Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 4 Dec 1975

Vol. 286 No. 6

Vote 28: Office of the Minister for Education (Resumed).

Debate resumed on the following motion:
That a supplementary sum not exceeding £3,068,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 1975, for the salaries and expenses of the Office of the Minister for Education (including Institutions of Science and Art), for certain miscellaneous education and cultural services and for payment of sundry grants-in aid.
—(Minister for Education.)

In conclusion, I would like to ask why is this money being sought this year and not last year or early in the New Year? I would be interested in ascertaining where this money will come from. The time has come when we should be looking at this thing called education, analysing it and discovering whether we are interested in the materialistic side of it, if there is an idealistic concept about which we are concerned. Are we happy about a situation which seems to help, intellectually and educationally, the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer? When we are spending £250 million we have an obligation to reassess the position and, to use the terminology of the people in my constituency, ask what is it in aid of. Does education today do no more than replace what was referred to as the old capitalistic system? The better educated one is, the greater his power and the higher the standard of living.

Does our educational system recognise the importance of such a characteristic in our young people and adults as honesty because there seems to be no provision for this in our examinations? Are we concerned about the children who are amenable to discipline, who are prepared to do their very best but who under this system see very little reward for their efforts? Are we happy about the movement from primary to secondary schools? There are some schools where a child cannot get a place unless he satisfies certain educational requirements. He is asked if he is good at Maths, or English or Irish. Irrespective of his code of behaviour or respectability, if he does not get a high mark in the entrance exam, he will not get a place in that school. The child who is so rejected cannot be blamed if he feels that in today's world, and under this system of education that if he does not have a high IQ and does not pass set examinations which often require no more than a good memory, a certain mental ability and a tutoring in the questions likely to be asked, there is no place for him.

I spoke earlier about the educational system which applies a general standard and assumes that it will suit everybody. I spoke of the primary schools in my constituency. Like many other speakers, I find it very difficult to keep within the confines of the Estimate and I thank the Chair for bearing with me. When considering this system of education, perhaps the Minister would bear in mind the schools I mentioned, especially the "Little Willie" School in Baldoyle— I am happy to see some of them are with us today. Is the present standard of education at primary, secondary and third levels appropriate to our visitors? May I, through the Chair, ask our visitors to let us have their views later?

I should like to say a few words on this Supplementary Estimate before us and I shall try to be as relevant as possible. I am astonished at the size of the Supplementary Estimates coming before us. Sums in relation to the original Estimates must not have been done correctly. It is certainly not lack of intelligence on the part of the Minister but there should have been more accuracy with the original Estimate. We all know it is impossible to be completely accurate but there is a great lack of accuracy in relation to the Estimates presented to us. When such large Supplementary Estimates have to be introduced I feel there is an attempt being made to deceive the House.

I do not want it to be taken that when people on this side of the House stand up and make statements saying we disagree about the size of Supplementary Estimates that we disagree with money being spent on education. Education is very important for the country and the money spent on it is absolutely essential but requests for those increases, which are sought now, should be available earlier in the year. Most of them should be on the original Estimates.

There are a few comments I should like to make as far as rural Ireland is concerned in relation to the particular schemes under the Department of Education. We were told earlier how the free travel affects Dublin pupils. I now want to talk about how it affects pupils in rural Ireland going to either primary or secondary schools. There should be flexibility about the rules in relation to catchment areas. Deputies from all sides of the House have to make representations in relation to children who are being brought to school. We have to ask to have distances taken off for some pupils or to have distances added in the case of other pupils. The Minister should not be tied with too much red tape regarding the free bus service to primary and secondary schools.

As regards secondary education, Deputies in my area have a particular problem where we have one vocational school at which the leaving certificate is not done. The Department of Education say there are not enough pupils. The reason for this is that when parents are sending their children to secondary schools they do not want to send them to schools where they cannot finish their secondary education. If pupils in my area go to this excellent vocational school they have to leave it after doing the intermediate certificate and go to another school to do the leaving certificate. The result of all this is that we are writing to the Minister's Parliamentary Secretary for transport for pupils from this school to other schools in the same catchment area where they can do their leaving certificate. I am sure the Minister knows this vocational school well because it is the only one in my area. If we could get the full secondary course in that school we would not be annoying the Department of Education for the pupils.

