Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 25 Feb 2014

Vol. 832 No. 1

Priority Questions

School Enrolments Data

Charlie McConalogue


99. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Education and Skills the number of primary schools from the September 2013 returns on pupil numbers that fall into the following categories: schools with 85 pupils, 54 or 55 pupils, and 17 to 19 pupils; the number of schools in the September 2013 pupil returns that are in each of the categories 81 to 84 pupils, 49 to 53 pupils, and 12 to 16 pupils, and therefore already subject to increases in pupil-teacher thresholds introduced by him; when he will publish the full details of the September 2013 pupil returns; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9361/14]

I ask the Minister for Education and Skills the number of primary schools according to the September 2013 returns falling into the following categories: schools with 85 pupils, 54 or 55 pupils, and 17 to 19 pupils; and the number of schools in each of the categories 81 to 84 pupils, 49 to 53 pupils and 12 to 16 pupils. Those categories would have been subject in previous years to the increases in pupil thresholds introduced for smaller schools.

I thank the Deputy for his question.

The number of pupils enrolled in individual schools is provided in the national school annual census. Results from the census for the current school year, 2013-14, are being finalised at present. Publication of all data at first level and a final list of schools and their enrolments will be on the Department's website by the end of the school year. The information sought by the Deputy will be provided to him in the coming days.

It should be noted that a total of 122 schools were due to lose a classroom teacher, 73 in 2012-13, which is the first year of the reduction and 49 in the 2013-14 school year, as a result of the small schools 2012 budget measure. The appeals process, which was part and parcel of that budget measure, reduced these losses to 43 in 2012-13 - the first year - and 32 in the 2013-14 school year. The list of these schools will be given to the Deputy.

The allocation process for the 2014-15 school year is currently under way. Early indications are that 34 primary schools are due to lose a classroom teacher for the 2014-15 school year as a consequence of the implementation of the final phase of the budget 2012 measure. I emphasise that this figure is preliminary at this stage and would be expected to reduce following the appeals process. The final position with regard to the figure will be known in the autumn.

I asked the Minister for data on schools under different categories, which would indicate those that are due to lose a teacher or not gain a teacher on the basis of pupil enrolments. It is unacceptable that we are unable to get specific details from the Minister on exactly how many children are in our national schools today. That information was provided to his Department as long ago as 30 September 2013, almost five months ago. I have asked the Minister on the floor of the Chamber today for specific details in regard to the different categories of schools, but the only information he has given is an indicative number of 34 for schools that are due to lose a teacher. He has given no indication of how many will not gain a teacher. What does the word "preliminary" mean in this context? After all, the Minister has had the information since 30 September last. Either the students are in the schools and the figures have been returned to him or they have not been. We know they have been and I do not see why he cannot provide that information to me today. I am asking for an explanation in that regard.

I apologise to the Deputy. The system, which has been in place for a long time, used to take a whole year to return the data he is requesting, which means we would not have the final figures until next September. However, I am told by my Department's statistical section that the latest information will be published at the end of June, which is an improvement on the end of the year.

This is the 21st century.

Yes, but we are talking about a system that is very old. I am making special efforts to facilitate the Deputy. I hoped to have the information for him today but that was not possible in the time available to me. As soon as I can obtain it, I will convey the information to him directly and it will be available to any Member who wants it.

How is the Minister able to provide an indicative figure of 34 for schools likely to lose a teacher? How can that particular number be extracted without extracting the other figures? It simply beggars belief. What is the Department doing if it cannot identify the number of students in the system and the number of teachers who will be employed next year? Schools have already lodged appeals in respect of the posts they are expected to lose, yet the Minister cannot tell me today how many and which schools will be in that category.

I put it to the Minister that the Department is withholding this information because it does not want it to become clear which schools will lose a teacher and which will not gain a teacher as a consequence of the cuts that have been introduced. The Minister has targeted those cuts at the half of all primary schools which have five teachers or fewer. His failure to provide the information I have requested is unacceptable. The most recent available data show that as of September 2012, 124 schools are in the categories I indicated and are therefore in line to lose a teacher. We cannot assess how that figure compares with the figure for last year without access to the data I have requested. After five months, I can only conclude that this is a deliberate strategy by the Department. I cannot see how the information is so complicated that it cannot be made available to the public and on the floor of the Dáil.

I assure the Deputy that having been a Member of this House for many more years than I was ever a Minister in any Department, I recognise the untrammelled right of Deputies from either side of the House to obtain information that is available. Regrettably, the information the Deputy is seeking is not readily available today, but I will get it for him or any other Deputy who requests such information. In this instance, the data will come with a health warning because they are provisional. Some of the schools in question may very well have pupils starting next September of whom they are not as yet aware, which would have an impact on the final figure. I will obtain the information for the Deputy, in so far as I can and as quickly as possible.

