Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Questions Nos. 5 and 6 replied to with Written Answers.

School Accommodation

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

Ceist:

7. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Education the progress of a permanent building for a school (details supplied). [35382/21]

I am asking this question on behalf of Deputy Ó Laoghaire. Will the Minster provide an update on the progress of the provision of a permanent building for the Cork Educate Together Secondary School, ETSS?

The building project for the school referred to by the Deputy is being delivered under the Department’s design and build programme. I want to be clear that this project is a priority for the Department. The permanent location for the school will be on a greenfield site in the Department’s ownership at Maryborough, Douglas, Cork. The school when complete will provide accommodation for 600 pupils and a special education needs unit with three classrooms. The timeline for the delivery of this project has been impacted by difficulties in obtaining planning permission. An application for planning permission was previously refused by the local authority. The Department appealed this decision to An Bord Pleanála but it was upheld.

Due to a change in the local government boundary arrangements in Cork, the site for this Douglas ETSS is now within the environs of Cork City Council. In that regard, the Department has engaged with the council in advance of a new application for planning permission that can take account of concerns raised about traffic management. A pre-planning meeting was held on 16 April with Cork City Council. The Department’s project manager is actively working with Cork City Council's roads department to agree various traffic requirements in advance of lodging the planning application. A planning consultant has also been appointed to assist in the planning process and it is anticipated that the planning application will be lodged in quarter 3 of 2021.

It is not possible to provide a timeframe for the progression of the project to tender and construction stages until such time as the necessary statutory approvals have been secured. The Department will continue to address the interim accommodation requirements for the school and keep the patron body and school updated regarding the progress of the application. The Deputy will be familiar with this matter and I am sure he will appreciate that there was an issue with the original application for planning permission. However, the determination, tenacity and focus of the Department in this regard is demonstrated by the fact that we are moving towards a second application.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Cork Educate Together Secondary School was founded in 2016. This situation has been ongoing for five years now. In September, the children who started secondary school in the school's first year will be sitting their leaving certificate examinations. Overall, there are 360 students, or approximately 60 students in each year. However, approximately 200 children apply to go to the school every year. There is a great need for this school to be delivered as quickly as possible. The dedicated catchment area for the school is Douglas. The school was originally set up in Nagel Community College for a year before moving to Griffith College. Completing this school is a major issue for children in the Douglas area. It is also a major issue for people who wish to have their children educated in an Educate Together school.

I appreciate the points the Deputy has made, especially the point regarding the students who have moved through the years. I understand the impact on the entire school community, including the staff of the school, the board of management, the parents and, as I said, the students themselves. The Deputy will also appreciate, however, that, as with any application for planning permission, there is always the risk of refusal. In this case, the planning application was made and, unfortunately, that was the outcome. To reduce the associated risks the Department has engaged the services of a planning consultant to assist with the planning process. Discussions have also taken place with the planners and engineers of Cork City Council, which is important, and also with representatives of the roads and transport division of the council, which is significant as that is where there is an issue. A formal pre-planning meeting has also taken place. The application will aim to address any concerns raised by the previous refusal of planning permission by Cork County Council and we are moving this forward at pace.

I appreciate what the Minister is saying and that there has been a concerted effort to try to obtain planning permission and get the school built. We have to consider what the children are going through. Only half a class can do art, high-tech teaching or science at any one time. There are no physical education, PE, facilities in the school, so the students are being bussed to other facilities to do their PE. A great deal of time is lost from education because of the time spent travelling on buses. I appreciate that the Minister and Department are making serious efforts regarding this project. Some children at the school will never see this new school. The new building is needed urgently.

I appreciate the Deputy's genuine interest in this issue and the necessity to advance this project as quickly as possible.

I can confirm that we are doing all we can. Certainly we hit a block in terms of the planning but we have reconfigured and reassessed and are doing all we can to ensure the next application will succeed.

I appreciate the points made by the Deputy. The Department has also approved the rental of additional rooms to provide sufficient accommodation for the 2021-22 academic year and is continuing to work with the patron body. I can confirm to the Deputy that there will be sufficient interim accommodation for September 2021. I appreciate the urgency of it and we are very cognisant of the importance of advancing this as quickly as possible.

