Wednesday, 31 March 2021

Questions (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

Mick Barry


1. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the Cabinet committee dealing with education. [1594/21]

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Alan Kelly


2. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education last met; and when it will next meet. [14480/21]

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Mary Lou McDonald


3. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [15523/21]

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Richard Boyd Barrett


4. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the Cabinet committee dealing with education. [15559/21]

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Paul Murphy


5. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education last met; and when it will next meet. [16823/21]

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Mick Barry


6. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the Cabinet committee dealing with education. [17192/21]

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Oral answers (11 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on education oversees implementation of the programme for Government commitments in the area of education, including preparing for post-Covid education. This Cabinet committee last met on 17 February and will meet again shortly. I have regular engagement with the Minister for Education and the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science at Cabinet and individually to discuss priorities for the education sector, especially the management of the impacts of Covid on primary, secondary and third level education. Similarly, I also have regular engagement with the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth on priority issues relating to early years education and childcare.

Does the Taoiseach think it was a good idea to break a commitment to teachers about vaccinations less than two weeks before the full reopening of schools? Does his breach of trust put the full reopening of schools in any kind of jeopardy? Will he send teachers and students back into the schools on 12 April if the reproduction number remains above one or will he do it if the reproduction number rises above 1.5? Fifth year students will have missed 14 weeks of classroom teaching time by 12 April. These students will have lost more classroom teaching time than any other leaving certificate cohort in the history of the State bar one. The leaving certificate should be abolished and a policy of open access to third level education should be introduced. What changes is the Taoiseach prepared to make to take into account the substantial loss of classroom teaching time that these students have suffered?

When it comes to special education, the decision by the Department of Education to freeze current special education teacher levels at this year's level will mean that education in developing schools that are expanding will see a reduction in support. This is not fair. It will leave vulnerable children without vital supports for a prolonged period. School patrons have already raised this with the Minister. There are also problems with HSE school-age support services. We saw the case of seven-year-old Lexi Forde, whom the Taoiseach is aware of, on Monday night. Her parents were told she would be seen in November 2026.

Was the decision to restrict supports for this cohort of vulnerable school children discussed at the Cabinet committee? What will be done to address it?

Furthermore, the issues that have been raised in relation to the Beacon Hospital and the vaccination of private school staff has brought to the fore once again the two-tier system that is perceived to exist in respect of education. Looking at the figures of students who go from private schools to third level education in comparison with those who go from DEIS schools to third level, there is a huge differential. If we have learned anything from Covid being the biggest disrupter, it is that it is time for a single-tier approach to both education and healthcare in this country. What moves will be made in the education sector in order to deliver that?

In July last year, my colleague, Deputy Quinlivan, was told by the Taoiseach that he hoped to give a timeline for the rolling out of a new redress scheme for the victims of historical abuse in day schools. I am sure, or at least I hope, that the Taoiseach is as frustrated as I am that the Department of Education's review of the ex gratia scheme appears to be stalled. That frustration is nothing by comparison with the deepened hurt and anger felt by the survivors of Creagh Lane National School at the lack of progress made by the current and former Governments on this matter.

At every stage of this sorry saga, the State has actively sought to evade its responsibility. The Taoiseach was right in describing the previous Government's treatment of the victims as shameful, cynical and cruel. Mr. Justice O'Neill described the preconditions set for victims to access the scheme as an "inversion of logic" and fundamentally unfair. July 2021 will mark two years since the former Taoiseach apologised to the survivors. Yet, these men of Creagh Lane and so many others who were wrongfully excluded from applying to the scheme, continue to be left out in the cold.

Officials in the Department have been reviewing the scheme for 18 months now. At no stage have they, or Government past or present, given a clear indication as to when this review will be completed. I would like to know, in a direct answer, when the Department will conclude its review and when the Government will amend and reopen the scheme for those who have been excluded from it to date.

Before I came in here, I spoke to the principal of a DEIS band 1 school in my area, Scoil Cholmcille, which was one of 281 schools that applied for the new hot school meals programme. The school was most disappointed not to have been selected for the programme. It is in a highly disadvantaged area. It seems that quite a few non-DEIS schools were approved for the hot school meals programme, but not schools in areas of extreme disadvantage which, let us be clear, have been hit very significantly by, and have felt the impact more acutely of, school closures due to Covid, and so on. The school principal reported that hot school meal pilot programmes run by the school made a huge difference to attendance and the ability of children to focus. Yet, such schools have been denied access to the programme.

For the sake of 90 schools, could the Government not come up with the money to give all the schools that applied access to the hot school meals programme? The principal I spoke to told me that the additional cost of the programme would be 80 cent per student. He also reported to me an answer from the Department that €5 million is unspent in the school meals programme. In other words, it is likely that a fraction of that unspent money would actually allow those 90 schools that were refused access to the programme to get it. I ask the Taoiseach to do something about it.

In countries that followed a zero Covid strategy, the schools were largely able to stay open after the first lockdown. The same could have been done here last summer, but instead the Government decided on a yo-yo lockdown strategy that has seen schools having to close repeatedly.

There is hope and the target of opening schools fully again, but with case numbers so high and the risk of a fourth wave that is underlined by NPHET, there are serious doubts and concerns. In the next ten days before schools are due to reopen, we need to bring down the case numbers and provide the investment to make schools safe. Instead, the Government is making decisions which jeopardise that possibility.

One year on, the Government has still not put in the investment to ventilate our schools properly. Instead, it promised teachers that they would be prioritised for the vaccine, but that has now been taken off the table. It has still not tackled the Covid outbreaks in the meat plants and the actions of private companies unnecessarily forcing workers to come into the workplace when they could safely work from home. It has gone against the NPHET advice by bowing, once more, to private business lobbying and agreeing to reopen construction and it has not implemented the 14-day backward contact tracing that is necessary.

