As stated previously, when we came into Government in 1987 we inherited a very serious economic and financial crisis. The problems facing the Irish people were so severe that, unless they were tackled with courage and determination, this country would face disaster — there would be very unfavourable prospects for all our young children currently in the education system.
In the past Governments were remiss in not resolutely facing up to economic difficulties and in not identifying strategies and practical solutions. In 1986 this country was in dire economic straits with the current budget deficit standing at an all time high of 8.5 per cent and a national debt standing at over £24 billion. The public sector borrowing requirement was £2,506 million, a massive 15.2 per cent of GNP. The servicing of the national debt absorbs money which we can ill afford. We must ensure that we reduce our dependence as a nation on borrowing.
As a result of the policy adopted by this Government and the measures taken in the context of the 1987 budget, we have seen Exchequer borrowing significantly reduced, we have witnessed a reduction in interest rates and inflation has come down. The target for the current budget deficit in 1987 was 6.9 per cent of GNP and we bettered this target and lowered it to 6.8 per cent; likewise the target for public sector borrowing was set at £2,166 million or 12.5 per cent of GNP and in fact the actual borrowing requirement in 1987 was £2,056 million or 11.8 per cent of GNP.
It is now evident to everyone that the targets set by this Government have been very successfully attained and indeed surpassed in many instances. The targets set were realistic and consistent with sound economic and financial management.
A new sense of direction has been given to the economy. The sense of despair and the depression that were widespread among the Irish people during the Coalition years are giving way to a realism and a belief that this Government have the willpower and the determination to pursue their stated objectives of progressively reducing the cost of servicing the national debts and the level of borrowing while at the same time creating an environment suitable for investment geared to productive economic activities and enhance employment opportunities.
The fiscal and economic policies introduced by this Government have resulted in a restoration of confidence in the business world and a realisation at home and abroad that the foundations for national economic recovery have been laid. The Programme for National Recovery which has been welcomed by the principal social partners will I am sure result in continued economic and social progress.
In 1987 our competitiveness in the market place showed a marked improvement against the United Kingdom and our EC partners. Manufacturing output has increased significantly and there has been a very dramatic growth in exports — the volume in 1987 increased by some 16 per cent compared to 4 per cent in 1986.
In order to have continued improvement leading to a resolution of our serious economic difficulties, it is necessary to continue with the policies introduced in 1987. It is necessary to set realistic financial targets, thereby reducing our dependency on borrowing and lowering the large interest bill which must be paid on borrowings.
The 1988 budget has been designed to reduce the current budget deficit from 6.8 per cent of GNP in 1987 to 6.3 per cent of GNP in 1988 and a corresponding reduction in public sector borrowing from 11.8 per cent of GNP in 1987 to 9.4 per cent in 1988. These targets are realisable and must be attained to ensure our economic recovery. The size and nature of the financial adjustments necessary to achieve these budgetary targets will, however, create certain difficulties and will require some sacrifices to be made. However, I am convinced that the vast majority of Irish people are prepared to make these sacrifices in the short term and accept a level of services which we can afford rather than place intolerable debt burdens on future generations.
Nevertheless, despite reductions made in public expenditure, it is expected that there will be some growth in 1988 in the gross domestic product and that we will achieve further growth in the volume of our exports.
In order to resolve our economic difficulties, it is necesary to control the public finances, to provide financial stability and to limit our dependence on foreign borrowing. These can only be done by maintaining measures for a level of services which we can afford.
Virtually everyone accepts that something must be done to bring down public expenditure but some object to any of the savings being made in a particular area. However, since the social services in the areas of health, social welfare and education account for 67 per cent approximately of the gross expenditure by the Exchequer on non-capital supply services, it is inevitable that any worthwhile reduction in public expenditure would have to involve significant savings in these areas.
We must all accept that we have limited resources. The question of how efficiently our resources are allocated is closely linked with economic growth and development. This Government have fully recognised the vital contribution which an efficient, cost-effective education system can make to the economic and social development of our country. In 1988 it is estimated that over 18 per cent of net Exchequer expenditure on non-capital services will be spent on the education services, whereas in 1986 the corresponding figure was 16.5 per cent. It is a fact that we simply cannot afford to allocate a larger portion of our limited financial resources to education.
