Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

State Examinations

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

Ceist:

1. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Education and Skills the exact statistical model used for the national school standardisation process for leaving certificate results in 2020; and the way in which gender and socioeconomic status will be taken into account when assigning calculated grades. [19310/20]

I welcome the Minister to the first of these sessions. I hope we have many useful exchanges during the course of this Dáil. A briefing was organised yesterday, so to some extent events may have overtaken my question, but not all my concerns were addressed. There is still significant concern that the calculations model will be affected by a school having had low results in the past or by its disadvantaged background. Even gender appears to be a factor. We do not know what the model is. It has not been published. I have asked the Minister to publish it. She has not done so. I have asked the steering group to publish it. I believe it should be published because students deserve to know how grades are being calculated.

The purpose of the calculated grades system is to arrive at the grade each student would have achieved if the leaving certificate examinations had taken place as normal. Students' expected performance in a subject and level is combined with information about how students in a school have fared in the subject in recent years in line with national performance standards over time and with their performance in the junior certificate.

Using a range of different but complementary sources of data will provide the most accurate and fair set of results possible. No single pattern of expected results will determine the calculated grades on its own. The model will combine the range of patterns to generate the grades in a way which is as reasonable, fair and accurate to students as possible. The design of the calculated grades model was informed by advice from a technical working group comprising experts drawn from the State Examinations Commission, the inspectorate of my Department, the Educational Research Centre and international external experts.

While these data sets do include certain demographic information, this demographic information is not being used as part of the process of generating the calculated grades through the standardisation process. However, to make sure that the standardisation process is doing what it is supposed to do, a separate and additional process of validation is being carried out. Validation serves to ensure that the statistical standardisation process presents results that are fair, equitable and in line with previous outcomes to the greatest extent possible. It also serves to check whether the model is resulting in any particular group being advantaged or disadvantaged relative to previous years.

The use of demographic characteristics, including gender and the socioeconomic status of the school, was inherent in the technical working group's design of the calculated grades model. Not to run these checks would run the risk of not being able to tell whether the standardisation process is working to ensure that the leaving certificate results of 2020 are properly comparable with leaving certificate results in any other year.

My Department has published a short guide to data collection, national standardisation and quality assurance which provides further details about the workings of the calculated grades model. This is available online.

I did not hear anything from the Minister there that I did not already know. I have had concerns about calculated grades in the past. I recognise the difficult situation and I had numerous conversations with the Minister's predecessor on what should happen next. I have particular concerns around school profiling. My concern is that young adults applying for their place in university will not get it and students who might not fail the leaving certificate otherwise will do so. We have been assured that these statistics will not be used, that they are only there to kick the tyres of the system, as it were, and check that it is working. However, the first document the Department produced stated that grades will be adjusted taking things like demographics and gender into account. All subsequent documents repeated this. It is quite reasonable that people are concerned, especially when the model has not been published. I have requested its publication so it can be subject to public scrutiny and we can all understand how the different inputs will affect an individual leaving certificate student or class. They deserve to know. There must be transparency here.

I thank the Deputy. I must reiterate that all possible checks and balances have been put in place to ensure that the calculated grades model is a fair and equitable system. The 2020 leaving certificate will have the same high quality and integrity as the 2019 leaving certificate and indeed that of 2021 and other future years. While these data sets include certain demographic information, it is not being used as part of the process of generating the calculated grades through the standardisation process. However, to make sure that the standardisation process is doing what it is supposed to do, a completely separate process, referred to as validation, is being carried out.

There is a certain contradiction in that. If the model fails the validation and does not produce the result we expect from a particular demographic or gender, there will have to be adjustments. Grades will either have to go down or go up. That has real implications for students. It really is not good enough.

