Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Citizens' Assembly

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin

Ceist:

5. Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin asked the Minister for Education and Skills the details of the proposed citizens' assembly on education; the terms of reference for the assembly; when it is due to meet; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [19319/20]

There is a commitment in the programme for Government to establish citizens' assemblies, including one on drugs and on education, which I believe is restricted to primary and secondary education. I seek further detail on this commitment, including when will this be established, its terms of reference and the time scale for its sittings.

I am particularly pleased to see the inclusion of a Citizens’ Assembly on the future of education in the programme for Government. Experience internationally and here at home of citizens' assemblies as exercises in deliberative democracy have been extremely positive. Ireland is considered a leader in the use of deliberative democracy processes, having convened three in recent years, namely the Convention on the Constitution 2012 to 2014, the Citizens’ Assembly 2016 to 2018 and the ongoing Citizens' Assembly on gender equality which commenced in 2019. The first two exercises led to referendums being held on four issues, namely, reducing the age threshold for presidential candidates, marriage equality, removal of the offence of blasphemy and the eighth amendment.

Typically, Citizens' Assemblies have been established by individual Oireachtas resolutions which have set out their terms of reference. I understand that initial proposals to hold a Citizens' Assembly on education have been informed by proposals from the Burren College of Art, which called for the assembly to examine issues such as how to properly position post-primary education for the 21st century and how to encourage greater creativity, student agency and resilience. My three-year strategy and annual implementation plan will incorporate priority actions from the programme for Government, including the Citizens' Assembly on the future of education. I aim to publish this strategy later this year.

Some of the reservations people in education have about the Minister's appointment do not relate to any lack of ability, competence or understanding of the education system. Our nervousness is that when a conservative Department meets a conservative Minister, the possibility of a radical overhaul of our education system may be affected. Such an overhaul could lead to having equality at the centre of the system and addressing its constitutional underpinning, which ensures that we do not really have a State education system. We will not necessarily have the opportunity to deal with that in a radical way. I was hoping that the proposed citizens' assembly could deal with the constitutional underpinning of the education system. In her response, the Minister did not give a timeline as to when the Citizens' Assembly will meet. I ask again what is the Minister's ambition for its establishment, sitting and terms of reference? I am sure she has an opinion on the matter.

I come from a strong education background and I believe strongly in educational equality and inclusiveness. I am a fan of the Citizens' Assembly and I will be hugely supportive of a citizens' assembly on the future of education because I believe in the democracy that it will represent. The terms of reference for the education Citizens' Assembly will be set out in the Oireachtas resolution establishing it. This will be informed by the views of all the relevant partners. That is fair and as it should be. Based on previous assemblies, the Citizens' Assembly on the future of education could be wide ranging, including constitutional issues, or it could focus on very specific areas of interest. Consultation informing the Oireachtas resolution could also consider whether the focus of the assembly should cover learning from cradle to grave or the primary and post-primary sectors. The other Citizens' Assemblies have considered constitutional provisions in relevant areas and a similar approach could be adopted for an education assembly. Other sources for topics could include the range of education-related commitments in the programme for Government, many of which are likely to generate considerable public interest and could benefit from debate in a citizens' assembly forum. It is worth noting that any such discussion in an assembly will complement rather than replace existing and extensive partner engagement fora in the sector. These include the work of the inspectorate and listening to the views of pupils, the primary education forum, industrial relations engagement mechanisms and our work with partners in responding to the pandemic.

That all sounds great. My problem is in predicting our engagement with the Minister. Over the next period when we raise something that could radically overhaul the education system or bring in legislation that could enhance equality provisions within education, her go-to answer could very easily be that we will deal with the matter in the Citizens' Assembly. What I need from her is a commitment on when she wants the Citizens' Assembly to be established. Even if she could name a year, I would appreciate it. The last thing I or any Deputy wants to do is have a policy, motion or Bill before the House and for the Minister to pick up a script saying the Citizens' Assembly is the best place to deal with it. I ask the Minister to give me a year by which she hopes the Citizens' Assembly will have started its deliberation.

I appreciate the genuine enthusiasm the Deputy has for the Citizens' Assembly. I share that enthusiasm because of the Citizens' Assembly's democratic and inclusive nature. At this point, four weeks into the job, I intend to formulate a three-year strategy and annual implementation plan which will incorporate priority actions from the programme for Government. This will include at its centre the Citizens' Assembly on the future of education. I will publish the details of that before the end of the year.

Question No. 6 replied to with Written Answers.

School Staff

Pádraig O'Sullivan

Ceist:

7. Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Education and Skills her plans to address the shortage of teachers in post-primary schools. [19324/20]

The Minister and I were both formerly schoolteachers and we understand the challenges in terms of teacher shortages in education. This is a problem that predates Covid and the plan to reopen schools in September. I welcome the recent announcement the Minister made regarding 1,080 additional teachers for post-primary schools. Will she provide the House with details on how these posts will be made available to schools?