Student Grant Scheme Eligibility

Jonathan O'Brien


100. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien asked the Minister for Education and Skills if his attention has been drawn to the anomalies within the Student Universal Support Ireland grant application system that are causing extreme hardship for many students. [9431/14]

My question relates to Student Universal Support Ireland and the anomalies and hardship the criterion of estrangement is creating for students.

I understand the Deputy is referring to how students are categorised for student grant purposes. For such purposes, students are categorised according to their circumstances - as students dependent on their parents or legal guardians, or as independent mature students. A student may be assessed as an independent mature student if he or she has attained the age of 23 on 1 January of the year of first entry to an approved course, or of re-entry following a break in studies of at least three years, and is not ordinarily resident with his or her parents from the previous October. Otherwise, he or she continues to be assessed on the basis of parental income. Only in exceptional cases, where compelling evidence of estrangement from parents or guardians is provided, can candidates who are under the age of 23 be assessed without reference to the incomes or addresses of their parents or guardians. While satisfying the criteria outlined may cause some difficulties for certain students, I have no plans to change these eligibility arrangements.

I want to focus on people under the age of 23 who may be estranged from their parents. I will give two examples of the difficulties that are being caused. I know of a student who has provided SUSI with letters from her local general practitioner, from the counselling services within her college and from other Government Departments stating that she is estranged from her parents. I am trying to understand why SUSI has responded to this case as it has. The only statutory instrument I can find that relates to this issue is SI No. 159 of last year, Article 21(3)(b) of which provides that students may be assessed on their own means "where it is established to the satisfaction of the relevant awarding authority" that the student "is irreconcilably estranged from both of his or her parents". The statutory instrument does not set out how that can be proven. It seems from the responses to the parliamentary questions I have tabled on this matter that the only evidence SUSI will accept must come from a social worker or from someone employed by the HSE. That creates problems for a number of students who might not have any business with a social worker or any interaction with HSE officials. That is where the problem lies.

I understand the Deputy is talking about people under the age of 23 who are still deemed to be dependent on their guardian or parental home. I presume that in the cases of manifest estrangement which have been brought to the Deputy's attention by his constituents or by others, the evidence that was produced was not deemed to be satisfactory to SUSI. Is that correct?

If the Deputy gives me the details of the particular case, I will have a look at it. If the Deputy is suggesting that we should revisit the definition of estrangement in the case of a person under the age of 23, with reference to the level of proof and evidence that should be supplied to SUSI, I will have a look at that as well.

I appreciate that. I want to record that the SUSI system has been much improved this year. Great advances have been made. The number of cases coming into my office this year is quite small. I had to deal with hundreds of cases last year. We are talking about a small number of cases of parental estrangement. I will mention the example of a woman under the age of 23 who is married and is living with her spouse. She is being assessed on the basis of her parents' income because she was living with them on 1 October last, even though she is now living separately from them with her spouse. They have their own income stream. These little issues are creating problems. Maybe we need to consider widening the burden of proof. The current approach, whereby the agreement of a HSE official or a social worker is needed, is too narrow and is creating extreme financial hardship for a small number of students.

I thank the Deputy for the point he has made. I look forward to getting the precise information on that particular case. We will look at the general principle he has raised.

Special Educational Needs Service Provision

Finian McGrath


101. Deputy Finian McGrath asked the Minister for Education and Skills the position regarding providing resource hours for children with Down's syndrome in mainstream schools. [9352/14]

I ask the Minister to outline the position regarding providing resource hours for children with Down's syndrome in mainstream schools. Every year between 80 and 120 babies with Down's syndrome are born in the State. At the moment approximately 200 children with Down's syndrome in national schools have no resource hours. Can we put this right? I introduced legislation recently and my objective is to ensure that all children with Down's syndrome are given adequate resource hours.

The matters raised by the Deputy are currently the subject of High Court proceedings against the Department. I am therefore somewhat constrained in what I can say in response to this question.

The NCSE report on supporting children with special educational needs recommended that under a proposed new allocation model, all children, including those with Down's syndrome, should be allocated additional resources in line with their level of need, rather than by disability category.

The NCSE also recommended that, in the short term, pupils with Down's syndrome in the mild general learning disability category should continue to be supported by schools' learning support allocation in the same way as other pupils with a mild GLD. The NCSE working group charged with developing proposals for the new allocation model will bring its report to me before the end of the spring and any changes to the current allocation model will be considered in the light of the recommendations of that group.

