Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Vol. 223 No. 4

Adjournment Matters

Roads Maintenance

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue on the need to address the serious condition of road surfaces in cities, particularly in my native Cork city. Recently, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, announced the provision of emergency funding for local and regional roads, although not in city areas. He wrote to 29 local authorities stating that €42 million from the restoration improvement grant could be diverted for emergency repair works on local and regional roads. I support that decision. All the roads in the country are in a bad state. A litany of weather incidents has taken its toll and road surfaces need to be repaired.

I accept there is little money available and the Minister has always been clear in stating that. We are aware of the situation. I am aware from my engagement with local councillors and the city manager in Cork city that funding is not available to address the problems, so the initiative whereby funding can be reallocated from other areas is important and welcome. My point is that there should be something similar for city areas. While I accept that cities do not have roads of the same length, those roads carry high intensity traffic which is taking a toll. It is dangerous for both motorists and cyclists and must be addressed. The situation cannot continue. This issue is constantly being raised with me by members of the public and by Cork city councillors who are concerned about it. Would it be possible to divert a portion of the funding that is currently allocated for worthwhile cycle ways, footpaths, mobility improvement and green routes? There has been much investment in these facilities in our cities. This infrastructure is important in urban areas to encourage pedestrians and cyclists and to improve mobility, while taking the emphasis off car transport.

However, in many cases we have what could be described as white elephants in wonderful developments yet the roads on which people and cyclists are travelling are in very bad repair. There are large potholes. The Minister is very well aware of this issue as the photographs go to his Department. I am anxious to make a strong case for the Cork city area. I am not asking the Minister to provide new funding but that the local authority be allowed to redirect funding it is spending on new projects to improving the serious condition of road surfaces. If we do not invest now, we will create further problems for the future. Unless we address it, what is a substantial pothole filling problem today could require major restoration work in the years to come.

I am replying on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Leo Varadkar. The Minister has responsibility for overall policy and funding relating to the national roads programme. The planning, design and implementation of individual road projects is a matter for the National Roads Authority, NRA, under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2007 in conjunction with the local authorities concerned.

Within its capital budget, the assessment and prioritisation of individual projects is a matter in the first instance for the NRA in accordance with section 19 of the Roads Act. The NRA has a budget of €318 million for improvement and maintenance works on the national roads network in 2013. The improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads is the statutory responsibility of each local authority, in accordance with the provisions of section 13 of the Roads Act 1993. Works on those roads are funded from local authorities' own resources supplemented by State road grants paid by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. The initial selection and prioritisation of works to be funded is also a matter for the local authority.

The Minister, Deputy Varadkar, announced the 2013 regional and local road grant allocations on 25 January last. A total of €350 million is being provided under the regional and local roads investment programme this year. From that allocation, Cork County Council is being provided with an allocation of over €40 million and Cork City Council is being provided with over €4.4 million.

The level of grants allocated to individual local authorities is determined having regard to a number of factors. These factors include: the total funds available in a particular year; eligibility criteria for the different road grant schemes; road pavement conditions; length of road network; the need to prioritise projects; and competing demands from other local authorities.

In determining the annual grant allocations, the overall objective remains to supplement the resources provided by each local authority in a fair and appropriate manner. Ireland has a uniquely extensive road network. There are approximately 98,000 km of road in the network, which represents two and a half times the EU average in terms of kilometres per head of population. The maintenance and improvement of this extensive network of roads places a substantial financial burden on local authorities and on the Exchequer.

With the vast network of roads serving very disparate needs from small farmers to large multinationals, a one-size-fits-all based regional and local roads maintenance regime would not be appropriate. Decisions should be made locally by local public representatives. Given the current financial position, the main focus has to be on the maintenance and repair of roads and this will remain the position in the coming years. There have been very large reductions in roads expenditure over the past number of years and there will be further reductions in the future. In 2007, there were grants of €2.375 billion available towards national, regional and local roads. These grants have fallen to €665 million in 2013 and will fall further to €629 million in 2014. The grants programme is structured to allow councils reasonable flexibility in using grants while also ensuring that there are clear outputs for the moneys allocated in terms of length of road maintained or rehabilitated.

