That Dáil Éireann shall take note of the Report of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills entitled ‘Report on Committee’s examination of School Costs, School Facilities and Teaching Principals’, copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 4th July, 2019.
I am very pleased to be here today to speak about the report of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills examining school facilities, including the lack thereof in some cases, and the workload of teaching principals. We engaged with 20 different stakeholder groups and have made 25 recommendations. If even a few of them were implemented, it would bring about a significant improvement in everyday life in schools.
In the course of our considerations, the committee focused on four key areas. This debate took place over the summer of last year when we held our inaugural summer school. The first item we looked at was the school building programme. We examined whether the existing programme delivered sufficient school places to facilitate children attending local schools. I think the previous Topical Issue really illustrated how important that is. We also examined the potential costs resulting from children not obtaining a place in their local school. As we consistently see, this often happens, particularly around Dublin and commuter belt areas. The headline in today's edition of the Irish Independent read "Commuter belt buckles as new homebuyers forced further out". The article dealt with challenges we face with regard to transportation and schools. I certainly see that in Newbridge and south Kildare where we do not have enough school places for children who are starting primary and secondary school. Several recurring themes were raised by the witnesses, including the potential health and safety effects on staff and students due to overcrowding as well as the lack of facilities in some schools. I know the Minister visited St. Paul's secondary school in Monasterevin. Thankfully, that school is at least on the final track but when students in Coláiste Íosagáin in Portarlington come out of a classroom, they can only turn left. They cannot turn right because the corridors are so overcrowded due to school overcrowding. The committee was told that additional resources are needed to address infrastructural deficits regarding the capacity of buildings to integrate new ICT as well as special educational needs demands on school buildings in terms of access and accommodation.
In fact, the committee agreed at its meeting today that, as part of its work programme in early 2020, it will look at the area of special education, special schools and the demands on them and their buildings.
The groups from which the committee heard called for the additional accommodation scheme to be expanded to include extra office space for deputy principals and principals, as well as more general purpose dining areas, etc. That was something the committee was keen to include in its recommendations because we must support teaching and ancillary staff within their schools. The need for additional accommodation comes from varying demands but mainly from increased enrolment and the need for new classrooms for pupils with autism spectrum disorder. Those new classrooms are particularly required at second level because only 25% of the facilities needed have been provided nationwide.
Of particular note was the importance of making provision for facilities for practical subjects such as physical education, PE, halls. The committee was amazed to learn that only about 50% of schools have adequate PE facilities. Even in schools that have such facilities, parents raised the money needed in 72% of those cases. The parents of pupils in Rathangan boys' national school, which is close to me, got together to successfully fundraise for an all-weather pitch. We are leaving many of those sorts of things to parents and school communities and that is putting an awful lot of pressure on them.
We also need science laboratories, home economics kitchens, woodwork and engineering rooms, etc., because it is not possible to teach those subjects in standard classrooms.
The committee acknowledges that the Department of Education and Skills has invested €4.9 billion in school buildings over the past ten years and has earmarked a further €8.4 billion for the next ten years. This money will facilitate a focus on the refurbishment of the existing school stock with particular strands set aside for vital PE halls, laboratories and prefab replacement.
During the economic downturn ten years ago, the Department of Education and Skills introduced a moratorium on recruitment of caretaking, cleaning and secretarial supports, particularly in community and comprehensive schools. Despite the recovery in the economy, this moratorium remains in place and poses significant challenges for school management in maintaining school buildings and sites, which is important. One of the key recommendations in this report is the removal of the moratorium on recruitment of support staff.
The committee was very surprised to hear that there is currently no inventory of school facilities and we are recommending that this be carried out by the Department of Education and Skills at the earliest possible date.
The second topic to which I will refer is access to, and provision of, open and green spaces. The committee had good engagement with its stakeholders on the provision of new spaces and the protection of existing open green spaces for the use of students. It is concerning that the prefabs that are coming into many schools as temporary accommodation are being placed on existing green spaces and we do not want that to continue. With the prevalence of obesity in children on the rise and awareness that being outdoors helps improve mental and physical health, it is necessary for children to have adequate space to exercise and partake in sporting activities. The committee recommends to the Department that it liaise with other Departments and State agencies to ensure that land around schools is protected to provide sufficient green space for students and ensure scope for future expansion as necessary, and that the plans for all new school builds include adequate provision of appropriate green or open spaces.
I turn now to the workload of teaching principals and safeguarding their mental health and well-being. The committee wanted to raise awareness of the pressures faced by the leaders of our schools and to give them a platform to raise these concerns.
