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Financial Resolution No. 5: General (Resumed) (Continued)

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 893 No. 1

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Alex White: Information on Alex White Zoom on Alex White] In fairness to Deputy Ó Caoláin, when I was in the Department of Health, he always expressed to me his support for this measure. He used to ask me one question, which was not an unfair one.

(Interruptions).

Deputy Alex White: Information on Alex White Zoom on Alex White He used to ask me whether we were only going to do this up to the age of age six because if that was the case, he was not with us. He told me that he needed me to tell him that it was not just a measure up to age six and that we should go up to 12 and onwards. I used to tell him that was our intention. Here we are being true to the commitment we gave, and the commitment I gave to Deputy Ó Caoláin from Sinn Féin, that we were serious about extending free GP care from the under-sixes to the under-12s. I expect it to be extended further to the entire community so that we can transform our health services by moving resources into primary care and where people have universal access to GP services irrespective of their income. That is what we have done and we are sticking to our word and delivering that in this budget as well.

It is also a budget that recognises and values our older citizens with increases in the weekly pension, the fuel allowance and the Christmas bonus. Above all, this is a budget for continued employment growth, building on the efforts and policies that have seen over 130,000 jobs created since 2012. I have just come back from an announcement by Sage that it is creating 300 new jobs at its headquarters in Sandyford. These are quality jobs in Dublin, and there are examples elsewhere in the country. This is further evidence that Ireland's sustainable, jobs-led recovery is bringing real benefits to our communities across Dublin and the whole country.

The budget will deliver progress on my priorities as Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. It will enhance and expand existing programmes to help our citizens, communities and small businesses to benefit from the many opportunities presented by our transition to a digital society and economy. One of the things I most regret about the recession and the economic crisis, and there are many things to regret, is the gap in investment that grew up. We redressed that in the capital plan and are now looking to invest seriously in transport and education, including building new schools. Most important for me is investing in the digital economy and having the national broadband plan to ensure that every home and business in Ireland is served by high-speed broadband. There is precious little about broadband in the Sinn Féin so-called pre-budget statement. I can see no apparent allocation. There is nothing there about infrastructure except the word "infrastructure". There is nothing about broadband.

(Interruptions).

Deputy Alex White: Information on Alex White Zoom on Alex White Where is the money for energy efficiency schemes? There is nothing. It is all talk and cliché. Sinn Féin has run out of road.

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Jan O'Sullivan): Information on Jan O'Sullivan Zoom on Jan O'Sullivan This budget really is the culmination of four years of hard work. When we came into office, we inherited a broken economy that had to be fixed. We had to bring stability to our public finances.

(Interruptions).

Deputy Jan O'Sullivan: Information on Jan O'Sullivan Zoom on Jan O'Sullivan Deputy Mattie McGrath will remember what it was like because he participated in the Government that led to it. The creation of jobs was a priority. The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources has just referred to the 130,000 real jobs created since 2012. That had to be done and people across the country had to make enormous sacrifices for us to achieve that. Those people deserve to get the benefits of a recovering economy, which is what this budget is essentially about.

The economy is not an end in itself. We also need to repair the social fabric of our country. The budget does a lot to realise that. Essentially, the era of cuts is over and we can look forward to investment in social services in areas like education. It is not just investing in what was done before. We also need to accompany that with reform of the way we do things. This is very much part of what my predecessor and I have been doing in the area of education. I have always believed, and have often argued, that investment in education is an economic, social and moral imperative. When I was appointed Minister for Education and Skills, we faced a potential reduction in our budget in 2015 of €39 million but working with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, we managed to get an increase of €60 million last year. That allowed us to invest in some of the reforms that are necessary to deliver a modern, fit-for-purpose education for every child. Over the past 12 months, I have been determined to build on that first increase in education spending in recent years. The budget yesterday succeeded in that ambition. In 2016, an additional €144 million will be invested in education. The figure quoted by Deputy O'Brien related to the new proposals regarding the pupil-teacher ratio and one other, but he did not include the ongoing reforms. For example, he did not include the extra funding for junior cycle reform, the school book rental scheme, literacy and numeracy reform, the new apprenticeships we announced and the technological universities. These are just some of them. I will go into the detail of some of those later on. That is why Deputy O'Brien's figure differs from our figure. The additional investment in education is actually €144 million this year.

My priority for additional investment has been to see smaller classes introduced at primary level. Budget 2016 will deliver this important measure. We have reduced class size back to the smallest class size we have ever had. This is the start of our ambition and a new push to bring class sizes down over a number of years. It is worth noting that even in the most difficult budgets of recent years, this Government protected class size. The only recent cut was done by those on the Opposition benches. I think Deputy Mattie McGrath might have been supporting Fianna Fáil at the time. The measures introduced in this budget will bring down average class sizes from 28 to 27. It will begin the process of putting an end to classes of over 30 children.

I have said previously that no class should contain more than 30 children and that average class sizes should fall below 25 over the coming years. The move in this direction this year will require approximately 300 additional teaching posts. Additional teachers will also be provided at post-primary level. A total of 550 new teaching posts will be provided and I expect more than half of these will be used to improve guidance counselling support in schools. This will be done by reducing the pupil-teacher ratio from 19:1 to 18.7:1 for most schools and from 18.25:1 to 17.95.1 for disadvantaged schools. While schools will have the autonomy to use this additional staffing in accordance with their needs, we are very conscious of the need for appropriate guidance counselling to be available to every student. In fairness, I know that the Opposition is in agreement with that. A new circular on guidance will issue in the spring and this will underpin the responsibility of every school to make sure it uses this additional staffing to meet its obligations to provide guidance counselling support to all students. As Members will know, the Institute of Guidance Counsellors has been a very effective advocate for increased guidance resources and I welcome its support for this measure.

A total of 250 of these additional post-primary posts will also be used to enhance the role of deputy principals in schools with less than 500 students. Strengthening leadership is schools is an important agenda. It might not grab the headlines. Indeed, additional resources in this regard often go unnoticed outside the school community but supporting leadership in schools has many positive benefits for students, teachers and other school staff. Part of the allocation will allow deputy principals to reduce their teaching time and focus on leadership and management. It will also provide additional release days to teaching principals in primary schools. This is positive news for school leaders and school leadership and it builds on the work already done this year in establishing the Centre for School Leadership, which I announced earlier in the year. These changes build upon the significant investment required to meet demographic growth in schools. Next year alone, almost 14,000 additional students will be enrolled in our schools. A total of 810 additional teachers are being provided to meet this additional number of children and young people. Similarly, a further 600 additional resource teachers have been provided to support additional children with special education needs.

As I said earlier, investment must go hand-in-hand with reform. One area where the Government has driven reform is the area of apprenticeships. Ireland has a world-class reputation in terms of our skilled craftspeople. We regularly win top international competitions and did so very recently. I congratulate those students. Unfortunately, this national talent is often overlooked and does not receive the attention and celebration it deserves. I want to see that change. I will ensure that the apprenticeship model is extended to growing sectors of the economy. We expect at least 4,000 additional apprentices to begin training next year. Apprenticeships offer a high-quality career path for young people leaving school. The apprenticeship model, which up until now was largely focused on the construction trades, is now being expanded into new career sectors such as financial services, travel, tourism and hospitality and other areas, such as HGV drivers.


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