County councils were provided with additional flexibility this year, enabling them to transfer funding from their restoration improvement grant to their discretionary grant. In Cork County Council's case, its restoration improvement grant is over €18 million while its discretionary grant is just over €7 million, or 17.9% of it total allocation. When one compares this to Cork City Council, whose discretionary block grant of €2.8 million accounts for 63% of its total allocation, one can see that the city council already has a greater degree of flexibility in deciding where to spend this grant funding. It is also important to reiterate that the role of Exchequer grants for regional and local roads is to supplement councils such as Cork county and city councils in their spending in this area. The reality is that the available funds do not match the amount of work required. My Department and local authorities are working closely to develop new, more efficient ways of delivering the best outputs possible with the funding available to them. Given the likely continued squeeze on Exchequer funding this concentration on efficiency is essential to achieve the best outturns for the limited money available.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I agree that the main focus must be on the maintenance and repair of roads. I urge him to ensure local authorities enforce this priority because, unfortunately, from what I am hearing from members of the public, it is not yet happening. A failure to invest now in maintenance and repairs will mean greater costs in the future.

School Transport Provision

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Ciarán Cannon, for coming to the Chamber to deal with this matter.

Ardvarney national school in north Leitrim has 41 pupils, 28 of whom avail of school transport. Of these 28, 14 are deemed by the Department of Education and Skills and Bus Éireann to be eligible for free school transport, with the remainder availing of the concessionary scheme. I was recently made aware that, from September, the school was at risk of losing one of the two school buses which served these pupils. The school made this discovery by chance and it was even suggested the news was not to be broken until the summer holiday, when it would be more difficult to harness community assistance to lobby for a reversal of the decision.

The 2013-14 enrolment for Ardvarney national school is up to 43, with the numbers projected to avail of the school transport service expected to remain more or less the same. Several of the pupils availing of the concessionary arrangement were deemed ineligible by Bus Éireann for the free scheme because of their proximity to another school which was not only outside the parish but also the diocese. The fact remains that these students are living within the traditional and ongoing catchment area for Ardvarney national school. While some of them do live closer to another school, they have chosen to attend Ardvarney national school because it is their parish school, which is perfectly understandable.

The changes proposed in 2011 in terms of eligibility, requiring a minimum of ten eligible students instead of seven, have led to a situation where one of the two school buses serving the school will be withdrawn in September. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, is constantly referring to the viability of smaller schools. Ardvarney national school, with 41 children, has doubled its enrolment in the past five years. In fact, enrolment projections based on an assessment of families living in the area suggest the number of children eligible for the free scheme will increase to 16 in the next few years, which means that a single 14 seater bus would no longer be sufficient. There is also a suggestion Bus Éireann has adjusted the catchment area for the school such that children living in the Killavoggy end of the parish will not be deemed eligible, yet without being advised of anything to the contrary, children from that townland have enrolled in the school in recent years and been deemed eligible under the transport scheme. That does not seem to make sense.

While we all accept the need to have criteria in place to determine eligibility for school transport, there is surely nothing in the spirit of these provisions which seeks to threaten the very viability of a school that has doubled its enrolment in recent years. The proposed curtailment of the service to pupils of Ardvarney national school will unnecessarily divide and decimate a community which has many generations of history. There are not too many rural schools that have doubled their enrolment in such a short timeframe. Will the Minister of State undertake to intervene personally in the matter? I am aware that he is inundated with requests of this nature during Adjournment debates in both Houses, but I contend none is more worthy than this. The proposal would immediately impact on 30% of the enrolment of the school. One of the most frustrating issues for those of us seeking a solution to the matter is that Bus Éireann is directing us to the Department, while the Department is telling us it is a matter for Bus Éireann. In the meantime, the future of a viable school is threatened. The Minister of State has the power to ensure the spirit of the Department's criteria is fulfilled in this case rather than eliminating a school that is not only viable but also central to its community.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. I will begin by offering Members an outline of the extent of the school transport service. School transport is a very significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on my Department's behalf and covering more than 82 million km annually. In the region of 115,000 children, including more than 8,000 with special needs, are transported in approximately 4,000 vehicles on a daily basis to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country. Catchment areas are no longer a feature of the primary school transport scheme. At primary level, children are eligible for transport to a particular school where they reside not less than 3.2 km from it and where it is determined to be their nearest national school, having regard to ethos and language. Bus Éireann is responsible for the planning and scheduling of school transport routes and services. The company endeavours, within available resources, to ensure each eligible child has a reasonable level of school transport service in the context of the scheme nationally.