My Department is working with education partners on measures to address anticipated teacher supply pressures arising from additional posts in the system and to meet the demand for teachers to fill short-term substitutable vacancies. I reiterate that the additional posts coming into the system are very positive news for the education sector. The Covid-19 environment is impacting on the willingness of teachers to travel and work abroad and we are hearing from post-primary schools that there are some improvements in supply this year as a result. In 2019-20, there were 2,800 teachers on part-time contracts and 1,300 job-sharing.

My Department is also working with the Teaching Council to raise awareness of teacher supply in post-primary schools, focusing on teachers who are currently registered but not actively working in schools. The higher education institutions are working on more flexible arrangements for student teacher placement in post-primary schools also. This will facilitate student teachers to be available to their school for substitution and supervision while on placement. Student teachers will be paid for any hours worked outside their required placement hours. The Teaching Council is also working to allow teachers who qualified abroad to register and complete their induction programme here in Ireland for the coming school year. This move alone could see up to 200 additional newly qualified teachers becoming available to the system at post-primary level.

The shortage of teachers has a dramatic knock-on effect on students, teachers and the whole education system. Lack of sufficient qualified teachers and staff instability threaten students' ability to learn and reduce teachers' effectiveness. Teacher shortages at post-primary level need to be tackled in the context of growing student numbers. Every year as principals scramble to fill posts for the following September, we hear of shortages in particular subject areas. A Teachers Union of Ireland survey has found that subjects like home economics, French, mathematics, Spanish and the sciences are particularly affected. Does the Minister envisage that the additional 1,080 posts which have been announced will go some way to addressing this problem?

I believe the additional posts that have been announced will be a substantial benefit to the post-primary sector. We are very confident of the various pools that are available from which to draw those additional teachers, including the 1,300 who are currently job-sharing. For the first time, we will lift the bar on the number of hours teachers can work in terms of job-sharing. For the 2,800 teachers who are on part-time contracts, those hours can be extended. We also have the pool of students who are returning home and those who may choose not to go abroad.

There are substantial avenues for us to find the resources.

Following engagement with the Higher Education Authority, new initial teacher education, ITE, undergraduate programmes in a number of priority subject areas were put in place by higher education institutions for September 2019. Programmes included maths, modern foreign languages and Irish. More new undergraduate ITE programmes are planned for commencement this September. They will include Irish, modern foreign languages, mathematics and computer science. All of this will be of assistance.

Another issue arising with the introduction of these new posts is the timeline for the completion of training. It is welcome that induction training is to be provided to school staff ahead of reopening. Where that training is due to take place and in schools where teachers have just started in new posts, there is likely to be a period where they will have to adjust or acclimatise to their new settings. While the training is welcome, does the design of the training take into account the potential for those taking part to be newly hired staff, given the situation with Covid-19?

Deputy Danny Healy-Rae may ask a brief supplementary question.

It gives me great pleasure to have the opportunity to ask a question of my former colleague from Kerry County Council, on which we worked together hand in hand for the people of Kerry, for the first time as Minister. It has to do with the hiring of teachers who may be asked to work in different schools. This also affects other workers. Surely the one Garda vetting process should do. Under the regulations as they stand, someone must be vetted two or three times if he or she will be working in two or three different schools. Surely it makes sense to vet someone just once and give him or her a ticket or card like any operator. That should be sufficient to allow a teacher to go to two, three or four different schools if that case arises. Perhaps the Minister might consider this suggestion. It would save a great deal of time. It takes two to three weeks to vet someone. If a person needs to be vetted a number of times, it will clog up the system and take extra time unnecessarily.

I thank the Deputies. Regarding the induction of new teachers, Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan will be aware that the training facility is for the whole school community, including teachers who are already working in a school environment and new teachers who will come on stream. I am conscious that, under normal circumstances, new teachers coming on stream must be particularly nurtured. The Deputy will be aware that there is always a designated teacher to ensure that. Equally, a lead response worker in terms of Covid-19 will be appointed to each school. This will be a further support, not just for the overall school body, but where key issues are identified for the new teachers who are coming on stream. Schools work as a team and in a collaborative manner, and I have every confidence that this is how it will work in future.

Regarding vetting, I am aware that there may be issues with the turnaround times for vetting. However, many teachers in the system are already vetted. Should there be a requirement for new vetting, we have discussed with the Garda National Vetting Bureau having an extremely quick vetting process for same, but most people in the education sector have already been vetted.