We must make strenuous efforts to ensure that our resources are used to maximum advantage to maintain and improve the quality of education at all levels. Equity, efficiency and effectiveness must, in future, be the main criteria used for resource allocations purposes. Greater attention must be placed on educational planning than was done in the past and more attention must be given to the development of systematic cost-effectiveness studies and the production of educational indicators.
Every level of the education services must be carefully analysed and provision made for the co-ordination of educational planning with planning for other sectors of the economy e.g. labour, health, agriculture, et cetera. I was listening on the monitor to the questions put to the Minister for Labour and some of them also touched on education. Of course, planning for education in order to be effective must not only be based on educational considerations but also on detailed and accurate economic and social data and demographic trends. It must also take into account existing financial constraints.
This Government will continue to provide the maximum financial support possible for education. I have already stated that in 1988 over 18 per cent of net Exchequer expenditure on non-capital services will be spent in the education area — it is simply not possible in present economic circumstances to provide a greater amount. We must ensure that this expenditure is spent in the most efficient and effective way in order to cater as fully as possible for the varying aptitudes and abilities of all pupils. In order to do so, we must avoid any unnecessary duplication of resources whether human or physical. We must foster and encourage various educational interests and groups in a community to pool their expertise and resources for the benefit of that community.
Demographic trends indicate that over the next decade and beyond there will be very significant changes in the structure of our population. These will have very significant implications, in particular for our education system, and we must plan now to ensure that the quality of education will be maintained. For example, the projection that births will fall from a current level of some 60,000 to between 46,000 to 52,000 by the end of the century will have major repercussions for the education sector and especially for primary schools.
To assist in the planning process, the Department of Education are finalising a strategic plan for the development of an information technology system which, when fully implemented, will enable a better analysis than heretofore to be made of the effectiveness of the education services and will be of help in developing arrangements for the deployment of resources and in considering the viability of alternative strategies. A number of projects involving new technologies have been initiated in the Department of Education and a reappraisal of the computing needs of the examinations branch in Athlone is currently being undertaken.
A number of potential benefits can be achieved by the increased use of information technology in my Department. Information technology could greatly facilitate the evaluation of options which require cross-analysis of all the elements involved in the provision of education — students, teachers, institutions et cetera. It could improve the information available to support long term planning and allow for more effective monitoring of performance and other educational indicators. It is my intention to proceed, as financial resources allow, with a phased implementation of an effective information technology plan.
In accordance with the Programme for National Recovery a review body has been established to undertake a complete in-depth review of the primary curriculum which has been implemented in primary schools since 1971. It is necessary to analyse its suitability nowadays for imparting basic competences to our young children.
In addition, it has recently been decided to carry out a major review of the primary education sector. It is important that everybody involved — parents, teachers, school managers — should be fully informed about the sector, including future trends. The outcome of the review will enable relevant plans to be made to resolve present difficulties and, allowing for demographic trends, to anticipate future needs. It is not generally realised that the primary school enrolments will fall from some 568,000 in 1987-88 by over 100,000 by the year 2,000. This rapid decrease will have serious implications and challenges for our education sector and it must be planned for in a systematic and structured way. We must ensure at all times that the quality of education is maintained and the opportunities offered to our young people maximised. We have educational problems now but we will have equally challenging problems — albeit in a political sense perhaps — when the rapid decrease in the population occurs.
The Government's commitment to curriculum reform resulted in the Interim Curriculum and Examinations Board being reconstituted by me as the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. The composition and modus operandi of the council have been designed to ensure that it will be a dynamic agency which will advise me and my Department on all matters related to curriculum and assessment at primary and second level.
At post-primary level there is urgent need to review and reform the junior cycle curriculum. Specific immediate tasks assigned to the council include the development of a new unified junior cycle programme which will replace the existing intermediate and day vocational (group) certificates programmes for introduction into schools in September 1989 and to be known simply as the junior certificate; the development of an overall framework for senior cycle and the review of existing rules and programmes for secondary schools.
This planned approach to curriculum reform will result in realistic targets and deadlines being set to improve the quality of post-primary education, enhanced standards of pupil achievement and will allow for special initiatives to be undertaken in areas such as modern languages, science and technology. We have already made a start in regard to modern languages and, small though it is, it will be very significant and indeed vital.
