are seeing the impact. Our ten year olds now have the best reading standards in Europe, and that is the result of implementation of curricular change and changing the way that material is taught in classrooms. That requires release for continuing professional development training of teachers to look at the new way of doing things.

We are seeing more use of data, and even in education there is a concentration on data to see how things are going and how things are being done better. These are not all unnecessary requirements and that is the point that must be made. Perhaps we can take out unnecessary requirements but the things that have been done, such as child protection and better curriculums, have been done after talking to experts on how we could best improve outcomes for children and then seeking to work with principals to implement it. That is other side of why we are doing some of these things, and we do recognise the pressure of continual change.

Before we go into the other questions, I point out that six and half minutes are allocated to each question. There are 30 seconds to put a question, two minutes for a response, and one minute each for a supplementary, a response, a second supplementary and a second response. I ask everybody to stick to their times as much as they can because, as I always say, the more we go over, the more people are left out at the end. I hope we will try to keep to those times.