Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 10 Mar 2022

Vol. 1019 No. 5

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

School Transport

Michael Moynihan


67. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Minister for Education the status of the review of the school transport system, including consultation; when the final report can be expected; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [13494/22]

My question is on the progress of the review of school transport, when the Minister will receive it and what will be the likely actions.

I also draw the Minister's attention to a report in this morning's Irish Examiner on the potential sustainability of the school transport network because of the current fuel price hikes, which are not catered for in the contracts, in particular for private operators.

As the Deputy will be aware, the school transport scheme is a significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department. In the current school year, more than 121,400 students, including more than 15,500 children with special educational needs, are transported on a daily basis to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country at a cost of more than €289 million in 2021.

I know what a hugely important service school transport is for families and children. As the Deputy referenced, my Department commenced a review of the school transport scheme in February 2021. The review is being conducted with a view to examining the current scheme, its broader effectiveness and sustainability, and to ensure it serves students and their families adequately. The review encompasses the school transport scheme for children with special educational needs and the primary and post-primary school transport schemes in terms of how each element of the scheme currently operates to include eligibility criteria, trends, costs and cost drivers, and overall effectiveness in meeting the objectives of the schemes. The review will also examine the potential for integration of different strands of the scheme and a more co-ordinated approach with other Departments that also use transport services. The review will consider issues such as climate action, supporting rural development and promoting, where possible, initiatives that encourage walking and cycling to school.

In June 2021, the steering group presented me with an initial interim report on eligibility with an examination of issues for mainstream pupils relating to the nearest and next-nearest school. Following consideration of the report, I approved alleviation measures that allowed for the provision of transport for post-primary students who are otherwise eligible for school transport but are attending their second nearest school and had applied and paid on time. Wider considerations relating to the operation of the scheme are now taking place in the second phase of the review. As part of this phase, the Department has conducted an extensive stakeholder engagement process. The Department is analysing the views of relevant stakeholders, including parents, guardians, students and other Departments, so that they may be considered as part of the assessment and in informing policy on the future operation of the scheme.

Regarding the changes the Minister made to the scheme last year, which have been beneficial for many, does she plan on making any further changes ahead of the next school year, arising from the report currently before her?

I am interested to hear about her interaction with students. I welcome the work she did with students on the leaving certificate. Will she actively engage with students on school transport, as they would bring a lot of ideas to the table?

Regarding transport for students with additional needs, will she engage with their parents, providers and the broader school community on how best we can do that? Has she had any consultation in recent days within the Department on the cost of fuel and its potential impact on private providers and on the main provider, Bus Éireann? My interaction with the school transport office has been excellent. I thank, in particular, the officials in the school transport office in Ballina.

With regard to engagement, following the announcement of the commencement of the stakeholder consultation process in January 2022, a very proactive approach was taken by the Department. There was direct contact with stakeholders, including school management bodies, parent representative organisations, special education interest groups, EU member states, and school principals, to seek their views on the school transport scheme. Parents and guardians and post-primary students were also invited to complete online surveys.

More than 8,200 surveys have been received from parents and guardians and more than 2,400 surveys have been received from students, which is significant engagement by students in the process. To date, five submissions have been received from other Departments and organisations, six from school management bodies, 73 from school principals, and submissions have also been received from special education interest groups and broader interests. Ongoing engagement continues between officials in my Department and others. We hope to expedite the completion of the review on school transport as quickly as possible.

I welcome the engagement on the fuel issue. That is very urgent. Has the Local Link organisation made a submission to the review or has the Department engaged with it? Local Link is an asset that could be very much part of school transport as well as community transport. It could be possible to exchange and co-ordinate assets that are available to school transport for broader community transport when they are not being utilised for school purposes.

I echo what Deputy Calleary said. It is vitally important that there is good engagement, not just with Bus Éireann but with the private operators on whom we rely enormously. They are under big pressure in the same way as hauliers and others, and it is important that there is engagement and that they get the support and assistance they need.

There were improvements to the school transport scheme last year, but there are still outstanding knotty issues relating to routes in particular. It comes back to what Deputy Ó Ríordáin has been saying about the Department needing to show some vision. This is the big issue, along with solar panels on schools, that the Department can address in respect of climate change. We should be working towards a situation where every child does not have to travel to school in a car. Ideally, they would walk or cycle, but if that is not possible, they should get a publicly-funded bus service. That is the vision the Department must show in school transport in the short to medium term. Every child who wants a place on a school bus should get it.