Another thing which affects rural Ireland is the recently appointed school committee boards and the grants allocated. I listened to the Dublin people saying that the schools are overcrowded. We have the reverse position in the rural schools. The schools are too big in many areas for the number of pupils attending them. There is one three-teacher school which is now demoted to a two-teacher school. The building is the same size but the number of pupils has gone down. The grant is the same size. The grant for the upkeep is per pupil. It is a fairly large building. There were enough pupils for three teachers but there are now only sufficient for two. However the full building must be maintained. The present grant system per pupil is detrimental to rural Ireland. This is also very hard on the Protestant community. I know of several of them who only have a few pupils going to a national school. They only get the grant per pupil. I ask the Minister to consider this very carefully and see if any adjustment can be made. It is now the parent committees who have to collect the local contribution. Is there not a contribution to be made per child?

In respect of each child from the sources which previously paid for the running of the school and not confined to any category known as parents in that parish.

It is not being done as before. In the case of a Catholic school it was a collection at the school door and practically everybody paid. Now the committee have to collect it. Is this not the case?

I will reply later to that point.

This is of vital importance. If I am wrong I apologise for holding up the House.

I am very glad the Deputy raised this point. I welcome the opportunity of clarifying the issues.

I would like to get those issues clarified, particularly the grant per pupil. A number of teachers have come to me about this. I want to pay tribute to the teachers in all three grades—first, second and third levels —for their great service to the country in the past. It is important to stress the part they played when we speak on the Education Estimate.

At the moment a lot of people are unemployed. Some of them are unmarried and are quite young. Many of them have approached me to see if they could get a place in some vocational school to improve their education. If they go to AnCO they must have either the group certificate or the leaving certificate before they can do any course. I know of a young unmarried man of 27 years of age. He felt on principle that he should not accept unemployment assistance. He was anxious to come to Dublin to see if there was any possibility of finding a school where he could improve himself. He tried the country and as far as I know there was only a woodwork class. He cannot do any of the courses in AnCO unless he has a group certificate. He has a good primary school education and he cannot improve himself anyway unless he can get into some vocational school. He would like to improve himself during his period of unemployment. When I was young and we left the national schools we could go to technical schools and do various courses, such as woodwork and engineering, to improve ourselves. Apparently now there are no classes of this kind. This should be seriously considered.

Deputy Tunney mentioned the whole question of what we are educating people to. Is it to an examination? It is not for me, who only got a national school education to comment too much on this but I have met people who have leaving certificates and whose standard of general education is not very high. They have been educated to an examination. I do not know how this can be changed. I think they should be assessed on their standard over a number of years within the school. I know that "pull" could come into this but under the present system certain pupils know the type of questions that will be asked at examinations and they educate themselves to the examination papers. Their general education is not of a high standard. There are many people who are well educated but at a written or oral examination they do not do well.

I am sorry I will not be here when the Minister is replying because I am very anxious to hear his reply. I am interested in the question of the grant and how the local contribution is being collected. In the past, it was collected at the church door. The grant is not satisfactory where the school is big and the number of pupils small. The Protestant community in particular have only small numbers of pupils and as the grant is paid per pupil it is not very satisfactory for them. I would like the Minister to clarify this situation.

Deputy Lalor rose.

On a point of procedure, I would like to get this Estimate this evening but I have no wish to suggest that the debate be curtailed. I have already suggested to the Opposition spokesman that a token estimate of £10 would give Deputies an opportunity, at a later stage, of continuing the debate and I would hope that the Whip opposite will be able to accept that arrangement. I would not ask if it were not of absolute necessity that we should get it this evening.

