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 Header Item School Curriculum (Continued)
 Header Item Student Grant Scheme Administration
 Header Item Special Educational Needs Services Provision

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 809 No. 3

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn] If one meets primary school teachers, they will tell one they are teachers and that they teach children. However, I have heard too many secondary school teachers state they are history, chemistry or science teachers. It is precisely because of this silo concentration manifested by some, not all, teachers that we are trying to have a holistic approach to the curriculum at second level in order that it is similar to that at primary level. In that context, the use of history for a variety of differing learning outcomes will mean it retain its current primary role. The History Teachers Association of Ireland certainly has articulated these concerns and all I would say to those teachers is to engage productively with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, to work with it and to ensure the core values of an historical education are retained within the new curricular development. While I do not believe there is any conflict there at all, I recognise many teachers are fearful and I wish to address those fears.

Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan: Information on Maureen O'Sullivan Zoom on Maureen O'Sullivan While the suggestion of engaging with the NCCA is positive, I note the theme of a recent conference of the History Teachers Association of Ireland was whether school history would survive the Decade of Commemoration. It would be ironic if, in 2022, there were classes of young people who did not know what were those decades. I also wish to make a plea for geography, even though I was not involved in it, as they are two core subjects.

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn As 92% of all students study geography, for the life of me I do not understand what are the Deputy's fears in this regard. Is it that because the curriculum will be improved, the two most popular subjects which are taken voluntarily - nearly in the main - suddenly will disappear off the curriculum?

Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan: Information on Maureen O'Sullivan Zoom on Maureen O'Sullivan I am not convinced it will improve.

Student Grant Scheme Administration

 4. Deputy Charlie McConalogue Information on Charlie McConalogue Zoom on Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Education and Skills Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn the number of Student Universal Support Ireland applications for 2012-13 still to receive a final answer; the number of appeals outstanding; the steps he has taken to ensure students are not refused access to examination results due to not having a final answer on their grant application; and if he will make a statement on the matter.  [32545/13]

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn I understand from Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, that there are 133 cases in which a decision on an application has not yet been made. A number of difficult and complex cases arise every year in the course of administering the scheme. I am assured by SUSI that communication with applicants in these cases is being afforded priority to ensure they are brought to conclusion expeditiously. A total of 492 or 6% of appeals remain to be decided in the SUSI appeals process. I understand from SUSI that these cases are within the 30-day limit prescribed by legislation and are being afforded the highest priority.

As for the payment of fees, where a student has informed the institution that a decision is awaited from the grants system, I understand that SUSI has in place a facility allowing institutions to liaise with it directly to confirm the status of an individual application in order that students can access their examination results.

Deputy Charlie McConalogue: Information on Charlie McConalogue Zoom on Charlie McConalogue At the outset, I wish to recap precisely what the experience with SUSI has been. In the past year, more than half or approximately 20,000 students did not get paid their first grant instalment until the new year. Parents and families have experienced exceptional hardship in a difficult time with the single biggest cause of hardship being the mishandling by the Minister and his Department of the nationalisation and centralisation of the system for administering grants. In addition, the Government has claimed repeatedly throughout that process that the students were at fault by not providing documentation. This was the standard response to which they were obliged to listen whenever they came up against the wall of not getting an answer regarding their grant applications.

The current position, after examinations are finished, is that almost 500 students remain within the appeals system and 133 students still await a decision. In many such cases, these students are having difficulty in accessing the examination results. I will provide the Minister with one particular example, in which a postgraduate student was not able to access either the examination result or the college facilities to complete the dissertation. This is the type of grief students have been obliged to experience this year as a result of the difficult situation they have encountered.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Robert Troy): Information on Robert Troy Zoom on Robert Troy I thank Deputy McConalogue.

Deputy Charlie McConalogue: Information on Charlie McConalogue Zoom on Charlie McConalogue As for the remaining cases, can the Minister clarify further what precisely is the position with regard to them getting their examination results? Can the Minister give Members a deadline as to when they all will be cleared and will have final answers?