To be very clear, there is no ambiguity as regards the Department's ambition. We are very clear that it is our intention to advance the school transport system. We have listed a variety of criteria regarding eligibility and encouraging people to access school transport, but also to pursue a green agenda in terms of accessibility. We have moved a step forward even in the short term in accessing availability for students who are not necessarily attending their nearest school but their next-nearest school. We continue apace.

In terms of the engagement, I reiterate that it has been the widest and possibly the most significant public consultation that has taken place. A wide breadth of representatives - individuals and organisations - were invited to participate in the public consultation. I do not have the time to articulate the various groups that have engaged in the process. It is my intention to conclude the process in a timely manner.

Question No. 68 replied to with Written Answers.

State Examinations

Niamh Smyth


69. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Education her views on correspondence (details supplied) regarding the junior cycle examinations; if she will clarify the position regarding same; if she will provide the breakdown of marks to teachers or outline when the State Examinations Commission will be issuing guidance to teachers and students; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [13323/22]

My question relates to the marking scheme set out by the State Examinations Commission, SEC, specifically the allocation of marks for geography and history, in order that teachers can advise their students. I would welcome if the Minister could make a statement on the matter.

The first phase of junior cycle reform began in 2014 with the introduction of a new specification in junior cycle English, which was first examined in 2017. New specifications in junior cycle science and business studies were introduced in August 2016 and first examined in 2019. The new specifications for the modern foreign languages and Irish were introduced in August 2017 and were due for assessment for the first time in 2020. Junior cycle geography, history, home economics, music and mathematics were introduced in schools in 2018 and were due for assessment in 2021.

The State Examinations Commission published sample papers in autumn 2021 for the subjects in the fifth and final phase of junior cycle reform, which will be examined for the first time in 2022. These are religious education, classics, wood technology, engineering, graphics and applied technology. While all new specifications are now being taught in schools, due to the pandemic, the junior cycle examinations in both 2020 and 2021 were not held for school-based candidates. The majority of new specifications will, therefore, be examined, at scale, for the first time in 2022.

The SEC advises that, as has long been the case at junior cycle level, the level of detail on examination papers relating to mark allocations may vary from subject to subject. In some cases, mark allocations are shown for questions, sections or the entire paper, and some papers provide guidance as to the length of time to be spent on particular questions. It is important to note that these are no-choice examination papers and candidates are required to answer all questions on the examination paper. In addition, the examination papers are in a completion booklet format, and the space provided for the candidate responses provides an indication to candidates of the length of the response required. The structure and format of the papers are of assistance to teachers in preparing candidates in their preparation for the examinations.

In line with long-standing practice, and in the interests of fairness, the SEC does not provide marking schemes for sample papers as the marking scheme cannot be finalised in the absence of a review of candidate work produced under live examination conditions. The SEC advises that it would not be appropriate to draw any inferences from any marking scheme for a sample paper regarding how any subsequent live paper might be marked. The SEC will publish the marking schemes at the time of issue of the provisional examination results. This can assist candidates who are considering whether they may wish to appeal these provisional results, and provides clarity to candidates and their teachers regarding how the work produced was evaluated.

I wholeheartedly congratulate the Minister on the terrific announcement yesterday that 310 schools have been brought under the delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, programme. That €32 million investment will make a major difference to many thousands of students throughout the country.

As somebody who not only taught history of art but corrected it for the SEC, I am acutely aware that the marking scheme is very important for teachers in giving accurate advice to students on time spent on questions. In my experience, that was available to us in history of art at pre-examination level and for corrections. It is very important for teachers to have that guidance to enable them to give correct information to their students about how much time they should spend on questions. I again ask the Minister to examine this, especially for history and geography. We should not be precluded from saying teachers should be given that guidance. As I said, we had it for history of art and I do not see why it should not be the same for geography and history.

Consequent to the pandemic of the past two years, exams that should have taken place, including for students who were being examined for the first time, did not take place and are open for assessment now. It is in line with long-standing practice and in the interests of fairness that the SEC does not provide marking schemes for sample papers as a marking scheme cannot be finalised in the absence of a review of a candidate's work produced under live examination conditions. The commission advised that it would not be appropriate to draw any inference from any marking scheme on a sample paper as it may not reflect the live paper.