The Government did not oppose the Deputy's Private Members' Down Syndrome (Equality of Access) Bill 2013 on Second Stage. This Bill has now been referred to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection for further consideration.

I welcome the Minister's response. I also thank him and the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, who was present on the day, for not opposing my Down Syndrome (Equality of Access) Bill, which is relevant to this debate. I take the Minister's point about the legal case.

My objective is that all children with Down's syndrome and low-incidence disability are given the proper resource teaching hours. Children with Down's syndrome should be guaranteed to receive the maximum level of resource hours. Children with a physical disability get resource teaching time of at least two hours 33 minutes and up to four hours 15 minutes for children with autism. All young children with Down's syndrome going into national school should get the maximum resource hours because they can do a lot of work with them and achieve many changes which are very positive for their futures.

I have an additional note that might be of assistance to the Deputy. The NCSE was asked to provide policy advice on the issue of whether Down's syndrome should be reclassified as a low-incidence disability in all instances regardless of assessed cognitive ability. As part of the NCSE's comprehensive policy advice on how the education system can best support children with special educational needs, it recommended that under the new allocation model proposed by the NCSE, children should be allocated additional resources in line with their level of need, rather than by disability category. This is a policy shift.

The NCSE recommended that in the short-term, pupils with Down's syndrome, who are also in the mild general learning disability category, should continue to be supported by schools' learning support allocation in the same way as other pupils with a mild GLD. The NCSE established a working group to develop a proposal for consideration of a new tailored allocation model, which is set out as one of the principal recommendations of the report. I understand I will have that report in about six to eight weeks.

There is an ongoing debate about mild learning disability. However, many families with children with Down's syndrome are in that category. They feel they are being penalised because some of these children are very good academically and are moving on. We can move them up to another level. The Minister will have seen the results in the case of families who put in the extra resources themselves and got their children up to junior certificate and leaving certificate level. Some are doing courses at third level, including a group of them in Trinity College, with which the parents are delighted. That is what educational inclusion is all about.

We need to get the maximum educational value for these students to enable them to develop to their maximum potential. That is all I am seeking. It is as simple as that.

I heard what the Deputy said and I can readily identity with the satisfaction parents and young students have of maximising their potential in the way the Deputy has described. We should have a debate on this when we get the NCSE's report because it covers more than just the Down's syndrome category.

State Examinations Reviews

Charlie McConalogue


102. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Education and Skills the number of times and dates on which he has personally engaged in meetings with the teaching partners to discuss junior certificate reform proposals since becoming Minister; the status of progress on implementing the junior certificate reform programme; if he will commit to independent assessment of the new junior cycle student award as recommended by the National Council on Curriculum and Assessment working group; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9362/14]

Before I speak on this question I want to register my disbelief at the fact that we were not able to get very specific numbers and answers to what I would regard as straightforward questions in response to my first oral question. On this question, I ask the Minister the number of times and dates on which he has personally engaged in meetings with the teaching partners to discuss junior certificate reform proposals since becoming Minister, the status of progress on implementing the junior certificate reform programme, if he will commit to independent assessment of the new junior certificate student awards as recommended by the NCCA working group, and if he will make a statement on the matter.

The Department, in consultation with me, established an education partners consultative group to provide all the education stakeholders with a formal medium for assisting in the planning of the phased implementation of the new junior cycle. This group first met on Thursday, 27 September 2012. Subsequent meetings were held on the day of the framework launch on 4 October 2012 and on 28 November of that year, on 22 January 2013, on 26 February 2013, on 26 March 2013 and on 26 June 2013. In addition, bilateral meetings have been held between union representatives and senior departmental officials since the autumn of 2013.

The first meeting of the national working group on junior cycle reform took place on Friday, 17 January 2014. Three subgroups have been established to address continuing professional development, assessment and school resources. There was a meeting of the subgroup on resources on 24 January 2014, and further meetings of the subgroups on assessment and on CPD were held on 30 January 2014. Findings from the subgroups were reported back to the national working group on 7 February. Last Friday the CPD subgroup met for a second time. The other two subgroups will meet on Monday, 3 March, with the working group meeting on 7 March. During the entire period in question, there were also regular meetings of stakeholders through the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment structures, including the junior cycle board and the council.