The Minister has not answered my primary question. There is a model. It deserves to be subject to public scrutiny. Why will the Minister not publish the statistical model? It is complex and technical, but there are many people in the public sphere who could take a view on it and inform the public discourse on whether it is fair. We can all think of examples of exceptional students within classes with weak results, or exceptional classes that might have bucked the trend. They were depending on their ability to perform in exams. That is gone now. How can they have any confidence that this model can guarantee fairness? I recently came across a class where there had never been a grade higher than a C in agricultural science. There were five A1 grades in the class's leaving certificate results. There is no junior certificate in agricultural science. How could junior certificate results have told us that class would perform so well? We must have confidence. Will the Minister publish the model so we can all scrutinise it?

To clarify, the demographic information is not being used to generate the calculated grades through the standardisation process. My Department has published a short guide to data collection, national standardisation and quality assurance which provides further details about the workings of the calculated grades model. This is available and has been published online.

That is not the same thing, as the Minister well knows.

School Accommodation

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

Ceist:

2. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Education and Skills her views on whether expanded classrooms or additional prefabs will be required to be erected to facilitate appropriate distancing of pupils; if there will be initiatives to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio, particularly in circumstances in which it relates to schools over 30; and the funding her Department will provide to facilitate same. [19311/20]

On Tuesday evening a Private Members' motion highlighted the fact that we have found it so hard to reopen schools because we have overcrowded classrooms and buildings that are not fit for purpose. The point was not really addressed by either Minister during the debate. What is the Department doing about this, beyond the minor works and adjustment grant? Has it carried out an audit of schools with a disproportionate lack of space for which additional classrooms will need to be built or hired?

As the Deputy is aware, yesterday I announced the roadmap for the full return to school, along with more than €370 million in funding to support primary and post-primary schools as they prepare for reopening. It is recognised that in preparing for full reopening schools may require some reconfiguration works to ensure that all available space, including class space, is used to maximise physical distancing safely.

Adaption works may include, but are not limited to, reconfiguration of classroom space, repurposing rooms to provide additional space, adapting storage facilities, purchasing furniture, altering desk layouts and adapting toilet areas. As each school setting is different, a one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate. Individual schools are best placed to decide on the appropriate reconfiguration works.

As part of the package of supports, additional teachers are being provided to support the reopening of primary schools in order to provide enhanced substitution and eliminate the need to mix classes when a teacher is absent. Supply panels are being established nationwide. These will be monitored in terms of the number of teachers and the location of each panel.

Primary schools are currently provided with class teachers on the basis of one teacher for every 26 pupils, which is at its historically lowest level. In terms of operating in this school year, schools will be required to look at maximising all available physical space, particularly to accommodate larger classes. Examples of class layouts have been provided to support schools. The minor works grant is being provided to assist schools if they need to reconfigure classrooms or undertake other work. Schools will also be required to look at how classes are organised in terms of sizes, and this may require some reorganisation of class groupings.

My Department absolutely will work with any school that needs extra support when other options are not feasible, and this may involve additional teachers or extra accommodation in some cases.

As a brief aside, I was just outside with the parents, staff and board of management of Firhouse Educate Together. An illustration of the situation we have found ourselves in over many years is the fact that there has been demographic growth but the Department has been too slow in planning for a new school building. Consequently, that school is being forced to move all the way to Citywest, a choice that is not sustainable for many parents. People are concerned about the sustainability of the school. I ask the Minister to examine the position of that particular school.

I take note of the final part of the Minister's answer that additional teachers and space will be provided. I would like her to tell me more about that. There is scope for reconfiguration within many schools. Cabinets can be moved and rooms being used for different purposes can be reconfigured but other schools cannot do the miracle of the loaves and fishes. The space simply is not available. In Christian Brothers schools from the 1950s and 1960s, the corridors are extremely narrow and the buildings are tight. They are nowhere near 60 sq. m or even 80 sq. m. It is clear that additional physical space will be required in some schools. Is there an audit or will there be an audit to establish the schools that urgently need not just reconfiguring but additional space?