In the medium term, there are likely to be significant changes in teaching methods and in curricula due to the impact of new technologies — in particular computing systems — in education. Research work being carried out on computer aided learning, expert systems and artificial intelligence is changing our perception of knowledge and increasing our knowledge about learning processes.
New technologies can in theory bring to every school and to every pupil the best in education. It is theoretically possible, with the aid of expert systems which utilise the best teaching skills, to improve learning environments and to enhance the teaching-learning process for disadvantaged pupils.
Developments in telecommunications and electronics in association with advances being made in computer technology open up great opportunities for the transmission of computerised data and texts in the education sector. Already major changes can be foreseen in assessment techniques. In addition, it is envisaged that computerised data and computer networks could have a significance for the teaching of languages by making it far more interactive and more effective than it was. Within existing financial constraints we must continue to be innovative and make progress in this area.
The school transport service since it was introduced in the late sixties has been very successful in achieving its purpose of bringing pupils safely to and from school who, without this service, could not get to school or would endure much hardship in doing so. The school transport system is a complex one — rural Deputies are particularly aware of this since they are dealing with it all the time — and since it necessitates a very large outlay each year by the State it has been necessary always to keep it under constant review. A study with a view to making the system more cost effective has recently been undertaken and it is planned that four pilot projects — one in each of the provinces will be introduced for the 1988-89 school year. These projects will be monitored and evaluated. The outcome from these projects will enable, we hope, a more cost effective system to be developed.
Arising out of our Government's programme to have more effective and streamlined administrative structures, it was decided to amalgamate a number of vocational education committees. This decision will result in a more efficient and cost effective system and will enable the new VECs to provide a better service to the public. Within the revised vocational education structure a greater degree of autonomy will be given to the nine regional technical colleges. These colleges will be encouraged to place greater emphasis on applied research and development activities and to strengthen their links with local industrial and commercial interests. Indeed this is something which the regional colleges have long sought and have gone down the path themselves without full permission but the Act did allow for flexibility. I hope this will allow regional colleges to fulfil more vigorously their correct industrial role.
Work has started on the preparation of the required legislation and it is planned to provide for the necessary amalgamations later this year.
We in Government have always considered that the education system can be a powerful tool for bringing about desirable social objectives. In the education area the necessary savings in expenditure have been, and will be, made in such a way as to shield to the greatest possible extent the disadvantaged. None of the measures planned will reduce educational provision for them. Resources will be allocated to endeavour to achieve educational equity and this Government will continue to foster and encourage greater participation by the disadvantaged in all levels and activities of the education system. In our Programme for National Recovery which we brought about through the co-operation of the social partners, the section on education dealt specifically with the needs of the disadvantaged and the commitment of the Government to serving those needs.
A special high level task force representative of the Departments of Education and Labour was established in 1987 to examine in particular the situation relating to those who leave school without any formal qualifications. The task force recommendations and strategies to attract these early school leavers to special vocational preparation and training programmes will be fully considered with a view to their early implementation. As I said, my colleague the Minister for Labour has already spoken on that matter here in Question Time today. It is a great sign of progress that the two Departments, Education and Labour, have liaised quite successfully on this issue. In addition, the Government are determined that adult literacy and community education programmes will be continued and developed as much as possible within the limits of existing resources.
In the third level education sector there have been substantial developments in recent years. Outputs have increased and there have been significant gains in productivity. However, like every other sector efforts will have to continue to be made to achieve greater economies while at the same time maintaining academic standards and preserving essential services. A study is being undertaken to determine savings that could be made or additional student numbers that could be accommodated at no extra cost by reducing the length of courses leading to qualifications awarded by the NCEA. The HEA are to carry out a similar study in their own sector by examining the feasibility of shortening the duration of degree programmes. In addition, a high level interdepartmental committee representative of the Departments of Education, Finance, Industry and Commerce, Labour, Health and Agriculture will be established shortly to examine — (a) the provision of third level places; (b) the rationalisation of third level departments and institutions; and (c) the funding of third level institutions.
A study by a task force established to examine admissions procedures and entry requirements to third level institutions is nearing completion. It is anticipated that measures will be identified which can be implemented to bring about a more co-ordinated and a more efficient admission system.
Another important development of significance for third level institutions and students was the adoption in 1987 by the Council of Europe Education Ministers of the Eramus project. This project, which will last initially for three years, and later for a further extension, is designed to increase the mobility of third level students throughout the EC through increased co-operation in a European wide network between universities and third level institutions. Students participating in the project may spend periods varying from one term to one year in another Community country and will be eligible for financial assistance to help meet travel and other costs involved.
