Before the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Foley, addresses the House I congratulate her on her appointment to high office. I was going through the list of Ministers who have served in high office like the Minister, Deputy Foley. With regard to female representation we are all too lax when it comes to female Ministers who served the State down through the years. Starting with Countess Markievicz and including the current crop, prior to the Minister, Deputy Foley, there have been only 19 female Cabinet members.
Tá an-áthas orm bheith anseo don chéad uair mar Aire Oideachais agus Scileanna. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanad as ucht an t-am agus an deis seo a thabhairt dom. I am very proud to be here today for the first time as Minister for Education and Skills. I thank the Cathaoirleach and his colleague Senators for the opportunity to engage with the House today in regard to the roadmap for the reopening of our schools and the calculated grades process for leaving certificate 2020 students. I also want to congratulate the Cathaoirleach in securing the elevation to the role of Cathaoirleach last week. It represents a vote of confidence in the Cathaoirleach from his colleague Senators. As a fellow Kerry native, may I say how proud we are in your home county of the Cathaoirleach's achievement and I wish him every possible success and good fortune in the role.
When the then Taoiseach announced on 12 March that all schools, colleges, universities and other training and learning facilities were to close as a consequence of Covid-19, it was the commencement of a series of significant challenges across the education and training sector. Those challenges have continued to be managed by my Department, the education partners and a range of stakeholders ever since. The interests of students and their families, as well as the safety of the staff in the sector, have been the paramount considerations throughout as the challenges before us have been worked through.
Coming from an education background and as a regular contributor to the debates on education in the Dáil before becoming the Minister for Education and Skills, I was keenly aware of the interest in education but also the concerns and, at times, the anxieties of students, their families, their school communities and more generally in how those challenges needed to be addressed. One of the most significant challenges was how the leaving certificate class of 2020 could receive certification for their work which would allow them to proceed to other study, to training, to work or to follow other pursuits. I will return to the topic of calculated grades in a short while.
Since I was appointed Minister the number one priority for me, for the Government, my Department and the wider schools sector and society has been the safe reopening of our schools at the start of the new school year in late August and early September. We said in reopening our schools, we would be guided by the available public health advice and comprehensive engagement with stakeholders or partners in education, including the school management bodies and staff representatives, as well as students and parents. There has never been any doubt but that I as Minister, my predecessor, my Department, school leaders and staff all want to see schools reopening as normal in the new school year in late August and-or early September and based on the normal timeframes for return.
Yesterday, I brought proposals to Cabinet which outlined a comprehensive funding package and plan to provide the necessary supports and clear guidance for primary and post-primary schools to return safely in the new term. I also sought approval to publish a roadmap for the full return of schools, described yesterday by the Taoiseach as the most comprehensive and detailed sectoral plan he had seen. Cabinet agreed to both and I was able to publish both the roadmap and details of the over €375 million in additional funding necessary to support its implementation. The roadmap outlines a comprehensive range of measures being provided to support the full reopening of schools in time for the start of the new school year. It was developed following intensive engagement with stakeholders from the education sector, including teachers' unions, SNAs, school caretakers and secretaries, representatives of principals and deputy principals, school management bodies and representatives of parents and post-primary students.
The roadmap and the funding package recognise the challenges faced by schools in ensuring the safe return of over 1 million students and approximately 100,000 staff in 4,000 schools in the context of Covid-19. It sets out clear plans and practical guidance on the measures schools will need to take to operate safely and minimise the risk of the introduction and spread of infection in schools. The roadmap and the documentation relating to it provide schools with guidance on training, checklists for schools on preparing for reopening and guidance for operating schools safely in a Covid-19 context. It advises on matters such as logistics, the curriculum, teaching, managing school activities, supporting pupils with additional needs, administration and, very importantly, well-being. In other words, it is a comprehensive plan.
My Department has prepared a suite of support materials for schools, including guidance on the curriculum and the well-being of students and staff, as well as protocols for minimising the risk of spread of infection in schools. In addition, I also published template Covid-19 response plans for schools. These plans provides clear and practical guidance and support to schools on the range of measures that need to be put in place to bring everyone back to school safely. The funding supports are comprehensive across a range of areas and include the following measures: funding for replacement of staff who cannot come to school because they are at very high risk of Covid-19, including teaching staff, SNAs and administrative staff, which can occur where staff members who are identified in line with HSE guidance as being at very high risk of Covid-19 are advised to cocoon; funding for additional supply panels at primary level, which will ensure more certainty regarding the availability of substitute teachers for primary schools; funding for over 1,000 additional teachers - including 120 additional guidance positions - at post-primary level to help with physical distancing and class sizes; funding to provide release days for teaching principals at primary level to meet the administrative burden arising from the changes and the impacts of Covid-19, which will mean that all teaching principals will have one release day per week - something I am particularly pleased to be able to deliver because I consider it a really essential support to reduce the burden on these principals - and there will be some release time for deputy principals in primary schools; enhanced cleaning and hygiene measures, which are particularly important, are also included and the additional funding being provided will enable schools to have daily cleaning arrangements and purchase supplies of hand sanitiser and any other PPE material necessary; funding for enhanced supervision, which is a key control measure to support schools in minimising interaction of students from different classes in line with public health advice; and funding to support school leadership, especially principals, in getting schools ready. On the latter, every school will be able to employ an aide to help get the school ready for the return. As announced in the July stimulus package, funding of €75 million will support minor capital works for all schools.
As already stated, reopening schools is a priority for the Government. It has been my priority since becoming Minister. In preparing for the reopening of schools, we know that most students, their families and school staff will be looking forward to going back, reconnecting with the school environment, staff and their friends and settling back into school work. There is a strong emphasis in the roadmap on safety and on practical arrangements, but also on ensuring the well-being of students and the entire staff community.
One of the key elements to ensuring that schools, once they reopen, can remain open is to prevent the Covid-19 virus from getting into a school in the first instance. This will mean students, their families and staff playing their roles in keeping the virus out of their school by ensuring those who have symptoms or suspect they have the virus stay out of school, by maintaining best practice in hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette in school and by minimising social contacts and respecting physical distancing practices.
The public health advice which underpins all of this has been published and recognises that physical distancing in a school context has some specific elements acknowledging. It states:
The principle of distancing can be usefully applied in the school setting, allowing for some flexibility when needed [...] However, it must be applied in a practical way, recognising that the learning environment cannot be dominated by a potentially counterproductive focus on this issue
Reopening our schools is not just a matter of achieving a certain minimum physical distancing, it is about getting students re-engaged fully with learning, socialising with their peers, for some preparing for examinations, and for others transitioning to school life or to a different level in terms of moving from primary to post-primary. Students need the support of their families, teachers and school staff in readjusting to school life and physical learning environments again.
It is realistic to predict that all students, parents and school staff will experience a broad range of feelings as part of the return to school. This may include a mixture of excitement, happiness and relief but may also include anxiety and fear. This is understandable given these circumstances and there is a response in place to support the well-being of our school communities as part of the planning to return to school.
I can assure the House that there is full engagement with the education partners and that everyone is committed to supporting schools to prepare at a local level for their reopening. There will also be comprehensive communication with students and parents so that they are fully informed over the coming weeks. My Department is providing dedicated and direct contact channels to schools so that where issues might arise they can be resolved quickly. Government has provided a comprehensive plan and supports to ensure we can reopen our schools but we must continue to work together to achieve the goal of seeing our schools reopen.
Returning to the calculated grades process for the leaving certificate class of 2020, my predecessor announced the calculated grades process in May and the schools-level estimated marks data was returned by schools to the Department by late June. A specific process for those learners who are outside of school settings was put in place. The calculated grades executive office in my Department has in recent weeks undertaken the national standardisation process, which is a step necessary for the conversion of estimated marks to calculated grades in a manner comparable with leaving certificate grades over the years. In parallel, the office has also been reviewing the circumstances of the out-of-school learners who have sought to obtain calculated grades. Decisions on these applications will issue in the coming days.
Leaving certificate 2020 students were asked to log on to the student portal set up to assist administering the process over the last week to opt in to receive calculated grades. By the closing time of 4 p.m. yesterday approximately 59,300 of those due to complete their studies in 2020 had chosen to opt in. The calculated grades executive office will continue to follow up with students who have not yet opted in to ensure all eligible students who wish to avail of the calculated grades process have the maximum opportunity to do so.
Senators will be aware that I announced previously that the results of the calculated grades process will issue to students on 7 September and by the end of that week, on 11 September, the CAO has indicated it will issue the first round of offers for places in higher education this year. The additional three weeks for the release of the results are necessary because we are operating a brand new system this year which was designed and implemented rather quickly. The key points are that students will receive a leaving certificate that is comparable with those obtained in other years and that students can proceed to the next stage of their lives in a timely fashion.
The State Examinations Commission is planning to hold the deferred leaving certificate written examinations in November of this year, provided it is safe to do so.