Again, I confirm that substantial resources are going into schools to facilitate schools doing what needs to be done on the ground. I include in that, as we have already outlined, the €75 million that has been made available through the minor works grant. That funding is significant and substantial. In the first instance, it is a doubling of the minor works grant funding to primary schools and it is a similar but new strand of funding for second-level schools. There is great potential for schools to reconfigure and re-examine. For example, there are opportunities to declutter within the classroom. There are opportunities to look at additional space within the campus of the school and to look outside of that, where necessary. I accept that where there are exceptional cases all schools are invited to engage with the Department. There is a helpline for schools to allow them to flag individual needs within their schools. The resources and the supports are available. Everything that needs to be done will be done to ensure that schools can maximise their space and that there is every opportunity and expectation, which I know can be realised, that there will be a full and safe reopening of schools at the end of August or in early September.

I welcome the increase in the minor works grant but that will not do it for every school. Not every school can convert a room or make extra space within a classroom. The grant will deal with issues such as hot water also, and that is welcome, but it will not satisfy every need. I believe the Minister knows that. For schools in that position, the undertaking they will have to make in the next few weeks is so enormous that we cannot simply refer to local solutions and so on. There is a need for local solutions but far too often the issue is the response of the Department of Education and Skills. There is an element of throw the ball in and leave the board of management and the school at it. Space will need to be found. Buildings will need to be found. Temporary accommodation will need to be put in and it does not appear that the Department knows the location of that. An audit needs to be done very quickly. I will give the Minister an example of a school in my constituency, which was built in 1961. Two thirds of the classrooms are under 50 m and approximately one third of them are under 40 m. Some of them are only 18 m, 20 m and 25 m. Schools like that do not have a clue how they will manage this requirement.

My final point is that there is a programme for Government commitment to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio. We put down a motion on that on Tuesday night and the Minister has hardly commented on it. We are in the middle of a pandemic that has underlined the danger in having oversized classrooms. Does the Minister intend to tackle pupil-teacher ratios in this budget? Does she intend to reduce oversized classes? That needs to happen for social distancing and safety but for educational reasons also.

On that point, prior to 2016, teachers were allocated to primary schools at a general average of one teacher for every 28 pupils, but budget 2016 improved that ratio by one point to 27:1. Budget 2018 provided for a further point improvement to the staffing schedule so that teachers are allocated on a general average of one teacher for every 26 pupils, with effect since September 2018. This is the lowest pupil-teacher ratio ever at primary school. I am very conscious of the staffing schedule and the need to prioritise teacher allocations in primary schools given their vital role in communities across the country. I am looking at how best to make further progress in reducing the primary school teacher-pupil ratio in the context of the programme for Government implementation. I will continue to look at that in the context of the budget as we move forward.

School Funding

Michael Collins

Ceist:

3. Deputy Michael Collins asked the Minister for Education and Skills her views on whether expanded classrooms or additional prefabs will be required to be erected to facilitate appropriate distancing of pupils; if there will be initiatives to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio, particularly in circumstances in which it relates to schools with classrooms of over 30 pupils; and the funding her Department will provide to facilitate same. [20148/20]

This question was tabled before the roadmap to reopen schools was published during the week. Primary and secondary schools throughout the country will have to employ extra cleaning staff due to the imminent reopening of schools. Will the Minister outline the way this cleaning budget will be allocated to schools, especially primary schools? Is it a separate grant for schools or a raising of the capitation grant, which is required also?

As the Deputy is aware, on Monday the Government published Roadmap for the Full Return to School, along with details of a financial package of over €375 million to support the implementation of the measures in the roadmap, following approval by the Government. The range of supports being made available to schools includes additional financial supports to provide for additional staffing, management supports, enhanced cleaning, hand hygiene and personal protective equipment, PPE, costs under the Covid-19 response plans.

