I am pleased to be before the committee as we begin a new Dáil term to discuss a number of important issues in the education sector. First, I join the Chairman in congratulating Deputies Ó Laoghaire and Pádraig O'Sullivan and Senator Flynn and their families. It is a wonderful family time. Best wishes to them all.
I am joined by a number of departmental officials today, including in Kildare House, by Ms Deirdre Shanley, Ms Martina Mannion, Mr. Hubert Loftus, Ms Yvonne Keating and Ms Anne Tansey. In its invitation, the committee set three important topics for discussion today. I look forward to hearing the views of committee members on these topics.
I will turn first to the safe and sustainable reopening of schools. I wish to acknowledge the hard work and commitment of all of the education partners working together with the Department of Education and with public health to ensure our schools could remain operational throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. The safe return and sustained safe reopening of our schools this month has been a key priority across the Government. We are all aware of the adverse consequences of school closures, which impacts on well-being, on learning and on children's social and emotional development.
In recent weeks, the Government approved the implementation of a new Covid learning and supports scheme, CLASS, which will help to mitigate the impact of Covid on students' learning and well-being. This scheme offers additional targeted teaching hours to every primary and post-primary school in the country to support students' learning and well-being in the coming school year. I have introduced this programme to further mitigate the impacts of the loss of learning caused by school closures. This programme is in addition to the supplementary programme in spring 2021 and the significantly expanded summer programme which catered for up to 33,000 students. Overall, more than €100 million has been spent on these measures, in addition to the €639 million which was spent over the last school year to support their operation in a Covid-19 environment.
The Minister of State and I are particularly pleased to be bringing this initiative.
Throughout the pandemic, the Department of Education has worked intensively with public health professionals from across the health sector and the HSE to support schools. We have been guided by their expertise in all we have done. In advance of reopening, and indeed since schools have reopened, these experts have reviewed the measures put in place to ensure safe operation of schools, and they are satisfied these infection prevention and control measures, when implemented correctly and adhered to, will continue to keep the school community safe.
These measures range from the reconfiguration of classrooms and other school spaces to support physical distancing to significant additional funding for additional cleaning and hygiene measures, as well as more than 1,080 additional teaching posts to ensure appropriate distancing can be put in place. Funding has also been made available for additional administrative leave days for principals and to provide for substitution arrangements.
The Department of Education has also issued updated advice to schools on good ventilation practices. For this new school year we are providing schools with CO2 monitors. These monitors will help to guide schools about when they need to open or close their windows to increase the ventilation. Some 25,000 CO2 monitors have been delivered to schools this week, and 96% of primary schools, including all special schools, have received their full allocation of CO2 monitors. Every post-primary school has received a minimum of ten CO2 monitors.
Lennox Laboratories was on target to have the full amount of 35,000 CO2 monitors delivered to schools shortly. Unfortunately, however, Lennox Laboratories has been informed by the manufacturer that there is a delay with the delivery of the last batch of 10,000 CO2 monitors, due to a fault with the LCD display unit. While I am disappointed at the news of a delay, Lennox Laboratories has identified options that should enable the remaining balance of CO2 monitors to be distributed to schools in late September and early October. In the interim, the Department has advised schools that if they wish they can make arrangements directly for procuring the balance of their CO2 monitors directly themselves rather than via the central arrangements currently in place.
Naturally, the safety of our school communities, and indeed broader society, has been greatly bolstered by Ireland’s highly successful vaccination programme. Through the incredible efforts of everyone involved, more than 90% of over-16s have been fully vaccinated, the highest such percentage in the EU, and nearly 87% of over-12s have received their full vaccination.
I turn now to the second item for discussion today, which is the formal recognition, sustainable funding and teaching posts for Cork Life Centre. I am pleased my Department, with support from the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and Cork Education and Training Board, ETB, has put in place a very significant package of funding and teaching hours, to which the board of Cork Life Centre has responded positively, stating it recognises it is a welcome step towards securing the sustainability of the centre.
Shortly after I was appointed Minister last year, I met with Don O’Leary from the Cork Life Centre. The centre provides a considerable service to a cohort of learners with a diverse range of needs. The outcomes of what is delivered in Cork Life Centre was evident before this committee last December when students from the centre spoke with passion and clarity about their experiences and how the centre has supported them in their journey through education. I am pleased, therefore, that significant progress has been made regarding a package of supports that will substantially increase the funding and teaching hours for the centre and will ensure students continue to have the opportunity to access all which the centre has to offer.