These are changed times. As a country we have stood up to the challenges before us and we have seen great resilience, tremendous community spirit and a shared responsibility to contribute to the fight against the Covid-19 virus. We are now committed to reopening our society in every sense and the schools sector is now preparing to get our students back into classrooms in the coming weeks. The Government is fully committed to supporting that return and has shown the scale of that commitment in the support package announced yesterday. I know Senators will support our students, schools and communities in getting back to school as normal in the coming weeks. Faoi mar a bhí riamh, tá anois, ní neart go cur le chéile.
Beimid trína chéile.
Ná bac leis sin.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House to address the very many valid concerns of Members of this House. I congratulate the Minister and wish her well in her new position. I met her before either of us ever had designs on the Houses of the Oireachtas, probably in 2001, when the Minister was chairperson of Tralee host town committee welcoming Special Olympians to the town. At that point, I thought the Minister an incredible leader within her community and from that I learned how passionate she was about education, culture and, in particular, supporting people with special needs. I am very glad we are crossing paths again in this House.
I have no doubt about her capability to lead us forward. The Minister has had a very difficult task since being appointed only a few short weeks ago, and when we think about the level of debate, preparation and engagement that had to be undertaken immediately, there was quite a phenomenal task for her. The Minister presented the roadmap yesterday and I have had the opportunity to go through it, although not in significant detail. I look forward to having the time to do that after this engagement. I say "Well done" to the Minister, the departmental officials and all those stakeholders who engaged fully, including students, parents, teachers and boards of management. Everybody has the abiding ambition to reopen the schools fully and safely but much detail had to be gone through before people could be comfortable. I know we all wish every single school and board of management well over the next few weeks as they make those preparations.
I will comment on the roadmap before raising some matters on which we focused in the previous four years of work on the Oireachtas education committee. In speaking about education, I think of the words of the great educator and philanthropist who was president of the Irish National Teachers Organisation at one time, Mr. Vere Foster, who spoke about a nation's greatness depending on the education of its people. That connection between education and the welfare of any nation has been made in every century by all the philosophers, including Aristotle, Plato and Socrates. Never has that connection been so important as now. This is a time of connection between the State and education. It is certainly the matter that has been brought to me most often over the past few weeks and months.
There is no doubt that schools around Ireland faced many significant and different challenges when they responded to the initial closures on 12 March. Much depended on their location and socio-economic environments. The Economic and Social Research Institute did some work in this regard, giving particular insight into those directly involved with the challenges arising from the sudden switch to distance learning.
I hope we learn from that and get the opportunity to put contingency plans in place if such a scenario arises again. The ability of schools to respond was very much affected by broadband availability in the catchment areas. Both teachers and students were challenged to improve their digital competencies, and this is something we must consider. Schools, by their nature, are communities at their heart, and the challenge of maintaining school communities and bringing them forward is absolutely immense. I know the Minister is very conscious of this, as we are. Students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds and those with special educational needs were very deeply affected by the shift to distance learning. I saw some research from other European countries about the number of students who disengaged from the educational process after a period. I would like to see some research done on that in Ireland so we can get to see the bigger picture of the existing gaps.
Appendix 1 of the document contains a return-to-work form for staff, secretaries and those working in the educational environment. I would like to see a similar form for the parents of students. It would be important in our approach to these final and crucial weeks. There are particular concerns that have been raised by incoming sixth year students, and I thank them for their engagement with me on the State exams to be held next year. I had the opportunity to raise some of these points with the Minister. This will be an ongoing matter and we must keep a very clear eye on it.
There are incredibly welcome grants included in the unprecedented €375 million budget that is going to the schools, but some schools will have major problems in maintaining any type of physical distancing. I mention in particular St. Paul's school in Monasterevin, which is currently doubling its capacity. There are only two toilets to cater for 175 boys. I know we have great expectations for a new building very soon but I have great concerns about schools like this. I have no doubt there are similar examples around the country, including Coláiste Íosagáin in Portarlington, where pupils and teachers will not be able to pass and a one-way system will have to be implemented when students emerge from classes. Of course, there are students who do not have schools to go to. Schools in Newbridge, Kildare and the Curragh are still awaiting sanction for building projects.
I hope we do not forget about our caretakers and secretaries, particularly as we are going to depend on them so much. Down the line, I hope there will be the opportunity to include them in pension schemes. Home school liaison and school completion officers do incredible work, particularly with families that have had the traditional challenges engaging with schools. Now is the opportune time to look at those programmes and help to develop them, especially as school completion officers are coming to the Department.
I am really glad to see a big focus on the well-being of students and staff. A report on the level of depression among secondary school students, which is a matter of great concern, was compiled in 2017. We need to focus on that.
I have two more quick points to bring to the Minister's attention. The first relates to the development of relationships and sexual education in schools. The education committee of the previous Dáil had comprehensive engagement with stakeholders on this matter and made 18 very strong recommendations in respect of it. I hope the Minister will take up those. The second point is on the retention of records. The education committee had the opportunity to engage with survivors of the residential institutions. I have no doubt that the Bill proposed by the previous Government in respect of this matter should not go ahead.
I welcome the Minister.
It is a bit surreal that the Government side has two speakers.
That matter was discussed earlier.
I again welcome the Minister and commend both her and her team in the Department on developing a detailed roadmap in respect of how to manage the reopening of our schools in September. As for my background, I am an arts graduate in French and history, and I had the opportunity after completing my degree to teach French for a period in secondary schools. I have many friends who work as teachers and principals in the primary and secondary school sectors. Prior to my role in the House, I was also on the board of management of the Roscommon community college and St. Kililan's, New Inn.
This significant investment of €375 million by the Government is testament to the commitment of our parties to ensuring a safe teaching environment for teachers and students this September. Ireland now has a clear plan in the form of the roadmap for the reopening of our schools, which will facilitate the full return to school of more than 1 million students, 4,000 schools and 100,000 staff. These far-reaching measures will give reassurance to parents and students about the safety and importance of education as a fundamental right as classes start again in schools at the end of August. I am also pleased to see there was significant input from many stakeholders, including teaching unions, associations, school leaders and staff.
The commitments that are being given include more than €53 million for 1,080 secondary school posts and there has already been an initial allocation of 600. I, too, listened to the Minister earlier on RTÉ Radio 1 and it was very good to hear about the potential for job-sharing and that the number of teachers will increase. The commitments also include 120 counselling posts, a really innovative measure to help students' well-being in the context of the new ways of teaching that will be employed. This has already been praised internationally, which is great to see. A total of €40 million has been allocated for primary school substitution as teachers cannot attend school if displaying any symptoms. I am pleased to see there are more than 60 supply panels, with at least one in each county.
More than €75 million has been dedicated in respect of infrastructure within schools and €11 million for school buses to help assist in the context of distancing and where the wearing of face masks will be necessary. There is more than €84 million for replacement teaching staff. I am very pleased to see the particular supports for special needs students and I welcome the statement from the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, on special needs and inclusion to the effect that every school will have access to special needs assistants. That also includes additional access to the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, where an additional sum of more than €17 million will be provided to support the well-being of those coping with complex special needs, disadvantage or marginalisation, particularly in this time of stress and anxiety due to Covid-19. Primary schools will have access to minor works grants to reconfigure spaces and this is a doubling of the current minor works scheme. A school with 100 students, for example, will receive roughly €14,000, and the commitment is in place until mid-August to support the reopening.
This is a large undertaking to plan the immediate infrastructure and recruiting resource needs. It will be necessary that all hands are on deck to ensure that our schools are ready in the next few weeks, which will be an added pressure for principals and teachers at our schools. We need to ensure, as the Minister is committed to doing, that we will return to a safe working environment. I listened to the Association of Secondary Teachers, ASTI, president, Ms Deirdre McDonnell, this morning on RTÉ Radio 1. She highlighted the input by unions and associations into the roadmap. It showed the strength of this plan through involving all stakeholders. Teachers have welcomed the fact that curricular reform has been paused but there is concern over the timeframe. I have also had the opportunity to speak to some teaching staff, such as in Scoil an Chroí Naofa in Ballinasloe, the only DEIS band 1 school in County Galway. The feedback they gave to me was that DEIS schools in particular, which deal with more disadvantage and perhaps more complex special needs, will have to rearrange their breakfast clubs and homework clubs. I would be very interested to learn how we will help accommodate such schools. Scoil an Chroí Naofa has been waiting more than 20 years for a new school building. I am working with it currently. It is in the middle of planning with Galway County Council. It is dealing with classroom sizes that are 45 sq. m, whereas the standard configurations provided were for 80 sq. m. I am curious as to how we will manage when classroom sizes are so much smaller.
In the case of such schools, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists and psychologists move from one school to another. How will we ensure that pupils have access to these professionals in a safe way, which is needed for their development? When dealing with children with special needs, there is an opportunity for them to mix with mainstream classes. One objective of the Department is the integration into mainstream of children with special needs. We might get some detail on how we will do this, if it is possible to provide at a later stage. These are challenges and I ask the Minister to consider them.