Will these things be put in place in the next ten days so that schools are able to reopen safely?

I would like to raise two issues briefly.

I wish to remind the Taoiseach, with the restructuring of the vaccination programme, of the importance of the July provision programme. I also wish to acknowledge that many of the educators who take part in the July provision programme are younger educators who are seeking to supplement their income. They will need to be vaccinated. While I appreciate that there has been a change in the rationale for the vaccination programme, I ask that it be ensured that educators taking part in the July provision are prioritised so that important programme can take place.

I also want to highlight that students who have not been able to return to school because they have a family member with an underlying health condition still do not have access to remote learning options. I strongly encourage the Taoiseach to prioritise both of those cohorts in terms of creating remote learning options for students who cannot return to school and prioritising the educators who take part in the July provision scheme as part of the vaccine programme.

In the last 24 hours, the Government has changed from a risk-based vaccine distribution system to an age-based vaccine distribution system. Last week it said that the vaccination system was based on public health advice. This week it has stated that it is based on public health advice, even though they are mutually exclusive systems.

Now, a 46-year-old who is working remotely will be vaccinated on the same day as a special needs assistant, SNA, who is working with children with special needs, as a garda who is arresting people in a riot, as a carer on whom a person depends completely and as a teacher.

It is important to be honest here. There reason is because the system that was in place previously was based on GP and consultant lists. As a result, many people were slipping through the cracks. There are people with stage 4 cancer who have been bounced back and forth from GPs to consultants and have been unable to get the vaccine.

The reason that lists were used is because there is no central patient database in the country. Even though the Government had six months to organise a central database, the Government did not get it together. It is incredible to hear. Last week, the Government said that one of the biggest risks in respect of Covid is people's actions and their mobility. Now it is saying that is not the case, and the biggest risk is age. It is saying that people's professions, i.e. their mobility and actions, are no longer a sufficient reason for them to be prioritised.

First, in terms of the issues raised by Deputy Kelly in relation to special education, I will have the issue of developing schools and special needs provision looked at again, to ensure that there is an adequacy of provision for children in that context.

On the issue around the Beacon Hospital, what happened there was a fundamental breach of trust in the administration of vaccines. It was wrong and against the prioritisation that had been laid down, that the most vulnerable should get the vaccines first.

In our democracy and within our constitutional framework, people have entitlements to pursue the education that they wish to pursue. We must make sure and ensure this happens, as we do, particularly at primary level. We are much stronger at primary level in terms of the single-tier approach in respect of the provision of education - not so at post-primary. It is more regionally spread as well. Dublin is particularly strong in terms of private education as opposed to State-based education.

There is a higher concentration in Dublin. Overall, our second level system has achieved a lot relative to our European peers in terms of school completion. I favour stronger resources going into DEIS schools and into the area around school completion and attendance to make sure we can assist in every way we possibly can school completion by students, which would enable them to progress further and get greater opportunities in life more generally.

Deputy McDonald raised the redress scheme for survivors. I am very keen to see the review into the scheme concluded. I do not have a date for that right now but I certainly will revert back to the House on it at a later stage. I have pursued this issue both in opposition and in government. We have made progress as a result of some of the efforts we made and that I was involved in, but some people are still excluded, as has been noted, particularly the survivors of Creagh Lane National School.

Deputy Boyd Barrett raised an issue regarding the hot meals programme. It is a good programme, the objectives of which are to be commended. I will examine the situation he has raised. I take it he is talking about 90 schools in DEIS band 1 that are apparently not eligible. I will get answers in that respect from the Minister involved and revert to the Deputy.

The scheme costs very little.

Deputy Paul Murphy raised a number of points. The NPHET recommendations we have adopted are, in effect, to have a very slow, steady and safe reopening and to give people some relief in respect of, for example, the 5 km restriction and other matters. We have dealt with outbreaks in meat plants. From the Deputy's political perspective, he can identify meat plants as the great evil. As far as we are concerned, they have been dealt with and there is antigen testing and serial testing in place. There is also support for workers in terms of illness pay and so on.

Regarding bringing down case numbers, that is an objective in terms of schools returning. No one expected vaccinations before 12 April. Let us all be honest in this House and not suggest that people had an expectation there would be vaccinations beyond the over-70s and the cohorts with underlying conditions. The target is to get all over-70s and the underlying condition cohorts given a first dose by mid-April and to have them all fully vaccinated by mid to late May. We are leaving nobody behind in the vaccination programme.

In respect of the points raised by Deputy Tóibín, it is not a case of moving from risk to age. Age is risk; that is the point. We can play with language but the reason the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, has decided on age, having looked at the reviews, is that it does not determine huge differences between occupational categories but it does unequivocally say that the international evidence is now clear that the older one is, the more vulnerable one is to severe illness and death if one gets Covid. There is no contradiction, as the Deputy asserted, between the behavioural issues and how one avoids getting Covid in the first instance.

On the issue raised by Deputy Barry, I again make the point that there was no expectation that people would be vaccinated before 12 April. It is wrong to suggest there was. We are not breaking any commitments in respect of the full reopening of schools on 12 April. Deputy Gannon made a fair point that before the next academic year, which is probably the more relevant timeframe, we should do everything we possibly can to ensure we have the bulk of our vaccination programme completed. I am confident of achieving that. In response to Deputy Gannon's other point, age is now the determining criterion governing the allocation of the vaccine, as I said.