State Examinations

Mick Barry

Ceist:

9. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Minister for Education if she will consider a review of the structure of the leaving certificate examinations to look at the longer-term changes that can be made to lessen the stress of the examinations; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [34793/21]

Will the Minister consider a review of the structure of the leaving certificate examinations to look at the longer-term changes that can be made to lessen the stress of the examinations?

My Department is acutely aware of the disruption caused to all students because of school closures arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. Yesterday, following a meeting of the advisory group on planning for State examinations, I announced that the level of adjustment to the assessment arrangements for the 2022 leaving certificate examination cohort would be broadly the same as that applied to the assessment arrangements for leaving certificate examinations 2021, as announced in December 2020. I also announced that the State Examinations Commission, SEC, will run an alternative set of leaving certificate examinations in 2022 shortly following the main set of examinations.

The Deputy will also be aware that a review of Ireland's senior cycle is under way. I recognise that while the present senior cycle has its strengths, it also has a number of shortcomings that must be addressed. In this regard, I believe we must examine key issues at senior cycle delivery such as the timing of assessments and assessment components and broader issues of curriculum. I am committed to the review of the senior cycle.

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, has undertaken an extensive review of senior cycle programmes and vocational pathways. It is important to highlight that this goes beyond the established leaving certificate but includes transition year, the leaving certificate applied and the leaving certificate vocational programme. The NCCA has recently submitted the senior cycle review advisory report to the Department. The advisory report is being considered at the moment and will be published in due course. This work will be advanced as quickly as possible.

I will focus on yesterday's announcement. There is to be additional choice for the students regarding leaving certificate 2022, there is to be additional time for leaving certificate students in 2022 and the choice and additional time take account of the time lost. I wish to underline the serious amount of time lost as a result of the pandemic last year, which comprised January, February, March and part of April. Those students lost more than three months of direct teaching time. There is also the possibility of complications in September if what the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, said the other day is anywhere near the mark. Yesterday's statement indicated that the details will be published this month. Can the Minister be more precise and give us a date by which those changes will be made public?

As the Deputy is aware, I am very conscious of the time lost in terms of in-person teaching and learning for the class of 2022. I acknowledge the work of the advisory group. When I reference the advisory group, I want to be clear about who is involved in that. As the students, parents, teachers, joint managerial bodies and the Department are at the heart of that, it is a representative and rounded group of people who have engaged over a long time to address a variety of issues - in this instance, making provision for the leaving certificate of 2022. The accommodations that have been announced take account of that loss of in-person teaching and learning. The conclusion of that process took place yesterday. It is my intention that the detail in that regard will be sent to the schools as a matter of priority. It will be there in a very short space of time.

Regarding the next school year, when will the Covid-19 cleaning supports for schools be announced? It is now July and schools are reopening in August. They have less than two months and need to plan ahead. Will they have these cleaning supports again next year and to what extent will they have them? Last year, they found out at the last minute. There was a lot of pressure and stress. The pressure and stress would be relieved if it could be announced sooner rather than later that schools will get Covid-19 cleaning support grants. Can the Minister indicate when an announcement will be made on that?

I am deeply conscious of the ongoing work in our schools throughout the pandemic. The Deputy will appreciate that the situation is always in flux for both the education sector and society as we deal with the pandemic. Notwithstanding that, considerable planning has gone into provision not just for this year but for the new school year as it begins in September. Schools have already been informed that all provisions in terms of PPE, hand sanitiser and other mitigation measures required for schools in September will be in place and provided for by the Department, as they were previously. We engage with public health on an ongoing basis every step of the way and should there be any additional requirements, they will be put in place and provided for and resourced by the Department.

School Facilities

Pádraig O'Sullivan

Ceist:

10. Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Education if it will be possible for school recreation facilities to be used for community purposes; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [35257/21]

My question is whether it will be possible to open schools as recreational facilities to be used for community purposes.

The policy of my Department is to support the use of school premises and facilities for community and recreational purposes where possible. In October 2017, following consultation with the relevant school authorities, my Department published guidelines on the use of school buildings outside of school hours. These guidelines can be viewed on my Department's website. The purpose of these guidelines is to provide guidance for schools relating to the use of school buildings outside of school hours and for those schools that are considering putting such arrangements in place.

Any decision to make school facilities available lies with the relevant trustees or property owners having regard to the requirements of the school, staff and students. Schools are often the centre of sustainable communities and there can be mutual benefits in building links with the local community. Many schools recognise this and play an important role in their wider communities and many schools make their facilities available outside of school hours for a variety of different uses at a variety of different times throughout the year.