The commission will publish the marking schemes at the time of issue of the provisional examination results. This will assist candidates who are considering whether they may wish to appeal these provisional results. It is important to note that there are no-choice examination papers and candidates are required to answer all the questions on the examination paper. In addition, the examination papers are in completion booklet format and the space provided to the candidate is indicative of the amount the candidate is required to write to answer that question.

I acknowledge the points the Deputy made but the NCCA is making the point that a live exam will determine the final marking.

The expectation was raised in 2021 and 2020 when the NCCA issued a number of junior certificate sample questions online. These clearly stated that each question is not weighted the same in the marking scheme. That raised the expectation and the hope that clarity could be given around that to give teachers an ample opportunity to give guidance to their students. It is a difficult time for teachers and students and, as the Minister said, we have come through a difficult time in education because of the pandemic. With the first State examinations since and some sort of normality approaching, there is an eagerness among teachers to give their students as much advice and guidance around those exams as they can.

I appreciate the Minister's clarity on the question. We will endeavour to give our teachers as much clarity as possible closer to the time.

I again acknowledge the enormous body of work that has been undertaken by teachers and students. I am particularly conscious that for the first time in two years we will have junior cycle exams in this third year. We welcome that. I also appreciate the workload of teachers and their ambition for their students to maximise their abilities and achievements on the paper. I also want to be fair about it. This is not a choice examination paper. It is in booklet form. A certain number of lines are given that are indicative of the amount of time and space that needs to be given to an answer. Equally, the point made by the NCCA is that work produced under live examination conditions ultimately determines the marking scheme. That is appropriate as that has been a long-standing practice. Nonetheless, I wish all students, and staff who are supporting them at this time, the very best. Great work is being done in schools.

Question No. 70 replied to with Written Answers.

Is the Acting Chairperson taking Questions Nos. 71 and 72 together? They are on the same issue.

They are not grouped together. We will stick with Question No. 71.

Schools Building Projects

Brian Stanley


71. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Education if funding for a school (details supplied) will be sufficient to provide a new building considering the level of inflation in the building sector. [13313/22]

I will raise the issue of the Kolbe centre in Portlaoise, County Laois which is in urgent need of a new building. The Minister might outline the funding progress on that.

The major building project for Kolbe Special School in Portlaoise is included in the Department’s construction programme, which is being delivered under the national development plan. The €4.4 billion funding envelope for the schools capital programme under Project Ireland 2040 provides a strong basis for the roll-out of projects, including in respect of Kolbe Special School.

The project is currently at an advanced stage of architectural planning, stage 2b detailed design, which includes the application for all statutory consents, including planning permission, disability access certification and fire safety certification, in addition to the preparation of tender documentation. Planning permission has recently been granted. Disability access certification has also been granted and the application for fire safety certification is with the local authority; its response is pending. The design team is currently working on completion of the tender documents and finalisation of the stage 2b report, which will then be submitted to the Department for review and approval. To expedite the project, the pre-qualification of contractors is being carried out in parallel with the completion and review of stage 2b, and the design team was authorised to commence the process just last week.

Upon receipt, review and approval of the stage 2b submission, completion of the pre-qualification of contractors, and once the design team are satisfied that their tender documents are in order and comply with all departmental and building regulation requirements, the project for Kolbe Special School can be progressed to tender and award of contract. A tender stage normally takes between six to eight months subject to no issues arising. I will articulate clearly that the Department is fully committed to getting this project delivered as quickly as possible and advanced as a priority.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I cannot emphasise enough the need for a new building. At present, this special school, which deals with children with very complex needs and serious levels of disability, has only one permanent bricks-and-mortar classroom. Everything else is prefabricated and some of it is in a very poor condition. It is not totally weatherproof, it is not soundproof and some of the prefabs are just too small. It is very difficult to heat and, with the current situation regarding energy costs, that causes difficulties. I emphasise there is a major need for this school. The site is secured on Block Road. It is an excellent site and the school authorities have been working hard on that with the Department. I acknowledge the co-operation of the Minister's officials on that matter.

The school has an excellent and very committed staff and the parents are also very committed. It is very important that we try to move this project on. Planning permission was granted a couple of weeks ago by the county council. That is something I have raised a number of times with the council because of the urgency of the project. It is now important that we get it to the next stage, which the Minister will appreciate. Will she given an indication of the timelines and the funding involved?

