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Gnáthamharc

Tuesday, 4 Jul 2006

Priority Questions.

School Evaluations.

Ceisteanna (12)

Olwyn Enright

Ceist:

28 Ms Enright asked the Minister for Education and Science when a full whole-school evaluation report will be publicly available for every primary and post-primary school; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [26440/06]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (9 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Minister for Education and Science)

Last month saw a major advance in terms of the transparency of our education system as school inspection reports became available to the public for the first time. The publication of whole-school evaluation reports in particular will ensure that parents and other stakeholders have access to balanced and fair information on the wide range of activities in which schools are involved. WSE reports identify when schools and teachers are working to optimum effect and where improvements are needed. They provide a fair analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of schools in a way that can provide a real indication of school quality. In this way they not only provide valuable information for parents but also help to foster improvement in schools and spread best practice.

The reports do not contain exam results as these would give rise to league tables. Such tables can only provide a narrow and limited measure of the effectiveness of schools. Given the very negative experience with league tables in the UK, I remain puzzled why the Deputy is so eager to follow that bad example in this country. I remain opposed to proposals to judge schools purely on their exam results, thereby ghettoising schools in disadvantaged areas, penalising those with inclusive enrolment policies and encouraging an even greater emphasis on exams at the expense of the other activities in which schools are involved. Nonetheless, I appreciate that parents are eager for more information on our schools. The publication of inspection reports will go some way to meeting that desire.

By last Thursday, 29 June, a total of 154 inspection reports arising from inspections in primary and post-primary schools had been published. These include 36 WSE reports on primary schools, five post-primary WSE reports and 113 subject inspection reports. Each WSE report contains a summary of the main strengths and areas for development identified in the work of the school. In 2006 it is planned to undertake whole-school evaluations in 216 primary schools and 57 post-primary schools. The inspection rate may vary from year to year but, clearly, it will take some time to reach all schools.

However, whole-school evaluations represent just one aspect of the work of the inspectorate of my Department. At post-primary level, for example, in addition to WSE, 428 stand-alone subject inspections will be undertaken in post-primary schools this year. These inspections provide very valuable and focused information on teaching, learning and curriculum provision in an individual subject in a post-primary school. Taking WSE inspections and subject inspections together, it is expected that more than 470 of the 735 post-primary schools in the State will have an external evaluation by the inspectorate this year.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

In addition to external evaluation, schools are encouraged to undertake more frequent self-review. The "Looking at our School" guidelines sent to all schools by the Department were developed to aid such self-evaluation. Naturally, interaction with parents is a very important part of the self-evaluation process. Many schools also produce comprehensive newsletters and reports for parents. I have seen many excellent examples of these and strongly encourage all schools to do as much as they can to inform parents about their activities. While the publication of inspection reports means that parents will have access to a much greater level of information than ever before, this is just one of a number of initiatives to improve the quality of our education system and to provide more information for parents. I am committed to further measures to improve the quality of education provided to our children and young people.

The Minister consistently misinterprets the Fine Gael policy. We have not called for league tables, rather greater information. The Minister quoted the UK as an example. In Northern Ireland, information is still published locally, which is what Fine Gael seeks.

Will the Minister get to the point of the question? She has given me a timescale. She will admit there is a clear difference between subject inspections and whole-school evaluations. I am concerned that a school could be evaluated this year as some of them have been. I will not use the word "negative". Parts of the report might show a need for change or improvement. The delay until the school is evaluated again leaves no real incentive for it to change. If it does change, it is impossible for it to get recognition for a considerable period until an evaluation takes place again. I ask the Minister to provide a clear timeframe for the evaluation of the country's 4,021 schools. Once that process is completed, what will be the timeframe for re-evaluation? If it will take 13 years to complete the evaluations, the many changes that will have taken place in the interim will not be addressed by updating the reports but will require a new series of inspections.

Fine Gael's policy is to publish exam results which, by their nature, give rise to league tables.

Locally.

Irrespective of whether the party advocates local or national league tables, it remains an exclusive and damaging policy.

The Minister is already publishing league tables of college entry exams in the newspapers.

Recently, I met the UK Secretary of State for Education and Skills and his officials, who outlined the damage done in that country by the publication of results. The Deputy is correct that whole school evaluations are only one element of the evaluation of a school. Evaluations will not be published on each school every year but even parents whose children do not attend schools for which evaluations were published last week learned a lot in terms of questions they could put to their own schools. For example, after learning from the website that a school did not give daily English or maths lessons, parents will ask about the curricula in their children's schools.

