Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 4 May 1995

Vol. 452 No. 4

White Paper on Education: Statements (Resumed).

Molaim go Mórmór an sár-obair a rinne an t-Aire, an Teachta Breathnach, agus gach duine a bhí páirteach sa díospóireacht thábhachtach a bhí againn le dhá bhliain anuas, chun an Páipéar Bán a chur os ár gcomhair. Tá sé an-tábhachtach anois, ag éirí as an Páipéar Bán, go mbeidh muid ábalta leanúint ar aghaidh leis an obair atá os ár gcomhair. Tá súil agam go mbeidh muid ábalta comhoibriú a fháil idir gach duine chun an cúrsa oideachais is fearr a fháil do mhuintir na tíre agus go mórmór do na daltaí agus na tuismitheoirí.

One of the aspects of the White Paper which has attracted widespread attention has been the lack of significant comment on resourcing, the co-called missing chapter. The level of resourcing for education generally and the relative funding of the different branches of education are where the real decisions are to be made. For example, the chapter on primary education tells us that 91 per cent of the expenditure on primary education is devoted to salaries and pensions, mainly for teachers, while the corresponding figure for post-primary education is 82 per cent. The salary scales of teachers are the same at both primary and post-primary level. This means that the non-pay expenditure for a child in a primary school is approximately £133 while the non-pay expenditure for post-primary students is £387. The real issue is whether the Minister intends to improve the expenditure on primary students relative to that in the other sectors or, perhaps more accurately, whether she will face up to this very vital question. Primary schools and primary children are more than photo opportunities.

On the level of pay, the fundamental decision regarding primary education was taken in 1988 by the then Minister for Education, Deputy Mary O'Rourke.

In 1988 it was decided that staffing freed up by the demographic change would be retained in the primary system by way of reduced class sizes. This has resulted in dramatic improvements in the quality of education available to young people and for the first time since we took over responsibility for education from Great Britain we do not have to be ashamed of the size of our primary classes.

The fundamental question relates to how children get to school, what happens while they are at school and how they get to the next stage. Issues such as school transport, school books, the weight of the school bags, whether children are happy at school and whether they like the teacher are of major concern to parents. It is not of importance to parents who sits on the board of management or whether the Department of Education handles the teachers' payroll. The White Paper is a grand document but much of it has little relevance to the real world of parents, teachers and boards of management who are trying to provide a decent education for young children and teenagers in the cities, towns and villages throughout the length and breadth of the land. The fundamental decision on primary staff funding was taken in 1988 by the former Minister for Education, Deputy O'Rourke — in that connection tá scéal beag agam mar gheall ar sin.

A few weeks ago the Minister took exception to remarks I made in the House with regard to her habit of spending more time talking than listening. I quoted one observer here who said: "she comes to talk, she should stay to listen". During the conference session at Easter some of the journalists noted the same ministerial custom. The Minister left the INTO Easter Congress in Galway rather hastily to travel to Ennis.

I was not invited for the second session. I left at the coffee break. I did not even feature on the invitations.

I am quite sure she was invited to the lunch.

I was not invited to the lunch.

If she was not invited to the lunch——

The Deputy should not believe everything she reads in the newspaper. The Deputy is setting a poor precedent for my successor.

If the Minister was not invited to luncheon then——

I was not invited to lunch. I attended six conferences in one week. Anyone in Opposition who suggests that attending lunches, accepting coffee, attending six conferences in one week is not enough is setting a poor precedent for whoever follows.

I beg to differ. It does not take five hours to travel from Galway to Ennis on probably the best road in Ireland. Members of the Opposition parties——

Acting Chairman

Can we hear Deputy Coughlan without interruption? Perhaps, the Minister will reply later.

If the Minister had cared to remain a little longer at the INTO conference she would have met a particular teacher.

I did not see the Deputy.

Bhí mé anseo cinnte. Ní fhaca tú mé. I was down at the back where I should have been to hear exactly what was going on and stayed for three days in Galway.

The Deputy was lucky she did not have to move.

This tit for tat has absolutely no relevance to the White Paper but it has to the fact that the Minister takes umbrage at remarks which went too near the bone. At the conference I met a teacher who is a long time member of the INTO and attended conferences on numerous occasions. He told me a scéal about a Minister for Education some years ago who did not attend the conference and had to send his parliamentary secretary, what we would call nowadays a Minister of State. That Minister of State had been educated in the more affluent private sector and was less than familiar with the conditions of ordinary people and national schools. He assured the delegates at that conference that class sizes had no effect on the efficiencies or the quality of education provided in a school. Needless to say, his views were not well received. I cannot help wondering why Deputy John Bruton, who was the Parliamentary Secretary, has changed his views in the past 20 years.