I personally attended the following seven meetings with TUI representatives: a deputation from the TUI on 8 December 2011; a deputation from the TUI on 2 April 2012; the TUI annual conference on 11 April 2012; Gerry Craughwell, president of the TUI, on 3 December 2012; John McGabhann, general secretary of the TUI, and Gerry Craughwell, president, on 31 January 2013; John McGabhann, general secretary, Gerry Craughwell, president, Gerry Quinn, vice president, and Annette Dolan, deputy general secretary, on 21 March 2013; and at the TUI annual congress on 3 April 2013 in the Clayton Hotel in Galway.

In addition, I personally attended the following five meetings with ASTI representatives: a deputation from the ASTI on 2 April 2012; the ASTI annual conference on 10 April; Gerry Breslin, president of the ASTI, on 12 December 2012; Pat King, general secretary, Gerry Breslin, president, Diarmuid de Paor, deputy general secretary, and Sally Maguire, vice president, on 21 March; and the ASTI conference on 2 April 2013. I also met the TUI and the ASTI representatives at the meeting that was held on the morning of the junior cycle framework launch.

I have been fully briefed on the interactions between officials and other education stakeholders in relation to planning for the introduction of the framework for the junior cycle. The pace of change of the proposed introduction of the new cycle has been slowed. Next September, junior cycle English will be implemented, followed by science in 2015 and Irish and business studies in 2016.

I went beyond the original assessment proposals of the NCCA. Unless assessment changes, nothing else will. To address concerns highlighted by the partners, I have agreed to look at external supports for moderation of school-based assessment. I have asked that a report be provided to me by mid-May on the findings of the working group.

My question specifically asked the number of occasions on which the Minister has engaged with the teaching partners specifically on the issue of junior cycle reform. Junior cycle reform is something which, by and large, my party very much welcomes and had been involved with in the preparation for and the establishment of the working group. However, it is also something to which the Minister made changes after he came to office. At the ASTI teacher conference last year, he described it as a personal political project. That is why I specifically asked him for the occasions on which he met with those concerned to specifically discuss this personal political project of junior cycle reform.

As the Minister knows, we are facing the prospect next month of the teachers holding lunchtime protests at school gates because of the way he has handled this. I believe the Minister has dealt with this in a very offhand manner and he has not engaged with the teachers in the way he needed to for something as important as junior cycle reform. The NCCA working group noted that:

In countries such as Australia, Canada and Scotland, assessment for qualification includes an externally moderated school-based element. Such moderation provides assurance to all that where school-based assessment is used, there is consistency of standard across schools.

The Minister changed that. I would ask on what advice he changed it and whether, in the process of doing so he consulted or engaged with those who are going to have to deliver it.

I thank the Deputy for his supplementary question. The reply I have given clearly indicates to the House that I have probably met the two teacher unions in the second level sector, which are just two of the three unions involved in the education system and two of a large number of other education stakeholders, on numerous occasions. On every occasion, the future of the junior cycle was a point of discussion.

The only thing I have changed is the method of assessment, based on the recommendations internally within my own Department. I did not wake up one morning and say we were going to do this on our own. It was done for a variety of reasons, which I am happy to discuss, although time does not permit me to do it here. However, I can assure the Deputy that the introduction of English next September for first year students will culminate in a new exam that will be worth 60% of the total marks they get for English in June of 2017, after the next general election, when the Deputy may very well be answering this question himself. It will be an exam in English that has been set by the State Examinations Commission and it will be assessed and moderated by the State Examinations Commission.

If we went any slower, there would be no tangible movement. We are moving as slowly as we reasonably can to address the legitimate and understandable fears of change which some, but not all, of the teachers have.

It is not necessarily about moving slowly, given we would like to see reform progress. It is about moving together. My key complaint and problem with the way the Minister has handled this is that the movement has not been together. Progress and reform is to be done in partnership, not by directive.

On the two occasions when the timeframe was set for junior cycle reform to roll out, it was set by the Minister and announced in such a way that the media heard it before the education partners did. Then, before the working groups were set up last autumn, a new timeframe was put in place. How was that done? Was it done after consultation with the partners on this important education reform, one the Minister described as a personal political project? No. Once again, when it had become clear that the way and the pace at which it was to be rolled out were becoming a problem, instead of engaging and then reassessing how it would be rolled out, the Minister once again unilaterally set out a new timeframe. He then set up subgroups and working groups, which he was not part of, and left his Department to it. That is why we are now facing into a situation where the teachers are commencing industrial action and protest action at lunchtimes next month.

The question specifically refers to the independent assessment and verification of exams. Will the Minister open his door to engaging with others who are involved in this process and to address the issues they feel are important, such as independent assessment and resources?

All of the education partners in the junior cycle, many people outside it and many Deputies in this House have welcomed the proposed changes, including the system of moderation.