Special Educational Needs

Jennifer Carroll MacNeill

Ceist:

8. Deputy Jennifer Carroll MacNeill asked the Minister for Education and Skills the supports being made available to the 39 schools that were directed to establish special classes; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [19404/20]

My question relates to the 39 schools that were directed to provide special classes. Has every support that the Department and its officials can provide been provided? Can we get an assurance that the Department has responded to every request for additional resources and space that the schools have made recently and previously? Be it down to a difficulty or unwillingness on the part of the school or a lack of communication or failure in administration on the part of the Department, the parent of a child with additional needs does not care. Nor does the child. They need the school place.

I thank the Deputy for her question. I agree with her that we cannot tolerate a child with special needs not being treated equal to every other child in terms of a right to access education. I am determined to rectify such problems. The Deputy will know that 20% of the Department's Vote, or €1.9 billion, goes towards special education in recognition of the work that needs to be done in that area.

There is a process for the 39 schools. I am in a position to speak about the process generally but not the minutiae of the particular schools themselves. That is a statutory function and I have my own statutory role. The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, has had extensive engagement with patron bodies and the schools on securing places for children with special needs. There is still a small shortfall, with us needing to sort out approximately 43 special class places. We have instigated a process under section 37A of the Education Act, which is something that is only done where all reasonable efforts have failed. We did this on 26 June when letters were sent to the 39 schools to determine whether each had the capacity to provide a special class. The legislation was used for the first time in 2019 and a special school was set up in Dublin 15 as well as six special classes.

There is a perennial dearth of places for children with special needs. I am determined to stamp that out and bring a targeted action plan to this issue. We must look after our most vulnerable, those being, children with special needs.

I thank the Minister of State and appreciate her commitment to the issue. I wish her every success in that work and it is fantastic that she is in that seat.

I wish to raise a linked matter with the Minister for discussion with her colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. The greatest issue that will face the education sector is that of children who have not received a timely disability assessment under the Disability Act to determine whether they have additional needs, communication needs or sensory processing disorders. We have seen concerning figures from the HSE. Will the Minister take this matter up with her colleague as soon as may be? Parents always know if there is something not quite right in the development of their children in terms to their connections, reaching particular milestones or meeting certain guidelines. That is evident from the reactions of consultants in Crumlin, Temple Street and elsewhere, who always trust and respond to the parents' instinct. However, parents need help. They cannot do it alone. They need professional supports as much to get structures in place for their children as to have what they are seeing in how their children are doing verified by objective third-party views.

This matter is coming down the line for the Minister, be it today or later. Children who are not getting timely assessments are not getting the services they need in a timely manner, which will impact them throughout their lives. I urge the Minister and her colleagues to take this issue up with the Minister for Health and the HSE as a matter of urgency.

I appreciate the importance of the issue raised by the Deputy. I also appreciate her point about parents' intuition where their children are concerned. I recognise that the earlier the intervention, the more positive the outcome. I assure the Deputy that I will raise this issue with the Minister for Health and the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Rabbitte. The Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and I will continue to be supportive of the matters raised by Deputy Carroll MacNeill and endeavour to bring them to fruition as outlined by her.

I appreciate that commitment and the Minister's support. This matter is something that Deputies will have to raise time and again because it is of such concern, which the Minister recognises. I would welcome it if the Minister reverted to the House and updated us on the progress she has made, perhaps at the occasion of our next education Question Time. We will raise the matter with the Minister for Health separately. I thank the Minister for her commitment.

State Examinations

Mick Barry

Ceist:

9. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Minister for Education and Skills the reason for the postponement in publishing the results of the 2020 leaving certificate in view of the fact schools have submitted their information regarding grading on schedule; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [19334/20]

Why are the leaving certificate results being given out three weeks later than originally intended when the schools provide the information to the Department that they were asked to give bang on time?

I thank the Deputy.

On 8 May 2020 it was announced that the leaving certificate examinations were to be postponed and that calculated grades would be provided as an option for leaving certificate students for 2020. At that time, it was also announced that the grades would be finalised and issued for each student as close as possible to the traditional date of issue of the leaving certificate results. At no time was a definitive date for release of the 2020 calculated grades announced.

The date of 7 September is the earliest possible release date given the rigorous and robust quality assurance checks required to ensure the process is executed with equity and fairness to all students and to ensure that the 2020 results enjoy the same status as those of previous years. The results will be available in time for round 1 offers from CAO and UCAS for colleges and universities in Ireland and UK. I have written to every European minister with responsibility for higher education and asked for Irish students to be accommodated. I have received assurances from the Dutch authorities that their higher education institutions are being advised to accommodate the entry of Irish students in September in view of the conditions caused by Covid-19.