As I outlined, principals, teachers and administrators will need speedy access to the required funds offered by the Department in order to get matters across the line by mid-August and to recruit teaching staff. What additional supports are being put in place at the Department to help principals and teachers to get their classrooms reconfigured and resources recruited? It is a massive administrative project. On the issue of substitute teachers, it is an excellent initiative to have more than 60 supply panels, and additional teachers have been immediately allocated to them. How will that be safely managed? The Minister may have referred to that matter on the radio earlier.
Currently, face masks are not required in schools and each school has its own Covid-19 response plan. What types of regular reviews are being set up to examine cases in primary and secondary schools and public health guidance with the Health Protection Surveillance Centre?
Is it necessary to consider a testing protocol in respect of this for when cases are identified?
I very much welcome this large investment to ensure that schools will open safely at the end of August and the start of September. I thank everyone in the education sector - principals, teachers, administrative executives - who will be working at full tilt in the next few weeks. It had already started by this morning. I rang the Department and was told officials were talking to all the people in the schools they were going to get set up. It was really kicking off this morning. How will we ensure we support them to have 4,000 schools ready to welcome students at the end of August? It is no mean feat.
Students will get to meet school friends. They will continue on their exciting path of discovery through education and, as parents have let me know, they have a whole new appreciation for the role of teachers. It has been a difficult and stressful time in recent months. Parents and children have all been affected in how we have managed and behaved in recent months with Covid. I ask that my colleagues, as public representatives even in our debates, instil confidence, hope and a sense of calm in our children going back to school. It is really important for that sense of well-being, which the Minister demonstrated well in the report and the strategy she brought to us today. It is also important that each of us be responsible in how we ensure in our debates that our children will be hopeful and confident going back to school and that it is an enjoyable experience.
I thank the Minister very much and look forward to working closely with her as a party spokesperson on education.
I support Senator Warfield. I think the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, CPP, will have to revisit the issue of the order of speaking in the House. There is something wrong about the Government having two speakers-----
As I explained to Senator Warfield, when Senator Craughwell was present, the matter is being considered by the CPP-----
I think it has to go back to the CPP.
The Senator can raise the issue on Thursday, as I have explained.
In any event, we are here to talk about education.
That is what we are here to do but I explained the matter to Senator Warfield.
I accept that.
I congratulate the Minister on her appointment and on hitting the ground running in what is the greatest logistical challenge her Department has ever faced. I welcome the fact that she will open schools and the measures she outlined today. I am encouraged that there has been significant stakeholder engagement during the planning process, but we must be honest with the public. We cannot guarantee that all schools will open or that there will not be closures from time to time. According to the World Health Organization liaison person for Ireland who appeared on the radio earlier, from time to time places will have spikes and will have to close. He estimates that will go on for about two and a half years.
Before I go any further with my comments on the Minister's plan, I publicly thank the thousands of teachers who worked so hard during the lockdown period. Their continuous delivery of remote learning to their pupils, their enthusiasm, their ingenuity and their good humour epitomised everything that I, as a former president of the Teachers Union of Ireland, and the public at large are proud of about our education system. I also acknowledge the role of parents and caregivers in providing formal and informal learning opportunities for their children throughout the lockdown while, in many cases, working from home themselves.
Article 42 of the Constitution reads: "The State acknowledges that the primary and natural educator of the child is the Family and guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide ... for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children." For the past four months, families across the country have embraced this duty with energy and bravery as they themselves negotiated the uncharted territory of home schooling out of necessity rather than choice. Families have borne the financial and emotional cost of this. I hope the Department and educational researchers and academics will continue to engage with parents to mine the valuable knowledge and insight that has been gained from their outstanding handling of this unplanned social experiment.
While parents and teachers have done their best, the results have been uneven. From the recently published ESRI report, we have learned that students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds and those with special educational needs had been deeply affected by the shift to distance learning. School principals fear that the outcome of the lockdown will be a widening of the gap between advantage and disadvantage. They are also concerned about child safety and possible nutritional deficiency due to the absence of the school meals programme in DEIS schools. The research tells us that school closures have severely affected peer relationships and limited opportunities for social interaction, which many children need. This, added to the lack of broadband connectivity in some areas or the lack of tablets and PCs, resulted in many students falling behind in their academic and social development. Anecdotally, I have heard of deeply committed students uploading completed consignments on their phones using their own credit. I hope the Minister will join me in calling on mobile phone providers to supply a free and unlimited data allowance for second level schools during the crisis.
As someone who has actively campaigned for an increase in the number of career guidance counsellors since taking my seat six years ago, I welcome the Minister's commitment to employing additional staff, but I am stunned that it took a pandemic to hammer home what the experts and professionals have been telling us for years. I agree with the INTO's general secretary, Mr. John Boyle, who said that it was ironic that it took a pandemic for us to realise that education could not work on a shoestring.
The news that children will return to school at the end of August has never been more welcomed by students, parents and staff. I do not doubt that it will work within the guidelines. For the past five months, people have already demonstrated an incredible capacity to co-operate and comply, but they will need assurances, detailed signposting and clear information with as much advance notice as possible.
I am mindful to speak to the Minister about a school I would like her to visit, Kinsale community school, which is led by its principal, Mr. Fergal McCarthy. It has had an active committee of students, parents and public health experts setting up one-way systems and planning how it will work in Covid conditions. For example, we need to know whether temperatures will need to be taken at points of entry. What will happen if a student presents with a temperature having travelled via school bus? Must the entire population of that bus self-isolate for 14 days? What about a second level teacher moving from class to class where one member of a class presents with Covid-19? The teacher has been exposed and might have compromised the other classes. What plans are in place in that regard?
There are serious issues in terms of logistics and time. We are already behind the curve and the task ahead is mammoth. It is mammoth not only because of the pandemic, but because Covid-19 has brought into sharper relief the deep inequalities, underfunding and staffing challenges that have plagued the education sector for decades. Every single issue that has been shirked by successive Governments has come home to roost. The Minister is a teacher and will be aware of many of these issues.
An additional 1,080 teachers will be employed, but that is a drop in the ocean in light of the task ahead. More importantly, how quickly can we get those 1,080 teachers through Garda vetting and how are we going to utilise them? One of my colleagues mentioned the fact that teachers move from school to school in some cases. In such a situation, are we running the risk of bringing infection from one area to another?
I am completely behind anything the Minister tries in order to keep schools open, but I doubt she will find 1,080 teachers when she goes to the marketplace, given the gross inequality that has existed in the pay system. We have been arguing about this since 2012 when I was president of the TUI, but no one has taken notice. We have lost the best and brightest of our educators to places like Dubai, London, Birmingham and Manchester. This morning, I heard that we were expecting those in the UK to return home. They will not because they have seen what has happened to the nurses who came home. Many came back from all parts of the world only to never be employed. As such, I do not know how the Minister will find 1,080 teachers.
Despite significant growth in our economy down the years, the underfunding of capital projects has left us with a school infrastructure that might be unable to accommodate the type of social distancing envisaged in the plan. From my calculations, 2 m distancing means there will be 13 students per 49 sq. m classroom. If there is 1 m distancing, there will be 26 students.
I am 100% behind opening schools, but I am also 100% behind the teachers who will have to deliver this for the Minister and 100% behind the principals who will have to manage it. Will the Minister make contact with Mr. McCarthy in Kinsale and take a look at the outstanding plans he has in place?
Teachers, children and other young people have endured enough during the pandemic. They now deserve clarity and certainty. At the very least, they deserve accurate and up-to-date information so that they can make informed decisions. Some of the measures and resources associated with these decisions make no sense. Last year, 500 teachers per day were not replaced by a substitute teacher. However, the Government is only providing 200 teachers for panels under this plan. That will not even meet last year's needs, never mind the challenges of Covid-19.
There are serious issues with space and class sizes. If any good was to come from this situation, the issue of class sizes would have been dealt with once and for all.
I apologise, but could Senators stop moving around the Chamber and leave their masks on, please?
I am sorry.
This was our chance to deal with class sizes. One in five primary school children are in a class of more than 30 pupils. We have the largest primary school class sizes in Europe and the Government seems to believe it is a good idea to keep it that way. If there was ever a time to reduce class sizes, this is it. Sinn Féin will use our Private Members' time in the Dáil tomorrow to call on the Government to reduce them immediately and drastically. I ask all parties that have expressed concern about the roadmap and will express concern when we get around its opposition in this House to support the Sinn Féin motion in the Dáil tomorrow.
Diagrams in the roadmap point to classrooms of 80 sq. m and 60 sq. m, but as has been mentioned, that does not reflect the reality of many classrooms, particularly in older schools with rooms much smaller than that. This was a time for the Government to make a significant effort and show that children and their future are important. The roadmap has come late in the day and, worryingly, still has omissions. I see nothing in it about helping those at risk of becoming disengaged from the system. There is no increased funding for home-school liaisons or school completion programmes. If those who have been disengaged since the lockdown are over 16 years of age, they may never return to education.
