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 Header Item Written Answers Nos. 78-92
 Header Item Freedom of Information Remit
 Header Item Pupil-Teacher Ratio
 Header Item School Textbooks
 Header Item Third Level Charges
 Header Item Special Educational Needs Staffing
 Header Item Schools Refurbishment
 Header Item Schools Building Projects Status
 Header Item Student Grant Scheme Expenditure
 Header Item Postgraduate Loan Scheme Implementation
 Header Item Student Grant Scheme Payments
 Header Item International Agreements
 Header Item National Procurement Service Savings

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 817 No. 1

First Page Previous Page Page of 89 Next Page Last Page

Written Answers Nos. 78-92

Freedom of Information Remit

 78. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien Information on Jonathan O'Brien Zoom on Jonathan O'Brien asked the Minister for Education and Skills Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn if minutes from meetings of the boards of managements of schools are subject to FOI requests; the legislative provision governing this; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43529/13]

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn): Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn Schools are not currently covered by the Freedom of Information Acts.

  All Board minutes and other school records and data must be maintained in compliance with relevant data protection legislation. The responsibility for compliance with data protection legislation rests with each individual school.

Pupil-Teacher Ratio

 79. Deputy Noel Harrington Information on Noel Harrington Zoom on Noel Harrington asked the Minister for Education and Skills Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn if his attention has been drawn to a class in a national school (details supplied) in County Cork that has 42 pupils; the steps available to the school to relieve the situation; and if he will make a statement on the matter.  [43546/13]

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn): Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn The criteria used for the allocation of teachers to schools is published annually on the Department's website. The key factor for determining the level of staffing resources provided at individual school level is the staffing schedule for the relevant school year and pupil enrolments on the previous 30 September. The staffing schedule operates in a clear and transparent manner and treats all similar types of schools equally irrespective of location. The configuration of classes and the deployment of classroom teachers are done at local school level. The staffing arrangements for schools for the current school year, 2013/14 are set out in Department Circular 0013/2013 which is available on the website.My Department publishes annual statistics on class size data for each school. The most recent statistics are for the 2012/13 school year. The national average class size is 24.7 pupils. However, with over 20,800 classes in over 3,100 primary schools throughout the country there will always be variations in class sizes at individual school level. My Department's guidance to local school management is that such variations should be kept to the minimum.

School Textbooks

 80. Deputy Brendan Griffin Information on Brendan Griffin Zoom on Brendan Griffin asked the Minister for Education and Skills Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn if he will instruct his Department to issue a circular to schools urging them to shop around and use more affordable textbooks; his views on whether failure to do this is contributing to excessive costs for parents of school-going children; and if he will make a statement on the matter.  [43548/13]

 81. Deputy Brendan Griffin Information on Brendan Griffin Zoom on Brendan Griffin asked the Minister for Education and Skills Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn if he will introduce an approval system by his Department for school textbooks that reach a certain standard of quality, similar to approval systems used for food products, restaurants, accommodation and so on; his views on whether such a development would be good for competition and would help drive down prices for parents as it would give new entrants to the textbook publishing market an opportunity to show that their products have reached the required standard and thereby reassure teachers deciding on which book to choose for their class that the new entrants' products are of adequate standard; and if he will make a statement on the matter.  [43549/13]

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn): Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn I propose to take Questions Nos. 80 and 81together.

  Educational book publishers are independent private companies not under the direct control of the Department. I have no powers to regulate the textbook market, as suggested by the Deputy.

  Apart from a small number of prescribed texts at second-level, mainly in the case of language subjects, decisions on textbooks are taken at school level. I agree with the Deputy that schools should seriously consider the cost of textbooks when deciding which ones to use. I have encouraged schools to adopt a more cost-conscious approach to the selection of books in their classes.

  As the Deputy may be aware I launched "Guidelines for Developing Textbook Rental Schemes in Schools" on the 28th January last.

  These Guidelines provide practical advice to primary and post-primary schools on how rental schemes can be established and operated. The aim of the Guidelines is to help as many schools as possible to start such book rental programmes.

  The publication of these Guidelines followed a survey of schools conducted in 2011 by the Department. This had a 99% response rate at primary level, and showed that 76% of primary schools operate a book rental scheme. At second level, the response rate was lower, at 44%. Of those which did respond, 88% of those in the VEC sector and 73% of those in the Community & Comprehensive sector operated a book rental scheme.

  I believe these results show that we have a good foundation to build on across the country. I hope that schools that are not yet operating book rental schemes will be encouraged to use the Guidelines to introduce them. If they do, it will result in substantial savings for parents. Schools which already have rental schemes can save parents up to 80% of the cost of buying new books.