A Covid-19-specific capitation payment will be used as the mechanism to support the implementation of enhanced cleaning regimes in schools, with close to an additional €53 million for this purpose.  This will be provided on a sliding scale in line with pupil enrolments as at 30 September 2019, with €63 per mainstream pupil at primary level and €40 per pupil and post-primary level.

Arrangements have also been made for a drawdown framework to be established to enable schools to purchase hand sanitisers and other PPE supplies for use in the school and classroom from pre-approved suppliers. The procurement process for this framework has already commenced, and it is intended that these materials will be available in early August. The funding for these materials will be provided in the form of a grant which will issue in instalments, the first of which will issue from mid-August to cover the period to December 2020. Enhanced Covid-19 rates are payable in respect of students attending special schools and special classes attached to mainstream schools to assist with the extra costs associated with the cleaning of classrooms operating in specialist provision.

I thank the Minister very much for that clarity. Like every other Deputy, I have been inundated with calls in recent weeks from schools - in Belgooly, Bandon, Clonakilty, Skibbereen, Castletownbere, Kilcrohane, Schull and Ballydehob, to name but a few in west Cork - and not just with regard to this issue. In fairness, the Minister has provided clarity with regard to many of those schools, and I will ask more questions later this evening on the private school sector. I am aware of the difficulty schools face in getting funds, having been on a board of management for years. It is sad and disappointing to see parents' associations and boards of management fundraising to fill the oil tanks and pay the secretaries and the cleaning staff. In this situation with Covid-19, they cannot be short-changed in terms of getting their schools up to a standard of cleanliness. I hope the budget the Minister has outlined will be enough to allow these schools to carry out this work without asking boards of management and parents' associations to fundraise.

I thank the Deputy for raising that important point. I appreciate the pressures on schools and parents. Every effort is being made to ensure substantial funding is put in place to ensure no additional burden is placed on the school or on parents. There is a budget of €53 million for cleaning and all that involves, which is a substantial package of funding. We have also put in place further aid to ensure schools will be in a position to employ extra personnel in the month of August to help them to do the work that needs to be done on the ground. A further €4.3 million is being made available for that. It is a substantial resource and I have every confidence it will be well drawn down and well utilised by the schools.

I appreciate that the extra €4.3 million will be of great assistance to schools. I received phone calls as late as yesterday evening and some of our rural schools in west Cork are concerned that the roadmap for reopening seems to be aimed more at city schools rather than rural schools in relation to any of the entitlements. Will the Minister clarify this?

I would not accept that assertion at all. The roadmap is inclusive of all schools whether urban or rural. I come from a constituency that marries both so I am greatly conscious that the packages are made available on an urban and rural basis. A key innovation, perhaps more to the benefit of rural schools is the additional one day which will be given to teaching principals which is something of which they are richly deserving, and takes cognisance of the burden placed on them by the administrative work they need to do. A suite of measures has been put in place to the benefit of both urban and rural schools and for the benefit, most especially, of the children and young people that we serve in the education sector, irrespective of whether they are urban or rural.

School Transport

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

Ceist:

4. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Education and Skills if the school transport scheme will need to be expanded in view of Covid-19 and social distancing; and the steps that will be taken to ensure that no child that participated in the school transport scheme in 2019-2020 will be denied a seat in 2020-2021. [19312/20]

Among several welcome elements in the roadmap, which includes things that we had called for over time, some have raised huge questions and require significant clarification. One of the biggest is school transport. Some 120,000 children are carried every year by school transport programmes. Among any of the operators I have spoken to there is very little clarity and they have had very little communication on how that will be delivered. There is additional money but it seems to be for reconfiguration and hygiene, there does not seem to be anything in relation to capacity. Will the same amount of children as a last year be carried on school transport this year? Can the Minister make that commitment?

School transport is a significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills. In the 2019-2020 school year more than 120,000 children, including over 14,200 children with special educational needs, were transported in over 5,000 vehicles on a daily basis to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country covering over 100 million km at a cost of over €219 million in 2019.