There remains a great deal of detail to be worked out. As such, why is the joint Oireachtas committee on education not sitting through the recess? All of these questions need to be answered and solutions need to be teased out. For example, parents do not know whether to buy school transport tickets. They are being encouraged to buy them early, but their tickets might never be used at all. The roadmap was meant to clear up such issues. There is limited detail on special educational needs, and I am concerned that special education teachers will be pulled from pillar to post to cover remote learning, absences, breaks and so on and that special educational provision will suffer. There needed to be a dedicated strategy.
I have pointed out where this roadmap is lacking. We need to see now how this will be implemented. Has there been an audit on school building needs? How many extra staff will be recruited and how will vulnerable children be protected? What is the plan for school transport?
On the leaving certificate, what will be the position for students applying for colleges overseas or in the North?
I want it noted that if Fine Gael had done anything about the housing crisis, there may have been more teachers in this country and if pay parity had been delivered to younger teachers, there may have been more teachers in this country. There is pay parity for so-called super junior Ministers but not for teachers.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach. Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire agus déanaim comhghairdeas léi agus guím gach rath uirthi ina ról nua. The Minister comes into this position at a challenging time with huge decisions around the reopening of schools and indeed the reform of the sector as a whole, with the creation of the new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. As the Labour Party spokesperson on further, higher and all aspects of education in the Seanad, I am glad to have the opportunity to engage with the Minister today.
I wish to address some of the long-term Labour Party educational priorities but at the outset I will address some of the immediate issues around the reopening of schools at the end of August. While the plan and funding that has been announced by the Minister is very welcome in providing clarity to schools, students and families, as my Labour Party colleague Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin stated, the task for schools is truly gargantuan. The announcement is coming very late in the day and in the next four weeks school principals are been asked to interview and recruit extra staff, access more building capacity, acquire PPE and sanitising equipment, produce new policies and procedures, train all staff in a new teaching reality and communicate with all parents. This is an enormous task ahead.
I am somewhat concerned about the consultation within the sector. We need to hear the voices of the school wardens, the special needs assistants, the caretakers and secretaries who will also be returning to school in August or September.
There are also significant questions on school transport. Ireland has some of the largest class sizes in Europe and nearly 20% of pupils are in class sizes of 30 students or more, which has been referred to by a number of the previous speakers. There is a missed opportunity here to reduce class sizes while also addressing social distancing in schools.
Serious concerns have been raised about consultation with students throughout recent months. The Special Committee on Covid-19 Response has had several sittings to discuss the return to school and has asked a variety of stakeholders to present to the committee but not students, despite the Irish Second-Level Students’ Union, ISSU, contacting the committee. ISSU should be at the table in discussions around returning to school and the leaving certificate and I make this request of the Minister today.
While we should be concerned about any age group missing out on education for an extended length of time I am particularly concerned about vulnerable fifth year students. As this year’s leaving certificate cohort have received much warranted the attention, the challenges may be even greater for incoming sixth years who have missed out on a significant amount of their leaving certificate syllabus. Many members of the Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland, ASTI and the Teachers' Union of Ireland, TUI, are concerned that some fifth year students may not even come back, particularly vulnerable ones, because of the length of time they have been out of the school system. There is no legal requirement for them to be in school over the age of 16. I would welcome the Minister's response on this issue.
It is no secret that I am passionate about education and increasing educational opportunities for all. While I welcome the opportunity presented by the formation of the new Department and all of the signs from the Minister, Deputy Harris, are very positive, my party has some concerns regarding the maintenance of the entire educational system as a continuum. We would insist on a coherent principle of equality and access from preschool years through primary, secondary, further and higher education in a continuation of lifelong learning. The research shows that access to higher education starts at the youngest age. While many fantastic access programmes exist in many universities and institutes of technology, it is very difficult to overcome the educational disadvantage that exists at primary level. The continuity aspect is absolutely crucial. Investment in early years is the single biggest way to ensure lifelong access to education. What are the Minister’s plans for this, particularly given the upheaval caused to the sector by the Covid-19 crisis?
An essential aspect of this continuum of education is career guidance in secondary school. Students need to be presented with a much wider range of further and higher education opportunities to meet their interests and needs. I will also welcome the Minister’s comments on how she envisions the bridge between second level and further and higher education developing over the coming years which is now more crucial than ever given the upheaval caused by Covid-19.
I will address syllabus reform. We welcome the commitment in the programme for Government to establish a citizens’ assembly on the future of education at primary and second levels. Referring again to my point on consultation with students, I would welcome a commitment to ensure that the voices of young people and learners are central in any of these consultations. Our schools have been very adaptable and flexible in recent years in responding to digital and technological changes.
We saw this most recently as schools adapted quickly to online learning. Our teachers go above and beyond the call of duty to support students, particularly those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. The citizens’ assembly will provide a great opportunity to look at priorities in education and making our education system fit for purpose in the 21st century. It will allow us to take a step back and ask the fundamental question as to what our education system is in an age when access to information is ubiquitous throughout the Internet. How does one equip students to engage with information in a critical, creative and curious way? How do we give them the skills to adapt in an ever-changing society environment and job market? The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the need for an educational system that is fit for purpose and one that is adaptable.
My party has called for an end to single-sex schools. There is no justification today to segregate children on the basis of sex. Segregation plays into significant issues in regard to LGBTQ+ inclusion and bullying. I commend the work of groups such as ShoutOut which provide workshops for tackling LGBTQ+ bullying.
I also stress the great reforms that are needed in sexuality education. It is striking that the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, CEDAW, report observations noted the shortcomings in Ireland in this regard. In particular, the report recommended that Ireland integrate compulsory and standardised age-appropriate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights into the school curricula, including comprehensive sex education for adolescence girls and boys covering responsible sexual behaviours and focused on preventing early pregnancies, and to ensuring that sex education is scientifically objective and delivered by schools and is closely monitored and evaluated. This is particularly pertinent given the launch yesterday by the Minister, Deputy Harris, on tackling sexual violence, rape and consent at third level education. I would like to hear the Minister’s plans for this area.
We also need to look at inclusion, not just within our schools, but within our syllabus. The Traveller Culture and History in Education Bill which was introduced by a former Senator, Colette Kelleher, and which passed All Stages in the Seanad last November will go some way towards addressing the inclusion of this much-neglected and ignored aspect of Irish history. Can the Minister inform the House of her plans to introduce that Bill in the Dáil?
On the issue of inclusion, I also mention here the need for educational opportunities for asylum seekers. Many residents in direct provision accommodation are valued students in our educational system at primary and secondary levels and sit our State examinations with their leaving certificate friends and yet cannot go on to further and higher education like their peers and the divide they feel is driven further. Has the Minister any plans to address this anomaly to ensure that those who have come through primary and secondary education with their peers can continue on to education just like any other normal leaving certificate student?
I appreciate the Minister comes to this role at a very challenging time with tackling the Covid-19 crisis as a priority, but this crisis also highlights a number of flaws such as our outrageous student-teacher ratio, the chronic state of a number of school buildings and pay parity which desperately needs to be addressed for our teachers.
I refer to the supports for, and the needs of, our students, which are provided by SNAs. I am concerned about the voice of SNAs not being included in the conversation over the past while.
We must also look forward as to how we will ensure the well-being of our LGBTQ+ students, particularly our trans students, asylum seekers and Travellers within the system. We must ensure none is lost within the system due to the Covid-19 crisis or simply falling through the cracks.
I thank the Minister for coming here today. I would appreciate her response on some of the issues I have raised. Gabhaim buíochas mór leis an Aire.
I thank Senator Hoey. The vast experience she brings from her previous post has served her well in terms of her knowledge of the education system.
Before I call the leader of the Green Party group, I remind Senators that as there are so many Members offering, as in previous debates, I ask colleagues to share time. They have six minutes but if every Senator takes the full six minutes and does not share with their party colleagues, not every Member will have an opportunity to speak. We must allow the Minister to reply at 2.52 p.m. I call now on Senator Pauline O’Reilly to speak.
I would share my time but I am here solo and I do not expect to speak for the full time.
I welcome the Minister and congratulate her on her position. I have a long history through the education system myself as a parent and I am a former chair of the Home Education Network.
I take the opportunity to speak about the fact that children are going back to school and to say it is fantastic that we have in place now such a comprehensive plan. I hope the Minister will adjust and make changes, having seen how schools and children are coping and how the families and the staff, in particular, are coping.
I have had many representations from schools and I was formally a chair of a school board. We need to ensure that the short-term measures do not impede the long-term future of these schools. I would like the Minister to take that into consideration.
To go back to home education, I welcome and support the proposal in the programme for Government for a citizens' assembly on education. Now is the time we need to look at pedagogy and education and what that means for our society. To educate means to learn about the culture and the society we are brought up in and how to be valuable members of society. What that means now is very different from what it meant even a year ago, but certainly a decade ago. The education system simply is not fit for purpose when we consider that more than 90% of schools are still Catholic. We need to address that but we also need to address what we are learning in school. I urge the Minister to look at a fantastic programme on empathy, which is fully funded and which Professor Pat Dolan, the UNESCO chair of the Child and Family Research Centre in Galway, was behind. In terms of teaching our children in a school setting, we need to look at what empathy really means and the different cultures that surround us. This is the time to do that.