The recent announcement that the results would issue on 7 September has been portrayed perhaps as a delay but it is the additional three weeks that are required. More than 450,000 individual grades have to be prepared and subject to checks and balances as part of the national standardisation process. It is of vital importance that the process is given sufficient time to execute to the highest standards and to rigorous and robust quality assurance so that the results provided in 2020 enjoy the same status and value as the leaving certificates of previous and indeed those to come.

The standardisation process is overseen by a national standardisation group. The group comprises representatives from the calculated grades executive office and the inspectorate, both from my Department; the Educational Research Centre and the State Examinations Commission. The group meets regularly to analyse and review the most recent iteration of the model and to discuss the outcomes and review how best to proceed in adjusting the model and also to work through the validation process. The Educational Research Centre has also been engaged to provide a data quality assurance and verification service on the data processing and standardisation processes.

No matter what way the Minister spins it this is a delay. What is the real reason for this? Is it that if one postpones the dissemination of the results, one postpones the sitting of leaving certificate 2020 for those who want to sit it? If one postpones the sitting of the leaving certificate 2020, one kills the chance for those students sitting the exam and using those results to get into college for the year 2020-2021. Instead they will use calculated grades to get into college for the year 2020-2021 and all of the other calculated grades do not need to be recalculated, which potentially saves the Department from a hell of a lot of lawsuits. Is that the real reason for this three-week delay, and it is a delay in the distribution of leaving certificate results this year?

The single and only reason for the additional three weeks is to ensure that all possible robust checks and balances required to ensure the high quality and integrity of leaving certificate 2020 stands on a par with leaving certificate 2019 and 2021. The only agenda and objective here is that students will benefit and have confidence in the mechanism that has been used to provide the calculated grades. The additional time is necessary to ensure that the integrity and high quality is maintained so that the leaving certificate class of 2020 can stand with absolute confidence with the leaving certificate class of 2019 and the classes of 2021, 2022, or 2023 as we go forward. It is for the benefit of the students and the integrity of the exam that the additional three weeks is required.

What about the students who are taking the leaving certificate next year? The Taoiseach informed me yesterday that the syllabus will not be changed and that exams will go ahead but that the students will be offered more choices in order to reflect and take into account the fact that those students have lost much face-to-face teacher time this year. The students are interested in hearing that but want to know what is the extent of the changes and the scope of the choices that they are going to be given. When is that information going to be given to the students?

The Taoiseach also said there would be maximum consultation with next year’s leaving certificate students and he wanted to ensure they were happy with the changes that were made. If they are not happy with the changes that are being proposed, will the Minister give a guarantee that they will be reviewed and changes will be made to take into account their wishes on the issue?

I thank the Deputy for raising this point. I have clarified it previously but there is no harm doing so again because it is very important to the students and the parents of the class of 2021. As the Taoiseach correctly said the curriculum will have to stand because at leaving certificate level there is no one mechanism for teachers to teach a particular aspect of the curriculum. They have the freedom to choose at any stage where they will begin within the curriculum. Acknowledging that point, the curriculum will continue but there will be the widest possible choice within the assessment of that curriculum.

Therefore, for example, if there are six poets to be studied rather than just four appearing on the paper, all six will appear in the paper, or whatever mechanism is required to ensure there is the fullest and maximum opportunity for students to answer that paper.

The Deputy will be aware that the entire process of the school reopening map has been one born of extensive engagement and consultation with the widest range of partners, including the voice of students and their representatives and their parents.

Schools Building Projects

Brian Stanley

Ceist:

10. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Education and Skills the steps being taken to advance the building project for a school (details supplied). [18536/20]

I ask about the new school for Scoil Íosagáin in Portarlington, County Laois, which takes in a significant catchment area of north Laois and east Offaly and what the progress has been made with that?

I thank the Deputy for raising this question. This major building work is included in my Department’s construction programme which is being delivered under the national development plan. The project is currently at stage 1 of architectural planning which entails preliminary design of site and location suitability and initial sketch scheme.

A review in 2019 of the demand for post-primary provision in the area resulted in an increase in the schedule of accommodation to cater for up to 1,300 pupils. My Department met with the school and the increase was accepted by the school. Initially, it had been anticipated that this project would be delivered in the form of an extension and refurbishment. However, through ongoing engagement with the school, its board of management and trustees, the option of a new build is currently being explored by my Department. The design team has been instructed to provide an initial sketch scheme for a 1,300 pupil school and submit it to my Department for review. The design team is currently finalising its report for presentation to the school and the Department.  Upon review, my Department will then be in contact with the board of management with regard to the further progression of the project.

