Header Item Prelude
 Header Item Gnó an tSeanaid - Business of Seanad
 Header Item Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
 Header Item Unaccompanied Minors and Separated Children
 Header Item Childcare Services
 Header Item Light Rail Projects
 Header Item Safe Reopening of Tertiary Sector and Key Priorities for Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science: Statements
 Header Item School Transport, Leaving Certificate 2020 and Reopening of Schools: Statements

Thursday, 24 September 2020

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 271 No. 4

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Chuaigh an Cathaoirleach i gceannas ar 10:30:00

Machnamh agus Paidir.

Reflection and Prayer.

Gnó an tSeanaid - Business of Seanad

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly I have notice from Senator Lisa Chambers that, on the motion for the Commencement of the House today, she proposes to raise the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to accede positively to the request from the EU to assist migrants from the Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece, following the fire that destroyed a large part of the camp.

  I have also received notice from Senator Shane Cassells of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to make a statement on proposals for the closing of county childcare committees.

  I have also received notice from Senator Michael McDowell of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to make a statement on all the route options under consideration for the southern part of the MetroLink project, and when the route will be finalised.

  I have also received notice from Senator Seán Kyne of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Health to make a statement on the expansion and resourcing of Westdoc.

  I have also received notice from Senator Mary Fitzpatrick of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to provide an update on the redevelopment of Dalymount Park, Phibsborough, Dublin 7, following the approval of funding for it.

  I have also received notice from Senator Gerard Craughwell of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Health to outline the steps being taken to allow partners to attend pre- and post-natal hospital appointments.

  I have also received notice from Senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Health to provide an update on the development of a State-funded contraception scheme.

  I have also received notice from Senator Timmy Dooley of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to outline his plans to support air routes at State airports to ensure economic recovery.

  I have also received notice from Senator Jerry Buttimer of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to make a statement on the recommendations of the aviation recovery task force report and the future of State airports.

  I have also received notice from Senator Victor Boyhan of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to outline the progress being made on the reduction of lead, pesticides, aluminium, trihalomethanes and cryptosporidium in Irish drinking water.

  I have also received notice from Senator Martin Conway of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Health to make a statement on the implementation of the new medical card income limits for those aged 70 years or over.

  I have also received notice from Senator Elisha McCallion of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to make a statement on progress on commitments made under annex B of the New Decade, New Approach deal.

  I have also received notice from Senator Robbie Gallagher of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Health to make a statement on the opening of the HSE-Respond group home facility in Carrickmacross, County Monaghan.

  I have also received notice from Senator Tim Lombard of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Education and Skills to provide an update on the acquisition of a permanent site for Gaelscoil Chionn tSáile, An Ceapach, Cionn tSáile, Condae Chorcaí.

  I have also received notice from Senator Rebecca Moynihan of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Health to make a statement on the roll-out of the flu vaccine programme for winter 2020-2021.

  I have also received notice from Senator Paul Gavan of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to make a statement on the need to provide a living wage and sick pay for early years professionals working in early childhood education.

  Of the matters raised by the Senators suitable for discussion, I have selected Senators Chambers, Cassells and McDowell and they will be taken now. I regret that I have had to rule out of order the matter raised by Senator Boyhan on the ground that the relevant Minister has no official responsibility in the matter raised.  Senator Kyne has withdrawn his Commencement matter which I had originally selected. The other Senators may give notice on another day of the matters they wish to raise.

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Unaccompanied Minors and Separated Children

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly I welcome the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman. It is his first visit here and only our second sitting in the Chamber.

Senator Lisa Chambers: Information on Lisa Chambers Zoom on Lisa Chambers I welcome the Minister and thank him for taking this matter. The issue is unaccompanied minors from the Moria camp on Lesbos. It is the largest refugee camp in Europe and home - I use that word lightly - to almost 13,000 men, women and children. The camp was initially built to house less than 3,000. Almost two weeks ago, the camp was burned and 12,000 men, women and children were left on the streets with nothing - no shelter, food or water. Security in the camp had already deteriorated prior to the fire, and tensions were high. The refugees were crammed into overcrowded, inadequate tents, with limited access to food, water, sanitation and healthcare. This has been happening on EU soil.

  In 2016, Turkey made a deal with the European Union to stop refugees crossing over to Europe. In my view, that deal should never have taken place. Following the breakdown of the deal, the number of refugees arriving at Lesbos increased substantially. In 2018, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, urged the Greek Government to move asylum seekers away from Lesbos, describing the conditions as at boiling point. At that time there were just 8,000 living in the camp; today there are over 12,000. The situation in Lesbos is critical now and Ireland must act, not just as a member of the European Union but as a decent, First World country that has plenty of resources to deal with this issue.

  Following the burning down of the Moria camp, the Greek Government closed access to all mainland and other towns to stop migrants entering them. The migrants have essentially been boxed in and have nowhere to go. These people are fighting for their lives. We have been asked to take in a very small number of unaccompanied minors, another way of describing children. They are small children with no parents or family. Can one imagine any of our children in that situation? I note that the Minister announced last Thursday that Ireland would take in four, in addition to the previous commitment to take in 36. To date, we have taken in just eight. I know that the Minister, as an individual, wishes to take in more. Four children is a start. I do not wish to get angry about this, but I believe the Irish people are angry about it because four is nowhere near enough. Isabel Simpson, the executive director of Médicins Sans Frontières, said that while any commitment to resettle unaccompanied minors and children is welcome, it must be noted that 4,000 minors affected by this fire still remain in insecure and unsafe conditions. She added that the EU should take the Moria disaster as an opportunity for real change in European migration policies of containment and boxing people in, and start with the evacuation of all people from that island.

