She may have, but the Minister must have a more proactive role rather than simply depending on others to ensure children receive an education.
It is time to change this situation because our children deserve better. Not only do they deserve better, they have a right to it under Article 42 of the Constitution. The Minister for Education and Science and her Department must play a proactive rather than a reactive role. Forward planning is urgently needed. Based on correct data, in conjunction with local authorities, local communities and parents, it will remove the anxiety faced by so many families. Parents can then be secure in the knowledge that their child can take his or her first momentous step into school life with others of the same age in the neighbourhood, in a well-designed classroom with numbers small enough for the teacher to be able to treat them all as the unique individuals they are. It is unacceptable that Ireland has the second highest class sizes in the EU. Despite the promises in the programme for Government, little has been done to address the issue of class size.
Large demographic and societal changes have taken place. In the past, when population growth was slow, local parishes established and managed primary schools. Now we have large amorphous communities where people do not have time to get to know their neighbours. Many want, as is their right, interdenominational or Irish language schools. To their enormous credit, groups of parents have put in long hours establishing schools themselves. Most parents will go to huge efforts to provide what they believe is best for their children. It is, however, extraordinarily demanding and haphazard. All Members know of the experiences of these parents who have established Educate Together schools and Gaelscoileanna. They face enormous challenges with fund-raising, finding temporary buildings and getting school approval which can drag on for years. That is the Minister's responsibility not the parents'.
No database of pupils exists despite an announcement in 1998 by the then Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Martin, that one would be established. Without such a database, the basic facts and figures are not available to properly plan for education provision. It is not known how many children are in school, will be in school next year or in five or ten years' time. I recently tabled a parliamentary question asking the number of children in classes of over 20, 30 and 40 pupils this year. The Department could not give me an answer because it still does not have that information at this late stage in the school year. Last year when we received that information, it was discovered that over 100,000 children are in classes of 30 or more pupils. How can one plan for the educational needs of children when the basic number of children in the system is not known? It is not rocket science as it is known how many children are born in the State.
The body with statutory duty to ensure children go to school, the National Education Welfare Board, has not been given the resources to compile this data. It also has been denied the resources to employ a full cohort of welfare officers to look after educational needs. It has been refused permission to hire extra staff for the past 18 months. For example, every year 84,000 children miss more than 20 days schooling while 30,000 miss 40 days. The board, which has the statutory duty to ensure school attendance, has not been given the resources needed to do its job.
An Agreed Programme for Government promised to reduce class size to 20 pupils for every teacher for under nines. However, the Minister told us in response to recent oral parliamentary questions that there is no way the system can deliver anything close to that. Why was it promised in the programme for Government? Was the number just plucked from the air? Either there was never any intention of fulfilling the promise or there was no plan or strategy.
The issue of class size is particularly important for children with learning difficulties. How can the needs of such a child be addressed by a teacher in a class of 30 or more pupils? There is a better way to provide for the education of our children. If we plan and take responsibility, well-designed schools and manageable classes close to where people live can be provided.
The Minister is quoted in today's newspapers as stating, in respect of the problems within Deputy Burton's constituency: "I am taking the exceptional measure of recognising a new school". Why is it exceptional to recognise a new school from its first day? Why are new schools not recognised wherever required by the population? For example, four Gaelscoileanna are housed in temporary premises in my constituency. Two have been in temporary and totally unsuitable accommodation for more than 20 years and 16 years respectively. One of the schools in question is partially located in the band room to which I referred and partially in a building constructed in the middle of the 18th century, in 1769. This building was considered to be inappropriate and unsafe as a school building in the 1960s when the Christian Brothers attempted to use it to establish a school. Nevertheless, it is still occupied by a Gaelscoil.
Why does such a situation exist? Why is it not possible to address the problem in a more holistic, proper and comprehensive fashion? Although the new school accommodation body has been established, it will operate with its hands tied behind its back while the present situation obtains.
Moreover, the recommendations of the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution regarding the provision of land for buildings such as schools have not been implemented even though the committee, of which I am a member, stated there was no necessity to change the Constitution to address some of these issues. Although the Taoiseach stated he would do something about this matter, absolutely nothing has been done. The Minister's Department is obliged to pay enormous sums of money to developers to acquire basic requirements, namely, schools, in growing communities. Houses are being built and money is being made from them. However, basic facilities such as schools are not put in place in time.
Why are parents in an area not consulted about the type of school they want? The recent census could easily have asked that question and garnered that information. Consequently, such information would have been available for any local area in which a need existed. One would have known the wishes of the parents, whether it was for a Catholic school, a Church of Ireland school, a Gaelscoil or an Educate Together school. Instead, parents must establish the type of school they want. Eventually, as I have described, such schools are given recognition and subsequently receive a building. However, by then the first cohort of students have already passed through the school.
Why does the Department wait until a patron comes forward before providing a new school? Given the present situation, the Department must display some new and more proactive thinking in respect of such issues. For example, the VECs recently suggested they might become patrons of primary schools as well as post-primary schools. The Minister is the patron of a small number of schools, namely, the model schools. Ireland is unique in Europe in that the Minister for Education and Science and the Department of Education and Science wait to provide a school until someone in the local community can put the resources and numbers together to so do.
Forward planning is required. A significant problem exists, particularly in the commuter belt surrounding Dublin and our other cities. There is a high level of anger and frustration among parents, teachers and the entire school community in such areas. Such schools face a dilemma in that they can increase class sizes and place children in classes of more than 30 pupils. This has happened in many cases. Alternatively, they can seek a new school or can turn children away. Currently, however, they must either opt for large classes or turn children away, because new schools are not provided when needed.
There are many new ways to approach these issues, some of which I have outlined this evening. My colleagues will also raise issues from their own constituencies, as well as highlighting some of the existing solutions. This is not rocket science and has been done in other countries. While it can be achieved with proper planning, this will not be done for as long as the Government, as it has done in respect of many other matters, stands aside to consider the situation, rather than attempting to solve it. There must be a life after prefabs. A system must be put in place whereby schools are provided for children when required. This current situation cannot continue and will worsen without more proactive planning from the Department.
The amendment tabled by the Minister constitutes little more than a congratulation of the Government. This is not good enough, given the problems that exist in our communities. In the interests of our children and the children who will come to the fore in future, Members must see a proper response. Hence, I hope the Minister will take note of the points made in the debate and I look forward to hearing the contributions from other Members.