I was the chair of the Home Education Network. Some 40% of nine year old children reported having been bullied in the previous year. That is from the Growing Up in Ireland study. I hope that will have changed but I do not have full confidence that we have the staff numbers to ensure that it has changed. Alternatives are needed. It has been referred to previously that we have a constitutional right to home educate. More people may choose to do that but there have been inequities in that regard. It has been incredibly difficult to receive dental services or vaccinations when one was outside of a school system. It has been incredibly difficult to do the leaving certificate when one was outside of a school system, but 50% of those who choose to home educate do so because the school was not working. They removed their children from school for a variety of reasons. That means that we have to ensure that those people are catered for. Before the pandemic, the Department of Education and Skills website said that it was compulsory for children to go to school beyond the age of six. It is not compulsory, as I am sure the Minister is aware. That was closing off an avenue to people who were struggling. Many of the calls I was receiving were to ask about the other options when a child is struggling. Do they have to cry for two years in a row because they are being bullied in a school system or are we actually supporting them by providing other alternatives?
It was a significant step that the 2014 legislation moved responsibility for home education and home tuition, as mentioned earlier, from the Department of Education and Skills to Tusla. I welcome the fact that it has been moved back because these are not extreme situations. These are our families. They are the same as anyone else. They are being educated and they should be treated the same.
I will not speak any further on that other than to say that I welcome the Minister's position. I look forward to working with her and to bringing an alternative view to education, which I believe is valuable when we are talking about a society as diverse as ours.
The Minister is very welcome to the House. I thank her very much for taking the time to listen to our concerns. In making my comments I draw on my personal experience as a Traveller who faced multiple barriers in getting an education that I deserved and to which I had a right. From coping with racism in the schoolyard and the classroom to never believing that my culture was acceptable in the school system, I know what it feels like to be at the end of the pie.
I also know from first-hand experience what it is like to struggle through school with dyslexia-----
I ask for attention for the speaker, please.
-----how our mainstream education system is built for a particular kind of pupil, who is mainly white, settled and middle-class, and that so much is taken for granted about their ability to participate. I also know the important role teachers play in listening to and caring for students and the value extra resources can provide in helping children reach their full potential and feel connected.
I have spoken and listened to the voices of people and NGOs across Ireland ahead of today's debate about the need to ensure that reopening our schools is done in a meaningful way that gives everyone an equal chance. There is a common thread to what I heard that would make all the difference for young children seeking asylum, children from a migrant background, Traveller children, children living in homelessness accommodation, and children who have a learning disability such as autism and dyslexia. What is clear is that children experience poverty racism. They come from poor communities, do not have appropriate accommodation, or any accommodation, and often get left behind in normal times, never mind during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Regarding class sizes, there are too few supports, and not enough homework or after-school facilities play a part in making education too difficult. That, in turn, has a direct impact on children's experience, their ability to stay in school and the level of their achievement. That has nothing to do with their intelligence or their ability. It is all about rejection, neglect or damage by the school system itself.
Since March, I have been hearing about children who could not complete their work at home due to not having laptops, an Internet connection and a safe place to call home or a place in which they could study. There are children right now who are living on sites without Portaloos and in overcrowded accommodation who do not have access to any privacy. If we are serious about creating the conditions in which all children are able to have equal access to schooling again, there are issues that need to be addressed. We need extra special needs assistants and resource hours; a programme of after-school, out-of-school and homework supports; and an education plan for every child diagnosed with a learning difficulty that takes into account his or her unique needs such as living conditions and accommodation.
Every school needs to be clear on the diverse needs of their students. They must stop treating them as if every student is the same. The starting point should be access to technology supports at home, awareness of the way racism is making life very difficult for them, and the impact poverty is having on their ability to be able to participate in education. Schools can work with children and their families to ensure they believe they are being heard and understood, proud of who they are and the community to which they belong.
Some Traveller families are getting no support during this time because many parents cannot read or write and do not have any support at home. As Martin Luther King said, we should have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirit.
Last but not least, yes, we are facing a huge challenge in trying to reopen schools in the face of Covid-19 but I also see this as an opportunity to fix what has been broken in our education system for far too long. I look forward to staying involved and being a voice for communities that have been let down by mainstream education. Together we can and must do better. While I have the Minister, my colleague, Senator Hoey, referred to the Traveller History and Culture in Education Bill. The former Minister, Deputy McHugh, was in favour of the Bill and campaigned for it. We look forward to working with the Minister, Deputy Foley in the future and hope she will be equally supportive of the Bill.
I join my colleagues in welcoming the Minister to the Chamber for this very important debate. I know of her personal deep commitment to education and notwithstanding the criticisms of Senator Warfield there is a very clear commitment on the part of the Government to education. It is our top priority. It is probably reflected in the number of speakers on the Government side who are present. There will be no shortage of speakers on the Government side wishing to offer on education, in contrast to the Opposition benches. Senator Warfield also offered criticism of the Government in terms of outlining the full range of challenges which the Minister faces. They are considerable. However, it should be remembered that Sinn Féin opposed the establishment of the Department of further and higher education in this very Chamber on Friday. Notwithstanding how much work the Minister already has to do, Sinn Féin would have given her even more work dealing with the challenges facing our universities and colleges had its approach been followed.
The Minister has certainly had a baptism of fire. I do not think any Minister in their first four weeks in Marlborough Street has had to face the range of challenges she has, dealing with issues from predictive grading for the leaving certificate to ensuring that our schools are reopened at the end of August. It is really welcome that she has delivered a substantial package of €375 million to ensure that the schools will be open. I join colleagues in welcoming, in particular, the appointment of 120 guidance counsellors. Apart from the importance of students being able to get access to their academics, their health and well-being are also going to be essential during this difficult period. What plans does the Department have, if we see an outbreak in a particular area or school, to ensure those students' education can continue? If there is a particular community or school that has to close because of a cluster, what plans are in place? Will those plans be made widely available?
There is a need to focus on supporting last year's fifth years, who are now moving into their leaving certificate year. It is going to be as difficult for the incoming leaving certificate students as for those last year. They have to be at the centre of our thoughts. There is also going to be the question of the school bus challenge. Being from Kerry, the Minister will know as well as I do, coming from Wexford, that at the best of times the issue of school buses is a challenge. There is a need for a review of the whole school bus scheme. It is essential that there is a lot of clarity for those who have to use school buses over the next month. I ask the Minister to outline that to the Chamber and to a wider audience.
Colleagues have mentioned concerns around schools that are already overcrowded and that face a number of challenges. In Gorey and Wexford town there is already a shortage of secondary school places. This is going to place additional pressures on those schools. It is a matter of looking at the specific geographical areas where those problems arise.
The Minister is often going to be firefighting, but I join Senators Hoey and Pauline O'Reilly in welcoming the idea of a citizens' assembly on education. It is crucial that the Department also focuses beyond the pandemic and considers how we can invest in this area having a long-term strategy. I ask the Minister to have regard to the strategy on modern European languages that is being introduced by the Department. We must ensure that there is access to European languages from primary level on. One of the big challenges at second level is that there is a shortage of language teachers. This is something the strategy needs to develop.
We need to look at technology education. The pilot technology programme is in place in quite a number of second level schools. We have to look at expanding it. Equally essential from primary level on is that we enhance the levels of digital literacy such that students are able to understand how to use technology but also to differentiate between fake news and real news. It is important that we expand education in the area of democracy and rights. We have a successful politics and society programme which began as a pilot and is now becoming more widely available. I join calls that student participation right through the entire education process at an appropriate level would be encouraged. We also have to continue to invest in creativity and design. Given how we are all adapting our workplaces and school, the importance of understanding design also needs to be emphasised.
It is a cause for concern that the bell curve that is going to be used with regard to the calculated grades for this year's leaving certificate needs to be clearly explained to and understood by a wider public. I wish the Minister well in her role. I encourage her to be ambitious for our education system and our learners. I am quite certain she will be.
I am sharing time with Senators Kyne and Joe O'Reilly. We are each taking two minutes. On school planning, I would be grateful if the Minister could check with the Department's forward planning unit to see if the Blackrock and Haggardstown area outside the town of Dundalk is outside their radar for new school development. Louth county councillors are going through the whole process of drawing up the county development plan. Now would be an excellent time to sit down with planners and staff in Louth County Council and in the Department's unit to make sure the proper zoning is there in the first place for new school buildings to be built over the next six to seven years.
It would also be important to carry out a survey of parents in the local area. It has been done previously. People input their Eircode postcode to show they are resident in that school area. There should be a survey of parents to find out what type of school they would like in their community, an Educate Together school, a community national school or a church-run school. This worked well three years ago in Faughart, where parents decided to transfer the national school to the patronage of Louth and Meath Education and Training Board.