  As a decent First World country, Ireland must do more. The constant response from the Government is that it does not have the money or resources. No child in this country is living in the conditions in which these children are living. They are literally on the side of the street. There is no shelter, food or water, or it is very limited. Two weeks ago, on 13 September, the front page of The Sunday Times carried a photograph that I doubt I will ever forget. It showed a mother running with her young baby. It is said that a picture paints a thousand words, and this was a call for the decency and humanity to take in more of these children. We must do something about it. I am sure that whatever the Minister needs from this House will be forthcoming. We are always caught up in red tape and bureaucracy, saying we cannot do something, we do not have the funding and asking how we will manage. Germany stepped up to the plate a number of years ago when it took in a number of refugees. At the time Angela Merkel was heavily criticised domestically and even in other parts of Europe. There are people who wanted her to fail. They wanted that policy to fail, but it has been successful. She showed real and true leadership when she did that. This is an opportunity for Ireland, as a small nation, to do the same.   I remind our Government, and I am aware that I am a member of it, that we recently campaigned for a seat on the UN Security Council on the basis of promoting human rights and being a voice for the world's most vulnerable yet here we are today taking in just four additional unaccompanied minors. We should be ashamed to suggest that this cuts the mustard; it does not. I would like to see this House engage in a real campaign, working with the Minister, to do whatever it takes to take in those children without delay. I am conscious that it is already two weeks since the fire. What has happened in the past two weeks? Can anybody imagine being in a situation where they do not have food to feed their child, they cannot bathe their child, they do not have clothes for their child, their child does not get to go to school, they do not have any shelter and they are not safe? Can we imagine living in that situation every single day? It does not bear thinking about.

  I noted some of the commentary online when this matter was being discussed. One person asked how we can be sure they are minors. Who thinks like that? As a start, we should take the children who do not have parents or guardians out of that camp. Every human being should be evacuated from that camp today. That is what should be happening. That camp should not exist. Every member state of the European Union has the money to deal with this. I am conscious that the person who commented was probably sitting in a very comfortable environment tweeting away on their phone, probably with plenty of food available, a roof over their head and clothes on their back.

  We need to take a look at ourselves because we have a seat on the UN Security Council. We are supposed to be a leading light. We are supposed to be leading by example. Let us be a leader in Europe on this issue. Let us not wait for other countries to step up. Let us be the first to do so.

Minister for Children and Youth Affairs (Deputy Roderic O'Gorman): Information on Roderic O'Gorman Zoom on Roderic O'Gorman I thank the Senator for raising this very important matter and for speaking with such passion on it. Before I address her, I want to say that it is an honour to be speaking to this House for the first time. I look forward to working with Members here. I know many Members of this House have a very personal and deep interest in the issues that fall within my Department. We have a lot of legislation and many plans coming from my Department within the programme for Government and I look forward to working co-operatively with all of the Members in advancing those, and with the Cathaoirleach also.

  Earlier this month, we witnessed the shocking scenes in the Moria camp on Lesbos with the fire destroying large sections of it. Following that tragedy, the German Presidency of the EU made a call to member states requesting their support for the relocation of 400 unaccompanied minors who were resident in the camp. Ireland supports the EU in the effort to relocate unaccompanied minors from Moria. Our support for the EU is part of the wider commitment we have made to accept unaccompanied children from migrant camp settings across Greece. In 2018, Ireland undertook to accept 36 children and eight of those arrived in the State in June of this year. I am happy to be able to report that those eight children are now settling happily into their lives here.

  In an immediate response to what happened in Moria two weeks ago, I asked officials in Tusla to examine our capacity to accelerate the arrival of more children and as a result Tusla has said, as the Senator stated, that it has immediate capacity to take four more unaccompanied minors. Those children will arrive in Ireland in the next number of weeks. However, I very much agree with the Senator that we all know Ireland needs to do more. As such, my officials and I continue to work with Tusla to identify how we can provide additional capacity to take more children. Moreover, in the context of the budget 2021 negotiations, which are ongoing, I will be seeking extra financial support to meet our commitments to the unaccompanied minor children in Greece as quickly as possible.

  In recent years, a total of 41 children were relocated to Ireland under the Calais Special Project. That project came to a natural conclusion in 2018 as there were no further children who met the criteria of the Dáil resolution. Identifying and transferring children who are living in the Greek refugee camps and wish to come to Ireland is one of two international commitments we have in this area. Once an unaccompanied child has been identified as wishing to come to Ireland and is granted permission to do so by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Tusla officials work with colleagues in the International Organization for Migration to process and prepare the young person. A young person may have experienced real suffering during their stay in the camps. They may need ongoing support with the English language, medical treatment or various therapies to overcome the trauma they would have suffered.  The Senator referred to one particular picture. We have all seen the conditions in Moria. It brings home the very real suffering that everybody there is experiencing.