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn In respect of the case the Deputy has just cited about a postgraduate student not being able to access the results, that postgraduate student would never have been a client of SUSI. Consequently, SUSI has nothing to do with the difficulties in which that person finds him or herself because SUSI only addressed first-year students who applied for the first time. SUSI only came into operation for undergraduates last year for the first time. The rest of those students were dealing with 66 separate bodies that were brought together. Incidentally, they were not nationalised. The Deputy's County Donegal colleague brought in the legislation to combine all the separate 66 individual grant-aiding bodies. In many cases, the actual performance was worse than the average outcome. There is a problem with SUSI, which is the reason a special study was made of it and is the reason I am making available additional resources. Three senior staff members are coming in, as well as 23 whole-time equivalent posts to process the material. However, if there are outstanding people who have not received a decision from SUSI but who have completed all the information SUSI needs to make a decision, I will make that inquiry and will revert to the Deputy.

Deputy Charlie McConalogue: Information on Charlie McConalogue Zoom on Charlie McConalogue In his response, the Minister has just shown how he has completely failed to handle this issue since he introduced the SUSI system. He has just told me SUSI is not responsible for handling postgraduate students when it is responsible and has been dealing with it since last September. This is the very body the Minister set up but one year later, he stands here still not understanding exactly with what it must deal. SUSI has been dealing with maintenance grants for undergraduate students and has been dealing with fee grants for postgraduate students.

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn Sorry, the Deputy is correct. I withdraw my comment.

Deputy Charlie McConalogue: Information on Charlie McConalogue Zoom on Charlie McConalogue I thank the Minister but in his response, the Minister has displayed his lack of a handle on this issue since the outset. He has shown he does not understand there could be a postgraduate student who only got sorted out in the last couple of days. In the case I cited to the Minister, a postgraduate student has not been able to access that individual's college facilities to complete the requisite dissertation as a result of the way these issues have been handled. The Minister was unaware that SUSI even dealt with such issues.

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn I had temporarily forgotten.

Deputy Charlie McConalogue: Information on Charlie McConalogue Zoom on Charlie McConalogue Can the Minister give Members a final deadline as to when those students who already have completed their examinations and whose examinations already have been corrected will finally receive an answer from SUSI, the body the Minister has established and of which he has made a mess? Can he give Members an answer as to when the students will get an answer on whether they qualify for a grant?

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn First, I did not make a mess of SUSI and a mess has not been made of SUSI. SUSI was obliged to start from a base in which certain things had to be learned and the body that undertook this project, the City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee, encountered start-up difficulties, which I have recognised. As for the questions the Deputy has just raised, I have been assured by the Higher Education Authority, HEA, that all the colleges have special assistance programmes to assist financially and otherwise students who are disadvantaged as a result of not being able to access the grants to which they are entitled. I have been told by the HEA that additional resources were made available to the various colleges where that was necessary. If someone has had the experience the Deputy has described, and I do not doubt the accuracy of what the Deputy is saying, then redress was available for the person at the time. If the Deputy wishes to provide me with the details, I certainly will find out what happened. While I will take the queries the Deputy has raised to SUSI as it currently is and will get specific responses for the Deputy, with more than 60,000 students I cannot give to the Deputy the kind of assurance that each one of these 60,000 cases most definitely will be dealt with expeditiously, when this never was the case when there were 66 different awarding bodies.

Special Educational Needs Services Provision

 5. Deputy Catherine Murphy Information on Catherine Murphy Zoom on Catherine Murphy asked the Minister for Education and Skills Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn how he expects to update the plan for implementation of the Education For Persons with Special Educational Needs, EPSEN, Act to prioritise access for children with special needs to an individual educational plan in view of the reduction in such services in recent years and the increase in demand; and if he will make a statement on the matter.  [32499/13]

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn The recently published National Council for Special Education, NCSE, policy advice on supporting children with special educational needs acknowledges the current economic climate makes it unlikely the Government will be able to implement EPSEN in the near future. However, the NCSE report makes recommendations on how changes might be introduced, including in respect of individualised planning for students, which brings EPSEN implementation closer. The report recommends that additional teaching and special needs assistant, SNA, care supports allocated to schools should be deployed on the basis of individualised educational plans, which demonstrate the requirement for this support and the way in which it will be used to benefit the student.

The report makes 28 detailed recommendations which are interesting and significant. They deserve in-depth and detailed examination and exploration. I have asked my Department to review carefully the recommendations, including the recommendation relating to individualised education planning, and to report back to me on them.


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