During the period of the Covid-19 pandemic, a school in considering applications should carry out a risk assessment to ensure that any organisation intending to use the school's facilities can guarantee the school that all public health requirements will be adhered to. This is something of which we are particularly conscious as we journey through the Covid-19 pandemic.

I want to acknowledge that in the vast majority of schools there is a very strong alignment between local communities and local schools. I acknowledge that for many communities the school is at the heart and very centre of many community activities as they operate within a local community. That is something I would welcome. It is important that schools within communities continue to build, grow and nurture links.

I thank the Minister. I read the document on the guidance on the use of school buildings outside of school hours to which the Minister referred. It considers the issues surrounding insurance, risk assessments, health and safety, security and those types of situations. I am talking about opening schools for full community use. Nothing has the potential to bring people together more effectively than our schools. We know that communities benefit from strong schools and students benefit from strong communities. Schools do not simply provide a place to educate our children; they anchor students in their communities and provide additional amenities to communities and shared spaces for recreational activities. Communities where schools are appropriately sited and whose accessibility is enhanced can support good health, with children and users able to walk or cycle to school which encourages greater physical activity.

Like the Minister, I have spent a considerable period of my life in a classroom and school environment. I have worked in schools that have been lucky enough to have brand new state-of-the-art facilities on greenfield sites and in schools where they do their best within the confines of their four walls. We need a greater opening up of schools for communities.

I thank the Deputy. I appreciate the sincerity with which he has put forward his views. I want to confirm that the Department has no issue with schools making arrangements with local communities, provided that does not in any way impinge upon the needs of the school at any given time. Therefore, it is important that negotiations around that are at a local level and, as I have outlined, with the property owners, trustees or whatever the case might be.

To be fair, and to the credit of schools across the country, an extraordinarily high number of schools are willing to do that and have engaged positively and proactively with local communities to ensure there is a sharing of resources that might be in the ownership of the school. As I said, specific guidelines are available to schools which might wish to consider doing that in the future.

I understand the concerns school management may have regarding security, insurance, the risk of damage to property and all of those issues that are discussed in the document the Minister referenced. I am talking about schools with state-of-the-art AstroTurf pitches, swimming pools, tennis courts, sports halls, meeting rooms, libraries, gyms and so on. All of those amenities should be made available. The Department should open up schools. Many buildings are on public land and most are publicly funded. They should all be open and available for community use. I ask that the Minister and her Department devise a policy or scrutinise the possibility of opening up schools to the public and in all new builds, in particular, to be fully conscious and aware of the potential to have community accessibility built into our planning. People should have access to schools after hours for community meetings, avail of the books sitting on school library shelves, access IT equipment and use all of our sports facilities.

I thank the Deputy. I acknowledge that we are not too far apart in what he is saying. I want to acknowledge that the Department has no issue. As we previously outlined, it has made guidelines available as to how best practice would work in terms of ensuring how this would operate. As I said, I want to be clear because I do not want the impression to go abroad that this is not happening with school communities. I am aware of an enormous number of schools which are making their facilities available for a variety of different functions, gatherings, meetings or whatever initiatives might be required within a local community. I will reiterate that is very positive. As the Deputy said, there are considerations from a school's point of view. Obviously, we would want to build and nurture links with communities. Many schools have already achieved that. We welcome other schools taking on board what needs to be taken on board so those that wish to create links can do so.

School Accommodation

Aindrias Moynihan

Ceist:

8. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Education the number of engagements that have taken place with the landowner of a proposed new school site (details supplied), if there has been engagement with council planners; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [35347/21]

Population growth in Ballincollig has required two new schools to be established recently, Gaelscoil An Chaisleáin in 2017 and, more recently, Le Chéile second level school which is due to open its doors next September. Can the Minister outline the efforts being made to get permanent homes for these schools and advance buildings for them on a permanent basis?

Under the memorandum of understanding in place between local authorities and my Department in respect of the acquisition of suitable sites for schools, officials in my Department continue to liaise with officials in Cork City Council in regard to a site for the school, Le Chéile, in respect of which the Deputy is inquiring.