In regard to the case raised by the Senator, Bus Éireann has advised that two services are operating to Ardvarney national school for the 2012-13 school year. These services accommodate a total of 13 children who are eligible for school transport, the remaining seats being allocated to children who are not eligible but are availing of the service on a concessionary basis. The closing date for receipt of school transport applications for the 2013-14 school year was 26 April. The Senator will appreciate that decisions regarding the retention or establishment of transport services for the next school year will be made by Bus Éireann only after all applications have been received and assessed. The retention or establishment of services is determined, in the first instance, by the number and location of children who meet the eligibility criteria. The terms of the schemes are applied equitably on a national basis.

I thank the Minister of State for his response, but it is entirely unsatisfactory. It is an abdication of responsibility to claim this is a matter for Bus Éireann. The fact is that the spirit of the legislation and the Department's own criteria are not being followed in this case. Going around the country engaging in a literal interpretation of every rule will mean rural communities are unnecessarily decimated. Surely common sense and scheduling can achieve the required savings, while also ensuring rural communities are not further damaged because of a shortage of school transport, as they have been by the closure of Garda stations and countless other cutbacks in recent years.

I am sure the Minister of State has taken the Senator's point on board.

I am far from abdicating my responsibility in this area. On the contrary, I am honouring my responsibility to ensure scarce national resources are used in the most efficient way possible. I remind the Senator that these decisions emanated from a value for money report initiated by a former colleague of his who rightly sought a forensic assessment of the costs associated with school transport. Several of the conclusions emanating from that analysis were put into place in 2011, including the requirement that children should be eligible for transportation to their nearest school only. That is a fair, logical and economically sound principle which is being adhered to equitably on a national basis.

Schools Recognition

This is the second time in the past 12 months that I have raised this issue on the Adjournment. I am frequently approached by teachers and parents frustrated by the failure of the Department to grant permanent recognition to Mol an Óige national school in Ennistymon, County Clare.

The school has been in existence for a number of years and its population is well in excess of 100. According to the latest figures, some 126 children are enrolled in the school, which probably makes it one of the biggest schools of this type in the country. The teaching quality at the school is of a very high standard. Teaching quality throughout County Clare is of a very high standard.

Many parents are choosing to bring their children to Mol an Óige national school which has received temporary recognition and I have no reason to believe it will not continue to receive such recognition. However, the parents want permanent recognition for a number of reasons, the overriding reason being that they want to send their children to a school that is recognised by the State. Temporary recognition is far from permanent recognition and I would like the Minister of State to outline the criteria used in seeking and granting permanent recognition. At what stage of the process is Mol an Óige national school? Is it on the radar? Within what timeframe can the parents of the children attending the school realistically expect permanent recognition to be granted? Is there a reason such recognition is not being granted? Perhaps some personnel within the Department are in favour of an ethos that differs from the teaching principles used in the school. These principles are mainstream, in effect. It is unfair that some children have almost gone through the entire primary school cycle - I have mentioned that the school has been in existence for a number of years - while the school has continued to operate on the basis of temporary recognition. Given that it has gone through the process mentioned and that the parents and teachers have put a serious effort into meeting all the criteria required for permanent recognition, perhaps it is time for the Department to meet them more than halfway.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter and giving me an opportunity to outline the current position on the recognition status of Mol an Óige national school in Ennistymon, County Clare. The school in question, which implements the Steiner approach to education, was initially awarded provisional recognition in 2008. This was extended each year until October 2012 when a three year extension was granted. The current position is that the school has provisional recognition until 31 August 2015. This extension is designed to give the school a sufficient opportunity to satisfactorily meet the criteria for recognition agreed in 2008. The extension will not prevent the school from receiving permanent recognition in the interim if the criteria for recognition are met. As the Senator is aware, all recognised schools, regardless of their philosophy or ethos, are required to comply with the Education Act 1998 and the rules for national schools. Specific criteria relating to patronage, the board of management, implementation of the curriculum, admissions policy and procedures for the appointment of teaching staff must also be satisfied by schools seeking permanent recognition. Such recognition is contingent on schools demonstrating they meet these requirements satisfactorily.

