Wednesday, 31 March 2021

Ceisteanna (585)

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Ceist:

585. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for Education if she has engaged in discussions or commissioned reports in relation to subsidising household broadband services to tackle educational disadvantage and narrow the digital divide; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [16693/21]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Education)

My Department does not have a role in the provision of residential broadband infrastructure. Provision for such services falls to the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications and this is being addressed through the implementation of the National Broadband Plan Intervention Area. My officials have an ongoing engagement with that Department on issues relating to broadband services for schools.

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic my Department has issued extensive guidance material to assist schools with the continuity of learning. This guidance to schools was developed in consultation with all relevant stakeholders including teachers, parents and learners. The guidance included provision to support the continuity of teaching and learning in response to the Covid-19 restrictions for those learners unable to engage with online learning. This guidance is all available at gov.ie .

As part of the €210m investment programme underpinning the implementation of the Digital Strategy for Schools, my Department provided €100m in grant funding to schools to address their ICT needs during 2020. Schools were advised that they can use this funding to support the continuity of teaching and learning should a period of partial or full school closure occur arising from Public Health advice owing to Covid-19 restrictions as is the current situation. This can include the purchase of ICT devices including laptops, etc. that can be shared with students and teachers who do not have access to devices, essential learning platforms and other ICT infrastructure to support the provision of remote learning.

ICT grant funding issues directly to schools, as schools are best placed to identify the needs of their learners and to meet those requirements. Many schools have used this funding to put in place a device loan scheme to support families.

In an effort to support students and families a process to zero rate educational websites was put in place during the first lockdown, as announced by the then Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications. I am advised that the zero rating has been maintained by a number of telecoms providers and also that there is a range of unlimited mobile data packages on offer by the market. Decisions regarding home broadband and access for children are, of course, determined by parents/guardians.

Separate to the ICT funding, my Department invests an average of €13m annually for the delivery of the Schools Broadband Programme (SBP) and some 98% of schools are included in this programme.