A number of site options have been identified and assessed by my Department in conjunction with officials from Cork City Council. Unfortunately, in the case of most of these options the land could not be acquired from the landowner or the site was ultimately considered unfeasible to develop for a variety of technical reasons. However, two potential site options have been identified and negotiations are currently under way. These site options include potential campus arrangements with Gaelscoil An Chaisleáin.

There is ongoing active engagement with Cork City Council, including with its planners in the context of the ongoing development plan review process. This consists of a number of communications via phone calls, email and conference calls specifically in regard to advancing this.

I appreciate that the process is taking a considerable length of time, but I can assure the Deputy that the acquisition of a suitable site for the school is very active in the programme of site acquisitions and every effort is being made to secure a suitable site for the school as expeditiously as possible. I know this is a high priority for the Deputy. He has continued to engage on an ongoing basis on this and I assure him we wish to expedite this as quickly as we possibly can. He will appreciate and be aware that negotiations in respect of site acquisitions are, by their nature, sensitive and for that reason I am not in a position to provide further specifics. I assure him it is a matter of priority for the Department.

I acknowledge that Le Chéile is newer and due to open its doors in September. The population projections for the school predict an increase from 600 to 1,000 students so a larger site is required. The gaelscoil has been in temporary accommodation since its establishment in 2017. It is outgrowing its site and its temporary planning. There is increasing pressure.

Due to the fact a larger footprint is needed, is the Minister engaging with the development plan which is going to public consultation shortly to request additional grounds to be zoned? Is she proposing to move ahead with existing zoned ground?

Tá géarghá le suíomh do Ghaelscoil An Chaisleáin a bhogadh ar aghaidh. Tá siad ag feitheamh ó bunaíodh an scoil in 2017. Tá brú orthu agus tá siad ag fás agus ag síneadh amach mórthimpeall an tsuímh atá ann. An féidir é seo a bhogadh chun cinn go práinneach?

As I said, I appreciate the bona fides of the Deputy's inquiry. It has been an ongoing priority on his agenda with the Department of Education. I want to be very clear that the Department is doing all it can to engage with all sides to ensure we can expedite the provision of an appropriate site for all concerned as quickly as possible.

In regard to Cork City Council, I want to acknowledge that there has been excellent and ongoing engagement between the Department of Education and the local authority and I want to acknowledge the manner in which it was facilitated by the local authority. That includes the development plan review process. That work is ongoing.

We are 100% committed to expediting this as a matter of priority.

I seek to clarify two points on the two potential sites that possibly are being advanced. The Minister indicated the campus option is being considered. Is the campus option for both of those potential sites or is there still a possibility of one site for each of the schools?

On the city development plan, which is going to public consultation shortly, is the Department requesting that either additional or new sites be zoned? The site that would be needed for either a campus or for a 1,000-pupil school would be much larger than the grounds that are already zoned. Is there active engagement about zoning ground and are submissions being made on the development plan?

It was remiss of me not to say that I appreciate the importance of seeing progress being made here as quickly as possible from the point of view of school communities, staff, parents, boards of management and local communities. I know I am repeating myself at this stage but I assure the Deputy that every effort is being made. There have been ongoing and protracted engagements in an attempt to advance this as quickly as possible. It is a positive that we can say that two potential sites have been identified and that the negotiations are under way. The Deputy is correct that the site options include potential campus arrangements. It would be early days to say any more than that at this stage. The potential for a campus arrangement between the two is there but it is just potential at this stage.

On the development plan, all aspects that would be of benefit to advancing the schools are being discussed.

Legislative Measures

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin

Ceist:

11. Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin asked the Minister for Education the status of the Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill 2019; her plans to proceed with the Bill; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [34788/21]

I want to ask the Minister the status of the Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill 2019; her plans to proceed with the Bill; and if she will make a statement on the matter.

Again I wish to acknowledge that this is something of particular interest to the Deputy on which he has engaged with me on an ongoing basis and I wish to express my appreciation for that.

The Deputy will be aware that the Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill 2019 completed all Stages of the Seanad in 2019. I confirm that the Department is currently awaiting an Order for Second Stage in the Dáil, at which time the Bill will be read a Second Time and continue through the legislative process. I would like to see that happen as quickly as possible. It is a key priority for the Department, given the Bill's potential to enhance school relations and communications.