I must at this juncture advert to the campaign for early retirement. I am sure the majority of teachers would prefer to continue to serve up to the age of 65 but — and it is a major but — numerous teachers no longer feel capable of answering fully the children's needs up to the current minimum age for retirement on pension. This situation has become intolerable. It is fraught with difficulty for the teacher — that is a matter of serious concern — and more importantly for the children who, through no fault of the teachers concerned, are denied the standard of education to which they are entitled under the Constitution. I appeal to the Minister to settle this problem on the basis that will do justice to all concerned.

A special problem arises in the area of funding for teachers who are employed as substitutes over a lengthy period, sometimes years. Invariably these teachers are fully qualified. They are victims of a serious injustice in that they are denied the full benefit of annual salaries and superannuation credit for the period they serve as substitutes. Without the service of substitutes the primary system would break down. No financial consideration, whether imposed by the Department of Finance of otherwise, can be held to justify the treatment at present meted out to substitute teachers. A straightforward principle of equality is involved and should be upheld.

I welcome the Minister's announcement regarding the establishment of a commission on school accommodation needs. I urge her to waste no time in setting up that commission which should be given specific targets for the completion of its deliberations. I strongly recommend that the commission be enjoined to bear in mind the social and economic implications as well as the educational implications of any decision on the closure of schools in a particular area. This applies particularly to primary schools. The school is a focal point of the entire community in rural areas. With the local post office and the Garda station it establishes the area as an individual community. This individuality is of crucial importance and should be safeguarded at all costs, consistent with the overriding need to provide a full and comprehensive education for all the children within the community.

The White Paper asserts that the provision of adequate resources for primary education will continue to be a priority. If the primary education provision is to continue as in the past it can only mean the Minister will shrug off any real commitment to the funding of what the White Paper declares to be "of fundamental importance in determining children's life chances". Let us continue to commit essential funding to primary education. It is the most important sector and we should get away from disadvantage with regard to other sectors, at second or third level.

I welcome the Minister's commitment to the implementation of recommendations of the special education review committee. I ask her to ensure there is no unavoidable delay in the process of implementation. This report has been with the Minister for the past 18 months. There is an urgency about the committee's recommendations which must not be ignored. While the committee paid a well deserved tribute to those agencies already involved in the provision of special education it recognises that the resources available to these are wholly inadequate. This point was underlined in a recent radio interview by the incoming President of the INTO, whom I compliment on her election to high office, in which she outlined her priorities in relation to special education. The necessary resources must be provided for special education without delay. There is a special need for the provision of adequate psychological services to cope with the needs of this area. I am pleased to note the Minister's commitment to an expanded psychological service. Perhaps the Minister would indicate in her concluding remarks the timescale she has in mind for this most urgent development.

With regard to the education of traveller children, how does the Minister propose to maintain continuity and how are the schools to cope with the special problems of traveller children who tend to move during the school year to locations sometimes far distant from the school in which they commenced the school year? These are practical problems to which I hope the Minister will be able to find practical solutions. Otherwise the White Paper simply pays lip-service to the principle of equality in the case of traveller children. These problems will be even greater when the children are engaged in second level education.

According to the White Paper the Minister proposes to establish new education boards. Someone a little older than me, and probably also the Minister, pointed out to me at the weekend that the regions mentioned by the Minister bear remarkable similarity to the regions proposed in 1940 for the evacuation of children from the Dublin area in the event of a breakdown of Government consequent on bombing or invasion during the war. I know the Minister does not anticipate a breakdown of Government for those reasons but it is interesting that these regions are mentioned at a time of remembrance.

Perhaps it indicates no more than that it is dangerous to put any plan on paper in a Government Department, particularly in the Department of Education. We no longer have the borderland region of Donegal, Cavan, Monaghan and Louth. We now have a region stretching from Malin Head to Carrick-on-Shannon, and it is a brave distance from Malin Head in County Donegal to Carrick-on-Shannon in County Leitrim.

Despite the serious arguments presented in the White Paper, I take the view that the verdict on the Minister's proposals for the establishment of education boards must be marked "not proven". I am particularly persuaded by the argument about the desirability of releasing the Department from its current involvement in the detailed delivery of services to schools. We are a small country. Already a substantial degree of decentralisation is in operation at primary and secondary level. Boards of management of national schools are responsible for the day-to-day running of activities within schools without being over-intrusive into the roles of their principals and of the teachers subject, of course, to the general guidelines laid down by the Department. The Department is not generally involved in the detailed management of schools.