I acknowledge the Deputy's commitment to the delivery of this project. I also acknowledge that it is a project where the importance of delivery has been drawn to my attention. The Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and myself are very committed to the provision of special education. Some 25% of our budget, in excess of €2 billion, is expended, rightly so, on special education. There is an enormous commitment from the Department to that.

From what I have outlined, the Deputy will see that significant progress in advancing this project has been made. He referenced planning permission, and fire safety certification is pending from the local authority, whose role we acknowledge. The design team is currently working on the tender documents. Equally, to expedite the project, pre-qualification for contractors, which is important, is being carried out in parallel with the completion and review of stage 2b. Again, as the Deputy acknowledged, the design team has been authorised to commence the process last week. The manner in which we are as much as possible taking a twin-track approach underlines our commitment.

The Minister will understand, coming from the education sector and given her job now, the different stages of planning, design and delivery of a school. There are a number of hurdles within the process and a number of stages that must be gone through. I ask that her officials give this priority. I acknowledge the Minister of State. She will be in the constituency, in Laois, on Friday and she will be very welcome. It is really important that we get it done and that the funding provided is sufficient to cater for any building inflation there may be because, unfortunately, costs are not going down. It is important that there is sufficient funding for it.

I ask the Minister could really work hard on this so that the children and the staff do not spend another winter in the accommodation that they are in, if that is possible. We need to try to move on with it. It is not suitable with the weather conditions to have people in those prefabs year-in, year-out. I thank the Minister for her reply. Hopefully, we can get this project moving very quickly.

I thank the Deputy. I reiterate the Department's absolute commitment to deliver this project as expeditiously as possible. It is being given priority. On receipt and review of the stage 2b submission, completion of the pre-qualification of contractors and once the design team is satisfied that the tender documents are in order and comply with departmental and building regulations, the project for Kolbe Special School can be progressed to tender and award of contract. We will do that as expeditiously as possible. I concede that the tender process can take between six and eight months but it is very important that everyone in the school community, families and the wider community can see the timeline of progress. That also gives confidence to the project. We have made significant progress and I want us to continue with the same level of urgency and priority.

Questions Nos. 72 and 73 replied to with Written Answers.

School Staff

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin


74. Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin asked the Minister for Education when the staffing schedule for 2022-23 will be published. [13510/22]

When will the staffing schedule for 2022-23 will be published?

The key factor for determining the level of staffing resources provided at individual school level is the staffing schedule for the relevant school year and pupil enrolments on the previous 30 September.

For the current school year, the staffing schedule operates on a general average of 25 pupils to every one teacher. That is historically the lowest ever allocation ratio at primary level. More favourable ratios are implemented for DEIS urban band 1 schools.

Budget 2022 progressed the ongoing major investment in our primary education sector which impacts positively on the staffing in primary schools by providing a further one-point reduction for the 2022-23 school year so that primary schools will be allocated teaching posts on an average basis of one classroom teacher for every 24 pupils in September 2022. This brings the staffing schedule to a further new historical low for primary schools.

Budget 2022 also provided the largest-ever increase in funding for the DEIS programme with an additional allocation of €18 million, equivalent to a full year allocation of €32 million, which will enable an expansion in 2022 of the programme to further schools. This will result in an increase of more than 20% in funding for the DEIS programme.

In addition, nearly 1,000 extra special education teachers will be provided to increase capacity for supporting children in special classes, special schools and mainstream settings. Schools with at least two special classes will be provided with an administrative principal, while release days for teaching principals will be maintained.

The staffing schedule for the 2022-23 school year is being finalised and will be published in the coming weeks. The Deputy will appreciate that with 4,000 schools, significant work is involved. I appreciate the need to expedite it. The Department is working on it and it will be published as expeditiously as possible. The timeframe is in the coming weeks.

I just want to know what "in the coming weeks" means. The Minister will appreciate that principals tell me that they need to plan for September. Even though it is off the front pages of the newspapers and outside the media circle of conversation, they are still dealing with Covid on a daily basis. I spoke to a teacher yesterday who said that approximately one third of the student body had been out because of Covid-related illness. If the Labour Party Parliamentary Party is anything to go by, seeing as we have lost half of our members to Covid this week, I am quite sure that staffs around the country are having a similar problem. Covid is something that the schools are still having to deal with. They need to be able to plan for September. Can I get something a little better than "in the coming weeks"? If I go back to a principal who has asked me to raise this and say "in the coming weeks", they will want to know what that means.