  The second area of our commitment to minors seeking asylum is when they arrive unannounced at our ports or airports. At the end of July, there were 59 separated children seeking asylum in the care of Tusla. It has a dedicated separated children seeking asylum team which has developed expertise over many years through Ireland's participation in other international protection programmes and caring for the majority of unaccompanied minors who arrive unannounced at Irish ports.

  Yesterday, HIQA published an inspection report of a children's residential centre which provides care to separated children seeking asylum. The findings were very positive, with the children reporting that they liked the staff and the atmosphere in the centre and were supported in accessing education. This is a real testament to the work done by Tusla and its staff to support these children.

  The eight young children who came in June are aged between 15 and 17 years. Children who are younger than this will usually be placed in foster care if that is possible. Children in the 15 to 17-year-old range are usually placed in small residential care settings. Given their age when they arrive and the length of time it might take for them to recover from their experiences, they have to acclimatise to a very different life. They often need very significant after-care supports, including accommodation after they pass the age of 18.

  The cost of providing for unaccompanied refugee children in this way are not inconsequential. However, as the Senator said, we have international obligations but we also have moral obligations which trump everything. We have to respond to the crisis we are seeing across the world.

  It should be noted that Tusla was not provided with specific additional resources to enable it to meet its care obligations to the 41 children brought in through the special Calais project. As such, I want to restate what I said earlier, namely, that I will work with Tusla in the immediate term to determine if there is any additional capacity. In the context of budget 2021, I will seek to put in place a sustainable funding stream so that we can continue to regularly meet our commitment to unaccompanied minors in Greece as quickly as possible.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Information on Joe O'Reilly Zoom on Joe O'Reilly I thank the Minister. The Senator has one minute.

Senator Lisa Chambers: Information on Lisa Chambers Zoom on Lisa Chambers I thank the Minister for the response. It is much appreciated. At the outset, I want to say that I am appalled that Tusla was not given additional resources from 2018 by the previous Minister and Government. That is quite scandalous.

  The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, is being asked to take resources from other children in the State to try to fund children coming in from Lesbos. He cannot make that call. Extra resources are clearly needed. After this debate, I will write to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, to ask that he consider that request positively, and I will also write to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe.

  In terms of the capacity issue, it is unfair to put the burden on the Minister's Department simply because that is where it sits at the moment. Every Department must play its role. The Department of Justice and Equality has a role to play and should be helping the Minister with this, rather than foisting it on to him and telling him that it is now his problem. That is what is happening. The problem is being pushed around and people are saying that it is not their responsibility and is instead someone else's responsibility. That is how everything happens in this country. It is not acceptable for this particular issue.

  As the Minister said, we have a moral obligation which trumps everything else. We have enough money in the State to deal with this and an awful lot more. Why not be a bit more radical about this? Why not put out a public call to Irish citizens for a fostering programme and ask who is willing to take unaccompanied minors from Moria camp in Lesbos? There should be a separate campaign with separate funding to deal with this particular issue.

  The Minister should not be asked to take money from other aspects of Tusla's work because it is already underfunded and does not have sufficient money. I would support a very strong call from the House that the Minister be given extra resources to deal with this issue.

  I know that 18 aid agencies have written directly to the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and other Ministers. The chief executive of Oxfam Ireland said in his letter that the young refugees currently being held in Greece are already experiencing the trauma of separation from and loss of their families as well as displacement. Can one imagine any child who is seven or eight years old having no parents, loved ones or family connections and who is not in his or her own home? Every week that ticks by they are left alone.

  Action is urgently needed, not in three weeks or three months' time. It is needed now. We need to be a leader on this. Whatever it takes from the House, the Minister will have our support.

Deputy Roderic O'Gorman: Information on Roderic O'Gorman Zoom on Roderic O'Gorman I thank the Senator for her offer of support. If she could send those letters I would appreciate it. I am very happy for the Department to take responsibility but I need additional resources. If they can be achieved it will make a huge difference.

  I had thought about the point the Senator made about our fostering campaign and we will have a general national fostering campaign. I have spoken to Tusla, and in light of the significant needs many of these children have some of the level of care required may be best delivered in a residential setting. I will let Tusla make the call on this. I have discussed the issue with it and I am not ruling it out. As we have outlined, these children have experienced trauma the likes of which none of us knows.

  The Senator said the 13,000 people in Moria camp call it their "home". If one good thing can be said, it is that the HIQA report demonstrates to me that the children we have been able to move here are now calling this home. They do see themselves as supported and protected. We just need to bring more children over and put them in a similar situation. I thank the Senator for raising this very important issue.

Childcare Services

Senator Shane Cassells: Information on Shane Cassells Zoom on Shane Cassells I welcome the Minister and I will cut right to the chase. Two weeks ago, the Minister conducted a feature interview in The Business Post with the journalist, Michael Brennan. It was a very large splash. In that interview, the Minister set out his plans for childcare in this country, a practice that is becoming the norm in modern politics whereby politicians brief the newspapers rather than the Dáil or the Seanad on their policies. In the interview, the Minister alluded to the fact his civil servants in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs are distinctly unenthusiastic about the 30 county childcare committees that provide support for approximately 4,900 childcare services in Ireland. He referenced a briefing note provided to him by them that states the structure does not lend itself to providing the national consistency sought by the Department. Michael Brennan is one of the most respected journalists in the building. He does not make things up and those comments did not come out of fresh air onto the pages. For a new Minister and, in fact, a new Deputy to belittle an entire system like that was, quite frankly, galling.