  A special "Guide for Parents" was also published, to inform them of how the schemes operate and how parents can help schools to establish and run them. I have been very clear in my support for book rental schemes. All of us who are parents know how expensive textbooks can be and what a burden it places on already hard pressed families at the start of every school year.

  I am pleased to see the high level of book rental schemes in operation at primary level and I believe that these Guidelines will encourage this practice across all schools in our education landscape.

  I also published a Report on Textbook Rental Schemes in Schools and the Allocation of Textbook Grants by the Department of Education & Skills in May 2012. This report presented four policy options to encourage schools to establish textbook rental schemes. None of the options are ideal, each one involves a trade-off of advantages and disadvantages.

The Department will collect information on the number of schools operating book rental schemes this year as part of the annual enrolment data returns from primary and post-primary schools.

  I will continue to monitor the number of schools operating book rental schemes, and if it proves necessary consider further steps to encourage schools to do so.

Third Level Charges

 82. Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Minister for Education and Skills Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn if, in line with recommendations of the Union of Students in Ireland, he will look into commissioning research on the financial impacts on students and families of the incremental increases of the student contribution charge; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43551/13]

 87. Deputy Michael Healy-Rae Information on Michael Healy-Rae Zoom on Michael Healy-Rae asked the Minister for Education and Skills Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn his plans for the reduction of the student contribution charge which will have increased by 50% in 2015; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43649/13]

 88. Deputy Michael Healy-Rae Information on Michael Healy-Rae Zoom on Michael Healy-Rae asked the Minister for Education and Skills Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn his plans to ensure that no deferred payment model of funding higher education is introduced; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43650/13]

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn): Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn I propose to take Questions Nos. 82, 87 and 88 together.

As the Deputies will be aware, the Student Contribution stands at €2,500 for the current academic year and is payable by students who qualify under my Department's free fees schemes. I have already signalled my intention to increase the Student Contribution by €250 each year hereafter until the 2015/16 academic year when the contribution will stand at €3,000. The Contribution is paid by the Exchequer in respect of students who qualify under my Department's Student Grant Scheme (some 40%).

The Higher Education Authority (HEA) is undertaking a study on the sustainability of the current funding system for higher education. This study was initiated at my request and an initial report has been published. This report makes it clear that immediate work is required to prepare for a longer term approach to a system that can be maintained through a sustainable funding base which will be able to address the continual expansion of the sector while protecting the quality of education. The HEA is continuing its work in this area and I will be advised further as this work progresses. The report will help inform decision-making as to the future funding of the sector.

Special Educational Needs Staffing

 83. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien Information on Jonathan O'Brien Zoom on Jonathan O'Brien asked the Minister for Education and Skills Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn the number of special needs assistants working with pupils in mainstream primary schools, mainstream secondary schools, and schools for children with special needs; the number of students they worked with for each of the past five years. [43553/13]

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn): Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn I wish to advise the Deputy that the National Council for Special Education (NCSE), through its network of local Special Educational Needs Organisers (SENOs), is responsible for processing applications from schools for special educational needs supports, including the allocation of resource teachers and Special Needs Assistants (SNAs) to schools. The NCSE operates within my Department's established criteria for the allocation of Special Education supports and the staffing resources available to my Department.

There are 10,575 Whole Time Equivalent (WTE) SNA posts available for allocation in the 2013/14 school year which is the same number of posts which were available for allocation for the 2012/13 school year. The NCSE has notified schools of their SNA allocation for 2013/14, based on the number of valid applications received and the extent of the care needs of qualifying children.

The NCSE has published details of all of their allocations for resource teaching and SNA support for the 2013/2014 school year. These details are now available on the NCSE website, www.ncse.ie, and detail the allocations made for each school on a per county basis.

At the outset of the current school year there were 6,269 Whole Time Equivalent (WTE) SNA posts allocated in primary schools and 2,092 WTE posts allocated in Post Primary schools. 2,130 posts were allocated to Special Schools to support pupils enrolled in those schools. The NCSE has advised that the initial allocation of SNAs for the current school year is supporting about 22,000 pupils.

Every child who meets the criteria for access to SNA support in the current school year is in receipt of this support. The remaining posts are available for allocation throughout the school year for new assessments of disability, new entrants, or emergency or late applications, in accordance with the terms of the SNA scheme.

The NCSE has advised that the historic information relating to the numbers of children supported by SNAS is not immediately available. I have arranged to have the Deputy's information request forwarded to the NCSE for their attention and direct reply, for provision of available information.