I support the overall aim of this legislation, which is to improve the level of engagement between the school community by inviting feedback, comment and observations from students and parents and by further developing a listening culture in our schools and stronger liaison within school communities. The legislation will help ensure that schools, students and parents continue to work in partnership effectively together and will provide greater clarity for students and their parents on what they can expect from schools. One of the key concepts of the Bill is the need for a school to consult with students and their parents on individual school plans, policies and activities. The detail on the manner in which schools will consult with, seek feedback from and respond to students and their parents will be set out in the charter guidelines, to be published following consultation with education stakeholders.

Once the legislation is enacted, detailed work will be undertaken on developing the national charter guidelines in consultation with the education partners. The consultation process will be an important element in ensuring that the guidelines achieve their objective in a manner that is as straightforward and effective as possible, both for schools and for students and their parents. My officials within the Department will continue to work on progressing this important legislation.

I thank the Minister. She will agree with me that it is important that we put children and young people at the centre of the education discussion and for far too long that has not been the case. It has been remarked to me on a number of occasions that what the Department tends to understand better than anything else are teachers and buildings but that when it comes to young people and children, they are too often not at the heart of our education discussions.

I want to pay tribute to the Minister on the leaving certificate discussions. She put the voice of the student at the heart of all those discussions. They were at the table, they were listened to and they were consulted with. At the end of the day, the Minister listened and acted on what they felt was best for their cohort. That is to the Minister's credit and we have had a better leaving certificate process as a result of that and the Minister's open-mindedness. A definite timeline for this would be appreciated and would represent progress.

I appreciate the Deputy's comments and I am in entire agreement with him. I strongly believe in the partnership approach in education. I also want to acknowledge that we see that work very effectively in many schools. As the Deputy has referenced the pandemic, we have seen extraordinary examples of that working so well and significantly to facilitate schools and school communities to journey through the pandemic. From my experience I know that a school community is strongest when it works together and when all voices are at the table. I want to give the Deputy an absolute commitment that it is a key priority for my Department and for myself to move this as quickly as we possibly can. We are awaiting an Order for Second Stage in the Dáil. At such time, as the Deputy will appreciate, it will be read a Second Time and it will go through the legislative process. We will do all that we can so that this will be expedited as quickly as possible.

I appreciate the Minister's comments. We share the ambition of putting the child and the student at the heart of the education discussion. Schools have broken up for the summer. Yesterday would have been the last day for many primary schoolchildren. They are moving on to the next stage of their education and some of them are moving into second level. Can I ask the Minister about the commitment she gave a month ago on a catch-up fund? I was appreciative of the Minister's comments that Senator Bacik and I have been campaigning on this since last February and the Minister made a commitment on 3 June that a catch-up fund would be announced to enable children, not just in terms of a summer programme but over the course of the next year, to repair some of the damage that has been caused by the lack of in-school teaching. There was teaching and learning going on but as the Minister knows, much of it was outside of school and done remotely. Can I get an update on the Minister's intention to announce and fund a catch-up fund for next year?

I can confirm that we are working on a support fund and support resource for schools in acknowledgement of the position in which we find ourselves in the pandemic and the loss on occasion of in-person teaching and learning. From the point of view of school staff I want to acknowledge that this was notwithstanding the remote learning that was provided by schools. I am conscious of the importance of in-person teaching and learning. I am also conscious of the need to make provision for supports for the new school year and that is a priority. I am pleased to say that we have made significant advancement in it. It is a body of work that requires resourcing and that demands imagination and appreciation of where the specifics are to make resources available to schools. I hope to be in a position to make an announcement on it shortly. I acknowledge that the Deputy has referenced the summer provision plan. For the first time that is open to all schools with a budget of €40 million and there has been an enormously positive uptake in it. I look forward to being in a position to be able to make an announcement shortly on the broader plan for school return. I cannot give the Deputy the specific date but it is on its way.

School Facilities

Niamh Smyth

Ceist:

12. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Education the reason a person (details supplied) cannot get assistive technology assistance to help with their education going forward. [35110/21]

I will continue in that vein and thank the Minister and the Minister of State for the July provision. I have had numerous schools, special needs assistants, SNAs, teachers and parents contact me who will benefit from that and it is wonderful to see. I want to ask about a particular student, namely, Aoibhinn O'Reilly. She is a student at St. Mary's National School, Crosserlough, who is awaiting assistive technology for her education. She applied last October and I wonder if the Minister could give us an update.