  This followed a period when the childcare system in this country was working flat out to try to implement whatever was coming out of the Department on a daily basis during lockdown when nobody knew what they were doing. I do not think I have to tell the Minister that the 26,000 underpaid, overstressed and completely undervalued childcare workers in this country do not ring the Department's offices in Miesian Plaza for support on the ground; they ring the childcare offices in the counties, which they know intimately and trust and which provide on the ground support for those who need it and have done so for the 20 years since they were established. I know this first hand because my wife is at the coalface with them. Neither do they ring Pobal, an organisation the Minister praised in the interview, while belittling the childcare structures. Pobal is another quango that has grown bigger than anyone can comprehend. The transcript of its appearance before the Committee of Public Accounts last December, which I was at, is something the Minister should read.

  In the interview, the Minister referenced the annual cost of the county childcare structure of €11 million, creating the impression of being reforming by axing the committees. Let us look at the money the Department spends. As the Minister said, 30 childcare committees receive €11 million to support the 4,870 childcare services throughout Ireland. When they were established in 2000, they received a total of €7 million. Back then, they supported 1,163 childcare services. We can see how childcare has grown in the country over the past 20 years, where some additional 4,000 providers are in the system. In that 20 years, by how much has childcare funding increased? It has merely gone from €7 million to €11 million to support an additional 4,000 providers. The system the officials think is not fit for purpose has managed to support an additional 4,000 providers with just an additional €4 million in support over that 20 years. In stark contrast, the big beast that is Pobal was managing a budget of €750 million when last we looked at it at the Committee of Public Accounts in December.  For those same 4,800 childcare providers customer satisfaction with regard to that organisation would not be glowing, which I am sure he will find out when he engages with it.

  I sincerely hope the Minister improves the lot of those in this sector. Lip service has often been paid to it but it has not received the support it requires. People believe this is a system that is awash with money but it is struggling to make ends meet and has the lowest-paid workers who are providing essential education. I stress that point. It is the first entry point to education for our youngest citizens. I hope that when the Minister engages in the reform that he promised he will acknowledge what is being done by highly-qualified professionals in the county childcare structure rather than trundling out what the civil servants wanted to see published in the paper.

Deputy Roderic O'Gorman: Information on Roderic O'Gorman Zoom on Roderic O'Gorman I thank the Senator. I am glad to have this opportunity to discuss the future of early learning and care and school-age childcare in the country, particularly the role of the city and county childcare committees. I appreciate the Senator pushing back this Commencement matter by a week to allow me address the matter directly.

  The 20 city and county childcare committees, CCCs, which operate nationwide and are funded by my Department, act as the local agent for my Department in the co-ordination and delivery of national early education and childcare programmes and the implementation of Government policy at a local level. They have a key role in facilitating and supporting the development of quality, accessible early learning and care and school-age childcare services for the overall benefit of children and their parents.

  The CCCs provide invaluable support, guidance and advice to the early learning and care and school-age childcare sector. Over the past number of months they have been a vital mechanism whereby my Department has been able to disseminate the information and the guidance needed by the sector to respond to Covid-19. I want to recognise the major role CCCs have played across this time.

  CCCs are often the first point of contact for service providers and in that respect they have assisted service providers with a broad range of issues from reopening supports such as how to implement a play pod system and comply with the public health guidelines, providing services with sustainability supports, providing information on funding and assisting services, and childminders, in accessing capital and reopening grant programmes to name but a few. CCCs also provide training, mentoring and information on quality practice and how to meet statutory regulations. As well as assisting service providers, they also have a key role in providing guidance for parents and families in sourcing quality, early learning and care and school-age childcare services.

  It should be noted that no decision has been taken on the future of the city and county childcare committees nor has any decision been pre-supposed by the Department, its officials or myself, as Minister.

  In reference to the quotation, the Deputy is right that Michael Brennan is a brilliant journalist but he was quoting something that was in a briefing docent. What is in quotes in that are not my words. If it was taken in context as my words I could see how the CCC sector would be very concerned but those are not my words.

  In First 5: A Whole-of-Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and their Families 2019-2028, which was published in November 2018, the Department committed to completing a comprehensive review of the operating model for early learning and care and school-age childcare in the country.

  Following a Cabinet decision that was taken in July, my Department has begun to undertake an independent review process regarding the many bodies and organisations under its remit as part of the existing system and of which CCCs form a part. The review's objective is to ensure that the operating system is equipped to ensure continued high-quality childcare can be delivered to the scale and standards required in the sector which has seen substantial growth in the past decades, with parents and children as the core beneficiaries.

  The final operating system will support high-quality, accessible and affordable early learning and care and school-age childcare services to children and families through the efficient and effective administration of a number of programmes, schemes and quality initiatives and other functions such as compliance and communications. The operating model will support providers, operate transparently and accountably, provide value for money to the Exchequer and demonstrate good governance. The model will also enable appropriate linkages and effective working relations with all the other agencies and Departments charged with delivering better outcomes for children and families.

  The review will formally commence at the end of this month and will conclude in July 2021. The review will be led by my Department, with appropriate assistance from external bodies secured by tender. In addition, the Department will engage with all relevant stakeholders, including CCCs, in the process.  I assure the Senator that no decision has been reached as to the future status of any of the support structures operating within the early learning and care and school-age childcare sector, including city and county childcare committees.