A process is under way with regard to the request for permanent recognition from the school. This process is based on its progress in fulfilling ten undertakings committed to by its patron in 2008. These undertakings were based on requirements outlined in the Education Act 1998, the rules for national schools which all recognised schools must meet and the aforementioned criteria which all schools applying for permanent recognition must satisfy. One of the undertakings is that the school will follow the primary school curriculum. It is important to note that the decision on full recognition depends on the satisfactory implementation of all the undertakings. Officials from the Department met the school authorities last October to discuss the current position on the undertakings and the school's application for permanent recognition. I understand substantial progress has been made. However, significant issues remain to be resolved, particularly in respect of curricular provision for pupils in infant classes. I understand the Department and the school have committed to ongoing engagement with the objective of enabling the school to meet the permanent recognition criteria as soon as possible.

If a school is to be considered for permanent recognition, it must make an application stating it has met the criteria for recognition of new primary schools, which include the requirements to follow the 1999 primary school curriculum, comply with the rules for national schools and demonstrate that enrolments are sufficient for the long-term viability of the school. The enrolment requirement is usually but not always confined to a period of three years. The Department has granted permanent recognition to 45 schools since 2008, the majority of which are in developing school areas. The recognition process for each of the schools was undertaken on a case by case basis and varied in duration for that reason. All of the 45 schools granted permanent recognition met all of the criteria satisfactorily. A number of schools granted provisional recognition prior to 2008 are still awaiting permanent recognition, as they do not meet all of the criteria required to be met.

I again thank the Senator for giving me an opportunity to outline the position on the application for permanent recognition from Mol an Óige national school.

The board of management and, in particular, the parents who participate actively in the running and development of the school have convinced me that they have met all of the criteria. They are concerned that permanent recognition continues to be an issue. I ask the Minister of State to check the matter again because I understand the delay is being caused by a specific issue. While I do not expect him to do that today, perhaps he might do so when he returns to the Department of Education and Skills tomorrow. My understanding is that it is a question of a specific mannerism associated with the teaching methodology being used to teach a particular element of one subject. This issue should be resolved well in advance of the end of the current three year period for the sake of everyone involved.

The Department has been very proactive in trying to address the question of the permanent recognition of the school and its door is always open. It is willing to collaborate with the school to achieve that recognition. As the Senator has mentioned and I pointed out in my initial response, there are certain issues relating to the delivery of the curriculum in the school's junior classes. If the school and the Department were to collectively focus on how these challenges can be overcome, we could move towards a point where recognition could be achieved soon. If these issues can be addressed, recognition can be achieved in the very near future.

Special Educational Needs

The issue I am raising on the Adjournment relates to an anomaly in the allocation of educational resource hours to children with Down's syndrome who attend mainstream primary schools. Down's syndrome is a chromosomal anomaly which causes a global development delay. Approximately 80 children with this syndrome are enrolled in mainstream primary schools each year and the syndrome is not currently listed by the Department of Education and Skills as a complex low-incidence disorder. This means that some children with Down's syndrome are not entitled to resource hours. It is estimated that approximately 40% of children in the State who have Down's syndrome do not receive an allocation of resource hours. Some 82 children in County Donegal with Down's syndrome do not receive resource hours in mainstream primary schools, which is wholly inappropriate, as it is creating an inequality in the education system. It discriminates against children with Down's syndrome.