I also want to raise the issue of the Teaching Council. Many citizens in Northern Ireland train to become teachers but it takes a long time for them to process the registration of their qualifications so they can be appointed to jobs here in the South. Whether a school is in Dundalk or Donegal, when we need so many new teachers coming in to work in September it is really important that we speed up the registration process so that schools can give jobs to teachers from across the Border. On the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, UCAS, applications, students are given the calculated leaving certificate results on 7 September and on 11 September UCAS opens. It is important that we get more clarity on the appeals process for students who are not happy with their results on 7 September.
I refer to next year's leaving certificate. Those students doing the leaving certificate in 2021 have not been in a classroom since March. We face an uncertain autumn in terms of the reopening plan and the possibility of second, third or fourth waves of Covid-19, as has been said.
Over the coming weeks and months we will need an outline of plans to ensure that those students move as seamlessly as possible to the new exam in 2021. It is never too early to start thinking about that. What provisions are being made for schools that simply do not have the space to implement the plan and provide for all their students every day? The requirement for social distancing of 1 m will mean a reduction in class numbers. Will extra room be provided under this plan?
Overall I welcome the reopening plan. This is the first national priority. Everybody wants to see schools reopening and we understand the absolute need to have children back in school. This plan has been resourced with €375 million. I commend the Minister and her colleagues on that. This is a well thought out step by step plan to manage schools each day. I wish teachers, management, ancillary staff and school bus drivers well in putting their new routine in place. I thank them for their commitment.
I also welcome the 1,000 additional teachers in the post-primary sector, including 120 guidance posts. This will help student well-being. In regard to safety and well-being, it is also very important to remember that many students and teachers have underlying health issues. They may be nervous about going back to the classroom. I am glad this plan puts resources in place to support the school community. I wish the Minister well.
I congratulate and welcome the Minister. The biggest challenge is the one on which she embarked yesterday and she has made a great start. Could the Minister address the issues raised by Mr. John McGowan of the Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI, today? It was disturbing to hear him talk about staggered opening. I ask the Minister to try to minimise that.
It is great to hear that we will have another 1,000 teachers at post-primary level. I would ask the Minister to comment on the question of supply in her response. Any primary level teacher who gets any teaching time at all should be able to count it towards his or her qualification as part of the Droichead framework. That is a big issue for some people. I ask that we use the extra teachers to permanently reduce the pupil-teacher ratio.
I would like to raise something that is a little bit outside the Minister's remit but is very relevant. I ask her to ensure that the school meals programme is expanded and very widely used. It is also important that online bullying is dealt with. Work on school halls has been halted for a long time. I am thinking specifically of St. Aidan's comprehensive school in Cootehill. The Minister should visit it to see a glaring example of the need for a new school hall. There are very compelling reasons for this.
Looking to the long term, I would ask the Minister to look at the readiness for distance learning, which will be necessary in any future pandemics. In that context, the broadband plan is vital. We have evidence from the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, that work needs to be done there.
I am glad to hear about the weekly day for teaching principals, enhanced supervision, aid for school readiness and the extra capital funding to help schools to prepare. I welcome the plan. I think it is good. I would love for the Minister to respond to me specifically on St. Aidan's comprehensive school in Cootehill.
I thank the Senator and I compliment the Fine Gael group on very helpful and adroit comments.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire agus guím gach rath uirthi agus a dualgas mór tábhachtach á chomhlíonadh aici.
The Minister is very welcome. I listened very carefully to her speech. Naturally enough, at the moment most people will be focused on the plan to reopen schools, which is extremely welcome. Education is a very important and challenging brief at any time. Everybody recognises the particular importance and sensitivity of the work before the Minister now because of Covid-19. We recognise the vital importance of getting students back to school and of ensuring systems of education, examination and college application in which people can have confidence, that are fair to all and that prioritise the needs of the most vulnerable members of our society.
I was listening carefully to the Minister's speech.
When she spoke about the need for intensive engagement with stakeholders from the education sector, she rightly mentioned teachers, special needs assistants, SNAs, school caretakers, school management bodies and so on. I noticed there was no mention of patrons or trustees. I sometimes think that the important and indeed legislatively defined role of patrons and trustees is left out or dealt with under the general heading of school management. That may just be an oversight in this case, or perhaps the category of school management is intended to include patrons and trustees. I wish to draw that to the Minister's attention. I certainly hope there was consultation with patrons and trustees.
I also have a couple of other questions. I apologise if some of this ground has already been covered by the Minister or by other speakers. The Minister mentioned the €375 million in funding for the roadmap. Does that include the €75 million provided as part of the July stimulus package to support minor capital works? My apologies if that is a question to which everybody else here knows the answer, but I thought it appropriate to ask. It certainly occurred to me while I was listening to the Minister.
I particularly welcome the funding to provide release days for teaching principals. The pressure on teaching principals, as opposed to walking principals, is acute. The need for greater assistance in this area has been a source of discontent and concern among teaching principals. I welcome this measure and many other provisions the Minister has spoken about today.
It is understandable that many teachers are concerned by their potential exposure to the coronavirus. However, there may be a danger of that threat occasionally being overstated in the media and elsewhere. Great strides have been made to minimise its spread. I noted that Professor Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist who is a member of the UK Government's scientific advisory group for emergencies, has said that there has yet to be a single confirmed case of a teacher catching Covid-19 from a pupil anywhere in the world. I hope that is true and that it continues to be true. It is to be hoped that will give comfort to teachers ahead of the reopening of schools, even as we take all of the necessary precautions.
Regarding the cancellation or postponement of the leaving certificate and the issue of calculated grades, it is important to note that the system broke this year because of its inflexibility. Of course we need an objective system of assessment for students. However, there was huge and widespread concern about the pressure that system put on people before Covid-19 came along. Now is the time to look at how the problems that already beset system can be fixed. We need to look at the possibility of students doing part of their leaving certificate examination at the end of fifth year and perhaps in several stages during sixth year. We need to look at the possibility of awarding more grades for parts of courses at school. In another context, we spend a lot of time talking about the mental health challenges younger people face. It is important to acknowledge that our system is a tremendous cause of stress. Stress is a part of life and we must all encourage resilience, but where a system imposes stress unnecessarily, we must examine it.
An approach to life, public policy and law based on human dignity requires us to take a hard look at the leaving certificate system. Should students be competing for such high stakes over that particular period just because it is required by a small number of college courses that demand a lot of points? That is an issue to which we will have to return. I could say more but I do not have time to say it now. I wish the Minister the very best. Let us all hope that this system works and that people have confidence in our education system. That system is crucial, not only to the well-being of the people going through it but to the success of our economy, our competitiveness and our ability to thrive as a nation.
The next speaker is Senator Chambers, who has six minutes.
I am sharing my time with Senator McGreehan. This €375 million package involves more than 1 million students, 100,000 staff and 4,000 schools. I commend the Minister, Deputy Foley, her team and the Government for their effort in putting together what I consider to be a comprehensive and significant plan and investment in our education and schooling system. It is an extraordinary feat when we consider what it took to put this plan together in such a short space of time, which involved engaging with many stakeholders to try to get schools reopen fully for the beginning of the academic year. Each and every one of us is motivated to get schools open because we know the impact being away from school has had on children and families during the pandemic. I am glad to see that this plan not only focuses resources on school facilities and refurbishments but also looks to deal with the well-being and mental health of students, recognising that the pandemic and being away from school has had an adverse impact on children's mental health and well-being. It has also exposed, as Senator Hoey and Senator Flynn have outlined, the mass inequality in our education system. Not every child has equal access to education, not every child experiences the same supports at home, and not every child experienced the lockdown in the same way. Some children found the lockdown a very positive experience having time at home. For other children it was a very difficult time. Schools provide a safe haven for many children and we need to get them back there.
I want to make observations on some of the specific measures outlined in the plan, in particular the minor capital grant of €75 million. That is very welcome but I know the grant will be distributed on the basis of pupil numbers. As someone who comes from a rural constituency, I know that in a small rural school with small classroom sizes it will be difficult to afford some of the refurbishments that are required. I will highlight one example. I will not name the school in question but it will cost it €22,000 to refurbish its toilets and to have the basic cleaning facilities for their pupils. That school will only receive €16,000 so there is a shortfall of €6,000 for the toilet and hand-washing facilities alone. The Minister might look at the situation with regard to small rural schools.
I welcome also the release days for teaching principals. A significant problem is that many principals in small rural schools are teaching principals. That release day will be of huge benefit in terms of allowing them cope with the extra work.
I am aware others have spoken to the Minister about the calculated grade system about which there is significant anxiety. There has been an issue with students who undertook studies outside of school. They have done subjects off their own bat without doing them during school time. I believe they have been disadvantaged in that they will not be given a predictive grade for that particular subject. I ask the Minister to look at that to see if anything can be done for those students. They are small in number but nonetheless they are significant.