At second level the degree of decentralisation is greater than at primary level. Private secondary schools operate under the overall direction of the Department in respect of the curriculum. The examination system is strongly centralised, and long may it remain so in the interest of impartiality, equity and equality. The vocational school system has a high degree of independence of the Department and operates largely on its own initiative, subject only to keeping within the budgetary limits set down by the Department. Naturally the Department's influence in the area of curriculum and examination systems is much the same as in the secondary school system.

Similarly, the detailed operation of the comprehensive and community schools is largely independent of any interference from Marlborough Street. Where is the need, therefore, for the introduction of an additional layer of bureaucratic control at first and second level by way of the proposed education boards? It seems that the Minister is trying to justify a proposal by assembling a hotch potch of functions and responsibilities for these new boards which are scattered throughout the White Paper. They do not justify separately or in the aggregate the extremely high level of expenditure which these boards will involve.

On the subject of expense the Minister was quite breathtaking. She acknowledged that additional costs would be involved but did not go into detail as to the amount. Is the Minister content to say that any such costs the Minister may have to pay out of Department funds, which are overstretched, will be outweighed by positive outcomes? Can the Minister seriously expect a blanket approach for her proposals on the basis of such an assertion?

I accept the need for rationalisation, particularly in the area of vocational education. The scope for rationalisation in the vocational education committees is evident and, by the outline given of the geographical remit of the proposed educational boards, that is something that would be properly pursued as a separate issue. However, I am not convinced of the need for the new education board structure or the justification for the expenditure of very substantial resources at a time when there is a crying need for investment at all levels of the education system.

I am happy with the Minister's proposals for the governance of individual primary schools by an eight-member board representing a reasonable attempt to resolve the many difficulties that have arisen in this area. I hope the proposed discussions on second level and post primary education will lead to a similar resolution of the difficulties in regard to a difficult and vexed issue.

The White Paper refers to the new leaving certificate structure and what are referred to as three separate orientations. The case for the structures is a sound one, but I would strike one note of caution. The White Paper states that the leaving certificate is accorded a high social status by students, parents and employers. It is essential that there be no diminution of this status as a result of the projected development of the three separate orientations and that the students who follow the two new programmes should not suffer in any way in regard to self-esteem or social status by comparison with those who follow the established leaving certificate programme. This will be a matter of primary importance for the students concerned and their parents, and it is clear that the ultimate status of the two new leaving certificate programmes will in the end depend upon the attitude of the employer.

What specific modest change in the examination system does the NCCA consider would bring "substantial improvements to the teaching and learning process and to the quality of the educational outcomes in the schemes"? I refer in particular to page 60 of the White Paper. I would never have expected that the NCCA or the Minister would be so coy about the prospect of such an improvement. Who will carry the heavy responsibility for external scrutiny or internal assessment so as to ensure no falling off in the overall standard of assessment or of the acceptability to the community and to the employers in particular? Clearly the value of a system of internal assessment will depend primarly on the elimination of any undesirable element in the carrying out of that assessment in either a positive or negative direction. It will be a very heavy responsibility to ensure the internal system is not open to attack on such grounds. It is essential that the system is not open to attack.

I wholeheartedly welcome the recognition given in the White Paper to the role of further education which has up to now been discharged by the vocational education committees, community and comprehensive schools and to the indication that a wide range of second level schools will be encouraged to provide such programmes and activities. The contrast between the contribution in this area of the first category of schools and the secondary schools, of which only a small number is actively engaged in the provision of further education, could not be more marked. I would support any initiative taken by the Minister with a view to rectifying the imbalance. Can she give us any idea of the initiatives she is contemplating to prepare for this?

I wish to refer briefly to the proposals in the White Paper to extend participation by students from the lower socioeconomic groupings in third level education. It is important that all necessary steps are taken in the selection of such students and in the process of their integration in the college community to ensure that they benefit fully from the third level experience.

I note that the Minister has put a new system in place to facilitate students who wish to transfer from a PLC to an regional technical college but she has made one vital mistake. The one regional technical college over which she has complete control, Letterkenny, has not been included. This is a worthwhile and innovative programme and the Minister should ensure that Letterkenny is included to allow young people to benefit from the third level experience. Access to third level education is now an aspiration cherished by more and more members of the community. It is only right that all those with potential should have the opportunity to profit from the third level experience and proceed to degree level.