I thank the Minister for her reply and I welcome the fact that she has confirmed that the option of a new building is being explored. This is an issue upon which I and my colleague, Deputy Patricia Ryan, who also covers that area, receive many representations from parents. If one looks at that school, it has come from the amalgamation of Scoil Mhuire and the Christian Brothers school in the late 1990s and it opened in August 2001. St. John’s vocational school joined it at that stage, so it is an amalgamation of three schools. There are many prefabs in the school. Portarlington is a commuter town which has grown and the school currently only has a capacity for 750 students. There is serious overcrowding which has caused many problems and this is a very difficult operation to carry out. There is an enrolment of more than 1,003 at the moment. It is good to hear the Minister mention that the figure of 1,300 is being considered as being required. It is disappointing to hear that it is stuck at stage 1 within the school building programme which is very early stages as the Minister and I know.

I appreciate the points made by the Deputy about the difficulties on the ground. I should point out that the Department has made interim accommodation available, initially in November 2018 and then in February 2019, to take account of the growing school population. The approved provision comprises two science laboratories, a woodwork room, a prep room and four general classrooms.

There is acknowledgement that there is a requirement for a school to accommodate 1,300 pupils and I confirm again that the design team has been instructed to provide an initial sketch scheme for that. It is being submitted to the Department for review. I assure the Deputy we will continue to work on that as a priority.

I thank the Minister for the reply. It is good that it has been accepted that a school population of 1,300 must be catered for. I accept that interim accommodation has been provided but it is very cramped. There are problems in how the school must operate, and even before the onset of Covid-19, it had to operate a one-way system. Covid-19 has brought new pressure and the Minister announced a capital programme for internal works in schools.

The Minister should try to prioritise this school within the national development plan and school building programme. It is on the commuter line and Portarlington is a commuter town taking in a large area of east Offaly and north-west Laois. The area's population has grown by thousands, with the town's population by itself going from 3,500 to almost 8,000 when we take just its urban area. That is without taking in the catchment area.

Parents are raising this matter consistently with us and it really is a pressure point in the area for second level education. The Covid-19 pandemic has put the improvements that need to be made under big lights. I ask the Minister to try to expedite these improvements, as sometimes these programmes can get bogged down in the first or second stage for years on end. We need to move on this project in the capital programme.

I thank the Deputy and absolutely appreciate the very genuine concern that he has about moving forward this project for the school. He mentioned the minor works grant that is also available and there is an opportunity for schools to act within the Covid-19 provisions. I appreciate that because of its location and the accommodation demands of a school of 1,300 pupils, this should be expedited. My Department and I will take on board all the points raised by the Deputy and I thank him for doing so.

Question No. 11 replied to with Written Answers.

Education Data

Pa Daly

Ceist:

12. Deputy Pa Daly asked the Minister for Education and Skills if the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, report, Implications of the Covid-19 Pandemic for Policy in Relation to Children and Young People: A Policy View, has been reviewed; her views on the implications for education; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [19285/20]

I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Foley, on her new role. I know her well from our days on Kerry County Council. My question was submitted prior to the publication of the education roadmap. I welcome many aspects of the plan, including the lack of red tap and the child-centred approach, and I acknowledge the hours of hard work put into it by departmental officials. What are her views on the implications for education of the ESRI report mentioned in the question?

I thank the Deputy and appreciate his kind words.

I welcome the publication of the ESRI report, The Implications of the Covid 19 Pandemic for Policy in Relation to Children and Young People: A Policy View. The report details the impact of the pandemic on the lives of children and young people both directly because of the closure of schools and a lack of face-to-face interactions, and indirectly because of increased financial stress that many families in Ireland are now experiencing as a consequence of Covid-19.

My Department is acutely aware of the implications of the pandemic on the lives of pupils, including "learning loss" experienced by many students and the particular challenges facing students with special educational needs, many of whom may struggle to readjust with the routine of school in the autumn, and the importance of supporting the well-being of all our students and school community.

Since schools closed on 12 March, my Department has provided a suite of supports and resources for schools, parents and students. Many of these are specifically targeted at supporting the most vulnerable students, including those with special educational needs and students at greatest risk of educational disadvantage. My Department, in consultation with educational support services such as the professional development service for teachers and junior cycle for teachers, and with agencies of the Department, including the National Council for Curriculum Assessment, the National Council for Special Education and the National Council for Guidance in Education, along with stakeholders has developed a three-phase approach to providing well-being supports on return to school. Supporting the well-being of school communities as they return is at the heart of this planning and maximising contact time with schools in the first term of the year ahead and re-establishing relationships with schools will be an absolute priority. 

I thank the Minister for her reply but I am disappointed. Particular concerns have been raised by parents of children with special needs. When they return after what the Minister described as the "learning loss", it is important that they would be able to form bonds with people outside their family unit. I have been contacted by parents and teachers who feel left out of the plan. Staff members who are defined as "high risk" do not seem to be taken into account, aside from those who are at very high risk. There is a difference in the Health Service Executive definitions in this regard.

