Priority Questions

I remind Members that there are 30 minutes for priority questions. There are six minutes for each question — two minutes initially for the Minister to answer and four minutes for supplementary questions and replies.

Higher Education Grants

Brendan Smith

Ceist:

4 Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Education and Skills the changes he is examining in the assessment as opposed to the administration of student grants; and if he will consider the introduction of an additional category of near adjacent rate. [9931/11]

The Deputy will be aware that the student grant measures announced in budget 2011 by the previous Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government began to come into effect from January this year when a reduction of 4% in the rates of grant was applied to all student grant recipients. Further to this, budget measures that will come into effect from next September for the 2011 to 2012 academic year will change the assessment of the qualifying distance criterion for the non-adjacent rate of grant, from 24 kilometres to 45 kilometres, and mature students will no longer have an automatic entitlement to the non-adjacent rate of grant.

The Deputy will appreciate that given current economic circumstances I regret that I am not in a position to reverse the changes made to the qualifying distance criteria or to introduce another adjacent rate of grant category into the student grant schemes. As a matter of routine, my Department prepares policy proposals on the student grant schemes each year. For the coming academic year, these will include the budgetary measures I have alluded to already and the annual review of the reckonable income limits contained in the schemes. This year, a more fundamental review is also being undertaken in order to consolidate the four existing student grant schemes into a single unified scheme as part of my Department's overall student grants reform programme.

Student grant schemes have a fundamental role to play in ensuring equality of access to higher education and our scarce resources should be targeted towards those most in need of assistance. The introduction of further reforms, including improvements to the way in which assessments are carried out, will be facilitated by consolidation of the administration function in a single grant awarding authority, which is due to take place from 2012.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Will he indicate when the scheme for the next academic year will be published? Generally, it is published in May or June, but the earlier the better, as I know from my own experience as a Deputy. The Minister referred to the budgetary parameters within which he works and the parcel of money that is allocated for the higher education grant scheme. Having spoken to students and USI officials, I know that they are anxious for the Minister to review the new arrangements concerning adjacent and non-adjacent rates. They made the valid point that there should be a graduated scheme, perhaps involving another type of non-adjacent rate and a near-adjacent rate. There should be some graduation in it because it will be a fairly blunt instrument when the new arrangements come into place due to the monetary pressures involved. Those pressures are severe because of the 60% increase in participation in higher education in less than a decade, which is welcome nonetheless. Many of those currently participating in higher education come from homes where incomes are quite low. The Minister should consider ameliorating the proposal as outlined in budget 2011.

I thank the Deputy for his comments and questions. At this point, I am not in a position to indicate when a revised or changed scheme will come into effect for the academic year 2012-13. I will examine the Deputy's proposal but he will understand that any such proposal will have to be cost-neutral within the operation of the scheme. If we can make the scheme better, however, then I am open to suggestions.

The information may not be readily available now but can the Minister let me know as soon as possible when the scheme for 2011-12 will be published? I know from experience that the earlier it comes out the better in order to facilitate students and their parents. The Minister proposes to carry out a fundamental review of the entire student support grant scheme. When does he expect to have that review completed? According to comments attributed to the Minister in a radio interview, he indicated his concern that the scheme seemed to operate a bias in favour of farming families and self-employed persons. That view has created some concern, therefore, I would like him to deal with that issue and allay the concerns of such people in the community.

The Deputy has raised a few supplementary questions and I will try to deal with them quickly. As regards the scheme that will come into effect for September, I will try to have it published as soon as possible. I will communicate directly with the Deputy in that regard.

With regard to the modernisation of the grant system generally, progress has been made in that the administration of the student grant will now be done by one body and it will be streamlined. We hope therefore that the frustration felt by many students due to delays in obtaining grants will be reduced or eliminated. In that case, they will get their money much more quickly than has been the case in the past.

With regard to means-testing, yes, I have made such comments. This criticism goes back a long time. However, I met with representatives of the ICMSA when they had an open-day presentation in Buswells Hotel and discussed the matter with them informally. They assured me that in modern terms, because of changes in agriculture with which the Deputy will be more familiar than myself, the accounts are more up to date, transparent and readily accessible than was perhaps the case in the past. That is all to the good and it will mean that people who are entitled to get grants and other support will do so on the basis not so much of merit but of income. In the past, there were real fears concerning the manipulation by self-employed people — whatever their activity happened to be — of their accounts in a way that a PAYE worker could not do. Hopefully, the new system will avoid that difficulty, which is a legacy from the past.