Our spokesman is not here at the moment and I would not like to give a decision on his behalf but he will be here later. There are some other Deputies who wish to contribute to this debate. The difficulty is that we have been getting a spate of Supplementary Estimates. I do not for a moment question that the Minister is genuine in his offer to bring in a token Estimate but when would we discuss it? There are only two more weeks left and then the whole thing goes by the board. After Christmas we are in to a new financial year. As Opposition Whip, I am daily being faced with a semi fait accompli. I found myself in a desperately awkward situation last week. The Minister for Transport and Power in respect of a Bill told me that any time before the end of the session would do and two days later in the Seanad he said it was a must. I find it very difficult to know exactly what to believe at present. If the Minister for Education needed this money tonight, yesterday was a little too late to circulate the Supplementary Estimate.

I want to ask the Minister whether he has yet come to any decision in relation to a problem we have had in Laois for over 12 months. The Minister told me in this House on 11th February last that he was awaiting legal advice. He said:

When this information is conveyed to me I will then be in a position to make a determination in the matter.

This relates to the appointment of a headmaster at Portlaoise Vocational School. I raised the matter in the Dáil on 20th May. At that stage the Minister informed me that he was considering the views of the vocational education committee. He said:

I have seen the legal advice in question. It was discussed at the meeting of the County Laois Vocational Education Committee on 14th April, 1975, and their views thereon were conveyed to me in the minutes of that meeting. I am now considering the views of the committee and will be in touch with them in due course.

I found it necessary to write to the Minister in July because I could not put down another question within a six-month period. I had a reply from the Minister which conveyed, peculiarly, that the matter had moved into a sub judice situation. We now find that the vocational education committee were playing ducks and drakes with the Minister. Apparently the Minister is quite willing to allow this to happen and is not exerting his authority in this regard. He said he shared my view that I did not want to see a committee dissolved and so on but I wonder how much longer will the Minister continue to allow the vocational education committee to flout his authority. I would be glad if the Minister would deal with this in his reply because the people on the Laois side of my constitutency and the parents of pupils in Portlaoise are very annoyed about the situation. The Minister must appreciate that it is not good for education to have this type of power struggle going on. There are a few hundred children in this school who must be influenced in the long term. The wranglings of politicians in this regard must be getting a bad name for politicians. I would ask the Minister to try to get this matter resolved.

I had a complaint made to me by a contractor who called to see me on Monday last in connection with the allocation of contracts for electrical work in regional college extensions in Galway, Waterford, Dundalk and Sligo advertised some time ago. The complainant who came to me was a businessman in my constituency. He had tendered for the electrical works in these colleges. He had been called for interview, as he put it, to the Department about four or five weeks ago and he was shown a list of the tenders that had been submitted. It would appear that there were 12 tenders in all, that there were tenders from 12 different contractors. All of them did not cover the four regional colleges but there were 12 tenders covering the whole sheet. The contractor concerned showed me the list. The sums of money tendered were shown, not the names of contractors. That is understandable. I was rather amazed to find that any officials of a Department would hand such a list to a contractor. I thought it was a new development. I am not basically criticising it. The impression I got was that this contractor was being asked could he possibly tender at the prices stated. He had tendered for the electrical work in those four schools and I think he was brought there to be quizzed as to whether he could possibly do the work at the prices in his tenders. It is no harm to put it on record here that while he was not the lowest tenderer for Galway he was lowest for works in Waterford, Dundalk and Sligo.

He told me that he rang the Department on Friday, 21st November, and while he was not told that the contracts had been drawn up he was given to understand that his tenders would not be successful. His price for Waterford was £58,647 whereas the next lowest tender on this list presented to him in the Department was £73,000 odd. He was roughly £15,000 under the next lowest tender. Yet he was given to understand he would not get that contract. His price for Dundalk was £70,000 odd and the next lowest tender was £77,000 odd. He was roughly £7,000 lower. His tender for Sligo was £54,000 odd and the next lowest £59,000 leaving him £4,500 or £5,000 lower.

