Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Questions (37)

Fiona O'Loughlin

Question:

37. Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin asked the Minister for Education and Skills the position with regard to the provision of mediation for English language school teachers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2731/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Education)

My question is on the provision of mediation for English language school teachers. Will the Minister of State make a statement on the matter?

I thank the Deputy for asking this question. Before I answer, I pay tribute to her for her work on the Committee on Education and Skills, from which she knows that we are progressing the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) (Amendment) Bill 2018. English language teaching is important to Ireland. It is also important to the students who come here to study the language if we are to ensure that they have a good experience and receive quality teaching.

We want to ensure that teachers are qualified and are treated properly, fairly and consistently by their employers. To this end, I recently appointed Mr. Patrick King, the former general secretary of the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland, ASTI, as a mediator for the sector. He is meeting the employer and employee representative bodies to identify and discuss relevant issues. Recently, I wrote to 119 of the schools in question inviting them to meet Mr. King. His objective is to explore whether there is scope for a set of minimum employment standards that could be agreed for the sector, that is, registered employment agreements, REAs. These efforts complement what I was doing in the Seanad just before Christmas when it debated the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) (Amendment) Bill. A date in early February has been set for returning to the Seanad.

For interested parties that might be listening in, including those to which we have written, we are encouraging them to submit their views on relevant issues. These submissions will assist the mediator in his work. A dedicated email address is now open to receive submissions: elemediation@education.gov.ie.

I wish Mr. King well in his work and I encourage all relevant stakeholders to engage meaningfully with him. It is in all of our interests to strengthen the quality of English language provision in Ireland.

I thank the Minister for her kind words on the work we do at the committee and for her update on the area of mediation. We must acknowledge that the English language teaching sector has been blighted over the past number of years with some schools closing overnight without any notice impacting on vulnerable students, many of whom were left in a situation with very poor English and having paid very significant fees to those schools. We must also acknowledge the situation of the teachers involved. In early December, in the case of Grafton College, 35 teachers were left without jobs and 20 teachers did not even receive their previous pay into their bank accounts. It is a difficult situation.

The Minister mentioned the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) (Amendment) Bill 2018. I accept that the Bill is before the Seanad but my party is not happy that there is not stakeholder engagement on it. It came up at the Joint Committee on Education and Skills also that we would prefer that there would be stakeholder engagement on this Bill.

I apologised to the Deputy previously because that was a mistake made with the Department during August. Apologies for that.

I was shocked at what happened with Grafton College and to the students, although they came under the students' assistance fund, but also to the teachers. That is why I, with my officials, whom I thank, really pushed that we put this together. We have now engaged Mr. Pat King and I am confident that at least now there is a mediation process.

I ask those who own the schools to engage. If we have a quality product, that will only help all the various stakeholders. It is embarrassing to see schools go to the wall and fail. We do not want that to happen. As I said, we want to have a quality product for students.

I wanted to ensure that teachers in such schools know that they will be paid and that there are proper financial structures behind them because currently we are not sure of that. All of that will happen under the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) (Amendment) Bill 2018. The Deputy will be aware I am bringing in the international education mark. For a school to get an international education mark, it will have to show its books and the background of the school. As a result, we will be altogether more confident in what is happening.

I agree with the Minister that engagement is crucial. We should have as much engagement as possible to ensure that we have a good Bill which when enacted will protect both the students and the teachers.

I acknowledge the inclusion of a fund in the Bill to protect the pupils of language schools who may find themselves out of pocket as a result of such a closure.

Unite has proposed that a similar teacher protection fund be introduced to protect teachers in the event that a school closes. This would address loss of wages and the loss of employment for teachers in a situation where a school closes, particularly in cases such as Grafton College which closed two weeks before Christmas. This fund would deal with a specific instance where a school has not followed procedure and as a result employees are not able to make an application to the insolvency fund. Has this issue of the provision of such a fund, which would protect teachers as well as protecting students, been examined?

There is a mediator appointed and all the various issues will be looked at to see what we can come up with. It is the first time in this sector that we have sent in a mediator to explore whether there is scope, as I said, in the sector, to put REAs in place. That will transform the sector.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.