We encourage schools to participate in self-reviews, and guidelines, Looking at our Schools, were published to enable schools to examine their own strength and weaknesses with regard to self-evaluations and interactions with parents. Many schools produce comprehensive newsletters and annual reports for parents.

While the staffing of the inspectorate can vary, 105 inspectors are currently employed. The extensive series of reports published by the inspectorate has generally been welcomed. However, it is not possible to indicate when a school will be inspected because that would depend on the number of inspectors employed in three or five years' time.

Members of the Committee on Education and Science have discussed with the Minister the issue of boards of management. Will she indicate the role played by whole school evaluations in investigating the operations of boards of management and the small number of cases in which boards cannot be formed? Does the whole school evaluation take account of interaction within boards of management or the potential for parents to make representations to the boards?

All elements of the school community are evaluated, including the crucial part played by boards of management. The evaluation also takes account of school policies, which are developed by boards of management in conjunction with principals, parents and students. From time to time, boards of management do not function properly and have to be replaced by a single manager. In such cases, the inspectorate supports the school in restoring the system to normality. The good of the school is always paramount in such cases.

Disadvantaged Status.

Ceisteanna (13)

Jan O'Sullivan

Ceist:

29 Ms O’Sullivan asked the Minister for Education and Science when she expects decisions to be made on appeals from schools in respect of their inclusion under the DEIS initiative; if the anomaly will be addressed whereby some schools are excluded despite catering for largely the same families as others which are included; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [26132/06]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (5 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Minister for Education and Science)

DEIS provides for a standardised system of identifying levels of disadvantage and a new integrated school support programme. The school support programme will bring together, and build upon, a number of existing interventions in schools with a concentrated level of disadvantage.

The process of identifying primary and second level schools for participation in the school support programme was managed by the Educational Research Centre, ERC, on behalf of my Department and supported by quality assurance work co-ordinated through the Department's regional offices and the inspectorate. As a result of the identification process, 840 schools were invited to participate in the school support programme. These comprised 640 primary schools, 320 of which were urban and 320 rural and 200 second level schools.

A review process has been put in place for both primary and second level schools. The review process applies only to those primary schools that participated in the ERC survey in May 2005 and only to those eligible second level schools for which data were available from the relevant databases. The closing date for receipt of review applications was Friday, 31 March 2006. The review process is operating under the direction of an independent person, who is charged with ensuring that all relevant identification processes and procedures were properly followed in the case of schools applying for a review. The reviewer is being supported by a nominated staff member from the ERC and an official from my Department.

In the case of primary schools seeking a review, applications must relate to data on the relevant variables included in the ERC survey of May 2005 and the reference date of 30 September 2004. In this regard, analysis of the survey returns by the ERC identified the socio-economic variables that collectively best predict achievement and these were then used to identify schools for participation in the school support programme. In the case of second level schools seeking a review, applications must also be based on the variables used to determine eligibility for inclusion in the school support programme.

Review requests must be based on evidence and the variables and reference dates used in the identification process for the school support programme. The review group will also consider the issue of association where it is evident that an associated school is serving the same families.

The review process is nearing completion and the review group will shortly make recommendations to my Department in the case of each school that has sought a review, following which each school will be written to as regards the outcome of their application.

Do I understand from the Minister's reply that schools in which children of the same family are enrolled will be considered in the review? I have been informed that where children from the same family graduate to secondary school, it sometimes arises that the primary school is included whereas the secondary school is not. Why are the criteria for primary level different from those for second level? The Minister has outlined for me the variables with regard to primary schools, which include unemployment, local authority accommodation and lone parenthood. However, retention rates and exam results are the main criteria at second level. Why is that the case? Will the Minister consider a review of the policy because it can have the result that the same families are not included at second level?

How much additional money will be spent this and next year on the DEIS programme? How many appeals has the Department received from primary and secondary schools?

Not surprisingly, given the extent of the programme, a number of schools have appealed their exclusion from the programme or the decision to designate them band two or band one status. Approximately 350 schools have appealed, of which 100 were second level.

Association is not as important in respect of primary students graduating to secondary school because account is not being taken of cross-sectoral issues and second level students may be drawn from a wide area. However, the Department is aware of cases in which boys from a family attend band one schools while their sisters attend undesignated schools. The programme does not take account of the geographical base because if two schools in a town are in the programme while the third is not, that does not mean the latter is disadvantaged.