The Minister and his Department will be open to criticism if he does not get those three contracts. He came to me because he has 54 employees and if he were ruled out of contracts for the Department of Education he would find it necessary to make 30 of these workers redundant. I fully appreciate that if he gets the jobs somebody else will not get them. I checked with the Department of Education. I was anxious to get on to the building section which deals specifically with this matter. I rang on Monday last and checked with the Minister's office to know if it was permissible to ring the section directly. I was given to understand, as I already knew, that the Minister does not approve of this; he much prefers one to go through his office. I did not want to try ringing directly the principal officer concerned with whom I have never been in contact because I felt I would be putting him at a disadvantage in asking him for information and he would probably have to tell me that he would prefer me to go through the Minister's office because I have had this experience before. It is very difficult to deal with a problem like this in a threecornered way. I was told that it was not the Department themselves but some consultants engaged by the Department who may have been in contact with my contractor. I was told that despite the claim made by him that he had made a telephone call to the Department on 21st November and was told that he would not be successful or had not been successful, there was nobody in the Department who could have told him that and that it must have been the consultants. I am not challenging anybody in that regard but I was going on the statement made by the contractor to me.

I can reply on this matter now or before 5 o'clock if the Deputy wishes.

There are other Deputies and I certainly am not making a decision like this at the last minute. If part of the reply is that the consultants or anybody are worried about my contractor I want them to understand that this man has already done electrical work for the Department on schools in Falcarragh, Carndonagh, Ardee, Athlone, Tullamore and Millstreet within the last couple of years. I questioned him as to whether his work was inferior or did not measure up to the standard required and he says he did not get any complaint of that nature. If that is so I will not accept that this man can be refused those three contracts.

This is what worries me. When this man came to me he told me he had already been to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Local Government making his complaint personally and asking him if he could try to resolve the matter for him. He had a reply in writing from the Parliamentary Secretary on the following day to say that he would whisper in the ear of the Minister. This is what worries me in relation to——

Look, Deputy——

I am making my statement.

I think it is only fair to me and to the Department of Education that I be given the right to reply.

I have no objection. I am getting my question on to the record. I am quite willing to hear the reply now but any other Deputy who wishes to speak is at liberty to make his case.

Listening to the debate prior to Question Time I found some very interesting points made by the previous speaker, Deputy Tunney. I will be brief in the limited contribution that can be made under the subheadings of this estimate. This Estimate for £26 million represents an increase of 13.5 per cent as distinct from a Supplementary Estimate last year which represents an increase of approximately 26 per cent, indicating the increased budgeting of the Department of Education in this current year. I also note the sum of £19.6 million for increased provision for salaries. In regard to that I should like to comment that not only must officials be paid their just increases awarded over the year but I think the accommodation which the Department have is possibly outdated at this stage and does not lend itself to the optimum efficiency one would hope to obtain from this Department. I should like to see improved office accommodation for the staff of the Department of Education so that their efficiency could be increased and the administration of the educational system improved accordingly.

In relation to vocational education committees, I should like to say that I find their criticism at times of the Department of Education and the Minister at the head of the Department of Education to be totally unjustified; that certain members of the Dublin Vocational Education Committee, public representatives, are not acting in a responsible manner or in accordance with the mandate given to them by the electorate. It is a pity that the Minister does not have more authority over the VEC.

We are not dealing with anything of the nature of policy. We are just dealing with the matters in the Supplementary Estimate.

I am just referring to the way in which the increase in the amount of moneys for salaries of officers of the Department of Education can be nullified and efficiency can be diluted by irresponsible representatives on a vocational education committee. The time of committees and departments can be spent discussing such things as the availability of free contraceptives in Bolton Street Technical School by people who have a very strange vested interest in the educational facilities in that vocational school.