  Next week, I will be meeting representatives from Childcare Committees Ireland, the representative body in this sector. Any decision taken on the future structure of the system used to administer childcare will be informed by a robust evidence base and high-quality, independent analysis. To this end, I will be awaiting the report on the review before making any determination as to the future landscape of the sector.

Senator Shane Cassells: Information on Shane Cassells Zoom on Shane Cassells I thank the Minister for his response. He spoke about a review but that review has clearly been prejudiced. Any report on the system has clearly been prejudiced by the interview in the Business Post. I acknowledged a briefing note was provided to Michael Brennan and prepared by civil servants but Mr. Brennan was going to publish it. As a result of this, the Minister has adopted a scorched-earth approach, beginning a Borg-like attack on the childcare system and creating yet another monster like Irish Water. The approach is taking away the on-the-ground structures. The old water departments in the councils knew what they were doing. We are now creating a giant of a body that will not. How can anyone have confidence in the independence of the review if it has been prejudiced from the get-go?

  When he was proceeding in the way that he did, did the Minister think about the professionals who were reading his remarks without his having engaged with them? Imagine if the Minister saw an article by the Taoiseach in the Sunday newspapers in which he wanted the Minister gone in the belief that he was not providing the consistency sought by the Taoiseach's office, thus echoing the words used by the Department about the professionals, without having a chat with him. It would not be nice to read when listening to "Sunday with Miriam" and eating one's corn flakes. I ask the Minister to think for a moment about the thousands of professionals who had that very experience two weeks ago as a result of the interview, and about the hurt it caused in the profession. I ask him to acknowledge that.

Deputy Roderic O'Gorman: Information on Roderic O'Gorman Zoom on Roderic O'Gorman Absolutely nothing has been prejudiced by me. I am listening very carefully. Over the past 12 weeks, since I have taken on this role, I have met a large number of providers in the sector. I am meeting representatives from Childcare Committees Ireland next week and we will discuss its valuable role in this process.

  In any public engagement I have had, and in every opportunity I have had over the past 12 weeks, I have noted the incredible work done across all areas in childcare. It has been a tough year. The childcare sector led the way on 29 June when it started to reopen across the country. The good model and way in which the public health guidance was applied with such rigour by childcare professionals and other providers across the country made me genuinely confident that when we were to reopen schools at the start of this month, September, it would work well. We have had only 63 instances of Covid among all the childcare providers in the country. These have been addressed in accordance with the public health guidelines.

  I am incredibly supportive of the work done by everybody in this sector. I am aware that some bodies, such as the city and county childcare committees, have been invaluable in supporting providers. I look forward to meeting representatives from Childcare Committees Ireland next week to discuss these matters.

Light Rail Projects

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly This matter is being taken by the Minister of State responsible for land use and biodiversity, Senator Hackett. I thank her for attending again. This is her second day in the Seanad Chamber. That is nearly a record.

Senator Michael McDowell: Information on Michael McDowell Zoom on Michael McDowell I echo what the Cathaoirleach said. I welcome the Minister of State. I very much welcome the fact that a Member of this House is a Minister of State. I congratulate the Senator on her appointment. It is a major innovation. The last time this was tried was with the late Senator James Dooge. That was a long time ago. The Constitution provides for someone such as Senator Hackett to be a Minister of State. I am very glad that is the case.

  The topic I am raising concerns the future of the MetroLink project and the southern route to be adopted in respect of it.  Deputy Ryan, who is now the Minister with responsibility for transport, passionately supported routing the southern end of the project towards Rathfarham and Churchtown, between the red and green lines of the existing Luas structure. On other occasions, he suggested routing it between the DART and the Luas green line towards Belfield and places like that. The one thing he was very clear about was that he opposed the cannibalisation of the Luas green line and its incorporation into the MetroLink project for two reasons. First, it would involve closing the Luas green line for between 18 months and two years. Second, we have that transport corridor which has public transport already established and the aim must be to have different corridors for major investment in public transport infrastructure. I noted that the Government has recently made a statement about the possibility of doing an extension of the Luas toward Finglas and the like. It may be a good idea in itself, but the worrying thing is that it would take at least ten years to be put in place. There is already a complete study and proposal for a Luas-type service to Lucan, which has just been shelved. The vibe I am getting from those involved in the MetroLink project is that they are going ahead with a project as they originally suggested, namely, to bring it to the Charlemont station on the Grand Canal and extend it south from there in a tunnel which would act as a kind of underground depot. This would eventually facilitate the incorporation of the Luas green line into the metro system.

  During the last general election campaign, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, in particular campaigned extensively on the proposition that he did not want to end the Luas green line at Charlemont as is proposed by the MetroLink people, but that he wanted to afford different parts of Dublin the advantage of being the southern end of the MetroLink project to Dublin Airport. I now see it is proposed at some stage in the next year to publish a transportation strategy, but my information is that the planning of the MetroLink project, which has already cost a staggering total of €170 million, is proceeding at pace. They are drilling and taking samples of earth in Ely Place, Ranelagh and places like that. They are proceeding as if there were no real option open but to proceed with the proposal they have themselves. As such I ask the Minister of State, who is representing the Minister at this Commencement matters debate, to indicate what it is the Government is proposing. Has it decided to allow MetroLink to proceed as if the election had not happened and as if all of the commitments had not been made, or has there instead been no change in Government policy in this regard?

Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (Senator Pippa Hackett): Information on Pippa Hackett Zoom on Pippa Hackett I thank the Senator for his kind words at the start of his remarks. I am here on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Ryan, who is taking Oral Questions in the other House. It is a rather unfortunate clash but that is the way it goes. I thank the Senator for the opportunity to address this issue in the House today.

  This Government is committed to a fundamental change in the nature of transport in Ireland. We believe that to deliver on this commitment means we need a whole-system perspective across all modes of transport, whether that is active travel, bus or rail. That means developing evidence-based, multi-modal transport strategies that guide development over the medium and longer term. These transport strategies should be integrated with land-use plans and enable local authorities to locate houses, jobs and other demand attractors along high-capacity transport corridors.  This is the type of framework that many of our European and international peers use and it is the framework that can deliver fundamental change. We are beginning to see the emergence of that framework in Ireland.

  There is a statutory 20-year transport strategy in the greater Dublin area, GDA. The strategy covers all modes in all counties in the GDA, that is, Dublin, Meath, Kildare and Wicklow. The transport strategy must be reflected in all land use plans and is subject to extensive and statutory consultation during its development. The historical complaint that there is no transport strategy for Dublin no longer holds. As part of the current transport strategy, there were plans for two metro lines, effectively, a metro north and a metro south. Those projects were initially considered for development as one project, known as MetroLink. That project was subject to extensive, non-statutory public consultation. During that consultation various issues were raised regarding the proposed route, particularly regarding the proposed upgrade of the existing Luas green line. In response to those issues, the preferred route for MetroLink is now proposed to link the estuary in north County Dublin with Charlemont on the Grand Canal. The project will be future-proofed so that a connection between the MetroLink and the Luas green line can be provided in the future.

  However, we still must tackle capacity on the Luas green line. There are two approaches to that. First, there is an ongoing Luas green line capacity enhancement project. This project has already delivered an expanded depot in Sandyford and is increasing all 26 existing trams to 55 m in length. Fifteen of those extensions are already in service, with another two due this month. Second, there are eight additional 55 m trams arriving, with three of the trams already here and the rest scheduled to arrive in the first quarter of next year. This project will increase capacity by almost 30% compared to previous capacity. However, more is needed to cope with the expected increase in demand on the Luas green line and other options are under consideration over the medium term, above and beyond the current project.

  Returning to the transport strategy, there is a need to review and refresh it to ensure it is kept up to date and informed by latest developments. The need to review and refresh is a requirement of the legislation, which states that the strategy must be reviewed every six years. The NTA has started work on the review and, next year, will launch a public consultation and engage with the public on this issue. As part of the review, the NTA will commission analysis of other potential metro routes in Dublin, such as a metro to the south east or to the south west, and establish a refreshed evidence base to underpin transport planning in the region. These analyses will be published as part of next year's consultation on the broader strategy.

  I hope this clarifies the situation for the Senator and look forward to hearing his views.

Senator Michael McDowell: Information on Michael McDowell Zoom on Michael McDowell I note there were some additions in pencil in the document that was given to me. One of them is particularly revealing because it suggests that the Minister is considering doing a turn-back facility at St. Stephen's Green. That suggests there is a proposal to have a loop at St. Stephen's Green for the MetroLink project. That is interesting. However, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, told the voters in his constituency, at great length and repeatedly, that he wanted a different outcome from the one that was then being proposed, to marry the MetroLink to the Luas green line. He proposed two alternative routes and spoke at various public meetings about this. He has also spoken on the record of this House about it. I know he is planning a transport review, and he now says he will consider alternative routes. This pencilled piece of handwriting on the document appears to suggest that other things are being considered and the public is not being made aware of them. I do not know whether the Minister, Senator Hackett, wrote on this or it is somebody else's writing, but I would like somebody to explain what this new facility at St. Stephen's Green, a so-called turn-back facility, is.

Senator Pippa Hackett: Information on Pippa Hackett Zoom on Pippa Hackett Indeed, those are my scribbled notes. I did not bring the original copies with me so the Senator is getting some inside information.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly The Minister made information available.

Senator Pippa Hackett: Information on Pippa Hackett Zoom on Pippa Hackett I queried that before I came up here. I asked about it because I noticed there was mention of other options in the script. I chatted with some of the officials from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. That turn-back facility in St. Stephen's Green seems a potential option. I could certainly engage with the officials and find out if there are other options because the script indicates that there are. I am interested to know what those options are. I will pass that information back and if I get information to share with the Senator in return, I will be happy to pass it on to him.

Senator Michael McDowell: Information on Michael McDowell Zoom on Michael McDowell I was not seeking to embarrass the Minister of State at all.

Senator Pippa Hackett: Information on Pippa Hackett Zoom on Pippa Hackett The Senator is fine.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly Senator McDowell would never do that.

Senator Michael McDowell: Information on Michael McDowell Zoom on Michael McDowell I thank the Minister of State for her frank confession.

  Sitting suspended at 11.20 a.m. and resumed at 12.35 p.m.

Safe Reopening of Tertiary Sector and Key Priorities for Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science: Statements

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for coming to take statements on the safe reopening of the tertiary sector and key priorities for the Department of further and higher education, research, innovation and science. All Senators have five minutes.