Earlier this week I announced a comprehensive plan detailing a package of measures and resources to be provided to facilitate schools in reopening. I also published a detailed roadmap for the full return to school. This roadmap set outs how schools will reopen for all students from the end of August. It has been developed in line with public health advice issued by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, the Roadmap for Society and Business, and follows comprehensive and intensive engagement with all relevant stakeholders, including Bus Éireann, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the National Transport Authority on the logistical considerations that arise in planning for the operation of school transport services for the reopening of our schools.

School transport scheme services operated by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department will fully operate as normal, in line with public health advice, when schools reopen for the 2020-2021 school year with the appropriate hygiene and other measures in place.

In line with normal practice, all children who are eligible for school transport and who complete the application and payment process on time will be accommodated on school transport services where such services are in operation. Children who are not eligible for school transport, but who complete the application and payment process on time, will be considered for spare seats that may exist after eligible children have been facilitated, such seats are referred to as concessionary seats.

All school transport services are reviewed over the summer months. Arising from this, routes may be altered, extended or withdrawn depending on the number and location of eligible children who will be availing of school transport for the following school year.

The option to make payment for transport for the 2020-2021 school year is now available. Given the exceptional circumstances I have asked Bus Éireann to extend the closing date for payment to 4 August 2020. Families wishing to avail of transport for the 2020-2021 year are advised to make payment by this date.

I heard Dermot O'Leary of the National Bus and Rail Union, NBRU, on the radio some days ago, shortly before the plan was published. He was speaking about whether he thought any additional capacity could be found and he expressed some scepticism. He is a stakeholder and I would hope that any engagement would have included unions such as the NBRU. He, like most of us, would have anticipated additional capacity. It would seem obvious, so many of us were left scratching our heads when the only thing in the roadmap published on Monday was money for hygiene and reconfiguration. That does not seem to be living in the real world. The deadline has been moved, and that is welcome, but 4 August is not very far away. Most parents and schools feel in the dark here. I ask the Minister directly, having asked her before and she did not answer, whether the school transport scheme will carry the same number of children or will parents and families be seeking refunds from Bus Éireann in late August and September. Will 120,000 children be carried?

To reiterate, in line with normal practice, all children who are eligible for school transport and who complete the application and payment process on time will be accommodated in school transport services where such services are in operation. The plans that are in place for school transport are absolutely based on the public health advice available. It has recommended that children are regarded as a single cohort, will be given designated seats on the bus to and from school, they will sit with a sibling or class member, and €11.3 million in funding will be available to ensure that hand sanitiser, PPE for the bus driver, the intensive clean that must be done after children have vacated the bus, will all be covered. The provision for the buses to operate as normal is on the basis of the public health advice recommendation and availability. It is operating, as all the roadmap is operating, on the public health advice that is given and provided.

I have not disputed that but I asked about capacity. The Minister mentioned everyone who applies, but what if for any reason the capacity must be reduced. The providers, Bus Éireann, taxis and various companies, will have their own considerations. I asked the Minister this question which is what parents want to know. Of course they want to know about safety, where they will be sitting and so on, and the Minister has told us some of that detail, but that is all they know. What I want to know is whether all those children will have a place this September. Those concessionary places are important too. For many families they are the make or break provision, not some frivolous or trivial issue. I ask the direct question again: how many children will avail of school transport this September? Will 120,000 children avail of it this September? It is a very clear, simple question. I have asked it twice, but the Minister has not answered it. Will the Minister answer it please?

To a very clear question, I give a very clear answer, that which I have already given the Deputy. All children who are eligible for school transport and who complete the application and payment process on time will be accommodated on school transport services where such services are in operation. Children who are not eligible for school transport, but who complete the application and payment process on time, will be considered for spare seats that may exist after eligible children have been facilitated. Such seats, as the Deputy is aware, are referred to as concessionary seats. That is a very clear answer - all children who are eligible.

That is a clear answer.