I should like to refer to Vote 29— Primary Education—and the additional amount required under subhead C.1. It has come to my notice and I am certain the Minister is concerned very deeply that there is a problem regarding the ability of the less well-off section of the community to provide school books for their children attending primary school. I notice in the details given by the Minister in regard to the Votes that a large amount of money is being spent on the decoration of primary schools. Schools must be decorated from time to time. Unfortunately, a myth exists in regard to the availability of free school books. There is a gap between what parents think is available and what is actually available. In this connection it would be no harm if the Minister were to delegate authority to some of his officers at the beginning of the school year in September or during the summer holidays to embark upon a publicity campaign that would make it known that all school books are not free for all students attending primary school as that is the situation existing at the present time. Unfortunately, a myth has developed over the past number of years that a medical card holder is entitled to free school books. Because of this medical card holders do not allow for the fact that they will have to pay for school books and do not realise that the allocation of free school books rests primarily with the school manager. It would be a great help if there was a standardisation of eligibility for free school books. This year undue hardship was experienced in some schools because of lack of information on the part of parents. It rested largely with teachers and public representatives to explain the position. I should like to see the Minister setting up a system in relation to national school books whereby his Department would have control——

Would the Deputy enlighten the Chair as to what heading he is speaking to?

Vote 29 subhead, C.1. and Vote 30, subhead B.

Subhead C.1. deals with salaries. Vote 30 deals with salaries. Books do not arise under those headings.

I apologise. I was dealing with the actual work engaged in by the people in receipt of those salaries.

We can deal only with the headings as they are there. That is all we can deal with on Supplementary Estimates.

Can one not deal with the actual work done by the persons in receipt of the salaries?

The Chair has explained that that would require a token Estimate on which education might be discussed but on a Supplementary Estimate we are confined to the subheads strictly as they appear.

In that case I should not have mentioned primary school books. I will pass on to the higher education grant. Possibly you will bear with me if I mention the standards for university entrance and grants for students. Would it be in order to refer to that?

No. On a token Estimate or a debate on education as such that could be referred to. The Chair is just imposing the restraints that are imposed on the Chair under Standing Orders. We are confined to the items which appear on the Supplementary Estimates.

I will conclude by paying a tribute to those engaged in education, those in receipt of these salaries by saying how grateful we are for their dedication, to the religious orders and particularly to the remedial teachers, and to say to the Minister how disappointed I am that there is not a special section in this Estimate for dealing with further grants for slightly handicapped people. I should like to see them included fully in the national school system instead of in special schools to which a certain amount of stigma attaches, and to say how appreciative we are that the grant has been increased from £25 to £50 in lieu of tuition fees, for senior pupils from £24 to £36, and for junior pupils from £19 to £28.

I shall not delay the House much longer, but it is important that we voice our opinion regarding the quality of national schools being built at present and to ask the Minister whether he considers the 18 community schools to which he has referred to be satisfactory and an improvement, because there is some grave doubt as to whether they are or not. The comprehensive schools are certainly doing quite well. One would like to see greater planning where new housing estates are going up in the suburbs, particularly the south Finglas area where the Minister announced that he will be going ahead with a 16-room new national school. I should like the Minister to give consideration to the new national school at the cattle market site when that site comes for development for local authority housing.

The free school transport is to be commended and it has been expanding. It is necessary, but whether the closing of the smaller schools was a good idea or not is another thing. The Minister is also to be commended on setting up the governing bodies for the Higher Education Authority.

First of all, I should like to thank the House for the positive manner in which the Deputies on both sides approached this Supplementary Estimate. Unfortunately, in the few minutes left I shall not be able to answer the points made by the various Deputies, but I shall try to communicate my answers to them informally.

I must, however, in the brief time allotted to me take up the question raised by Deputy Lalor about a subcontractor in his constituency. Tenders of subcontractors must, in accordance with normal practice and procedure, be opened publicly. This was done for electrical subcontractors on 9th October last. The next step is for the architect to check out the lowest tender, and if he is satisfied as to his prices, reliability and so on, to recommend acceptance of the lowest tender. Should the architect not be satisfied for one good reason or another—the inability to fulfill the contract satisfactorily, unreliability based on previous experience, failure to meet deadlines—then the architect will recommend that the lowest tender be not accepted and will proceed to examine the second lowest tender. This is the normal tendering procedure and is in process of being carried out at present. No definite recommendation about the acceptance of the lowest or of any tender has yet been received from the architect. The matter is, therefore, sub judice, at the moment. I should like to draw the attention of the House to the following. In any case where the lowest tender is not being accepted, the Department must submit the case to the Government Contracts Committee for formal approval. That is a safeguard with which I am in full accord.

