As the Deputy will be aware, extraordinary progress has been made right across the whole spectrum of education in recent years, with the extra investment provided by this Government to support the implementation of our Programme for Government commitments and enable progress on emerging areas of need. The budget for my Department has increased substantially in recent years and the recent Estimates provide €8.4 billion for education in 2007.
We have hired 4,000 extra primary teachers since 2002, with approximately 1,200 of these posts created in the last school year. These extra teaching posts have been used to reduce class sizes, to tackle educational disadvantage and to provide additional support for children with special needs. An additional 800 primary teachers are included in my Department's Estimates for 2007.
The average class size at primary level is now 24, while there is one teacher for every 17 children, including resource teachers etc. At post-primary level, there is now one teacher for every 13 children.
Under the largest school building programme in the history of the State we are spending nearly €500 million on school buildings in 2006, compared to just over €90 million in 1997. Under the 2006 Budget €3.9 billion is being provided over the five years 2006-2010 for capital projects at all levels of the education sector from primary to third level.
We have also intensified work to tackle disadvantage at all levels in recent years. A comprehensive Action Plan for tackling educational disadvantage was launched in May 2005 under which extra resources have been provided to our most disadvantaged schools over the past year, while even more additional supports will be rolled out. In 2007, nearly €730 million will be spent tackling educational disadvantage at all levels — this represents an increase of €95 million on the 2006 provision.
The Deputy will be aware that the Programme for Government places a high priority on improving special needs education. I am proud to say that the improvements made in this area in recent years have been dramatic, with the enactment of the EPSEN Act and a substantial increase in staffing supports for children with special needs.
There are now almost 8,200 Special Needs Assistants in our primary and second level schools. The amount of funding allocated for SNAs in 2007 is over €240 million. There are also more than 7,000 resource and learning support teachers. In 2007, €820 million will be spent on educational provision for those with special needs and disabilities.
There has also been a major focus in recent years on science education and improving schools' ICT facilities. We have updated the Science programmes in our schools and provided specific investment to improve facilities for teaching the science and technology subjects. A new science curriculum has been introduced at primary level, supported by a grant in December 2004 of €1000 per school plus €10 per pupil. Revised syllabi in Junior Certificate Science and Leaving Certificate Physics, Chemistry and Biology have also been introduced.
In November 2005, capital investment of €40 million was announced to upgrade technology rooms in over 500 second-level schools and support the introduction of a new leaving cert course ‘Technology' and the replacement of the technical drawing course with a new ‘Design and Communications' course.
In relation to ICT, the priority in recent years has been networking and bringing broadband to all schools. I intend to build on this by publishing a new ICT strategy in 2007 that will address the broad range of needs — from hardware and software to maintenance and teacher training etc.
As well as improving the facilities in our schools and ensuring increasing staffing levels, we have also placed a high priority on improving support for second chance education. The number of PLC places has increased, while initiatives to attract people back to education have been prioritised. Adult education has received particular attention, as have programmes to improve adult literacy.
We have also focused on increasing access to third level education. The number of students has increased significantly, to over 140,000. In 2004, 55% of 17-19 year olds entered third level, up from 44% in 1998.
We introduced a Top Up Grant for students who need the most support, which will benefit more than 11,000 students this year. The maximum amount of grant support available this year (including top-up) is €5,970.
Overall provision for third level education in the 2007 Estimates amounts to €1.9 billion. Budget 2006 outlined a 5 year programme of investment in third level building projects of €900 million over 2006-2010. This will see major projects progressed in every university and institute of technology.
In line with our commitments in the Programme for Government, we have provided for a massive increase in funding for third level research activities in recent years. Since the launch of the programme for research in third-level institutions (PRTLI), awards totalling €605 million have been made. A further €640 million is being invested under SFI. The Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation published earlier this year sets out a multi-billion plan for the coming years.
As the Deputy will see, huge progress has been made across a wide range of areas. It would be impossible to address all of the work done in one answer. However, if the Deputy has a query about a particular aspect of the Programme for Government, I would happy to answer it.