With regard to the establishment of a new central processing agency, we should put on record our appreciation of the work of local authority and VEC officials over the years in assisting many families to draw down their due entitlements.

Schools Counselling Services

Seán Crowe

Ceist:

5 Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he will outline the provision of in-school counselling for students at post-primary level and the in-school services for students in post-parasuicide or post-attempted suicide situations; and his plans to make recommendations to schools to provide in-school counselling for students. [9928/11]

Social Personal and Health Education, otherwise known as SPHE, is designed to promote students' coping and decision-making skills, and encourage healthy lifestyles. The modules at junior cycle deal specifically with belonging and integrating, coping with stress, emotional health and well-being, and relationships and sexuality education. An awareness of when, how and from whom to seek help, when in difficulty, is promoted.

All post-primary schools provide a guidance and counselling service for their students and they receive ex-quota hours from my Department for this provision. The service includes the provision of individual guidance and counselling for students at times of personal crisis. My Department funds the provision of ongoing professional support through a counselling supervision service, providing advice and sharing practice on issues of concern. This is supplemented by the work of the National Centre for Guidance in Education and by funding provided to the Institute of Guidance Counsellors for professional development. The National Office for Suicide Prevention is also working with the Institute of Guidance Counsellors to support their members' work in this area.

Pastoral care teams in schools provide important assistance in promoting students' well-being and in ensuring that potential difficulties can be identified early. Class year tutors, guidance counsellors, home-school liaison co-ordinators and the services of the National Educational Psychological Service or NEPS, can play an important role in this respect.

NEPS provides consultation for guidance counsellors and other school staff, enabling them to put interventions in place for individuals with clearly identified and serious difficulties. When counselling of a protracted nature is required it is referred to an outside agency. Schools are advised to identify, with the assistance of NEPS, appropriate referral pathways in consultation with the HSE and other mental health services in their local community.

The guidelines issued by NEPS for schools on responding to critical incidents provide advice on managing traumatic events, including advice on prevention and early intervention strategies for students at risk. In the cases referred to by the Deputy, it is imperative that outside clinical services are involved. NEPS psychologists will be available to consult with guidance counsellors if requested.

I thank the Minister for responding to this matter. I tabled this question to find out what is happening in this regard. We all accept that there is a crisis and the House has spent some days recently discussing suicide prevention. One difficulty, however, is that schools may take different approaches to such cases. I am not saying that one approach will fit all, but this growing crisis must be dealt with. In one school that I am aware of, a number of children have died. The second child died on the anniversary of the first child's death. In that school, a child that needs counselling slips a note under the door of the principal. The difficulty, however, is that the child is then taken out of the classroom, so everyone knows why he or she is being taken out. That is the method in that school but there does not seem to be a pattern because other schools may adopt different approaches.

There is a recognition that there is a crisis facing many schools, but how should we approach it? The Minister referred to interventions and I understand that special needs assistants have a role with regard to children who may be at risk of self-harm. The worry is that if we cut back services in schools that have experienced these incidents, the problem will get worse.

It is about how we approach this problem, which is getting worse. There are additional problems in certain sectors, particularly the Traveller community. How will the Department examine the problem and approach it? I do not suggest there is one solution but we need to examine this again and come up with a new approach to this growing problem.

I thank the Deputy for his question and his intervention and I share his concern. There have been a number of incidents in recent times, perhaps compounded by economic difficulties in broader society, which are bringing some of these crises to a head.

If schools in the Deputy's constituency are struggling with these matters, I urge him to communicate directly with them and get them to make sure that their teachers with responsibility for pastoral care avail of the many supports in place. If he has a specific query that he would like me to refer to confidentially, I will be happy to do so.

I am aware of schools that have a problem in this regard. My worry is that I do not know who is taking an overview of what is happening in the schools. Is the Department monitoring this and looking at particular schools where a problem has arisen? Is it examining the response to this problem? Are officials monitoring this growing phenomenon in schools?

