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Byrne, Thomas

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Financial Resolutions 2017

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Financial Resolution No. 2: General (Resumed)

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Financial Resolution No. 2: General (Resumed)

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Deputy Thomas Byrne

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Thomas Byrne

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Snippet Contents:

I am happy enough as education spokesperson that some of the items for which Fianna Fáil has fought in the past few months have been addressed by the Government. We agreed in a confidence and supply agreement with Fine Gael some months ago a number of education policy initiatives which we wanted to have implemented. However, it has been like pulling hen's teeth or like getting blood out of a stone to get the Minister for Education and Skills to realise the importance of the issues we have highlighted.
The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Helen McEntee is present. The second level mental health strategy mentions the importance of guidance counselling and the service has been allocated €2 million, one of the smallest allocations made in the budget. I had to have meetings, issue press releases and beg and remind the Minister of what had been included in the confidence and supply agreement, while my colleague, Deputy Dara Calleary, had to do the same with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. It is extraordinary. There was a similar scenario regarding third level funding. The Minister only published his action plan - an action plan for Action Man - a number of weeks ago and there were only two lines in it about third level funding. To prove his lack of vision for the entire education sector, following the exertion of significant pressure by Fianna Fáil to do the right thing for students and invest in third level, a three-year plan was announced in the budget to fund higher education, which I welcome is so far as it goes. However, the Minister had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do the right thing. There was nothing in the action plan, but because of the severe pressure exerted by Fianna Fáil and the third level sector, we have succeeded and he has been forced to address the issue of third level funding. It is a pity that that had to happen because it was the right thing to do. It is important for the country and the initiative is about action, not words. We are glad that we played a role in the making of the €35 million allocation to the third level sector, but the Minister needs to go further and take third level education seriously. His lack of vision is a danger to the education sector.
The Minister and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform also belatedly addressed the issue of the remuneration of newly qualified teachers. They accepted that something would have to be done by starting the process of negotiation. We knew that this would happen because something similar had been done for firefighters, but, again, the Government had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do something. The agreement was inevitable, but instead of arriving at it promptly, it was not finalised until after the summer and, most dangerous of all, following the announcement by the ASTI that it would ballot its members for industrial action. I tried to make the Minister aware that an announcement on newly qualified teachers should be made before the ASTI ballot. Whatever happened between the Departments of Education and Skills and Public Expenditure and Reform, that message was not understood and the announcement was not made until afterwards. There is a protest outside Leinster House, which is unnecessary, because if the Government had done its job in dealing with the issue of newly qualified teachers for whom €10 million has been allocated in the budget, everything could have turned out differently and there might be industrial peace in the education sector among teachers, whom we value greatly, regardless of whatever union they are members. Fundamentally, education is about teachers and pupils. The Minister's lack of vision, therefore, is deeply worrying. Action plans and lists of items to be ticked off are not sufficient. It is not enough to say, "We are publishing this report in quarter 4 and this document in quarter 2." There must be an overall vision of what education means. Education is about providing the best prospects for young people, imparting the best rounded value system to them and informing them about what they need to know about life, how to engage in society and find a job. That overall vision will never be achieved by a box ticking exercise related to administrative tasks within the Department. Unfortunately, officials in the Department seem to be engaged in such an exercise in order that they can say they have completed all of these tasks, while the sector is left to fend for itself in many ways.
The issue of reform of the junior cycle curriculum was raised at the education committee earlier. A sum of €10.5 million has been allocated for the reform programme, while ignoring the fact that half of schools are not delivering the programme. We are at this point because of the lackadaisical attitude towards the end of the previous Government and at the beginning of the current one. According to the Minister, pupils will lose 10% of their marks in the junior certificate examinations if they attend an ASTI school. The Minister of State with responsibility for mental health services can ask her officials and experts to assess what impact this will have on pupils, given the stress they will have to endure this year. It is entirely unacceptable. The reforms have to be undertaken in some schools in December. The ASTI will have to ballot its members again if the decision is to be reversed and time is running out.