An additional €40 million will be spent on the programme and the funding will be front-loaded over the first couple of years. Thus, for example, the extra teaching staff needed to reduce pupil-teacher ratios in the most disadvantaged schools to 20:1 and 24:1 will be available from September. Any band one schools which were not previously designated as disadvantaged will receive resource teachers on an 80:1 basis. Teachers for home-school-community liaison will also be appointed this year. The early childhood element of the programme is being developed by the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy Brian Lenihan, and will be included next year. I will revert to Deputy O'Sullivan with the exact figures early next term.

Will the most disadvantaged schools be prioritised in the first year? I refer in particular to those schools with high levels of literacy and numeracy problems.

We have all agreed that the most disadvantaged schools should receive the most targeted support. They are being prioritised and that is the reason they are being given additional staffing. Other measures, such as the reading recovery programme and extra supports for the school completion programme, are being put in place in these schools with immediate effect. We are also working on the scheme for sabbatical leave for teachers and principals. Priority will be given to those in most disadvantaged areas.

Commercial Research.

Ceisteanna (14, 15)

Paul Nicholas Gogarty

Ceist:

30 Mr. Gogarty asked the Minister for Education and Science if she has carried out or will carry out a full investigation into revelations that a publicly-funded third level institution has been engaging in research in primary schools during school hours on behalf of commercial clients, in some cases without the sanction of parents; her views on such exploitative practices in general; if she intends to ban such commercial abuse of children; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [26442/06]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Olwyn Enright

Ceist:

31 Ms Enright asked the Minister for Education and Science if she has requested or received a report from the schools involved in the testing of certain foodstuffs on their pupils in collaboration with a third-level educational institution. [26441/06]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (17 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Minister for Education and Science)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 30 and 31 together.

My Department has not received a written complaint about this issue.

Under Section 15 of the Education Act 1998, the board of management is the body charged with the direct governance of a school and is therefore responsible for making decisions on the types of activities in which the school gets involved. Clearly there are two different issues here — commercial links between companies and schools and food-testing in schools.

General commercial links include a wide range of activities. A school may be delighted to benefit from the sponsorship of its football kit by a local business or the provision of work experience opportunities for its students. Clearly, there are other far more sensitive issues and this is why my Department's circulars, while entrusting the school authorities with deciding which activities to engage in, explicitly require them to ensure that pressure is not placed on parents to buy particular products.

My Department's concern is to strike a balance between allowing schools to benefit from positive links with businesses and protecting children and their parents from inappropriate marketing. The decision as to whether to accept sponsorship, partake in promotions or engage with research is one for the board of management. Naturally, the board should only engage in activities that are in the best interests of its students.

I was surprised to hear that food was being tested in primary schools. Food companies have plenty of opportunities to test their products in supermarkets with the children's parents present to decide what they want their children to eat, being mindful of allergies and healthy eating objectives etc. My Department has not received any written complaints from parents in the schools involved and if a parent has a difficulty with such activities the matter should be raised with the board of management of the school. Nonetheless, I believe that boards should be wary of getting involved in such activities, particularly given that each child has different dietary requirements.

My officials have been in touch with the Dublin Institute of Technology regarding this practice and have been assured that in any future activity of the Dublin Institute of Technology Food Development Centre that involves food testing by school pupils, it will request the written approval of parents.

This laissez-faire approach is, in effect, allowing our children to be abused. We have heard of child sexual abuse and other emotional abuse and this is commercial abuse. The Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, should give consideration to introducing regulations. With or without parental consent, commercialisation in schools is a scandal. Will the Minister issue real and effective guidelines, as she does with curricula? Boards of management must teach the curriculum as well as anything else. Advertising in schools is becoming endemic.

It does a grave disservice to those who have been sexually abused to compare it to commercial abuse. I am appalled to hear Deputy Gogarty make the comparison.

It is not on the same scale but it is abuse nonetheless.

Circulars on the promotion of commercial products have been issued by the Department since the early 1980s. One addressed the promotion and marketing of commercial products throughout schools and asked boards of management to be careful in this regard. My Department met the INTO prior to this matter arising and discussed in detail the need to consider guidelines for schools, particularly for commercial schemes. Many bodies are cashing in on this. We do not wish schools to feel under pressure to participate in such a scheme. In working with the INTO we indicated we may revise the guidelines before the next school year.

The Minister states she has not received any written complaint from a parent but serious questions still arise. The Minister may recall the issue of food availability with regard to public private partnership schools. In the first schools of this type the contract allowed them to serve fast food. The Minister is making changes to the contracts of the next cohort of these schools. The nutritional value of the food tested is a concern. I believe the foods tested included crisps and burgers, which are unsuitable for the school environment. Will the Minister consider giving policy direction to schools regarding the nutritional value of food, as distinct from research and testing of foods? Does the Minister know if the market research took place during school hours? Were the children taken out of class for this research or did it take place after school time? Were the schools involved offered payment? Was the consent of parents sought each time?