I thank Deputy Niamh Smyth for the question. One of my stated action priorities is to support and develop the assistive technology scheme to ensure it is of most benefit to those who need it. This is something I am considering as the Minister of State responsible. As we know, specialist equipment is required by some children with more complex special educational needs to access the curriculum properly and to participate in school learning activities. For this purpose, funding was provided to schools under the assistive technology scheme for the purchase of computers and specialist equipment, where students do not have access to such equipment for teaching and learning.

The type of equipment we provide under the scheme is varied. It includes audiological supports for students who have hearing impairment, braille equipment for children with visual impairment and computer equipment with associated modified software for students with physical or severe communicative disabilities. The NCSE is responsible, through its network of special education needs organisers, SENOs, for processing these applications from schools for assistive technology support. Schools make their applications directly to their local SENO or visiting teacher and provide the details of the student's special education needs, including the details of the approach taken by the school in making the relevant intervention. The SENOs will review applications. I understand that in the case of the pupil referred to by Deputy Smyth, it was not possible to approve the application because it did not confirm a diagnosed disability or medical condition in line with the criteria of the scheme. It is open to the school to appeal that decision and the appeals process is outlined on the Department's website.

I thank the Minister of State for that comprehensive reply and detailed outlining of the requirements. I have been in a classroom and have seen how assistive technology can have an enormous positive impact on the needs of students in participating in mainstream education. For teachers, it is an extra piece of work to do when they have assistive technology but for the students, the benefits are significant and should be embraced.

As the Minister of State is aware, Aoibhinn's application was made last October. I am glad to hear there is an appeals process and that door is not closed on her. She is a student whose mobility is debilitating in terms of her capacity to participate in school. She suffers from joint hypermobility and the assistive technology she needs would be most important in helping with her reading and writing. After 16 months of going in and out of school, between homeschooling and schooling in the classroom, we know how important technology is for everybody. I appeal to the Minister of State, if it is possible, to ensure that this student gets the assistive technology requested.

Deputy Smyth is correct in stating the diagnosis is joint hypermobility syndrome. It is simply a matter of meeting the criteria demanded and required of this application process. The original application stated that her handwriting was good, for example. There was an element about her experiencing tiredness and issues in respect of carrying her school bag. If the criteria specifically relating to the physical or communicative disability are outlined with recommendations from a professional assessment, including the fact that the school cannot provide the technology the applicant badly needs, the appeal should be successful. Obviously, I cannot guarantee that but the appeal will be fully reviewed, once the criteria are set out in that application. At the end of the day, we want to support children with additional needs who have difficulty assessing knowledge and learning adequately and who require the assistive technology to do that.

I am a bit uncomfortable going into the details of a specific case. I presume Deputy Smyth has permission to raise the name.

I thank the Minister of State for her comprehensive reply. This is an issue which has been ongoing for the student since October 2020. During the pandemic, it has been highlighted that technology is extremely important. The Minister of State has said that there is another opportunity for this student to have her application looked at again and that the appeals process is there. That would be most helpful to her and her parents, who have been in contact with me and are very concerned that she receive extra help in school. For any student who has additional learning needs or mobility problems, if there is anything we can do to assist them and embrace their educational opportunities, we need to do that. I welcome the response from the Minister of State this morning.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for her clarifying comments around the identity of the child that Deputy Smyth named. While I have not named the child, I am aware of the application. Once the criteria are set out, the appeal will be fully reviewed by the NCSE and the Department. Ultimately, the purpose of the scheme is to provide grant aid to schools to allow them to prioritise the type of specialist equipment recommended by the NCSE as being essential for those who have a physical, sensory or communicative disability, to the extent that the ability to communicate through the medium of speech or writing is materially curtailed and where it is clear that the existing equipment in the school is insufficient to meet the child's needs without unduly depriving other children of access to the equipment or where, without such equipment, it would not be possible for such children to access the school curriculum.

With Members' co-operation, we will get to two more questions.

School Equipment

Niamh Smyth

Ceist:

13. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Education her plans to further support digital online learning for primary and secondary schools including to develop a new digital strategy for schools; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [35401/21]

I wish to ask what are the Minister's plans to further support digital online learning for primary and secondary schoolchildren, including the development of a new digital strategy for schools, and whether she will make a statement on the matter.

As Deputy Smyth may be aware, an investment programme of €210 million has been delivered under the current Digital Strategy for Schools 2015-2020. As the Deputy's previous question demonstrated, there undoubtedly is a strong role for digital devices and the use of digital technology in teaching and learning within our education system, and we must support its continued development.