There seems to be very little detail in the plan for the parents of children with special needs or those who are immunocompromised, along with their families. Those pupils face a return to crowded classrooms so what will happen to them if they remain at home? The personal protective equipment and hygiene measures will fall short in schools packed to capacity. As we know, the average class size in Irish primary schools is 25, which can be compared with the European Union average of 20. In our county we have the largest percentage of children in classes of over 30 students. What will be in the plan to address such matters? We need newly-qualified permanent teachers as a priority.

I reassure the Deputy with respect to children with special needs who will return to school. There are approximately 8,000 children, for example, in special schools and there are also approximately 8,000 children in special classes. They have been prioritised in the stimulus package provided for the reopening of schools with a significant amount of funding totalling approximately €13 million. That does not include the over €14 million allocated to special needs assistants that will be dedicated to helping children transition back to school. We know at least 24,000 children are availing of the July provision this year, which provides some respite for parents but will also help a child socialise and get used to a school environment before they go back full time.

We also have funding for cleaning and sanitisation of approximately €3.7 million. There is approximately €5.7 million for school transport. There will be additional release days for teachers and a significant amount is also going into personal protective equipment. We know that when special needs assistants are dealing with children with special needs, particularly with respect to intimate care, we must ensure they protect themselves as well.

I was contacted during the week by a person in St. Finian's national school in Waterville. I ask the Minister and Minister of State to prioritise schools like St. Finian's, which has been refused access to funding to complete necessary works.

An important point was made earlier on Garda vetting. It was indicated that many people have already undergone this vetting. The point is that some teachers and special needs assistants go between different schools. There was a farcical position earlier this year when special needs assistants were to be drafted to work on other areas but they must get vetted separately when they go to a second or third school. That is no different from when such people go between different sporting bodies. Will the Government take steps to address Garda vetting so there are no issues with getting teachers into a school without delay?

On the matter of special schools, I bring to the Minister's attention St. Teresa's special school in Ballinasloe. It has twice applied for an extra autism spectrum disorder, ASD, class but it was refused on both occasions due to "time restraints", to use the Department's term. However, at the same time 39 schools in Dublin have been ordered to reopen in September with ASD classes. It seems there is one rule for Dublin and another for the likes of Ballinasloe. I ask the Minister to consider the matter as the school is seeking an extra ASD class to facilitate eight children in Ballinasloe.

I thank the Deputy for bringing that school to my attention. As he may be aware, we have 124 special schools throughout the country. We are always endeavouring to ensure that we accommodate all of our children with special needs. I will be taking this very seriously. In 2011 we had more than 6,000 schools. We now have almost 8,000 schools. As I said earlier, I am determined to ensure that no child with special needs is left without a place or without the same right of access as other children. That should not happen. This will be a priority for the Department of Education and Skills. I can give the Deputy a commitment in that regard. If he will pass the details of the case to me, I can follow up on it for him.

State Examinations

Rose Conway-Walsh

Ceist:

13. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Education and Skills the knock-on impact anticipated due to the delayed announcement of the leaving certificate results; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [19287/20]

I am very concerned about the knock-on effect of the delays to the leaving certificate results, particularly with regard to mental health, student accommodation and the appeals process. Will the Minister address these issues? What specific and pragmatic supports and resources has the Minister put in place to address those concerns?

I thank Deputy Conway-Walsh. I look forward to having our own stand-alone question time in September so we can tease these issues out.

I am very conscious that this is an important time for students finishing second-level education and hoping to progress to employment, further education and training or higher education. My own Department and the Department of Education and Skills are working to ensure that this onward transition can happen as smoothly and equitably as possible.

On 16 July it was announced by the Department of Education and Skills that students would receive their calculated grades on 7 September. As the Minister, Deputy Foley, has outlined, this is the earliest possible date given the rigorous quality assurance checks required to ensure that the 2020 results enjoy the same status as those of previous and future years. Students will benefit from these checks.

We now have clarity on what will happen next. This has been welcomed by students and their parents. We now know that the first round of Central Admissions Office, CAO, offers will issue on 11 September 2020. Last week I also met representatives of the higher education institutions, namely, the Technological Higher Education Association, THEA, which represents the institutes of technology, and the Irish Universities Association. I welcome their publication of commencement dates for each first year student. This was the next piece of the jigsaw. We now know when first year students will commence, with the majority of our colleges welcoming first year students on 28 September.