I appreciate the work that is ongoing in our schools. I visit schools regularly and meet principals, staff, students and school communities, boards of management and parents. I am very conscious of the ongoing work as we, hopefully, journey out of Covid. All the necessary additional supports to manage infection prevention and control in our schools have been maintained. Notwithstanding those resources and additionalities, they pale into insignificance when considering the sheer goodwill and workload provided in our schools every day from our school staff, school leaders and the students themselves.

The commitment is that the schedule will be available in the coming weeks. I cannot give the Deputy a definitive date. We are working as quickly as we can and giving priority to the staffing schedule but it takes time. The Deputy will appreciate that we are talking about 4,000 schools with 1 million pupils and 100,000 staff.

I appreciate all those factors and I appreciate the Minister's comments about the commitment of teachers, SNAs and school principals. I have raised, as have other Deputies, the need to analyse and quantify the damage to young people, which was outside the Minister's control, over the past two years in terms of social interaction, anxiety and loss of in-school learning. That point needs to be made in the context of planning for September. If we do go back to something approaching normality in September, then there must be recognition from the Department that a lot of really profound damage was done to young people over the past two years. I impress on the Minister that the schedule be published as soon as possible in order that school communities, teachers, SNAs and principals can plan for September.

I also wish to raise something related to our anticipation that a significant number of school children will join our system from Ukraine. Typically, English language support would be allocated in September. Schools will need that much sooner in these circumstances. Will the Minister examine this to see whether additional English language support can be provided? There are schools that want to take on additional language support teachers but the funding is not there. I encourage the Minister to provide this. It is one of the lessons we can learn from how schools supported children who came here from Syria. The Department did a lot of good work and many schools did heroic work but where it fell down in many cases was in English language support. This cannot wait until September. We need to address this now and provide funding for schools to find teachers and staff who can assist with language because that will be a big barrier.

A cross-government, interdepartmental approach is being taken on this. We are clear that families, children and young people from Ukraine are welcome and we will do all that is necessary to support them. I met the Ukrainian ambassador yesterday, as the Deputy will be aware. I also spoke online with the Ukrainian minister for education. The details he shared were very upsetting and harrowing. Some 250 schools and education institutions have been bombed and he said that there would be more to come. Our schools will be open and welcoming.

Last week I visited a school that already had a Ukrainian student in it. I spoke to principals over the weekend. One informed me of a family who arrived into his community on Friday and had children in the school on the Monday. Notwithstanding that, English as an additional language, EAL, is a significant support. We will absolutely put in place all the resources we need to. This is a time of emergency and challenge. Any humanitarian support this country can offer the Ukrainian people will be given.

Schools Building Projects

Catherine Connolly


75. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Education further to Question No. 146 of 23 November 2021, the analysis her Department has carried out into the future acquisition of any privately owned vacant school properties in Galway city and county; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [13315/22]

My question is very specifically about what analysis has been done on acquiring empty schools in Galway where properties are vacant. There are two major schools empty for some time. There is potential there. I ask that in the particular context of an Educate Together school that is in a temporary building. That arrangement is coming to an end this year. We had a meeting with the school representatives lately and I understand from yesterday there has been an announcement on that. It is a general question plus a specific purpose one.

I thank the Deputy. To plan for school provision and analyse the relevant demographic data, the Department divides the country into 314 school planning areas and uses a geographical information system, GIS, using data from a range of sources, to identify where the pressure for school places throughout the country will arise. With this information, the Department carries out nationwide demographic exercises to determine where additional school accommodation is needed at primary and post-primary level. This information provides a degree of certainty in projecting demand in an area in future years.

Where an additional school place demand is identified, the need can be met by one or more of the following options, namely, utilising spare capacity in existing schools, expansion of existing schools or establishment of a new school. In that assessment of appropriate solutions, the Department considers a national inventory of school capacity that is completed by individual schools. When schools are providing their annual 30 September enrolment returns to the Department in respect of the primary online database for primary schools and post-primary online database for post-primary schools, they are now also requested to provide information in respect of overall demand for school places and available capacity within their schools. The compilation and analysis of this information at local, regional and national level through the Department's GIS is an important additional feature of the school planning process.