The only two who have not welcomed it and are opposed to it as far as we can see are two teachers' unions. Deputy McConalogue keeps referring to the need for consultation. I believe in consultation but at the end of the day, politicians make decisions. Sadly, for the past 25 years, there has been no reform of the junior cycle because some people regard and spell consultation as "negotiation". It is not the same. There will be plenty of consultation but at the end of the day, politicians on this side of the House make decisions and are accountable for them. I am happy to be accountable for the decisions I have made following the professional advice I have received.

Schools Amalgamation

Jonathan O'Brien


103. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien asked the Minister for Education and Skills if his attention has been drawn to the fact that there are proposals by a number of patron bodies to amalgamate primary schools and the distress that this is causing to parents and pupils as a result; and his plans to address this situation. [9432/14]

I am happy to wait for the Minister's response.

I am aware that some patrons have initiated consultation processes relating to amalgamation proposals. I wish to advise the Deputy that the decision-making authority for any school amalgamation belongs to the school's patron and this is subject to the approval of the Minister for Education and Skills. The initiative for any amalgamation may come from a variety of sources such as parents, staff, board of management and patrons. Any such proposal to amalgamate schools must first involve consultation with all of the relevant stakeholders. Following the consultation process, a decision taken at local level will follow. In that regard, any proposed changes must be well planned and managed in a manner that accommodates the interests of students, parents, teachers and local communities, and contributes to an inclusive education system. The patron and relevant stakeholders are also advised by the Department to consider the implications that any amalgamation proposal may have on school funding, school staffing and school transport so that an informed decision can be made.

Perhaps that is the way it should happen but, unfortunately, that is not what is currently happening on the ground. I will give the Minister two examples. The first is in Dublin 10 where there is a proposal by a patron body to amalgamate a number of schools and close one national school. The school it is proposing to close has specially built autism units while the school with which it is proposed to amalgamate it has none. Closing a school with specially built units dealing with autism and amalgamating it with a school that does not have those units makes no sense to me, and I am sure it makes very little sense to anyone else.

The Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, will be aware of the case of North Monastery Secondary School in Cork. This is a school with an educational tradition of 203 years that is facing closure. I will come back with a supplementary and inform the Minister of the shoddy way the Edmund Rice Schools Trust has dealt with not just the students, but the parents, staff and principal of that school and the distress and hardship this has caused.

I am aware of the two locations where proposed amalgamations have been initiated by the management bodies and the patron. As the Deputy rightly said, the day-to-day responsibility for the management of former Christian Brothers schools lies with the Edmund Rice Schools Trust. The patron for Roman Catholic schools is the bishop of the diocese in which the school is located. The prime mover is essentially the Catholic authorities and the trust operating in the manner they do now.

Deputy Conaghan has informed me of the situation in Ballyfermot to which Deputy O'Brien referred. The Minister of State, Deputy Sean Sherlock, and the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, have brought my attention to the case in Deputy O'Brien's constituency. These are matters that the Department will facilitate and respond to but I must tell the Deputy that there have been no formal communications from both schools. We have been made aware of these matters not in writing but informally. It is a matter for the relevant authorities, including the parents and school community, to arrive at a satisfactory outcome. I understand - I qualify the word - that in both cases, it is due to falling numbers overall within the locations in which the schools are located and that some attempt at amalgamation and rationalisation was explored.

This is how the matter stands, but I would love to see a proper amalgamation. Consultation is ongoing. In so far as the Department can be of help in those discussions, our services are available and have been in the past.

I thank the Minister. He is aware of both cases. The Edmund Rice Schools Trust, ERST, called in the staff and patrons of the four schools, including the bishop, and told them that the proposal was to close the North Monastery primary school and amalgamate it with St. Vincent's Convent national school, which is a fine school in its own right. The ERST then stated that it would hold a consultation period, but that is happening after the decision was placed on the table. The bishop must sign off on that decision. Perhaps he will go against what has been proposed by the ERST, but I do not believe that will be the case. The bishop will come under considerable pressure to agree to the ERST's decision.

Ultimately, the decision will land on the Minister's desk for approval. That is when it will become a political issue. No one in the North Monastery primary school wants this to be a political issue. Rather, people want a decision based on the facts. The school has facilities like those in the Ballyfermot school and are greater than those of the schools with which it is proposed to be amalgamated. Despite this, there is still a proposal to close the school.

I thank the Deputy, but I must call the Minister.

The only reasons being given for this are financial.

I am sorry, but we must move on.

I trust that, when this matter lands on the Minister's desk, he will examine it properly.

I will wait for any official communication from both school communities.