Subheads A3 to A6 concern teachers’ salaries. What is very notable about these Estimates is that this is the first time since I have been elected that we have not been dealing with substantial overexpenditure on superannuation, as has been the case in recent years. I presume the Department has managed to get the issue under control.
Subheads A3 to A6 relate to a Supplementary Estimate ask of more than €50 million for teachers' salaries across primary and post-primary levels. While the subheads are extremely large and make up the majority of the expenditure for the entire Vote, the Supplementary Estimate as a percentage of the total is quite small. The amount in question is still remarkable, however. I understand this is primarily as a result of substitute cover for more paid leave than was anticipated. Does the same issue arise in the same way under each subhead? What measure is the Minister pursuing to calculate more accurately in this regard next year?
With regard to subhead A9, on school transport, adequate school transport is an essential part of ensuring equality of access to education for all students, especially those with special educational needs. My question on the subhead is more about the future. What is the Minister's projection for spending on school transport in the future? Will he outline what engagement he has had with Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment to mitigate against the rising cost of school transport? Ensuring sustainable, clean, effective transport is not just an issue for the Department of Education and Skills because there should be joined-up thinking.
Public consultation on BusConnects closed this week. Revision of the bus network is crucial in Dublin. I welcome the engagement there has been on this and some of the changes over the past year. I noticed that, with regard to the major routes, peak times are identified as being from 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. onward. In some cases, school finishing times are not treated as peak times. I noted this in my submissions to BusConnects last year and this year. Rather, the focus is on the slot from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. Did the Minister have any engagement in the process or with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport on how our bus and other public transport services need to be working for students and on how school finishing times need to be regarded as peak times so we can have adequate service options for students?
What engagement has there been to ensure safe routes for cycling and walking to schools? These are required, especially in urban areas.
Regarding subhead A11, additional expenditure pertaining to the State Examinations Commission is due to the High Court decision on appeals related to the leaving certificate examinations and the need to process them in a much shorter timeframe. I absolutely welcome the fact that action has been taken on this matter. Is the cost incurred to ensure the new system is implemented just a once-off cost? Will the increased expenditure be necessary every single year? Is there any mitigation activity that could be engaged in with a greater amount of planning next year?
On subhead A15, concerning primary and post-primary infrastructure, the overexpenditure seems to be related entirely to current expenditure. It is €8 million over the projected budget of €19 million. This is quite substantial. Is the expenditure primarily on rent? Is it due to an increase in rent or an increase in the number of properties being rented? If both, could we have a rough breakdown? It brings into question something I have raised before with the former Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton. Is the Department announcing schools without even having sites identified? This causes a dilemma for principals, teachers, and parents who are trying to work out where students will be placed.
A few years ago, a school in my constituency was moved from place to place as it sought a permanent solution. A primary school was moved to a secondary school. A cost was incurred to make the premises suitable for a primary school. I am aware of a school in Wicklow where the same thing is going to happen next September. A primary school that is no longer fit for purpose has a new building built for it. A secondary school is now going to be moved out of its temporary location to this primary school as another temporary location until the other one, the permanent location, is found. It has to be fitted to be made suitable as a second level school. What are the costs incurred in the circumstances? Are they included in these figures? I am curious about the cost.
Subhead C4, which pertains to higher education, is quite specific in regard to medical students and the High Court ruling, as the Minister said in his statement. My only comment on this subhead concerns the chronic underexpenditure over recent years. In 2008, State funding for third level education was just under €9,000 per student. It is not much higher than €5,000 per student 11 years later. Our higher education institutions are in financial crisis. I feel the Government has continually delayed in engaging on the Cassells report. This committee has pointed this out several times. All the time, third level institutions are crippled by financial strain, and the education of their students is suffering.
We are at a stage at which we are required to meet the first benchmark of the Cassells report. We are to be annually €600 million over and above the 2015 level by 2021. We are at a standstill, however. I urge the Minister to take on the task of recognising the crisis at third level and to fund this vital sector adequately.
Every year, I take the opportunity as a former teacher to talk about equal pay for equal work. This is a major issue. I taught alongside teachers who were doing the same job as me and getting different pay. This needs to be dealt with as a matter of fairness. We need to value our educators right across the board. That is not happening in the jobs they do.