In the time the Minister will have once she gets the schools reopened I ask that she might examine the psychological impact of social distancing for younger students. I am aware that students from third class up will be asked to socially distance. I would have concerns around that. They are still very young to be trained and encouraged not to shake hands, not to hug their friends or not to be in close proximity to their friends. I ask the Minister to review that policy in the months ahead.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House today. She is very welcome. I congratulate her on the Trojan work she has done in the few short weeks since her appointment. There was certainly no honeymoon period for the Minister and it is a phenomenal achievement on her part that, four weeks in the position, she has announced one of the biggest packages we have ever seen in the education sector. As a mother, I am delighted and relieved that this announcement has been made. I can now speak to my children with certainty, outline what is going on, help them to reconcile with the new reality, explain the issues to them, reduce their anxieties and try to help them adapt to new terms such as "bubbles" and "pods" and the rules that will flow from them.
I look forward to the communication campaign to assist parents like myself in explaining how things will work to our children. It would be welcome also to get guidelines on when not to send a child to school. I realise that a cough and a high temperature is a stay-at-home issue but I have a boy who has a runny nose from the time the temperature drops in October until the following Easter. I want to know whether a child who has no other symptoms can be sent safely to school. Clear guidelines from the Department of Health would be very beneficial to cut out the guesswork and give teachers and parents some clarity.
Another query I have is about the provisions that will be required for online remote learning for those students who may have to self-isolate or schools that may have to close to assist the schools, the students and the teachers to continue the use of online platforms.
Another issue is the teacher levels in primary schools. A number of schools contacted me with regard to some schools losing teachers because they find they are just below the threshold in terms of keeping their teaching staff numbers.
That will result in increasing class sizes and decreasing social distancing. I hope that this will be reconsidered as during this time we should not be taking classrooms out of commission or allowing schools to lose teachers.
The teachers I know have been working very hard in trying to adapt to and foresee some of the changes. They have an incredibly tight deadline but with the funding and the extra supports, I hope it will be a successful time for all. What is expected of teachers is colossal but with these extra supports I believe it can be achieved. We have an incredible body of dedicated teachers. I hope the increased capacity of teachers we are putting in place to deal with the volatile Covid-19 pandemic can be retained and a programme put in place to keep these teachers employed will be introduced so that they can be used to decrease class numbers in the future. I wish all teachers the very best in their efforts to prepare for the opening of schools for 1 million students across the country. Our first day in school of the new term will be a first day like no other. I wish the Minister the very best.
The next speaker is Senator Cummins, who I understand is sharing time.
Yes, with Senators Seery Kearney and Ahearn.
The Senators have two minutes each.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House to listen to and consider the contributions of Senators on this very important topic. Like her, until recently I was a physical education teacher in a classroom in a secondary school so I would like to think I can bring something to this debate. For some of the time available to me I would like to concentrate on the logistics of operating physical education in the secondary school setting. I am heartened to see the reference in the Minister's document that pupils' physical education is a central part of their well-being and that it should form a significant component of timetable programmes upon returning to school. It goes on to state that teachers should choose learning experiences where pupils can work individually or in small groups, for example in their pods, with minimal equipment. While that makes a lot of sense on the face of it, it does not address the obvious question, which is how teachers and schools handle the changing room situation, particularly in the secondary school setting because, by their nature, changing rooms are constrained settings. If a situation arose whereby the pods or groups do not apply in the case of changing rooms, given that every student takes part in physical education, I would question their validity in their entirety in the school setting. I ask the Minister to focus on that area and ask her officials to address that particular concern.
I reiterate what other Senators said with regard to teachers who have specific health concerns. Is there specific leave available? What are the provisions being put in place for those teachers because clarity is needed by principals and boards of management?
I thank the Minister for coming to the House. I was particularly heartened to see the provisions in yesterday's plans when it comes to ASD and the provisions for special needs assistants. However, I want to draw her attention to a particular lacuna in the provisions, that is, in the areas of Dublin 6 and Dublin 6W. As a result of interventions and lobbying by the Involve Autism group and the Dublin 12 autism group a report was commissioned by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, at the behest of the previous Minister, Deputy Joe McHugh. That report highlighted that lacuna in the provision. It also highlighted that it is being disputed by some of the schools which have come out on the public record and released letters countering the engagement by the NCSE, and it would appear that there was a lack of site visits.
The Department does not seem to have an inventory of the provisions within schools or the school accommodation. As a consequence, there is a dispute between what is possible and what is the reality. I ask the Minister to examine that. I am grateful to the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, who facilitated a meeting recently between Involve Autism and myself. I have the fullest confidence in her. However, I believe also that we will require the authority of the office of the Minister, Deputy Foley, to ensure that these children are included and that they have a right to be educated in their local community among the children in their local community, as has any other child.
There may be an autism spectrum disorder provision in the junior part of the school but not in the senior part.
I welcome the Minister and wish her well in her new role. I have two questions, one of which relates to yesterday's announcement and the second to a local school. Do the guidelines set out yesterday regarding school transport extend to after-school services that provide a drop-off and collection service for parents? I know a business in Clonmel involving three carriers collecting, on average, 20 or 25 children on any given day. If those guidelines do not include after-school services, what arrangements should they make? May children returning to after-school services mix with those in other schools or pods or should they be grouped in school pods?
Cahir is located in my constituency in Tipperary, and I seek an update on a new building for a primary school there. There are two primary schools in Cahir, one for boys and the other for girls. The principal of the boys' school, Mr. Brendan Horan, has been very progressive in trying to move forward this matter. This application began in 2004, some 16 years ago. The tender process was completed on 30 November 2019 and an announcement is long overdue. Does the Minister have an update on this matter? I tried to contact the her office two weeks ago and I have been waiting for somebody to come back to me. I know officials have been busy but people in Cahir have been waiting a long time to bring together the boys' and the girls' schools.
I wish the Minister well in her new role. My mother was a teacher before becoming a Deputy as well, so I have a slight understanding of the transition that the Minister is making.
I will be calling on the Minister to reply no later than 2.52 p.m. There are a good few speakers left but we have precious little time. If Senators can keep their contributions brief, we will leave no one out.
I hear what the Acting Chairman is saying. I welcome the Minister and congratulate her on her appointment. I wish her well because, to be absolutely clear, everybody wants to see the schools reopened on time and for all our students to be able to go to school safely in order to learn. It is absolutely crucial that this happens.
I have concerns, although a few are based around the need for more detail. I welcome the points made about well-being but I want to understand exactly what the well-being programme will look like. A really excellent survey has been done by the Irish Second-Level Students Union, ISSU, of 11,000 people, which is quite significant, and it highlighted, for example, that 24% of respondents have concerns about transitioning back to school in September and over 51% noted concerns relating to academic matters. Of the respondents, 29% had concerns around physical health and there were 662 comments around stress alone. I welcome the note about the 120 guidance counsellors but from where is that figure coming? I suspect that we will probably need more, particularly as this was a key request of the ISSU.
When my kids go to school in Limerick, they do not do so in a normal school building. They have been waiting years for a school building and I asked the Department for an update on that three and a half weeks ago but I have not received a response. It is a significant school in Limerick city. It is a school that has been converted from apartments and there will be no space to operate at all. To be frank, my main concern is not what the Minister has done since entering office but, rather, the significant delays endured by parents over the summer months. They did not even know whether to reserve spaces on buses. We just need to understand how this will be done in three weeks and how the 1,000 teachers will be put in place in that time really concerns me.
I emphasise one of the points made by my colleague, Senator Warfield, who stated that last year more than 500 teachers a day were not being replaced by substitute teachers. While the figure of 1,000 teachers sounds impressive, when we put it in that context, we know it will not be enough. Again, I would like a detailed response on that matter. I will not take up any more time as I want to let other colleagues contribute.
I appreciate that. Senator Murphy intends to share time.
I propose to share time with Senators Gallagher and Crowe. We will have approximately two minutes each.
I might get everybody in if Senators share their time like that.
I will do my best, although I will not be able to get in everything I want. Comhghairdeas to the Minister and I wish her well. As has already been said, she had a baptism of fire. There was some veiled criticism in the background but fair play to the Minister because she kept her head down and did not come out with half a statement. It is a credit to her and her team the way that she addressed this matter today and yesterday. I was very impressed listening to her on the way from Roscommon this morning when she was interviewed on "Morning Ireland".
This is about welfare and well-being and getting children back to education. Without doubt and like most in the Chamber, the question I have been asked over and again is whether we can get children back to school. There is no doubt about what the Irish people want; they want a return to school but they want this done safely and properly. A number of teachers rang me to say they wanted to get back, play their part and do this right.
This is a considerable package and the well-being element is quite important. It includes psychologists, guidance counsellors and special needs personnel. It looks like the Minister has covered every area but of course there will be challenges. Not everything will go right. Who said we have ever lived in a society where we were free of problems? Some people have said we should fix classroom sizes now but if we did so, the schools would still not be open by next May, never mind the end of this year. It is an important matter but this is the way to proceed.