What is not always reckoned is the likely negative effect of the third level experience on those who fall by the wayside while pursuing college courses. This fate should be avoided at all costs and it behoves the authorities, particularly the third level institutions and the HEA, to ensure that the optimum support and advisory services are made available to all students given the projected annual increase in third level participation rates contemplated in the White Paper.

I am glad to read in the section dealing with quality assurance and accountability that emphasis is being placed on the need for the development of the teaching skills of third level staff. There has long been a belief that one of the key factors in the achievement by third level students of results equal to their potential is their relationship with their lecturers and tutorial staff. Just as much as it is desirable that ineffective teachers should not feature at first or second level it is vital that third level staff have the ability often lacking even in gifted research personnel, to explain their subject to students, to resolve problems of interpretation and communication and have an understanding of the problems encountered by the most gifted students following the trends of their lectures. Lecturers who lack this ability should not hold posts and it should be the task of the responsible authorities to ensure they do not.

The chapter dealing with sport is most intriguing. It states: "Sport covers a wide range of activities, including organised competitive sport, recreational sport and active leisure pursuits within the Sport for All concept”. One almost expected this “aiste” to be followed by “lá ar an bportach” ending with “thángamar abhaile, tuirseach traochta, tar éis an lae”. I have read the chapter several times and I am as wise now as when I started. It is as if someone decided that a chapter on sport should be included and some unfortunate officer in the Department in Marlboro Street was asked to write it but it was a poor iarracht.

It further states: "There is a close relationship between the physical education programme in schools and sports in the community". Whoever wrote this aiste could have gone a little further: there is a close relationship between the games programme which teachers engage in with their students during school hours and, more particularly, after school and participation rates in games and sporting activities throughout the community. People in County Donegal know this well; the close relationship between school games and participation rates in sporting activities throughout the community is one of the reasons Donegal has qualified for the national league final on Sunday week. Tá súil agam go mbeidh bua agaibh feasta. Given that we are trying to encourage people to be active in sport and reduce the health bill this chapter does not befit a White Paper.

While I welcome the White Paper, it is unfortunate that this debate is taking place the day after it was published. Parents and teachers are anxious to read it and to consider how we can develop what is an excellent education system. There is no need to fix something which is not broken but there is a need for change. This will present us with a challenge. Irrespective of which philosophy the Minister pursues in running her Department it will be irrelevant and the White Paper "Charting our Education Future" will gather dust unless she can secure the required funding package for the development of the education system. We need to ensure full participation at all levels. This will cost money. When decisions are made they should be justifiable and we should not put bureaucratic structures in place whereby moneys are spent on chief executives, principal officers, HEOs and typists with the result that pre-schools, national schools, secondary schools and third level institutions are starved of resources.

I wish the Minister well. She has a difficult task and we will do our best to keep her on her toes. We look forward to the implementation of the legislative programme as soon as possible. I hope the Minister will consider some of the ideas we have put forward given that politicians were not offered an opportunity to participate in the discussions which took place in the formulation of the Green Paper or at the convention. While it is important that the education providers make a contribution the legislators should also be entitled to have an input. I hoped we would have had time to read each of the 257 pages at least twice; some of us only had an opportunity to read the White Paper once.

The Deputy did well.

It is a large document and we will have to go through it page by page but the bottom line is that the resources will have to be made available and we do not need white elephants in providing education. I hope the Minister will be able to persuade the Minister for Finance to make the necessary funding available.

I welcome the White Paper Charting our Education Future. I regret that Members on the opposite side of the House have been negative and mean-minded in their remarks——

It was not all negative: I commended the Minister.

I would have expected better from Deputy Coughlan who is a teacher by profession.

I am a social worker.

My apologies, but the Deputy is certainly a member of a vocational education committee. The question of resources is a red herring dragged in by Deputies on the opposite benches who did not take cognisance of the Minister's track record to date. The Deputy will acknowledge that at primary and secondary level there has been a greater input of resources since this Minister came to office than we have seen for many decades.

I recently attended the opening of a primary school in Dublin and was impressed by Archbishop O'Connell's blunt statement that in his experience this Minister has the best track record in providing capitation grants to the primary sector. Statistics show that at primary and second level there has been an increase in capitation grants each year, caretakers and secretaries have been appointed, as have remedial teachers, the pupil-teacher ratio at primary and second level has improved and resources have been made available for school buildings.

When the Minister abolished tuition fees at third level there was a negative and mean-minded response from the Opposition who said that the money should be put elsewhere.

The Deputy is aware that there should be priorities.