If a child had a peanut allergy and traces of nut remained in the food, has the Minister received legal advice on who would be responsible? Would legal responsibility rest with the Department or the board of management? Guidelines are necessary so that boards of management know their legal responsibility.

One would have more faith in an institute of technology but nothing is stopping the producer of particular food products carrying out research another time. Schools must be more aware and I urge the Minister to liaise with schools, through management representation bodies, to ensure greater awareness.

I agree with Deputy Enright's point that one would have more faith in an institute of technology. The Dublin Institute of Technology Food Product Development Centre is highly regarded. It supports the Irish food industry in analysing current trends. It tests food in a variety of ways but I do not accept that it must do so in schools. Pupils may have allergies and may be tempted by certain foods.

Approximately six schools were involved in this test. According to the Dublin Institute of Technology and the principal of one of the schools the test was used to teach science and research. The school made no financial gain. Dublin Institute of Technology runs the centre on a not-for-profit basis. Irrespective of the use of the test by the schools, it is not appropriate to carry out such tests in schools.

Concerning public private partnerships, school management will control the type of vending machines in schools.

Did the testing take place during school time?

My understanding is that these tests were carried out during school time. The Dublin Institute of Technology indicated the schools used the tests as an introduction to science and scientific research. I do not approve of it and it is unnecessary. Many opportunities exist where parents are present, particularly given the sensitivities involved.

The connection between sexual or emotional abuse and commercial abuse is one of degree but does the Minister not agree that commercialisation of schools is an exploitative and abusive practice? Children have a right under the Constitution to an education that allows them to become free-thinking, independent-minded citizens who can contribute to the economy. Any commercialisation at a vulnerable age affects that.

Many parents feel obliged to support such commercial ventures because of the lack of funding provided by the Department of Education and Science. An example is the end of the physical education and sports grant, which enabled schools to buy physical education equipment. McDonald's now provides corner flags with the McDonald's logo, enabling schools to participate in sport. One must spend thousands of euro to receive a computer under Tesco's computers for schools programme. It is high time somebody in Government, particularly the Minister, showed leadership on this issue by setting down clear regulations and guidelines, rather than leaving it to hard pressed boards of management and parents who are trying to do the best by the children and schools by securing funding through whatever means. In this context will the Minister acknowledge that funding is required from the Department for the schools and that clear guidelines and binding regulations are also required?

On the issue of parental consent, does the Minister know whether parents were contacted by the schools before this was carried out? Will the Minister reconsider the idea of giving guidelines on the type of foods available in schools and the relevant standards? The HSE and the health promotion unit will do a certain amount in that regard but has the Department considered doing that?

I will leave nutrition advice to the experts in nutrition. It is certainly a key element of social, personal and health education, with much input from various dietary experts who have given great support to schools in this regard. I understand that a general approval was given rather than a specific approval for individual events. This testing does not appear to have gone through the board of management. I do not know the situation in all the schools; I am just picking up information on it. However, any such activity should always be with the support and the specific approval of parents. I still do not believe in testing food products in schools.

In response to Deputy Gogarty's point, one cannot isolate children from the commercial world.

One can try to protect them.

No, one tries to get them to understand it. Their lives are not blocked off from advertising on television. That is the commercial world. Many children will go on to work in business and benefit from business. They need to understand the business world. There can be positive links between schools and businesses. One sees it particularly at second level, through work experience, the schools and business initiative and schools working with business groups at all levels. That cannot be cut away from children.

It can be regulated.

What is important, with regard to any activity in which children are, is that parents do not feel under undue pressure to become involved. With regard to funding for schools, the capitation grant has increased substantially in recent years and is very generous now compared to what it was just a few years ago.

It does not cover everything. Schools are still obliged to fund-raise.

School Staffing.

Ceisteanna (16)

Seán Crowe

Ceist:

32 Mr. Crowe asked the Minister for Education and Science her proposals for dealing with the new challenges in education in the provision of English as a second language to newcomer children in schools, especially in view of difficulties being experienced in a school (details supplied) in Dublin 24. [26407/06]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (3 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Minister for Education and Science)

Ensuring that all children get the support they need to do well at school is a major priority for this Government. To ensure that children whose first language is not English can succeed at school, my Department gives additional support to their schools, which can take the form of financial assistance, additional temporary teacher posts or portions of teacher posts.