The Deputy asked about the important area of practical supports. We have put a funding support package of €168 million in place to support the safe opening of the third level sector to students and provide the sector with the resources to ensure safe operations. I was eager for this package to include practical supports for students. We have doubled the student assistance fund from just over €8 million to €16 million. This recognises that many students have fallen on hard times through no fault of their own as a result of Covid-19. We have also increased the mental health budget, providing an extra €3 million of mental health funding for students. This has been welcomed by many. We have also provided a €15 million fund for access to digital devices. We must recognise the digital divide. People will need dongles, tablets, and laptops. This €15 million will be distributed through the Higher Education Authority and the network of education and training boards. I will comment further in a moment.

I wish to refer specifically to mental health and mental health supports. I am very conscious of the six weeks prior to the results. The anxiety levels will increase as we go through this process. How can someone access the money or assistance the Minister of State has mentioned? Moreover, will the Minister of State discuss the timeline for appeals?

I also wish to discuss those who completed their leaving certificate in 2019. How can they be assured of a college place? There is a lot of anxiety among those students, who do not know whether this year's entry requirements will be along the lines of last year. Will the Minister of State provide reassurance to those students who have taken subjects outside of school? Has he considered reducing college fees in light of the fact that so many of these students will not have the opportunity to take up the summer jobs with which they expected to fund their third level education?

I thank Deputy Conway-Walsh for those questions. I made similar inquiries about mental health supports this morning. The €3 million in additional funding that we have provided has been allocated to the Higher Education Authority. That body will now distribute it among the individual institutions. I expect it to be used to increase the capacity of the counselling services that are in place in colleges. As I get a breakdown of that, I will be more than happy to communicate it to the Deputy in writing.

Regarding the timeframes for offers and appeals, I understand that the first round of CAO offers will be made on 11 September, with a reply or acceptance date of 16 September. The second round will issue on 23 September with an acceptance date of 25 September. The first and second rounds of offers and acceptances will have taken place in advance of the commencement of the university year.

The issue of registration fees is important. I will consider this in the context of the Estimates. I have commissioned an options paper to examine reductions of the cost barriers to third level education. That will look at registration fees, the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grant thresholds and other issues. In the interim, the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, and I have decided to focus the additional supports on targeted areas like the student assistance fund and mental health supports.

Special Educational Needs

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Ceist:

14. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Education and Skills the steps that have been taken to establish a special school at a school (details supplied). [19032/20]

This question concerns the need for a special school in the Dublin 12 area. An appropriate school has been identified for several years. There has been communication with parents, a patron, the owners of the school, the Department and the National Council for Special Education, but there does not seem to have been any progress to date.

I thank the Deputy for his question. As I mentioned earlier, enabling children with special educational needs to receive an education appropriate to their needs is a priority for this Government. Almost 20% of the education Vote, about €1.9 billion, is currently invested in supporting children with special needs.

Notwithstanding this investment, there are some parts of the country, especially Cork and south Dublin, which I discussed earlier, where increases in population and other issues have led to concerns regarding a shortage of school places for next September. The National Council for Special Education is interrogating this and exploring the available options. It has primary responsibility for co-ordinating and advising on special education provision for children nationwide. It has extensive engagement with schools, patrons, parents and others across south Dublin.

Normally special school places are found through the reasonable efforts and full co-operation of everybody involved. Sometimes, however, this does not happen and we must engage with the relevant legislation, that is, section 37A of the Education Act 1998, as amended. This is an absolute priority of mine. I know that Scoil Colm, to which the Deputy has referred, includes another special school, Scoil Eoin, which has 150 pupils. There is potential for an additional four classrooms there. According to my deliberations and the considerations we have taken into account, the school would still come up short. However, we are working through this. The NCSE and the Archdiocese of Dublin met yesterday. The Christian Brothers own the school, but the archdiocese is assisting us in that regard. Talks are ongoing.

I thank the Minister. It is good to see a little bit of progress given the fact that this has been ongoing for several years. I cannot see how Scoil Colm could be inappropriate. There is a campus of educational facilities in the vicinity. Many of the parents are frustrated by the need to leave one child at the school and bring their other child home because places are not available. The Minister has already identified the huge number of students in south Dublin who do not have places in schools. Students' places have been delayed and deferred, and some have even been rejected for educational opportunities because of the way the system works.

Will the Minister of State undertake to accelerate discussion on this to ensure that a special school opens for those children, who in many cases have the greatest educational needs, in September, and that a patron will be available to take on the work if the owners of the building allow it? I ask for urgency.

I reassure the Deputy that this process has been accelerated for some time, going back to December 2019. There were information sessions in January and there was a public forum with Involve Autism, which I met, and other relevant advocacy groups. There was also extensive consultation with some of the schools. The Department will also determine whether other accommodation options are available and can be identified. The NCSE will also continue to liaise with special schools in the area where places may since have become available that we were not aware of at the time. A site visit will also take place on Scoil Colm together with further contact with the trustees and principals of Scoil Eoin. If there is to be an expansion, although I am not saying there will be one, we do not want in any way to discommode the pupils of Scoil Eoin.