Minister without Portfolio (Deputy Simon Harris): Information on Simon Harris Zoom on Simon Harris I thank the Cathaoirleach for my first opportunity to address the new Seanad and to be here as Minister for a new Department of further and higher education, research, innovation and science. I am very excited about the establishment of this new Department and the opportunity to work with Members of Seanad Éireann. There is a wealth of knowledge, experience and interest in the House on a cross-party and cross-grouping basis in areas to do with further and higher education, research, innovation and science, and how we can get them to work together. I very much see this new Department as a Department to promote economic growth and the well-being of our country and helping to get people back to work and reskill and retrain people, as well as being a social Department to promote social inclusion and cohesion to make sure that every single individual in our country, regardless of where they came from, their gender, or who they or their parents are, has an opportunity to reach his or her full potential through a variety of routes. That is what I would like it to engage with Senators on, not just today but over the coming weeks and months.

  For the purposes of this debate, I will stay for the first half and will be replaced by my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, because he has specific responsibility for skills. That will provide Senators with a full view of the range of things we are doing in our new Department.

  I am glad to have a chance to set out the priorities, which I believe are shared priorities across the Oireachtas, for this Department so it can be an engine for social and economic progress. It will be a crucial driver as we rebuild, and reshape, our economy for the post-Covid area, founded on a principle of equality of opportunity and uniting third level education with the key sectors of research, innovation and science. I will speak more on this later, but first I want to update the House on the current, important and critical work being done to safely reopen third level education.

  As Ireland moves towards a gradual return to on-site activity, institutions, providers, staff and learners across higher and further education continue to demonstrate the commitment, adaptability and resilience which has delivered a preservation of learning throughout the pandemic. That is an important point. Third level education did not stop during the pandemic; rather, it moved online. Our lecturers, teachers, leaders and students showed incredible resilience in adapting overnight to moving from on-site to online learning. An interesting QQI report showed that despite that major change, institutions still managed to uphold the standards and the integrity of the qualifications. I want to thank and pay tribute to those involved for that.

  As we begin to return to a blended model, which will not be the same as others and will not involve everybody returning in one fell swoop or en masse, but instead involves a mix of on-site and online learning, the safety of students and staff is an absolute priority. It is priority number one, two and three when it comes to the reopening of third level. The sector is committed to ensuring that all health protection measures are in place, led by detailed guidance developed with public health experts. I met the Irish Universities Association, IUA, the Technological Higher Education Association, THEA Ireland, which represents institutes of technology, and all of the unions last week. I also met the USI. There is really good collaboration going on, and most importantly that is grounded in public health advice from public health officials.

  Communication to students and learners will also be a priority as they move from emergency remote learning towards a mode of blended learning, which combines online and on-site provision. The national tertiary education roadmap and a Covid-19 adaption framework was developed. This provides a shared structure for Government, sectors, institutions and providers to use in returning safely this autumn while also continuing to plan and adapt as we move through the pandemic and may move up and down different levels of our roadmap for living with Covid. This was, of course, supported by a funding package because funding is important. There are costs associated with this. A large funding package of €160 million was provided by the Government and welcomed by many in response to the additional cost of reopening safely.

  Last week, in light of the deterioration in the Covid-19 situation in Dublin, and following NPHET's request, the Government asked that higher and further education institutions consider enhanced protective measures. I want to acknowledge and commend stakeholders across the sector for their engagement and willingness to adapt to heightened restrictions coming just at the exact time most students are commencing their academic year.  It could not come at a more difficult time for them and I thank them for their leadership in responding to that NPHET request.

  The additional protections being put in place will see a more gradual reopening of higher and further educational facilities in Dublin. Individual institutions revised their plans and communicated with students. The following overall approach will be adopted for the initial period ahead in Dublin.

  Institutions will use discretion when deciding between on-site and remote for the scheduling of particular activities where remote delivery is feasible during this period. On-site provision will be minimised with priority given to teaching and learning that can only take place on-site. This includes prioritising research. A person cannot have a science laboratory in his or her kitchen.

  As regards on-site classes that need to take place, this includes trying to make sure to minimise the number of students congregating at one time and positively discriminating in favour of things that cannot take place online. It also allows institutions to bring in priority student cohorts including first year students, perhaps, in smaller groups for induction, orientation and some small tutorials. It also includes keeping the libraries open so students can go in and learn, again, in a controlled manner. Sadly, in Dublin, on-site social club activities cannot proceed currently while we are at this heightened level of concern regarding Covid-19. Outside Dublin, the reopening of facilities is proceeding as planned based on the public health advice on that model of blended learning and full adherence to the public health advice.

  A robust model of outbreak management is being put in place as a priority and this is important. We have seen in crèches, schools, workplaces, homes and anywhere people gather that Covid-19 cases can happen. It is important we have a good outbreak management system in place so that when it happens, everybody knows what they need to do and that what they do is grounded in no principle other than public health. I want to thank everybody for working on that outbreak management protocol that is being finalised as we speak. I expect it to be finalised tomorrow. This aims to safeguard students and staff and the communities in which they are located. Detailed information is available to students and learners directly from their institutions and providers and will be frequently updated. 