I hope this will lead to the opening of schools. Work will be required and the minor works scheme is very important in this regard. As Senator Lisa Chambers mentioned, there may be some challenges with the financing of works in smaller schools, and it may not be possible to do the required work with the amount of money they receive. I say "well done" to the Minister. She has my support and will continue to have it.
I congratulate the Minister on her appointment, which is an enormous achievement. I am sure everybody in the House wishes her well. Many of the speakers have commented on secondary schools so I will focus on primary schools. I have three or four points and a couple of questions.
Supply teaching panels have been announced for the primary sector but how many teachers are likely to be employed on each panel? There is a major focus on secondary schools, which is welcome, but I want to ensure primary schools are covered accordingly. May each primary school appoint a Covid aide for the logistics? It seems schools can do so but will that person's appointment be for the duration of the school year?
Is there any additional support for the supervision of pupils within primary school? It appears there will definitely be additional supervision and support staff for secondary schools but I did not see anything for primary schools. I will leave it at that because we are constrained by time.
There are four speakers left and two minutes in the slot. It might be 30 seconds each, which might seem like an insult, but I will do the best I can.
I wish the Minister well. I stand here because I am always concerned in these cases that students with disabilities could potentially be left behind because of the challenges they suffer anyway. I refer particularly to students with vision impairments. I came across several cases during the lockdown where visiting teachers had made no contact whatever with such students. Will the Minister look at addressing such cases? I know 30 seconds is not adequate but that is life.
I welcome the Minister and congratulate her on her appointment. The majority of the local schools I represent in Dublin are digesting the guidelines released yesterday. I welcome them, and particularly the elements relating to minor works, well-being and increased teaching resources.
The challenge now is for each school to apply these plans in a bespoke way, to identify what specific supports are needed to ensure public safety and peace of mind, and for the Minister's Department to deliver those.
There is an opportunity I would like to highlight today which straddles the July job stimulus and schools. There is no doubt that we have an ongoing issue when it comes to traffic, congestion and parking around schools. It is appallingly bad and dangerous. We need to get people out of cars by giving them alternative transport modes where possible. If a third of us continue to work from home it would seem like a good opportunity to invest in a long-term behavioural change where parents do not have the same commuting pressure and will have more flexibility to try to embed something new.
A total of €113 million in the July stimulus package has been ring-fenced for active travel, public transport and transport infrastructure. I propose to the Minister that she use a portion of that to-----
The Senator is taking up Members' time because they have only a minute to speak now.
Okay. There is a pilot in Malahide called School Streets. It has been used and has been successful. It is about small and large-scale proposals to provide what I have just spoken about, namely, more sustainable transport. If we deliver bespoke plans in conjunction with the community, this can help in a significant way.
I do not want to be unfair to the Minister so I ask the two remaining speakers to be exceptionally brief. I call Senator Garvey to speak now.
I welcome the Minister. I am a maths and physics teacher and co-founder of a school in Ennistymon called Mol an Óige Steiner national school. It has been in prefabs for more than 16 years, and although it got approval from the Department for buildings, it is waiting for one letter from the Department so that it can start the tendering process. My son is 21. He went to school at four years of age and we are still waiting with those prefabs. It would save the Department money if we built permanent structures for these schools that have approval instead of wasting money on renting prefabs.
The Department of Education and Skills is promoting Aistear and the primary school language programme, which I am sure the Minister is well aware of. This is a perfect time to implement this programme because it requires the same things that we required during the Covid-19 pandemic, which are younger children needing extra staff in the classroom and more space outside. I appeal to the Minister because this is an opportunity not just to make children happier and healthier but also to help the Department to implement the Aistear programme. I wish the Minister the best of luck.
I do not think that 30 seconds will do justice to what I have to say so I will use it to say that the way that the speaking time is being dealt with is so undemocratic. It lacks diversity-----
This is eating into the Senator’s time. I am following what was agreed.
With all due respect, and this is not aimed at the Acting Chairman, but the general point-----
The Chair is talking, Senator.
----- with due respect to Senator Byrne-----
The Chair is talking. I have accommodated everybody.
-----who said that the Opposition was not here, is that if we did not have politicians using up time to get back into the Dáil and talking about local politics and-----
I have accommodated everybody and the Senator is wasting her time now. The Senator can take this matter up with the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, CPP.
----- if they actually cared about the Seanad, I would have a voice in here.
It is not democratic.
It is a pleasure for me now-----
The Chair does not want us speaking in this Chamber, that is clear.
I do not know what is going on here and I am following to the letter the CPP and the list that I was given. Perhaps I was too generous. It is a pleasure and a matter of no small pride for me to call my constituency colleague the Minister, Deputy Foley, to respond in the short time that she has.
Does the Senator not have 30 seconds?
No, time is out.
That is disgraceful.
I must follow the ruling of the Chair. I begin by acknowledging the breadth of input from everybody here in the Chamber and acknowledge the wisdom and experience that these Members bring here. I am a great believer in the co-operative and inclusive approach in education, particularly in how this roadmap was brought about. It was as a result of extensive consultation and engagement with the widest range of partners and stakeholders in education. I do not for one minute assume that there is a monopoly of wisdom when it comes to solving issues and I am very happy to engage with the Seanad on an ongoing basis. If I do not have the opportunity to answer all of the different issues raised by the Members today, I will most certainly speak to my officials and will engage with the Members on an ongoing basis in that respect, which is only fair and proper.
I appreciate that I have limited time and I will deal initially with some the points that have been raised. On protocols for parents, and given that guidance has been issued on protocols within our schools, protocols will also be issued to parents on what, when and how to do things when bringing children back into the system of education.
When the roadmap was finally launched yesterday, all of the information was sent immediately into the schools. An email was also sent from me to the staff within the schools and indeed to the parents. I reiterate that the success of the roadmap will be based on the co-operative approach of everybody who engages with the school sector.
I will ask my officials to revert to the Members on the specific cases raised by them with regard to Coláiste Íosagáin and St. Paul's secondary school in Monasterevin.
I am very conscious of the sixth years of 2020. I acknowledge that there is anxiety among pupils who have finished fifth year and are going into sixth year about how they will face their exams. This is also the case for junior certificate students. Accommodation is being made for those students. The curriculum will not change - it cannot change at this stage - but the breadth of assessment of that curriculum will change. It would be very hard to determine what one teacher would teach at a particular time and another teacher would teach at another time. It is not possible to interfere with the curriculum, but the assessment will take into account some students' absence of engagement in the school process. This is the case for the leaving certificate, the leaving certificate applied, the junior certificate and all of the exams in that respect.
On the question of the inclusion of caretakers and secretaries in all of the benefits, this is most certainly the case. The package here is for the benefit of all who work in the school community. There is a provision of €14.7 million for caretakers, secretaries and SNAs who might have to exclude themselves because they have to cocoon, or whatever, in the same way as there is provision for the teaching staff.
The 120 posts for well-being were raised by Senators. A figure of 120 has been provided for because it would represent the restoration of the full guidance places so that full guidance services can be maintained. They were missing and have now been returned. They are there because there is a considerable focus at primary and secondary levels on well-being and on safely and happily reintegrating students into the school system. A considerable emphasis is being placed on well-being supports being made available to the entire school community. Many staff members may have particular anxieties about returning to the school system. That is also provided for.
On the minor works funds, there may be doubts about when the money will arrive. The money will automatically arrive into the school. It will be received on the basis of capitation grants and will be easily accessible. I am aware that work is under way in many places at the moment. It was previously done, and that will continue to be the case.
As to contacting parents and informing people, there are dedicated helplines and there is a strong element of communication in terms of advertising. A series of materials will be made available prior to children returning to school and parents or guardians bringing their children to school. For example, there will be short cartoon-like, age-appropriate videos for children. The website is now live to access information.
I will not get the opportunity to deal with all the Senators' points. If they want to raise their specific queries directly with my Department, I will ensure they get responses to them.
Senator Craughwell said that we cannot give a guarantee. There are no guarantees on anything at this point. However, I can guarantee that there is absolute determination and goodwill from all of the partners in education to ensure schools open fully and safely.
Specific schools were mentioned, including one in Kinsale. We might discuss that at another time. I am very familiar with the school in question.
Issues were raised with regard to the substitution panel. A substitution panel is being rolled out on a national basis because of the immense success of the six pilots that took place around the country. This success is acknowledged by the INTO and all of those involved in it. I have no doubts as to how successful that will be.
It is there to ensure that when teachers are not available for any reason, their classes are not subdivided into other classes. It is in addition to the normal pool of substitutes available to principals in the primary sector.
SNA and caretaker voices were mentioned, and I assume we would include school secretaries too. I categorically want to say there has been intensive engagement between the Department and the union that represents SNAs, caretakers and school secretaries. I wish to confirm that I have also met that union. It is important that is abundantly clear because everyone who works in the education sector is of equal value. I want to underline that and it is my intention to continue that. I am afraid I have run out of time.
To be clear, today's debate was run on exactly the lines agreed last week by the groups. If people have a problem with that, they should take it up with their groups.