There has been cross-party support for this. My colleagues from the constituency also wish to ask a supplementary question.

Site visits will be arranged if necessary to ascertain any potential for extensions with three other special schools. It is always the aim of the Department and the NCSE to accommodate every child who has special needs. As I have said consistently this morning, I am determined to eradicate this lack of provision. I do not want it to be the case in the future that there is a perennial issue of an absence of places for children with special needs. It is simply not good enough and it should not happen. We have sufficient funding. It is about planning ahead and I intend to bring targeted action in that respect. For those children with special needs who do not get a place at any stage, the 20-hours home grant tuition scheme is available. That is not ideal, however, and it is only an interim measure until a place is found for all children.

Further Education and Training Programmes

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

15. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Minister for Education and Skills her plans to ensure that young persons not in education, employment or training have appropriate options available to them to re-enter education; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [19328/20]

What are the Minister of State's plans to ensure that young people who are not in education, employment or training will have an appropriate option available to them to re-enter education? The question is about one group of people. Last year, a report by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, showed that about 16% of people of school-going age were not engaged in school or employment. What plans are in place at the Department to ensure they will have appropriate access to further education as the schools reopen in the final week of August and the first days of September?

I am happy to address this question as part of my responsibilities at the Department with responsibility for further and higher education, research, innovation and science. The priority of the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, the Minister with responsibility for higher education, Deputy Harris, and me is to offer accessible and inclusive further education and training and higher education for all. Student supports are in place throughout further and higher education to make the transition back to education as easy as possible for the individual.

Last week, I announced an additional €168 million funding package for further and higher education, which includes €15 million allocated to fund technology devices for students, a doubling of the student assistance fund to €16 million, an additional €3 million in funding for mental health services for students and more funding for students with disabilities. Further education and training currently offers opportunities to many young people through bespoke provision such as Youthreach, which is aimed at early school leavers. Most learners on these courses meet the youth guarantee criteria. In addition, a young person who has reached the age of 16 can apply to begin an apprenticeship.

There has been a significant increase in the numbers of people who now find themselves not in employment, education or training as a result of Covid-19 and who are in need of upskilling. The July stimulus package offers a €200 million investment in training and education, skills development, work placement schemes, recruitment subsidies, and job search and assistance measures, which will help those who have lost their jobs to find a new one, retrain or develop new skills. Under this package I have secured 35,000 additional places in further and higher education. These will be delivered through a variety of measures, including the Skills to Compete initiative, provided by SOLAS, Skillnet, Springboard+ and the human capital initiative. The apprenticeship incentivisation scheme will provide an initial €2,000 payment to support employers to take on new apprenticeships in 2020, followed by a further €1,000 payment after the first year's employment to support retention.

On the matter of technology devices at colleges of further education, I accept there is very clear guidance, and we congratulate the Minister of State and the Department on the work they have done to ensure that schools will reopen in the final week of August and early September. There is clear guidance on everything that needs to be done in that regard. Will the technology the Minister of State outlined be available to students who are studying at colleges of further education? What are the criteria? Many people within the sector have told me the colleges of further education are the Cinderella of the Department of Education and Skills.

As for the clear social distancing measures and the guidelines for teaching practical subjects or practical courses that people study at colleges of further education, what are the Department's guidelines? Will a clear roadmap be given to colleges of further education to outline how they will reopen in the final days of August and the first days of September?

On the allocation of funding for the purchasing of technology, the education and training boards, ETBs, will allocate funding to participants in further education. Anybody who attends further education through the ETBs will be able to apply to the ETBs. The Higher Education Authority will be funding people who attend our third level institutions, such as universities.

On the question of reopening, all the ETBs, institutes of technology and universities have confirmed to the Minister, Deputy Harris, that they have reopening plans in place. The details of those reopening plans will be worked out locally in consultation with local partners and stakeholders, taking account of the capacity constraints they have in place.

I hope the Minister of State will not take this in an adversarial way but this is an issue that needs to be resolved. A small number of institutions offer post-primary and further or higher education.

They seem to be located in the south east in particular. There is some confusion as to the fact there are guidelines relating to higher and further education, there is also the roadmap and they have different criteria. Institutions are trying to figure out exactly what they should be providing for students from various backgrounds in the same building. I ask the two Departments to co-ordinate on this with the institutions that are involved. The number is not significant but there is confusion.

.I have a supplementary question on the devices. Are they available under the Government's roadmap to students further education?

I confirm they are available to students of further education who are attaining their further education through the ETBs.

That completes the session on questions to the Minister for Education and Skills.