I do not have that information to hand but I will send a measured reply to the Deputy.

Special Educational Needs

Mick Wallace

Ceist:

6 Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he will provide the number and location of resource teachers for Travellers posts nationwide for the 2009/2010 and 2010/2011 school years; the number of these positions that will be retained through the alleviation measures in September 2011; for schools with less than 33 Traveller pupils, will any reduction in resource teachers for Travellers be alleviated by an increase in learning support teachers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9978/11]

RTT posts and teaching hours for Traveller pupils will be withdrawn, effective from 31 August 2011. Traveller pupils who are eligible for learning support teaching should receive this tuition through the existing learning support provision in schools. All schools should select students for learning support on the basis of priority of need.

The expected budgetary target reduction in the number of RTT posts and teaching hours for Travellers, based on estimated provision for 2011, was 723 whole-time equivalent, WTE, posts, comprising an estimated 500 WTE posts at primary school level and 223 posts at post-primary school level. It was estimated that 123 posts should be used for adjustment or alleviation purposes for schools, resulting in an overall net saving of 600 posts.

At the end of January 2011, in respect of the 2010-11 school year, the number of RTTs employed amounted to a total of 709.54 WTE posts nationwide, comprising 488 posts at primary school level and 221.54 posts at post-primary level. At the end of January 2010, in respect of the 2009-10 school year, the actual number of RTTs employed amounted to a total of 712 WTE posts nationwide, comprising 486 posts at primary school level and 226 posts at post-primary level.

For schools other than DEIS schools in receipt of enhanced pupil teacher ratios, alleviation measures are being provided to assist schools with high concentrations of Traveller pupils who were previously supported by RTT posts. Proposed alleviation measures must be considered in the context of the limited resources available to my Department and they are being concentrated on schools that have 33 or more pupils supported by RTT posts. A total of 38 learning support alleviation posts have been allocated to such schools to date.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

With regard to schools which have less than 33 Traveller pupils previously supported by RTT posts, within the context of the limited resources available and taking into account Government policy and the employment control framework, my Department will consider whether further limited alleviation measures can be provided for schools for whom it can be demonstrated that they have been disproportionately effected by the alleviation-adjustment measures outlined in comparison to schools of a similar size and circumstances.

The decision to withdraw RTTs was taken by the previous Government in the last budget. The requirement to make expenditure savings and to ensure that staffing numbers remain within the public service employment control framework prevents me from revisiting this decision.

I will arrange for a breakdown of the location of posts, as at January 2011, to be forwarded to the Deputy.

The Minister referred to schools that have 33 or more pupils supported by RTT posts. A school with 200 kids of whom 33 are from the Traveller community is entitled to a learning support teacher. However, RTTs are being done away with for schools with fewer than 33 RTT supported pupils. Are they supposed to fall under the remit of the learning support system?

I was approached by Clonroche national school. It has 110 pupils, of whom 23 are from the Traveller community and another 25 are in receipt of learning support. That is a total of 48 kids, which is almost half the school population. The school had one learning support teacher and 1.5 resource teachers for Travellers to deal with the 48 kids. The number of teachers has reduced to one because it does not meet the threshold of having 33 pupils supported by RTT posts. A school up the road has 33 kids but its enrolment is twice that of Clonroche national school and, therefore, it has more learning support teachers.

One teacher must cope with 48 kids who need special attention, of whom 23 have a Traveller background, in a school with an enrolment of 110. Even the brightest kids in the class will suffer and not only the Traveller children or those on learning support. Just about every kid in the school will suffer because it is unfair and they will not be able to cope. I realise the money is not there for everything but, in special cases, the Minister surely has to examine the position. It is too unfair on the kids in these areas, which are generally underprivileged.

I understand the Deputy's concern. I have received many representations from different Members in the Wexford constituency about this school. I am not sure what can be done. I accept that the overall impact of the reduction of certain supports should be examined in the context of how schools are struggling to provide for existing pupils who need support. I will examine the Clonroche case again and I will write to the Deputy about it because it is too complex within the context of Question Time to respond to it in considerable detail.