Under the digital strategy, ICT funding is issued directly to schools as they are best placed to identify and meet the requirements of their school and school cohort. This funding can be used to buy devices for use by students and teachers, including learning platforms, software and the overall ICT infrastructure development in the school. Extensive support for schools to develop digital learning plans is provided through the digital learning framework alongside a suite of teacher professional learning delivered through the Department-funded teacher support service, the professional development service for teachers.

Earlier this year, I announced the development of a new digital strategy for schools accompanied by a wide-ranging consultation process. A consultative group has also been established comprising all key stakeholders, that is, the widest possible reach within the education sector, including education partners, parent groups and student representatives to ensure a meaningful and effective engagement with all key stakeholders. In addition, consultation is under way as part of the process. I want the new strategy to build on the progress achieved to date and to ensure that young people gain the necessary digital skills as part of their education. The new strategy will take account of the findings from the consultation process, the experience gained through the implementation of the current strategy and national and international experience in this area. It also will seek to address and incorporate new and emerging issues and trends in digital technology in education. I look forward to working towards a new digital strategy for our schools in the coming months on the back of all this consultation.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it has taught us how important is the digital world and forum. Not unlike my previous question, we have learned that it will be most useful to students in every guise in education. It is clear that digital online learning has played a crucial role in school and college life over the past year and it must be acknowledged that the reliance on online learning has, at times, placed a significant burden on teachers, students and many parents, who bore the cost of devices and connections. Lessons must be learned from the experience of the past 16 months in terms of good practice, as well as to know how better to meet identified needs.

What measures are being put in place to enable stakeholder consultation in the new digital strategy for schools to ensure the needs and experience of those most affected, both adults and students, are heard, including those most at risk of educational disadvantage?

I agree with the Deputy that we have learned an enormous amount from the pandemic as we have gone through it. We have also learned of the flexibility, adaptability and resilience of schools in meeting challenges as they are presented. I want to be very clear that with the resourcing of schools, more than €100 million has been made available to them during the pandemic, specifically with regard to digital technology, and this afforded schools the opportunity to purchase equipment and loan equipment to students where necessary. I have seen good practice in many schools where it was not possible for a student to have equipment that the required equipment was loaned and students could draw on that resource.

The Deputy referred to who would be involved with the consultation, etc. I have indicated that this was an open call consultation and it is important that the voices of students, parents, teachers, managerial bodies and wider society is heard. It is important as there is no monopoly of wisdom in any subject. The consultation process included and was open to everyone.

I thank the Minister. I know she is looking at a number of initiatives, including a €210 million investment programme underpinning the implementation of the digital strategy for schools, which will be tailored to allow schools to get what they need most in support to embed digital technologies in the school setting. This could be in the format of desktop PCs or tablets, and that is just how education is going. I am delighted to see how the Department is embracing all that for our schools and, more importantly, the students.

Will the Minister give us an expected timeline and status for the new digital strategy for schools? Looking to future measures, what plans have been identified or may already be in place for future supports and digital and online learning for both primary and secondary schools?

I confirm that the consultation process was wide and provided online and questionnaire resources etc. There was an opportunity for people to engage and much of that is being analysed now. There have been and will continue to be bilateral engagements with a variety of different stakeholders and partners in education on the formulation of a new policy. It is my intention that we will be in a position to launch this new policy within the next number of months.

I am under no illusions about the significant and beneficial resource that digital technology provides to our schools and, as I said, we have seen that during the pandemic. I acknowledge that digital technology is an additional tool within schools. We have also learned through this pandemic the value of in-person experiences in education as well. We are looking to broaden the resources we have in education and this is a vital example. We hope to be in a position to launch the new strategy in the coming months.

Questions Nos. 14 to 20, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

State Examinations

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin

Ceist:

21. Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin asked the Minister for Education if a decision will be made and a plan put in place over the coming weeks regarding the way that leaving certificate 2022 will be held in order that teachers, students and parents will know the position when schools return in September; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [34787/21]

This relates to the leaving certificate for next year. Has the Minister made any decisions or have plans been put in place for leaving certificate 2022? Will such decisions be made in a timely fashion so teachers, students and parents will know the position when schools return in September?