Schools Refurbishment

 84. Deputy Martin Heydon Information on Martin Heydon Zoom on Martin Heydon asked the Minister for Education and Skills Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn in a case where a school is approved for a grant for improvement works that require planning permission, if the provision of the grant may be extended where the planning permission process takes longer than envisaged; if discretion will be given in individual cases; and if he will make a statement on the matter.  [43560/13]

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn): Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn I am pleased to inform the Deputy that where a school authority can clearly demonstrate that the planning permission process is delaying their project my Department will grant an extension of time provided the school authority is making every effort to address the issues delaying the granting of planning permission.

Schools Building Projects Status

 85. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív Information on Éamon Ó Cuív Zoom on Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Education and Skills Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn the progress to date with the provision of a new school building for Clifden community school, when it is expected construction will commence; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43631/13]

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn): Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn The major building project referred to by the Deputy is at an advanced stage of architectural planning, stage 2(b). The project was included in the 'Investment in Infrastructure & Jobs' Programme announced in June 2013.

A Revised Stage 2b (Detailed Design) submission is expected shortly from the Design Team for review by my Department and will include a prequalified list of contractors. On satisfactory completion of stage 2 (b) and assuming no further issues arise, authorisation will then be given to proceed to tender and construction.

Student Grant Scheme Expenditure

 86. Deputy Michael Healy-Rae Information on Michael Healy-Rae Zoom on Michael Healy-Rae asked the Minister for Education and Skills Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn if he plans to continue the student grant scheme, ensure it does not endure further budgetary cuts and protect the maintenance grant; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43647/13]

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn): Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn There was no change in Budget 2013 to any of the student grant rates including the non-adjacent or adjacent rates of grant, or the higher special rate of grant, for the 2013 financial year.

As the Deputy will be aware, the reality of our economic situation presents significant challenges that have to be reconciled with limitations on public resources. This is a very stark reality, which, unfortunately, means that changes to any public service, including the student grant scheme, cannot be ruled out.

I empathise with students and I am very conscious of the fundamental role played by the student grant scheme in supporting families who are putting their children through further and higher education. However, the state of the public finances is such that tough decisions had to be made to control public expenditure and to ensure sustainability in the long run.

For this reason it is the responsibility of Government to take into consideration all areas of public services when formulating Budget 2014. Ultimately, our budgetary decisions now will play a major part in creating a sustainable economy and in regaining our economic independence. As the Deputy will be aware all proposals made in relation to education expenditure, including changes to student grants, will be considered in the context of the Budget 2014.

  Questions Nos. 87 and 88 answered with Question No. 82.

Postgraduate Loan Scheme Implementation

 89. Deputy Michael Healy-Rae Information on Michael Healy-Rae Zoom on Michael Healy-Rae asked the Minister for Education and Skills Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn his plans to secure a more favourable loan scheme for postgraduate students which now, with the abolition of the maintenance grant for postgraduate students in budget 2012, can have interest rates of up to 10.8%; and if he will make a statement on the matter.  [43654/13]

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn): Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn Following discussions with my Department, with support and advice from the National Treasury Management Agency, a specific loan initiative was introduced by Bank of Ireland in 2012 to provide finance for fees and living costs for postgraduate students. While developed in conjunction with the Department of Education and Skills, it is a Bank of Ireland product and further information on the terms and conditions of the loan is available from the bank.A number of financial institutions offer loans to assist students with costs associated with their studies.

I have no plans at present to engage in further discussions with financial institutions.

Student Grant Scheme Payments

 90. Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Minister for Education and Skills Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn the reason a person (details supplied) in County Monaghan received a grant towards university fees of just €2,000, considering the person's course fees are €7,500; if he will ensure that the balance of fees is paid as this person cannot afford to pay the balance; and if he will make a statement on the matter.  [43677/13]

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn): Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn Officials in my Department have confirmed with Student Universal Support Ireland that the student referred to by the Deputy has, following an appeal, been awarded the maximum postgraduate fee grant of €6,270. This amount has now been fully paid to the institution in respect of the academic year 2012/13.

  Tax relief is also available on postgraduate tuition fees. Details in relation to this relief are available from the Revenue Commissioners.

  In addition to this, the Student Assistance Fund will continue to be made available through the access offices of third-level institutions to assist students in exceptional financial need.

International Agreements

 91. Deputy Jerry Buttimer Information on Jerry Buttimer Zoom on Jerry Buttimer asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin the progress being made towards ratification of the Council of Europe convention on access to information; when ratification is anticipated; and if he will make a statement on the matter.  [43194/13]

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform (Deputy Brendan Howlin): Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin I understand based on the latest information available to my Department, that the Convention referred to in the Deputy’s question, which opened for signing on 18 June 2009, has been ratified by six of forty seven member States of the Council of Europe (i.e. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Lithuania, Montenegro, Norway and Sweden). The Convention must be ratified by ten member countries before it comes into effect. So far it is understood that fourteen member States have signed the Convention. The enactment of the Freedom of Information Bill, 2013 by the Oireachtas in due course will allow for further consideration to be given to the scope for Ireland to join the Convention.