If I might briefly refer to the point raised by Deputy Callanan before I go on to any other matters, I indicated to the Deputy that I wished to have the opportunity of stressing that the introduction of the new scheme of capitation grants for primary schools would not affect the fundamental position whereby the local parish community had a basic responsibility for the cost of maintenance and upkeep of national schools. The change which has been brought about by the introduction of the capitation grant system is that the new method of financing, as well as being much more flexible, makes a substantially greater subvention from the State for the upkeep of the schools. Previously, the grants from the State comprised heating and cleaning grants, equipment grants, as well as painting grants. The local community had the responsibility to provide the balance of the cost for the running of the school. That responsibility of the local community has not changed A guarantee is given, however, that where the community contributes the equivalent of at least £1.50 per pupil, the Department will contribute the equivalent of £6 per pupil.

So as to avoid any further misunderstanding, may I again repeat that the system of local responsibility for the upkeep of national schools has not been changed by the introduction of the new scheme, that the local parish community has not been relieved of their responsibility in that regard, that any attempt to place responsibility for the local contribution for maintenance on the boards of management specifically is not in accord with proper procedures. I reiterate that the authorities who were heretofore responsible for the local contribution are still responsible. I would ask anybody who knows of any departure from previous practice in this regard to let my Department know immediately. Of course, it would be entirely reprehensible if anybody would attempt to levy £1.50 per pupil on the parents of children attending school, and again I say it would be unconstitutional if this were attempted.

Deputy Wilson made reference to the item "Savings on other subheads" appearing on the different Votes. It would not be feasible for me to go into details, but I may say that, in general, it is a technical device to enable adjustments—particularly in relation to the capital provision—to be made as between the different Votes to match actual expenditure with the original Estimates. The Deputy will appreciate that in relation to a school building programme there may be appreciable variations in the rate of progress as between different projects in hand at the same time, particularly so in this year when the summer weather was such that a lot of work which normally would have taken longer, in fact, was completed very quickly.

I noted the observations of Deputy Wilson concerning the provision in D.4, Audio-Visual Teaching Aids. A marginal excess may, with the approval of the Minister for Finance, be accepted on an open subhead where a grant-in-aid is not involved, subject to the amount being met from savings on other subheads of the Vote. The question of appropriate action in relation to particular items of expenditure under subhead D.4 in 1975 will be further considered in accordance with this general arrangement when the Vote has been augmented by the Supplementary Estimate.

Deputy Wilson made reference to the NCEA. On 19th February, 1972, the Government authorised the Minister for Education to arrange for the setting up of an ad hoc NCEA to operate for a period of three years or until such earlier date as the council could be statutorily established. It was inappropriate to establish the council on a statutory basis while decisions on the reorganisation of higher education were pending. On 14th February, 1975, the Government extended the period of operation of the ad hoc council with its then chairman and members, pending reconstitution.

The ad hoc council is, therefore, operating pending its reconstitution with ten from NIHE, Limerick, ten from NIHE, Dublin, and ten to be nominated by the Government on the recommendation of the Minister for Education plus a chairman to be nominated by the Government on the recommendation of the Minister. The ad hoc council had been carrying on its work and has been holding conferrings in various institutions throughout the country, for example, in what was formerly known as the NCPE, Limerick, now known as Thomond, in the RTC, Sligo and so on.

I should have liked to reply to the other points made by the Deputies. I thank them for their approach to this Estimate. I am glad they see my point that I want to get it this evening, and I offer them the possibility of a £10 token Estimate debate if it can be arranged between the Whips at a later point.

I intended to push this to a vote, but in view of the fact that the Minister needs the money I am not going to do so. I intended to do this because of the deficiencies that I pointed out and that were not covered in the Supplementary Estimate, and because of the savage mistake in the accounting for the Estimates. It is, as the Minister has, by implication, admitted, a very unsatisfactory way of dealing with the Education debate, by Supplementary Estimate where one is confined to the subjects mentioned in the Supplementary Estimate.

Vote put and agreed to.