As I have said, the Department and I, as Minister for Education, are acutely aware of the disruption caused to all students as a result of school closures arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. From 11 January 2021, all students engaged in a programme of remote learning with their schools and I express appreciation to schools for managing that.

Students who have just completed fifth year and who are due to take leaving certificate examinations in 2022 have experienced a degree of disruption to their learning. In these circumstances, it was considered that some level of adjustment to the normal leaving certificate assessment arrangements should be made for them that would be proportionate to their experience and be educationally appropriate. Given where these students were at in their studies at the time of each school lockdown period, the impact of the loss of tuition time is less than that experienced by those students who sat the leaving certificate this year. To be fair to the class of 2022, there has been a loss of in-person teaching and learning.

I am pleased to say that yesterday, the advisory group on planning for State examinations received an update on the 2022 leaving certificate and junior cycle examinations. I announced that the level of adjustment to the assessment arrangements for the 2022 leaving certificate examination cohort would be broadly the same as that applied by the assessment arrangements for leaving certificate examinations for 2021, as set in December 2020. These arrangements were announced before the second period of school closures. Additional changes will be made to that document to reflect syllabus content specific the 2022 examinations. The revised document will be published later this month.

I also announced yesterday that the SEC will run an alternative set of leaving certificate examinations in 2022, shortly following the main set of examinations. The SEC will set out the eligibility conditions for these examinations, which will be limited to certain students who are unable to sit the main set of examinations due to close family bereavement, Covid-19 illness etc. during those examinations, and certain other categories of serious illness to be clearly and strictly delineated. The SEC will issue further details regarding these examinations, with all arrangements guided by prevailing public health advice, which is a key priority. There will be further engagement with stakeholders in this matter.

In the course of the conversations over the past few days about NPHET, advice, a question mark - although not a major one - was placed beside the potential return to school in September. Nobody expects that to be an eventuality but it has still been brought into the conversation. Would it not be a cleaner or better for the Minister to decide now to roll out leaving certificate 2022 exactly as the leaving certificate for 2021 has been rolled out, with a choice for students? Fifth year students have lost quite a number of months of in-school tuition in this calendar year. Would it not make more sense for the Minister to make the decision now that students going into sixth year next year would have the exact same experience as those who did the leaving certificate last month? We are not yet out of the pandemic and we cannot make any predictions about what will happen with variants.

It is important to acknowledge there has been a considerable amount of forward planning by the Department in preparing for the 2022 leaving certificate. I acknowledge the contribution of the advisory group, as I outlined, which is representative of students, parents, teachers, managerial bodies and the wider spectrum of education partners. It is positive that we can now indicate to students what will be before them as they return to school at the end of August and early September. Advance notice is important not just to students but to teachers as well.

We are constantly engaging with public health officials about mitigation measures and the operation of our schools. That engagement continues and any mitigation measures required, as I indicated earlier, are being and will be put in place. As I have said, we have made provision for a second running of leaving certificate examinations for the 2022 cohort. That is very important and students should be aware that the provision is there for them.

I understand that the Minister needs to go through with the wide-ranging consultation with students, parents, teachers and other representatives. A number of months of in-school tuition have been lost to that fifth year cohort now going into sixth year. The July plans have already been delayed and NPHET is suggesting the potential, if everything went badly wrong, for a question mark over the reopening of schools in September. I appreciate that the Minister cannot make a definite decision on the floor of the House.

Can we not keep within our decision-making parameters the potential for the exact same scenario to happen in 2022 as happened in 2021? Were the Minister to make an early decision in that regard, it would be greatly appreciated as we would not have to go through six months of campaigning to get to the very same point we reached six months ago.

To be fair to all who have engaged in this process, we were in a position yesterday, at the end of June, to make an announcement regarding forward planning for the class of 2022, which includes accommodation in terms of the exam. It is proportionate. It is the accommodation that was made available originally in August, with a further modification in December in terms of the assessment of the exam. We have gone a step further in June by announcing to students in advance of June 2022 that we are in a position and it is our intention to run a second diet or operation of leaving certificate 2022 to accommodate and make way for students who might, unfortunately, suffer a bereavement, an illness, an impact brought on by Covid-19 or whatever other issue might arise in that context. There has been considerable planning. Obviously, we keep everything under review and we engage with public health. It is a significant achievement that we are in a position to make this announcement one year in advance for the benefit of students.