Thank you, Minister. I wrote to the 99 national schools in County Wexford and I discovered that many of them are not badly affected. I met representatives of Pavee Point earlier this week and they explained that money was being spent on Travellers under a number of headings that should not have been spent and value for money assessments needed to be carried out in these areas. There is a need in this area and it will not be looked after but, in the past, money was spent in areas where it was not needed. A school might have 30 Traveller kids one year but the following year it might only have had ten, yet it received the same funding both years. The Pavee Point representatives admit this issue could have been addressed better with less money.

Employment Support Services

Brendan Smith

Ceist:

7 Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Education and Skills if the programme for Government’s commitment to create additional training, work experience and education places will be included in the jobs initiative due to be published in May 2011. [9932/11]

The programme for Government contains a commitment that the Government within thefirst 100 days of taking office, will provide a jobs initiative. This initiative will contain apackage of measures to support employment creation and stimulate economic growth, while enhancing the activation supports available for those seeking employment. It will deliver a minimum of an additional 15,000 places in training, work experience and educationalopportunities for those who are out of work as committed to in the programme for Government.

Details of these additional activation places will be contained in the forthcoming jobs initiative launch, which is due next week. The activation places outlined in the initiative will be in addition to 108,500 training places, 168,000 places in the further education sector and 156,000 places in the higher education sector, which the unemployed may access.

The Minister, Deputy Ruarí Quinn, Deputy Seán Crowe and perhaps other Members of the House attended various teachers' conferences last week at which one of the major issues about which we heard was unemployment among graduates. We all know of the need to ensure that where job opportunities arise, people who are not retired and are genuinely seeking employment are given first refusal. The concern about employment opportunities is not just among graduates of teacher training colleges or those who have completed their bachelor of arts degrees but among all graduates. I welcome the Minister of State's reference to the specific provision of 15,000 places in the jobs initiative to be announced next week. Are these 15,000 places additional to the ones announced by the then Tánaiste in budget 2011?

Yes. I nearly referred to the Deputy as Minister as I marked him in a former mandate. In terms of the issues raised vis-à-vis graduates, there will be a clear priority within the upcoming jobs initiative towards adopting a qualitative approach to internships. The intention is to take a more holistic view of the workplace programmes which it could be argued were not necessarily providing for the progression required in allowing students to progress from graduate status into the workplace and move further within that stream. There is a clear priority in terms of internships which are additional to the existing programmes. It should also be noted that there are at least 276,564 training places provided for if one takes the FÁS programme, the Skillnets programme, the labour market activation programme, the PLC programmes and the VTOS programmes. They are well encompassed and the 15,000 places are additional. It is envisaged that there will be a particular emphasis on providing quality internships in order to stem the tide of emigration and ensure graduates will not just be educated to take up jobs in such places as Australia and other countries. A qualitative approach will be taken to the placement of graduates.

I agree with the Minister of State that it is not just a matter of placements; there must also be a qualitative approach. In many instances people who take up internships will bring new thinking and expertise to many public and private sector organisations which might not have had new entrants to the profession or workplace in recent times. They can bring new skills, expertise and thinking to the workplace. Will the Minister of State assure me that every public body, both central government, local government and statutory agency, with the private sector which also has a responsibility, will do its utmost to ensure as many internships as possible will be available as quickly as possible? My experience is that, unfortunately, these things move too slowly.

I can give that assurance. The point the Deputy made parallels my own thinking. It is clear that what is required is a more holistic approach to how we view training. It must be with a view to ensuring progression and an outcome in order that the person in training either stays within the organisation across a broad public or private sector sphere or that he or she moves on but that he or she will have gained a progressive experience. I will bear in mind what the Deputy said. As he will appreciate, at this juncture I cannot say what will be in the jobs initiative document, but there will be a clear emphasis on the points he made.

Will the Minister of State outline when the internship places will be available on foot of the commitment given by his Fine Gael partners in government in the five point plan to provide placements for 23,000 unemployed graduates?

The programme for Government has been negotiated and mandated by the House. The most prescient approach would be to await publication of the jobs initiative.

Special Educational Needs

Seán Crowe

Ceist:

8 Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Minister for Education and Skills his plans to review the allocation of special needs assistants in DEIS schools; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9929/11]

The Deputy will be aware that the special needs assistant, SNA, scheme provides additional supports for schools to enable them to support pupils with significant care needs. SNAs are allocated to schools by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, through its network of local special educational needs organisers, SENOs. The NCSE operates within my Department's criteria in allocating such support. This now includes a requirement for the NCSE to have regard to an overall cap on the number of SNA posts.