The level of extra financial or teaching support provided to any school is determined by the numbers of non-English speaking students enrolled. The school referred to by the Deputy currently has three teachers to cater for the needs of non-English speaking students.

Recent years have seen a significant rise in the number of language support posts being provided by my Department. In the 2005-06 school year, 563 whole-time equivalent language support teachers were in place at primary level and 263 whole-time equivalent teachers were in place at second level to support such pupils, representing an investment of €47 million. This compares to 149 and 113 teachers respectively in the school year 2001-02. Thus, there has been a fourfold increase in language support teachers at primary level in just four years.

The Government has been increasing resources in this area in line with rising demand. However, this is a relatively new area and, as such, must be kept under review to ensure that children are getting the support they need and that this support is proving effective in helping them to make the most of their time at school.

My Department is currently reviewing the supports available to schools to support children whose first language is not English. In that context we are particularly looking at the pressures on those schools that have a great number of children whose first language is not English. Officials have visited the school referred to by the Deputy as part of this review process to see, at first hand, the challenges the school is facing.

The Deputy may also be aware that two weeks ago I met officials in London to discuss their experience of meeting the needs of non-English speaking students. I also visited two London schools to look at their policies in action. I was particularly interested to learn about which strategies have been successful in terms of engaging with these children's parents as I am conscious that language difficulties are just one aspect of this issue.

As with all children, the interest that their parents show in their education is important and it is crucial to find ways of empowering them to get involved. Issues that have arisen in the context of the review include the different expectations of parents of different nationalities and the fact that the child may be the only English speaker in the household. With regard to the latter, a DVD explaining the primary school system for parents was produced in several different languages earlier this year.

Other issues that have arisen in the context of the review include the current cap on the number of language support teachers available to a school and on the length of time for which an individual student can access language support. The draft new social partnership agreement includes the provision of an extra 550 language support teachers by 2009 and the reform of the current limit of two additional teachers per school. This major increase in investment will make a big difference to schools such as the school in question.

The school in question has 230 newcomer children and only three additional teachers. The Minister spoke about a review. Did the schools she visited in London have classrooms? Did they have to subdivide their gyms? Did they have to do away with their libraries? Had they two prefabs which had been declared unfit for habitation by the health and safety authorities?

The Minister has described this issue as the new challenge facing us but she does not appear to be rising to that challenge. She is certainly slow to tackle it. Is the Minister aware of any other school in a similar situation with the same number or percentage of newcomer children? More than half the children are newcomer children. The Minister spoke about the importance of integration and so forth. What effect does this have on the school? In the past two or three weeks 17 children have enrolled in this school and all are newcomer children.

It is not enough for the Minister to announce new resources during the summer. The problem with this school is that there will not be room for the children. If there are new teachers, where will they go? There is no room in the school. I do not know if this problem is specific to the area in question but it needs to be resolved. The current situation is unacceptable to both the teachers and the children. There is a particular problem at this school. Millions have been spent on the school but that will just go down the drain if proper resources are not provided for the children.

Children in the school have all types of difficulties, aside from the background they are from. The resources are not being provided by the Department. Do any other schools have similar percentages of pupils? If the Minister believes that three new teachers, or one teacher per 110 pupils, is sufficient, she is living in cloud cuckoo land.

Based on the figures provided by the Deputy, it is three teachers for 210 pupils, which does not come out at 110 each. Second, the Deputy should acknowledge that the provision of 800 teachers whose sole responsibility is teaching English to non-national children is a significant investment. That investment has grown substantially in recent years. I hope the acceptance and approval of the partnership agreement will result in the allocation of 550 extra language support teachers, which will enable us to make even further progress on this issue.

It should be remembered that not every non-national has a language problem. There are serious cultural issues among the various nationalities, not just with regard to language but also with regard to their attitude to education, how involved the parents wish to be and how supportive they are of getting their children to school. Those issues are equally important. I noticed in London that the schools had managed to get some of the non-national parents involved in the school community. That had a major bearing on the success of some of the work they were trying to do. I am not sure the record in the UK in community building is one we would like to emulate, given the problems in many of its towns. We can learn from the mistakes that have been made in various places as well.

Following a visit by departmental officials, the school referred to by the Deputy was granted a third teacher immediately. The problem is not peculiar to this school but the situation is more serious in some areas than in others. I have visited some schools that have a high proportion of non-national pupils. The situation is not as intense in all areas as it is in this school, just in certain geographical areas.

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