National Procurement Service Savings

 92. Deputy Peadar Tóibín Information on Peadar Tóibín Zoom on Peadar Tóibín asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin his position regarding the negative consequences of the national procurement service; the average size of a supplier to a State agency in 2012 and in each of the past five years; the total number of suppliers to State agencies in 2012 and in each of the past five years; the average size in monetary terms of State agency contracts in 2012 and in each of the past five years; the number of contracts supplied by firms located outside the State in 2012 and in each of the past five years; and if he has undertaken any research into the impact of the policies of the national procurement service on the small to medium-sized enterprise sector.  [43313/13]

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform (Deputy Brendan Howlin): Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin I am keenly aware that public procurement can be an important source of business for Irish small and medium enterprises (SMEs). I am also aware of the need for Departments and Offices to make every effort to contain and reduce all administrative costs. The current programme of reform will lead to reductions in the cost of goods and services; better procurement services at lower cost; increased levels of professionalism among staff responsible for procurement; and better performance management of the central procurement function.

  A significant element of the procurement reform programme will be a move towards centralisation of data collection in the area of procurement activity. Currently public service procurement activity is transacted by several hundred contracting authorities throughout the State. The size of these individual contracts or the size of the suppliers who win these contracts is not data that is currently collected centrally and therefore is not available for the Deputy. It is planned that under the new Office of Government Procurement (OGP) a sizeable data collection project will be launched.

Year Number of

Contracts to

Irish Companies
Value of

Contracts to

Irish Companies

€’000
Number of

Contracts to

Non-Irish

Companies
Value of

Contracts to

non Irish

Companies

€’000
2008 943 3,721,710 296 568,392
2009 771 2,382,714 172 752,360
2010 660 2,752,505 115 293,096
2011 747 2,036,355 123 240,111


  The table sets out details on all contracts across the public sector, which were above the EU Threshold, where contract award notices were published, where the nationality of the winning tenderer was disclosed and which were published on eTenders in the period 2008 to 2011. The data compiled represents an approximate 75% response rate from all public sector bodies who were requested to submit returns to the National Procurement Service in order to compile this data. It should be noted that the figures for 2012 are currently being compiled and as such cannot be provided to the Deputy. I am informed that the above data has been collect from contracting authorities in respect of competitive processes:

  i) which were above the EU Threshold,

  ii) where contract award notices were published,

  iii) where the nationality of the winning tenderer was disclosed.

  In order to assist SMEs my department has issued guidelines (Circular 10/10) that require public bodies to promote participation of SMEs in the award of public contracts. The key provisions of the guidance include:

  - supplies and general services contracts with an estimated value of €25,000 or more to be advertised on the www.etenders.gov.ie website;

  - less use of "restrictive" tendering procedures and greater use of "open" tendering;

  - ensuring that the levels set by contracting authorities for suitability criteria are justified and proportionate to the needs of the contract; and

  - sub-dividing larger requirements into lots where this is practical and can be done without compromising efficiency and value for money.

  In addition my Department is keen to streamline procurement processes – consistent with its value for money, legal, transparency and probity objectives. In order to reduce the costs involved in participating or conducting the procurement process, the National Procurement Service as part of the new Office of Government Procurement is promoting standardisation and simplification of the public procurement function. It has published a suite of model tendering and contract documents which will help both businesses and buyers to reduce administrative costs.

  The National Procurement Service is focussed on positive measures aimed at ensuring that SMEs are able to take full advantage of the public procurement opportunities that arise and are available to them. For example the NPS facilitate seminars for SMEs which cover all the issues relating to competing for public procurement contracts, including: Public Procurement regulations, accessing the market opportunities, the tendering process and general guidance on how companies should approach the preparation of tender. A number of seminars were also delivered to ISME and to Chambers of Commerce. Workshops were also delivered on public procurement opportunities in association with Enterprise Ireland and InterTrade Ireland. The NPS has also produced a leaflet "Top Tendering Tips for Public Sector Contracts" which is freely available.

  In order to encourage greater SME participation the National Procurement Service, over the past three years, has conducted a targeted programme of education for suppliers who wish to learn more about doing business with the Irish Public Service. This programme consists of seminars, workshops and large scale 'meet the buyer' events hosted nationwide. To date the NPS has facilitated workshops and presented at seminars to over 4,500 SMEs nationwide. Parallel with these events the NPS also works closely with business representative bodies such as ISME and IBEC to provide briefings for their members.


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