The Minister has a fine track record of providing resources at primary, second and third level, yet the Opposition tries to divert attention from this extremely important document.

This White Paper, which is a seminal document, is perhaps the greatest contribution to education in the history of the State. In the past we had no philosophy and no statutory structure for education. It is totally off the mark for people to say that we should not fix something that is not broken. We are talking about a totally different approach to education, about ending an ad hoc system whereby decisions were implemented by ministerial circular without a statutory basis and without going through the proper porcedures of debating the issue. Through this framework document we are providing for the first time in the history of the State a philosophical base and a statutory framework for our educational system. Such an initiative was not taken in the past and proper tribute should be paid to the present Minister.

Throughout its history education has undergone many twists and turns,from the bardic schools and hedge schools up to the present system. It is interesting that this year we are celebrating the bicentenary of Maynooth College, one of our foremost formal education establishments. Before that period our students were educated in hedge schools or in various colleges on the Continent, Louvain. Paris and Salamanca. Maynooth College represented the beginning of our formal education system which continued with Catholic emancipation after 1829. That period saw the proliferation of the system of religious primary and secondary education, much of which exists at present. At third level the Queen's Colleges were established at the end of the 19th century.

The education system had become so convoluted that when the first Dáil sat in 1919 it decided not to establish a Department of Education but a Department of Irish. It did not wish to be involved in the education scenario because that was controlled by other interests. In 1930 for the first time the State intervened, putting education on a statutory basis by the introduction of the Vocational Education Act, 1930. That Act, which has proved eminently successful, showing flair, creativity and initiative, went far beyond what was envisaged at the time. It was responsible for an enormous number of developments in the education arena. I would hate to see the abolition of the body established under that legislation. I am delighted a strong role is still envisaged in the new structures for vocational education committees and much work has to be done in that regard.

The White Paper on Education was first mooted at the annual conference of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in 1989 in Bundoran at which I was a delegate. The motion passed at the time provided that a Green Paper would be drawn up in 1990, a White Paper in 1991 and legislation introduced in 1992. The gestation period has been longer than anticipated, but there was a different Minister in office up to 1992, to whom we will not refer. I compliment the Minister on the proposed changes in education which were teased out and analysed and on which the various interests were consulted. The legislation in this area will be introduced very soon.

I compliment the Minister on the National Education Convention held in Dublin Castle, to which interests from all sectors were invited to present their views. With the debate in the House on the Green Paper politicians had an opportunity to put forward their proposals on this matter.

The key element of the White Paper is the question of philosophy of education. As a State we must define what we understand by the term "education". We must set out its underlying principles, our aims and where we perceive ourselves going. A Government of Renewal states that we are committed to a high quality education system which is democratically managed and publicly accountable, to which each person has equal access and which enables people to return to education at various stages of their lives. The White Paper states that the ultimate objective of its strategy is an education system which will provide every student with fulfilling educational experiences at every stage in a lifetime of learning. It is an excellent approach that a new educational framework envisages that education should extend from the earliest learning age of the child to the latest one of the adult. Education is a continuing lifelong process.

Pre-school education has been greatly neglected in the past and I am delighted the Minister introduced the early start pilot pre-school intervention programme designated for disadvantaged areas and that the number of areas at which it is targeted has been increased during the past two years. I am critical of the statement issued by the Primary Education Review Body in 1989 or 1990, the intent of which is included in the White Paper, that much of what is considered pre-schooling in other countries is already incorporated in the primary school system in Ireland. As a result, the Primary Education Review Body decided that where resources are made available they will be targeted at the primary rather than the pre-school sector. I regret the decision of the review body in 1989 or 1990 which has delayed the putting in place of a proper pre-school programme.

Private pre-school programmes are in place and we are aware of their importance in giving young people a head start in education. However, it is crucial that such programmes are in place in disadvantaged areas which have been neglected in the past. While the primary school system is good it is not a substitute for a pre-school programme. That is recognised by the authorities and by the introduction of the early start programme. The importance of an early intervention pre-school programme was emphasised by the Education Convention held in Dublin Castle. One of my greatest desires is that the Minister would press ahead with that programme, extend it nationwide and that it would become an integral part of our State funding for pre-school, primary and post primary education.

I hope the Minister will be able to accommodate many of the voluntary staff who have worked hard under difficult circumstances to maintain play-groups and pre-schools in disadvantaged areas when such services did not exist on a statutory basis and private funding was not available to support them. They could be incorporated into the new system the Minister is putting in place.

Debate adjourned.