As the Deputy will be aware, the Department currently has a requirement to identify a permanent site to accommodate the 1,000-pupil capacity Galway Educate Together post-primary school that was established in 2019 to serve the Galway city and Oranmore school planning areas as a regional solution. The site identification exercise for this school requirement found there were no suitable available vacant school buildings that would meet the long-term accommodation needs of the new school. The Department did, as the Deputy has referenced, make progress on that.

The Department also has building projects at primary, post-primary and special schools across Galway city and county, including new school buildings for St. Joseph's College in Galway city, Scoil Chaitríona Junior and Senior Schools, Cuan na Gaillimhe Community National School, Rosedale Special School, Scoil Mhuire, Moycullen and St. Teresa's Special School, among others. There are also multiple large and small scale extension projects in train across the county.

The Department is aware of vacant former school properties in Galway and of properties that may become vacant as a result of school building projects. These properties are in the ownership of third parties, but in all instances throughout the country, such properties are considered as part of the Department's assessment of potential solutions for school accommodation needs and the Department engages with the relevant property owners as appropriate. While no such properties were identified-----

I am sorry, Minister. Deputy Connolly may respond.

I have had the privilege of reading the answer. There was good news yesterday but my question relates to Galway city. We have two empty schools sitting there. The Minister mentioned St. Joseph's College and the plans for that. They have been going on for a long time. It is literally across a little river, or a little stream, from an empty secondary school, where I went myself. It is sitting there empty because the school amalgamated with the Mercy Secondary School, which sits empty. Both have gone to a new premises.

I have the greatest respect for the Department, its business and how it does its business, but in this matter I do not know how somebody did not look at Galway city and the empty school buildings there are and ask what we are going to do with them now. Could The Bish have used the Presentation and could it still use it? On the specific question we are talking about, is the Educate Together school now moving into what was the Mercy school in the centre of town? I understand from the announcement it is, but for just two years, and no progress has been made on a permanent site. I ask the Minister to clarify that.

I appreciate the Deputy's commitment to the provision of appropriate capacity in the Galway area. I want to be very clear the Department is being proactive here. There was a positive announcement yesterday. In an ideal world we would be able to source permanent sites almost overnight. That is not the case. There are significant difficulties. Every site identified as having potential absolutely is evaluated by the Department. Particular time and consideration is given to evaluating every aspect of the site, including whether it is suitable not just for current needs but projected ones going forward, whether there is a planning issue or a road issue and so on. The Deputy herself knows there are a whole variety of considerations that must be taken into account. We are committed to advancing and have made progress. We will continue to deliberate as a matter of urgency on finding appropriate spare capacity going forward.

I appreciate a positive announcement was made yesterday about a temporary solution for two years. What is the permanent solution? The Educate Together school is moving into an empty school. I am emphasising to the Department that it has been empty and the school I went to myself is also empty. Two major buildings have been left empty in Galway while there is a plan to build a brand new school up on a university site and no examination of what to do with these two schools.

Again, my question is what specifically is in place for the Educate Together school. Is it two years? Is it a lease for two years or for five? What money is being paid and to what entity are we paying money, if there is money involved? Is one Department paying the religious organisation or entity in charge, CEIST - I am not sure of its exact name - and are we paying now to house the school? Maybe I am wrong. The bigger picture is getting a permanent site and whether that site is permanent-----

I beg the Acting Chair's pardon. I did not realise I was over time.

Again, I want to be clear when a property becomes available, the Department will engage with the property owner, as it is right and proper. When a site becomes available, the Department will engage and do a full evaluation of the site. It will evaluate the site's positives, negatives and its potential going forward. All of that is a time consideration. Specifically on the matter of properties being available, if the property is not in the Department's ownership, then obviously arrangements need to be made with the property owner. Our key priority is to ensure there is provision of appropriate space for our students, staff and school community. As I referenced earlier, it is not always easy to find an appropriate site, that is, one that will meet not just the current demands but also the future ones. Thus, in some instances we must make short-term arrangements to facilitate a longer or greater vision we have going forward. In this instance we are doing that but we ultimately have the longer objective and longer view of providing a permanent site.

Question No. 76 replied to with Written Answers.