Schools may apply to the NCSE for an SNA post to support students with an assessed special educational need who also have a significant medical need or a significant physical or sensory impairment. Students with an assessed special educational need who present with significantly challenging behaviour may also qualify for some SNA support. I have no plans to review the allocation of special needs assistants in DEIS — developing equality of opportunity in schools — schools, as SNAs are allocated to such schools on the same basis as other schools, including special schools, that is, on the assessed individual needs of pupils in the context of the resources available to a school.

The programme for Government clearly states education will be a priority for the Government and that we will endeavour to protect and enhance the educational experience of children, young people and students. To that end, we will endeavour to protect front-line services in education. However, the fiscal position is extremely difficult. The country is effectively in receivership. It is necessary to ensure educational services are delivered within the resources available. I intend to prioritise and support special educational services. However, I cannot revisit the previous Government's decision to place a cap on the number of posts available under the SNA scheme. That number is 10,575 whole-time equivalent, WTE, posts. That is a significant number of posts and, unlike other areas of the public sector, vacancies are being filled up to this number. It also represents continual increases in the number of SNAs in recent years.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

It is considered that with equitable and careful management and distribution of these resources there should be sufficient posts to provide access to SNA support for all children who require such care support to attend school in accordance with departmental criteria.

The NCSE asked schools to submit all applications for SNA support to it by 18 March and intends to inform schools of their annual SNA allocations as soon as possible in advance of the coming school year. My Department and I will be glad to consider any suggestions from school management or parent representative organisations as to how the allocation of SNA resources can best be managed within the context of the overall limit on SNA numbers established. In that regard, I am committed to making whatever improvements are possible to the resource allocation system. We all must understand the legacy of economic mismanagement which the previous Government gave to this country.

The Minister will accept that there are particular demands on DEIS schools in terms of where children come from. I accept what he said, that he has an envelope for education services. However, there are particular demands on SNA support services in DEIS schools. In many cases there is a senior and a junior school operating in tandem. When the EPSEN Act was passing through the House we talked about the provision of seamless support for those with special educational needs. I am concerned that where a junior and a senior school operate within an area the SNA supports will be retained by pupils when they move to the senior school. Would it be possible for the Minister to examine this possibility, bearing in mind the special needs of such children? What is happening in the community is being reflected in the schools and as such, there is a greater demand on teachers in DEIS schools. We should try to retain supports for pupils at first and second level. The Minister should, therefore, examine the possibility of ensuring SNA supports are maintained throughout the education process. I accept there might be difficulties in stand-alone schools, but it would be one way to address the problem. What is evident in the schools reflects what is happening in society. The demands are much greater in DEIS schools which cannot seek funding from parents. They do not have the extra supports into which other schools can tap. I urge the Minister to examine the issue and revert to me.

The Deputy is well aware that a DEIS school, in contrast to a regular primary or post-primary school, receives additional resources for the very reasons outlined, namely, the socio-economic background of the pupils, the lack of resources among parents that could otherwise be made available through a PTA in a middle-class or non-DEIS school.

The difference between what the Deputy proposes and what is available is that the SNAs are tailored to the needs of individual students, irrespective of whether they are in a DEIS school or not. It is the individual need of the student, for whatever reason, as assessed by the SENO and as signed off for by the NCSE, that makes for an assessment of that individual student as requiring an SNA. I understand the sentiment expressed by Deputy Crowe, but what he is effectively saying is that where there are existing SNAs in DEIS schools, they should be kept there, even if the individual with the specific need that brought them there may have moved on to post-primary school. We have capped the number of SNAs at 10,575. We are looking at how that will play out and the points made by the Deputy will be taken into consideration.

We have a trapdoor in the case where an SNA is shared between two schools. If the SNA is not based in the school, the child in need cannot move on, based on the envelope available. That is one way of looking at it. My proposal is radical, but it could work to solve the difficulties faced by schools. We have seen that positive changes are taking place, with smaller classes and so on. However, we are now talking about pulling away the foundation, the structures and the supports for those children.