I propose to take Questions Nos. 321 and 331 together.
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic my Department has issued extensive guidance material to assist schools with the continuity of learning. This guidance to schools was developed in consultation with all relevant stakeholders including teachers, parents and learners. The guidance included provision to support the continuity of teaching and learning in response to the Covid-19 restrictions for those learners unable to engage with online learning. This guidance is all available at gov.ie.
In November 2020, a circular (No. 0074/2020) issued to all schools advising them of the requirement to put in place appropriate contingency measures, to include a Communication and Learning Platform, to ensure that they are prepared to continue to support teaching and learning in the event of a partial or full closure of schools arising from Public Health advice. The circular sets out the comprehensive level of supports that are in place to assist schools with this process.
Extensive support and advice for teachers and schools to provide remote learning has been, and continues to be made available through my Department’s support service, the Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST) and its Technology in Education team at www.pdsttechnologyineducation.ie The information on this website includes a link to a dedicated PDST portal https://www.pdst.ie/DistanceLearning aimed at supporting teachers and schools in the remote learning environment. This resource includes information on popular communication and learning platforms, digital tools and resources, video conferencing, webinars to support and inspire teachers to identify good practice and a dedicated online course for teachers for remote learning. My Department’s education website www.scoilnet.ie also contains a wealth of curriculum tagged resources that can be used by teachers, students and parents to support the continuity of learning in the remote environment.
Schools can also apply to www.pdst.ie/schoolsupport for the assistance of a PDST adviser for tailored school support in all subject areas at Primary and Post-Primary levels including those pertaining to the use of Digital Technologies to support remote teaching, learning and assessment practices. The PDST Leadership team will also be available to support school leaders in leading the remote teaching and learning process through school support, national programmes and localised networks.
As part of the €210m investment programme underpinning the implementation of the Digital Strategy for Schools, my Department provided €100m in grant funding to schools to address their ICT needs during 2020. Schools were advised that they can use this funding to support the continuity of teaching and learning should a period of partial or full school closure occur arising from Public Health advice owing to Covid-19 restrictions as is the current situation. Schools can use this funding, inter alia, to acquire software applications or platforms to enable remote learning and communications, and to provide for devices to be loaned to teachers and learners in particular where needed to enable engagement with remote learning. Funding for ICT is issued directly to schools given that schools are best placed to determine the ICT needs of their school community. In addition my Department directly funds the provision of broadband connectivity for schools at a cost of some €13m per annum. School buildings will remain open to allow staff access where this is essential to facilitate remote learning.
It is important to note that digital technology is a tool to be employed by teachers to deliver the curriculum and that it is not replacing the teacher in the teaching process. Regular engagement with pupils and students, appropriate and engaging learning opportunities, assessment and constructive feedback will continue to be important elements of the education provided by teachers. My Department’s Inspectorate will continue to offer an advisory service to schools to support the delivery of remote learning and to provide assistance to school leaders in particular. The Inspectorate will also evaluate and report on the quality of educational provision for students and will continue to carry out its other work as set out in Circulars 40/2020 and 41/2020.
The Deputy will appreciate that the situation we find ourselves in is evolving all the time. My Department, in working with the whole of Government, will keep the situation under review and update any advices to schools as required. It is with the work of all our stakeholders together that we will continue to provide the best education for all our pupils/students.