State Examinations

Bernard Durkan


77. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Education if all concerns regarding the leaving certificate examinations have been addressed with reference to the disruption to the past two school years due to Covid-19; the plans that are in place to tackle remaining concerns with particular reference to children with special educational needs; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [13454/22]

This question seeks to ascertain the position, after Covid and the issues that arose over the past two years, with the operation of the leaving certificate, how that might affect students, those with special needs in particular.

I thank the Deputy. As he knows, I myself have a son doing the leaving certificate. He is in the middle of his mocks at the moment. Deputy Durkan is right that the past two years have been especially difficult due to the pandemic. Obviously, the Minister announced adjustments around greater choice in the papers and fewer questions to answer while allowing the same amount of time to completing the examination as is permitted in normal years. Students are also having their oral exams and the music practicals over the first week of the Easter break.

On children with additional needs specifically, there are accommodations there. In 2019, 23,041 reasonable accommodations were granted to 19,765 students. That is about 16% of the cohort taking the leaving certificate in the first instance. It is essential we support them in every way we can.

The reasonable accommodations at the certificate examinations scheme was reviewed in 2017 and will be subject to further review in the context of reform of the senior cycle. It is assessed and based on a level of need. In 2021, €3 million was given to schools under the assistive technology scheme because many students use word processors, laptops, tablets and various types of digital assistance when undertaking their coursework or doing their exams. There are no digital exam papers at the moment because that would create concerns around the integrity of the exams, as the papers would need to be accessed in advance of the exams. However, there are examination reading pens that convert text to speech and digital coursework booklets on a wide range of leaving certificate subjects are provided, for example in geography, history, home economics and religious education.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. Is she satisfied with the extent to which these matters have been addressed? How will matters proceed this year and is it in accord with the concerns expressed by teachers, parents of children with special needs and the students themselves?

Regarding the leaving certificate more generally for children without additional needs, the right balance has been struck in trying to cater for them as best we can, bearing in mind the difficulties that they have faced over the past two years. I am satisfied that we have made reasonable accommodations for children with additional needs. The scheme aims to remove access barriers to exams while retaining the fairness element for all students. The need to assess the same underlying skills and competencies will always be there. This is the basis on which decisions are made.

There are a number of technological assists to help students. The majority use word processors. The scheme is being reviewed and consideration will be given to widening the use of assistive technologies to new areas, for example, text-to-speech software, reading pens and so on.

If particular issues arise at exam centres anywhere in the country, is it possible to put in place some means of addressing them in time and on the go?

Deputy Ó Laoghaire wishes to ask a brief question on this.

There has been a lengthy debate on how the leaving certificate should be done. I do not want to rehash it, but it arose for a number of reasons, such as, the difficulty in covering the course and the anxieties and pressures students were experiencing because of two or more years of Covid and everything that went along with that. What plans are there for mental health supports for students between now and the exams? Will the Minister of State put in place a helpline, run by the Department, to ensure that information on mental health supports is available? There will also be many questions about papers and so on. It would be a useful resource for the Department to provide.

If there is time, I will ask the Minister to respond to that question.

Regarding Deputy Durkan's question on assistance, 8,936 special exam centres have been set up at a cost of €5 million for children with additional needs. That assistance will be available through these centres and everything will be done to assist the children in doing the leaving certificate.

I wish to be clear regarding the leaving certificate and junior cycle classes of 2022. Significant accommodations have already been made on the papers for leaving certificate students, and equally so in respect of junior cycle students. We are looking at classroom-based assessments being cut by 50% and the assessment task being removed so as to allow for greater contact time in the classroom and a strong well-being approach. I acknowledge that this approach is being taken by all schools in supporting their students - not just their exam students, who are important in this context, but the entire school community. This approach is being well supported throughout our schools.

Questions Nos. 78 to 81, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Special Educational Needs

Fergus O'Dowd


82. Deputy Fergus O'Dowd asked the Minister for Education the position regarding the meeting between the National Council for Special Education and a school (details supplied), which is scheduled for 4 March 2022, to discuss urgent need of the school for additional SNA resources; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [13194/22]

What was the outcome of the meeting between the principal of Tullydonnell National School, Ms Anne Marie Ford, and the Department of Education regarding the urgent need for additional SNAs? The Minister of State met the principal and me outside Leinster House, so I would be delighted if a good outcome were to be announced now.

I met Ms Ford and some members of the school staff outside Leinster House with the Deputy, who has been a strong advocate for the school. At my request, the NCSE met the school on Friday to discuss the issues of concern. At the meeting, the SENO explained the basis for the allocation of SNA support. The SENO will engage further with parents in this regard.