In the past third level institutions have played a very important role in this country by producing well qualified and highly professional graduates. The quality of their programmes in recent years has been enhanced by the development of industrial-higher education links, through the establishment of industrial parks and innovation centres alongside higher education institutions and by the establishment of specialised research and development centres. The necessity for close co-operation between industry and higher education institutions has been recognised by the EC. Its COMETT programme is designed to ease the skills shortages in high technology fields and will provide grants to develop higher educational-industry training partnerships and to fund the exchange of students, academic staff and executives from business and industry. All will benefit through the COMETT programme. Ireland stands to benefit greatly from this programme and three university-enterprise training partnerships involving virtually all relevant third level institutions have been formed to ensure the effective operation of this very significant programme.
In 1987 the Government made a policy decision that in future the national lottery fund would provide all funding for youth and sport. Youth, sport and recreation are the main beneficiaries of the fund. The investment being made in these areas will have long term beneficial effects for the Irish people. It will enable our country to make rapid progress in the development of many sporting activities. In international competitive sports Irish women and men will not be at a disadvantage for want of adequate training facilities here in Ireland and all Irish people will have available to them great opportunities for participating in sporting and recreational facilities. Many local regional and national sports projects will be developed for 1988: We listed those when we announced the allocations of the national lottery sports money prior to Christmas in 1987.
Projects will also be initiated in the youth area. A sum of £4 million is set aside for major developments of community youth projects in disadvantaged areas. In the allocation of resources special attention will be given to the needs of groups particularly at risk such as young homeless, young travellers and abusers. A sum of £1 million will be provided for the expansion and development of voluntary youth organisations and voluntary youth councils will be established to provide an efficient and co-ordinated local youth service.
The total provision for youth and sport is £27.14 million in 1988.
The six outdoor education centres based in Cappanalea, Burren, Birr, Gartan and Shielbeggan have in the past not been used to the best advantage because of financial constraints. In 1987 this Government provided £50,000 towards the cost of these centres. In the current year £400,000 has been allocated out of the national lottery fund to enable these centres be fully utilised. This has been due to the take-up of the lottery.
It is important that the great potential of these centres for developing activities relating to outdoor education, the promotion of tourism, youth exchange programmes etc., be fully realised and I am confident that in 1988 we will see great progress in this area.
The allocation for primary and post-primary school building programmes originally provided in the 1988 Estimates for Public Services Abridged Version, has been increased by £6.5 million.
The provision in 1988 for the national schools building programme is £18.875. This is an increase of £3.875 on the originally published proposal to provide £15 million for this programme. The latter figure was based on the need to provide at least £9 million to meet contractual commitments arising from a number of major projects still under construction in 1988, together with approximately £6 million to service an extensive programme of improvements to existing national school buildings. The additional sum referred to will now enable my Department to give priority to schools where it is accepted that there are acute problems of accommodation.
I am sometimes surprised, in dealing with primary school representatives who approach me about the prospect of getting grants for the provision of new national school buildings, to find that a case is being argued largely on the basis that facilities in an existing school are in a bad condition and that the parties frequently admit that they have never given any consideration to improving existing conditions with the aid of the grants which my Department are prepared to make available towards the cost of essential improvements. The improvement of existing school facilities can often be undertaken in advance of schemes of extension or major refurbishing. I can assure schools that by availing of this aspect of the Department's grant scheme their subsequent building grant applications will not be prejudiced.
It is important to say that because very often if you say to a school who are at the start of the planning process and who have to go through several further stages that you will give them several thousand pounds towards essential refurbishment they will say that that will prejudice their eventual case for a new school. Therefore, I give the commitment that all things being equal their case for a new school would not be hindered by their taking up of essential grant allocations.
Already schools and public representatives are flooding my Department with correspondence and inquiries suggesting that the additional capital now being made available would enable me to authorise the invitation of tenders or the placing of contracts for national school building schemes on which for some time now progress has not been possible. Judging by the number of letters and inquiries I have received in regard to the additional capital which is now being made available to me one would think that I had received a pot of gold. I must say at once that this extra allocation will have to be very carefully husbanded or housewifed to provide the maximum yield in terms of accommodation.