The final item for today relates to the implementation of the key recommendations in the joint committee report on School Bullying and the Impact on Mental Health. I thank the Oireachtas joint committee for its work in this area. For a child or young person, the experience of bullying can be a deeply traumatic one and stands in direct opposition to the sense of security, opportunity, and nourishment we hope all of our students feel in the school system. I know bullying experienced by even one child or young person is one too many and I commit to doing all we can to prevent its occurrence. Coming from the school sector, I know how seriously this issue is treated by schools, but I also know we must continue to do all we can to support schools in addressing it directly.
The Department has implemented a number of ongoing anti-bullying measures, which include implementing the anti-bullying procedures for primary and post-primary schools; monitoring of schools’ anti-bullying measures by the inspectorate; implementation of the well-being policy statement and framework for practice; provision of a greater focus on inclusive education in teacher training; provision of supports for schools in online safety; implementation of the social, personal and health education, SPHE, and relationships and sexuality education, RSE, curriculum; provision of funding to the National Parents' Council for anti-bullying training for parents; provision of funding to the National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre towards its research and training programmes and for the national anti-bullying website www.tacklebullying.ie; provision of funding to Webwise.ie to promote the safe use of the Internet and prevent cyberbullying; and the provision of funding to BeLonG To youth services to support delivery of the Stand Up! campaign in post primary schools.
I recognise, however, that there is much more work that needs to be done in this area, and I am committed to doing this work. In this regard, I wish to advise the committee of a number of measures currently being undertaken by my Department. I am pleased to be able to announce that during this school year the inspectorate is prioritising monitoring and the gathering of information about the implementation of anti-bullying measures in schools across all its inspection types. As part of this work, the inspectorate will also identify and report on examples of effective practice in preventing and tacking bullying in schools. This will help provide evidence of the type of bullying that is occurring in our schools and examples of approaches that can be successful in dealing with it.
Starting this week also, the inspectorate will be looking at bullying matters through a comprehensive programme of incidental inspections in primary and post-primary schools. These inspections will result in feedback to individual schools about how they are implementing anti-bullying procedures as well as the publication of an interim composite report on how the anti-bullying procedures are being implemented.
From the beginning of 2022, the monitoring of anti-bullying measures within schools will be extended to all inspection types and will include looking at the actions of the school to create a positive school culture as well as the implementation of important aspects of the anti-bullying procedures. The inspectorate will, during quarters 3 and 4 in 2022, carry out focused anti-bullying inspections in schools.
I also am pleased to announce to the committee that I have asked my Department to review and update the action plan on bullying and the anti-bullying procedures for primary and post-primary schools. This review will take account of developments and relevant research since the action plan and procedures were first published and will specifically consider areas such as cyberbullying and gender identity bullying. This work will involve significant collaboration across my Department, with other Departments and bodies and with the national anti-bullying research centre at DCU, and will also involve consultation with a broad range of education stakeholders, including students. As part of this work my Department will give detailed consideration to the recommendations contained in the joint committee's report.
I would also like to take this opportunity to advise the committee that I am fully committed to progressing the Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill 2019 through the Houses of the Oireachtas. As advised during Second Stage, I am bringing forward amendments to the Bill to make it more inclusive of our entire school community. I am proposing the Bill be amended from a student and parent charter to a school community charter. It is vitally important the engagement and listening culture the charter provides for is inclusive of the whole school community, which includes staff, students and parents. Under this Bill, schools will be required to provide a range of information to the school community on school plans and policies such as the school anti-bullying policy and how complaints are dealt with. While we know very many schools already provide this information, the Bill will allow for consistency.
I thank the committee for the invitation to attend today, to update on school reopening, to speak on the Cork Life Centre, and to outline the measures the Department is progressing to prevent and tackle bullying in our schools, many of which relate to the excellent recommendations in the joint committee’s report. I particularly want to acknowledge all the hard work that has been done by school communities in recent weeks. It is wonderful to see students back in their classrooms with their teachers, special needs assistants, SNAs, and support staff.
With the agreement of the Chairman I invite the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, to address the committee.