SNAs have to be deployed by schools themselves in a manner that best meets their needs and care supports. As I told Ms Ford, an additional 1,165 SNAs have been allocated for distribution this year via budget 2022. We are targeting and prioritising new and expanding schools. Notwithstanding that, if there is a genuine need - Ms Ford is of the view that there is a genuine need in her school and has made that strong case to the NCSE - we will be examining front-loading allocations over the next few weeks and I hope there will be consideration given in that context. The allocations for next year are under consideration and a decision will be made shortly. We want to support those schools that have been hardest hit by the freeze, for example, developing schools.

While I welcome the Minister of State's comments, I did not hear an absolute commitment to look after the needs of this particular school at this time. Rather, she is saying that the situation will continue to be reviewed. The parents, students, the local parish priest and the whole community are concerned about this. When will the Minister of State make a decision on it? Would there be any point in a further meeting if there are issues to be clarified between both parties?

To stress, the decision is not mine. Rather, it is a decision for the NCSE. However, the NCSE is fully aware from the meeting last Friday of the genuine concerns of Tullydonnell National School in County Louth. A decision on allocations will be made over the next number of weeks. I will not give any guarantee in the Dáil, as I do not make promises or give guarantees, but suffice it to say that the NCSE is aware of the school's concerns. An additional 1,165 SNAs are coming on stream and, if required, I hope that the school will be satisfied.

I can give the Minister of State a guarantee that she will hear about this matter again, and so will I. She will continue to hear about it.

In fairness to the Government, it has allocated a significant number of additional assistants, but this is a school that has to be heard. The delivery must be transparent and is needed. I appreciate that the decision is not the Minister of State's, but we do not want to be protesting again shortly with an even larger crowd.

I certainly do not, but it is important to say that SNAs should be deployed by a school in a manner that best meets the care support requirements of the kids enrolled in that school. I have heard this school's concerns and the NCSE knows its concerns. I hope that there will be a satisfactory conclusion - I want that also. I thank the Deputy for advocating on behalf of the school so strongly.

Schools Building Projects

Jennifer Carroll MacNeill


83. Deputy Jennifer Carroll MacNeill asked the Minister for Education the number of schools that are currently in temporary accommodation while awaiting permanent sites; the stage that each of those schools is at, that is, searching for a suitable site, a suitable site located, a suitable site located and acquired by her Department, the tender process under way or the build under way, by county in tabular form; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [13366/22]

I can assure the Deputy that it is the policy of my Department to ensure a high standard of permanent accommodation for all schools. However, in the context of a rapidly increasing school population over the past decade or more, it is sometimes necessary to put in place interim accommodation solutions to meet the needs of schools. Given the timeframes for the acquisition of suitable sites, design, statutory planning processes, tendering and construction, it is often necessary for newly-established schools to commence operation in such interim accommodation.

Since 2011, 117 new primary, post-primary and special schools have been established by the Department of Education. Of these, 51 are already operating in their permanent accommodation. The projects to deliver permanent accommodation for the remaining schools are at various stages of planning and construction. The Deputy has requested a breakdown of these by status and county in tabular form and I have arranged for my officials to provide the requested details directly to her office in due course.

In relation to the acquisition of permanent sites, the Deputy will appreciate that the site acquisition process is very complex and subject to completion of successful negotiation and conveyancing processes. Each acquisition is unique and dependent on multiple factors, many of which may be outside of the control of the Department of Education. The Deputy will also appreciate the importance of conducting a thorough appraisal of site options before proceeding with an acquisition in order to obtain best value for the Exchequer. While the site acquisition can necessarily take some time, I can assure the Deputy that the Department is working to progress all site acquisitions as quickly as possible. It is important to note that of the 117 new schools established since 2011, only six do not yet have their permanent site identification. Once the Department has certainty on the permanent site for a school the project for the new school building is progressed to the architectural planning process as quickly as possible.

Approximately 1,200 school building projects under the Department's large-scale and additional accommodation scheme are currently in progress across the various stages of planning, design, tender and construction, most of which are expected to be either under construction or completed in the period up to 2025. There are currently in excess of 250 school building projects at construction, with a continuous stream of other projects at or near the tendering stage. These are being progressed as quickly as possible.

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Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.