Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Questions (42)

Thomas Byrne


42. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills his views on the low completion rate of the consultation requested in circular 38/2018 in education and training board, ETB, schools; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26832/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Education)

Will the Minister comment on the low uptake and compliance with the consultation required in circular 38/2018 on the use of smart devices in schools? Responding to a question I tabled earlier this year, the Minister stated he did not have the information on the implementation of this circular, and what schools have or have not implemented it. I, therefore, contacted every ETB in the country to learn the state of play on the consultation, something that the Department ought to have done. The picture is not happy. I would be grateful for the Minister's response before I go into details.

Circular 38/2018, which issued to schools last year, requires all schools to consult with teachers, students and parents in developing policy for the use of smartphones and personal devices in school. This requirement to consult will be underpinned in law once the student and parents charter Bill is enacted. I will publish this Bill in the autumn. Schools are not required to report to my Department on the implementation of circulars and my Department is not aware of any issues in the implementation of this circular in ETB schools.

Decisions on the use of smartphones and other such devices in schools are taken at local level by the board of management, which have responsibility for the direct governance of a school under the provisions of the Education Act 1998.

My Department recognises the requirement to safeguard children from the negative impact of using digital devices. It is also important that we continue to work together to raise awareness to the benefits of new technologies and to recognise the value of digital technology to enhance teaching and learning for all students while also safeguarding our children online.

The Department has not done the work on this, so I have. I asked the ETBs, and, insofar as they have responded, the picture is pretty poor. According to Longford-Westmeath ETB, approximately half the secondary schools have not undertaken the consultation. The response in the Limerick-Clare ETB was patchy, and in Waterford-Wexford it is approximately half and half, some of which have done this. In Carlow-Kilkenny ETB, one school has completed the consultation. Kerry, Cork and Kildare-Wicklow are better than most ETBs and, for the most part, they appear to have implemented the circular. In Tipperary, only one school has implemented the circular. The Louth-Meath ETB, in my own area, has not given me the full information. However, I know that in one school where this has become an issue, Ratoath, the circular was commenced this year, almost a year after it was issued. Listening to people at a meeting last night, including the Minister's colleague, Deputy Regina Doherty, there was utter dissatisfaction over how this is being implemented.

Schools feel lost on this - they do not have the Department's support on implementation of circulars on digital learning - and parents feel utterly lost because they are worried about smartphone addiction. We have seen what has happened in recent months with stories about phones and what is on them. The Department is not helping. Fianna Fáil would ban smartphones in schools up to junior cycle.

It is a circular; it is not underpinned by legislation. That is why I continue to push ahead with the student and parent charter. It is important. The main reason for introducing this legislation is to give both parents and students a voice on their participation in the education system. I am aware of the public meeting which took place last night in Ratoath and was briefed by my colleague, Deputy Regina Doherty.

I have asked my officials to contact and engage with the ETB to see whether we can make progress on this very difficult issue.

If the Minister agrees, I will be happy to speak to him privately afterwards about this issue. I have only been able to get the information from a number of ETBs. Obviously, I cannot get it from the voluntary secondary school sector or the primary school sector. Studies have shown that mobile phone use in school has a negative impact through cognitive overload, increased distraction and altered memory and learning patterns. We have seen adopted in some schools a digital only approach whereby there are no school textbooks. The problem in some of them is that there is poor implementation of the replacement, that is, notes. This is a huge issue in schools and the Department has not got to grips with it. Frankly, what happened last year was that the then Minister, Deputy Bruton, was looking for a headline for the newspapers during the teacher conferences and announced the circular. Once the circular was published the following month, that was the end of it and nothing more was heard from the Department. Some schools and ETBs literally threw the circular in the bin and the Department was not able to tell me this until I obtained the information. I question the seriousness of the Department on the issue. I also question its seriousness on the parent and student charter Bill which was announced as if it were law at the end of 2016. A teacher came up to me at the meeting in Ratoath last night and told me that it was law. It is not. I had to tell her that it was not even written. There is no use in announcing it again three years later. It needs to be implemented and introduced.

I will be happy to speak to the Deputy afterwards about last night's meeting to see how we can deal with the issue. The student and parent charter is something on which I have been working very intensively since I was appointed. We will publish it in the coming months. It is important that parents and students have a voice with regard to the circular that was sent. It is not subject to law; it is just a circular. I will contact the ETB about the school that was discussed by the Deputy and that was the subject of the meeting last night.

The Deputy referenced my predecessor, Deputy Bruton, who will head an all-Government approach to the use of mobile phone technology and smartphones to try to introduce proper safeguards and safety measures to protect young people. There is a responsibility on the Government, citizens and parents, as well as on the companies to act responsibly. They are the ones with the algorithms, data and information to spot online bullying. We have to ensure this will happen. The world in which we live is different from the one in which the Deputy and I went to school. He went to school a few years after me. Everything in life is about balance. Technology is part of the new world, but it is about balance. I am a traditionalist when it comes to getting back to basics and books will continue to be a fundamental part of children's education. Old teaching techniques will remain a fundamental part, but the world is changing. In the work we do in this House we have embraced technology in the past decade.