As I understand it, the Department's special education circular, 02/05, provides that a child with Down's syndrome must have a second disability in order to access vital resource hours. I have a copy of the circular with me in the Chamber. I am calling for Down's syndrome to be recognised in its own right by the Department. Children with Down's syndrome cannot and should not be categorised as having mild or moderate learning disabilities. Such a categorisation does not reflect all of the aspects of the syndrome generically.

Education policy in Ireland places children with Down's syndrome at a disadvantage or in an unfair position by not supporting their full educational development to the degree that other people with disabilities are supported in the system. The children concerned deserve every opportunity to reach their full potential. They deserve to be treated in a manner which encompasses the word "equality" and allows them to be cherished equally within the education system. They deserve to be allowed to advance their educational opportunities. This is obviously an issue that needs to be addressed. We are talking about a small number of pupils within the State and we are doing them a great disservice by not allowing Down's syndrome to be regarded as a full-scale disability and not allowing the children concerned to develop to their full potential. I hope the Minister of State will take this on board. I know Down Syndrome Ireland has been lobbying to have this anomaly corrected and hope the Minister of State and the Minister will be in a position to deal with this issue and put matters right as quickly as possible.

I am pleased to be given the opportunity by the Senator to clarify the position on the provision of teaching support tor children with Down's syndrome. The position is that pupils with Down's syndrome who are attending mainstream primary schools may receive additional teaching support in primary schools, either under the terms of the general allocation model of teaching supports, if the pupil's educational psychological assessment places the pupil in the mild general learning disability or high incidence disability category, or through an allocation of individual additional resource teaching hours which are allocated to schools by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, if the child is assessed as being within the low incidence category of special need, as defined by my Department's circular, Special Education 02/05. Pupils with Down's syndrome who are assessed as being within the category of mild general learning disability but who also have an additional assessment of another low incidence disability such as hearing impairment will also be supported by an additional allocation made by the NCSE. Resource teaching provision is, therefore, made for children with Down's syndrome in the same manner as for other children with assessed syndromes and in accordance with the policy of my Department set out in Circular 02/05. It should be noted that, whether resource teaching hours are allocated to schools under the general allocation model or through an allocation made by the NCSE based on individual low incidence special needs, it is ultimately a matter for schools to utilise and manage these resources to best provide for the teaching needs of qualifying children. Each school will use its professional judgement to decide how the provision of additional resource teaching time and hours is made for the qualifying pupils in the school to ensure all of their individual needs are met. Additional teaching time may be provided for pupils on an individual basis or in pairs or small groups. It may also be provided in the classroom through team teaching or withdrawal to a resource teaching room. Guidance for schools on the management of their resource teaching allocations is provided in the circular, Special Education 02/05.

I advise the Senator that the NCSE, which has a formal role under section 20 of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 to advise the Minister for Education and Skills on any matter relating to the education of children and others with disabilities, has been asked to provide policy advice on the issue of whether Down's syndrome should be reclassified as a low incidence disability in all instances, regardless of assessed cognitive ability. This advice will be included in the NCSE's policy advice on how the education system can best support children with special educational needs which will be presented to the Minister shortly. As I am not in a position to pre-empt this expert policy advice, we must await the advice received from the body with the greatest expertise in this area. I can assure the Senator, however, that the Government is very conscious that meeting students' educational needs in an equitable manner is the paramount consideration which must be kept at the centre of proposals and recommendations. The position of all children with assessed syndromes and special educational needs must be considered in any review of policy. The Minister will give full consideration to this matter once the policy advice has been received.

I appreciate the Minister of State's response. He has noted that the matter is being looked at and I agree with him that we cannot pre-empt that consideration. However, taking on board the campaign being launched by Down Syndrome Ireland and given that I am not sure whether the Minister, Deputy Quinn, or the Minister of State has met Down Syndrome Ireland, I urge that its views be taken into consideration before a decision is taken and that a meeting be scheduled with its CEO to discuss the outcome of the NCSE's policy report.

The Seanad adjourned at 5.35 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 15 May 2013.