The committee learned that more than half of primary school principals teach full time in addition to the full administrative duties of a principal which may negatively impact on the children in their care. A principal is in charge of leadership, has to manage teaching and ancillary staff, deal with issues arising with parents and be responsible to the board of management, on top of doing a day's teaching, in many cases in a classroom situation where two or three classes are taken together. That is really difficult and incredibly challenging.
The committee sat and listened to how this is impacting teaching principals. We heard from principals who have stepped back from their positions and that, in turn, leads to other issues because their time spent as a principal is not recognised and they have to go back to the end of the staff queue in a school.
The committee strongly recommends that teaching principals have the appropriate supports to allocate adequate time to undertake their leadership and management responsibilities. The only staff that are taken into account when calculating leadership and management days are mainstream teachers. Other staff members, such as learning support teachers, resource teachers, special class teachers, special needs assistants, ancillary staff and bus escorts, in addition to nurses and occupational therapists who are often allocated to special schools, are not taken into account for the calculation of these days. That is not good enough. We heard from one principal, Ms Angela Dunne from Tipperary, who is responsible for 24 people in her working environment and is still a teaching principal.
Principals must fulfil their teaching obligations, manage a full workload of administrative duties and fulfil the duties involved in managing staff. The committee recommends that the Department amends its categorisation to ensure that all members of staff are counted for leadership purposes.
On top of this burden, the committee wishes to highlight that as it stands, and as I mentioned already, if teaching principals want to step back from their leadership position, they are being forced to revert to the most junior position on staff. Having an appropriate step-down facility in place would also create career opportunities for others, rather than locking people into a position they may not want, or be able to do, anymore. This will not only impact their lives and stress levels but will also affect the ethos and environment of the school. The committee strongly believes that this practice should be reviewed to account for the dedication and experience that the teacher has given to the school.
The committee believes that every teaching principal should be given one day a week for school administration. The committee also recommends that schools are clustered together in groups of five so that permanent staff can be employed and one day a week is given to teaching principals. In the case of special education schools, we recommend that principals are solely designated as administrative principals.
The fourth topic with which the committee dealt related to school costs. We considered back-to-school costs, voluntary contributions, capitation grants and disadvantaged groups in seeking to examine the phenomenon of ever-increasing school costs. We did this piece just before the September school year started and it is appropriate that we are discussing this now, just before Christmas, another time when parents and families are under increasing financial stress. This part of the engagement put a spotlight on the variety of added costs associated with what purports to be a free education.
The committee examines this topic every year, as have previous committees. We recognise the financial burdens placed on parents and schools and, year after year, the committee, as its predecessors did, urges the Department to make significant changes to tackle this issue. We heard that one third of families will end up in debt to meet the back-to-school costs incurred in August and September. One quarter of families will resort to illegal money lending and that is a difficult place for any family to be. The cost of books remains the most expensive item despite many schools offering book rental schemes but it is important to say that such schemes are very expensive to start.
One of the recommendations we made was that funding for the scheme nationally be increased by €20 million. That would allow 200 schools to start a book rental scheme.
Why do parents go to moneylenders? It is because they believe approval processes in banks or credit unions would be difficult or they have no other option because they have a bad credit history. One of the recommendations we made was that the Department of Education and Skills engage with the Department of Finance to deal with this issue.
Another financial burden that has crept in is the issue of voluntary contributions, which are sometimes not all that voluntary. The committee heard that approximately three quarters of parents are asked to pay a voluntary contribution each year to help school finances. Of the parents who paid it, just over half indicated they felt under pressure to do so. We are not blaming the schools because they have to survive. They have to open the doors and turn on the lights. This finding was made despite reassurances by the Department that the contribution is a voluntary payment and there should be no pressure on parents to pay. The survey results show that is not the reality on the ground. These statistics suggest that the current level of capitation grant, which is 14% less than it was nine years ago, is not sufficient to negate the need for additional financial contributions by parents and guardians. This type of payment places particular pressure on disadvantaged groups such as lone parents and asylum seekers. It can also be a source of great embarrassment for the child and parents who cannot afford to pay. The committee recommends in the strongest terms that the Department carry out an independent assessment of the adequacy of the capitation rates and incrementally increase funding to schools to ensure that all children have access to a high-quality, free and inclusive primary and secondary education.
I sincerely hope the Minister will take on board the recommendations contained in the report and work with the committee to improve our education system. This is a cross-party report which received unanimous support in the committee.