  With regard to further education, many have already returned to on-site learning. Craft apprentices who had their off-the-job training and assessments disrupted in March have returned on-site to complete practical assessments. Recommencement of disrupted training began at the end of August and apprentices will be called for off-the-job training in line with public health guidance.

  I am conscious, however, that one cannot just provide additional money to institutions and to bricks and mortar. In our package of support, we also had to provide additional supports for students and to protect students' well-being. I was particularly pleased to secure a financial package of €5 million to support students' well-being and mental health. This will be used to recruit additional student counsellors and assistant psychologists and will support the implementation of the soon-to-be-published national student mental health and suicide prevention framework.

  Last week, along with the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, and higher education counsellors, I launched a new 24-7 text-based mental health support for third level students and I ask colleagues to help spread the word. Let us make this number famous. It is available 24-7 and anytime, day or night, any day of the week, a person can text the word "Hello" to 50808. It is not just for students. Somebody will be at the end of that line, 24-7, to help people tease out and work through any issue, big or small, and direct him or her to any additional supports. The number is 50808. I ask Senators to please help get that out.

  I am aware Senator Ahearn contacted me on the issue of making sure money for mental health is getting exactly where we want it to get to. I have communicated directly with the HSE on this. I am clear that I want to make sure the use of the money for mental health is to be used directly for the expansion, development and improvement of student counselling services, which are excellent. We need, however, to improve their access as well.

  We also put a fund in place for student devices worth €15 million which has allowed higher and further education institutions to place a bulk order of 16,700 devices for students across third level. I heard from students who said we cannot tell them they are doing stuff online and all of a sudden not make sure they have access to the devices. We know many families and many people have fallen on hard times so I hope this funding will go some way towards bridging the digital divide, supporting students and ensuring equality of access to education. 

  I am delighted we have been able to double the student assistance fund. This is the fund that a student can draw down through his or her access office if he or she falls on hard times. There was €8 million in it. We have doubled that to €16 million.

  Where they provide accommodation, I have asked higher education institutions to show flexibility and common sense in terms of its use. If a student is not going to be in college the way he or she normally would, institutions should see if they can use the accommodation in a more flexible way and allow somebody to book a room for two or three nights a week or month, or whatever his or her schedule requires. I am grateful that a number of higher education institutions have done that.

  While it is not in my power to issue instructions to the private rental market, I urge private providers to follow suit. I note that the USI met with my colleague, the Minister with responsibility for housing, Deputy O'Brien, this week and we will continue to work together to see how we can support students. Being honest, in the long term we need to provide more college-owned accommodation. We need to be less reliant on the private market. We are far too vulnerable and exposed when we do not have enough college-owned and university-owned campus accommodation.  As I have been asked to do so, I will briefly return to some of the priorities of the new Department, particularly those we are progressing between now and the end of the year. One of our earliest priorities was to secure the funding package I referenced earlier but also to secure significant investment in the Government's July stimulus to tap into the potential of the new Department, which has responsibility for the training budget that goes to education and training boards, ETBs, for SOLAS and for apprenticeships, to see how we can help contribute to economic recovery. We need to provide the many people who will have lost their jobs and who may be concerned about losing them with opportunities to re-skill and retrain. I am delighted we received €100 million through the July stimulus to fund 35,500 additional training places across the country this year and thank the Taoiseach for his support in that regard. This includes 19,000 full and part-time places through the skills to compete programme aimed at unemployed people seeking work, as well as 3,300 one year postgraduate courses in areas where there is a skills need.

  For the first time in the history of the State, we are now providing a financial incentive scheme for people who take on apprentices. Businesses which do so will receive €3,000 in cash, €2,000 now and the remainder next year for each new apprentice they take on. We have seen more than 500 additional apprentices be signed up under the apprenticeship incentivisation scheme since we announced it a few weeks ago. There is a lot of low-hanging fruit where apprenticeships are concerned. We need to drop the snobbish attitude we have in this country about higher education and need to provide more diverse pathways. Apprenticeships have huge untapped potential in this country as well.

  We must get serious about adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills. Some 16% of us do not have basic literacy skills, 25% of us do not have basic numeracy skills and 55% of us do not have basic digital skills. If we are serious about creating equality of opportunity we need to address that. That is why on International Literacy Day I announced Government approval to task SOLAS with developing the first-ever interdepartmental adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills strategy within the next six months. Members of this House will be very interested in the issue of technological universities as many of them have been in touch with me about it, and Senator Byrne more than most, in particular in regard to the development of a technological university, TU, in the south east. We are accelerating plans for the development of this vital facility for the region with the appointment of Mr. Tom Boland to spearhead the project and this will be a key priority in the coming months.

  As well as providing diverse pathways though, we have to respect diversity in university. I am extremely concerned about sexual violence and sexual harassment and indeed the issue of consent at third level. I would be glad to work with Senators on this. I have launched the new active consent toolkit developed by NUIG and written to all university presidents on the need for an action plan on sexual violence for every institution to be published by February. We have to get serious about this. There is very concerning information about staff and students. I will not take up time going through all of that but I think many Members will have heard me talk about the cultural shift we need to see here. Sexual harassment is not confined to our universities but we need to lead rather than be laggards in this regard.

  Finally I wish to address research, innovation and science. There is a huge opportunity here with Science Foundation Ireland, the Irish Research Council and higher education institutions now being under one Department to drive forward the research agenda, to draw down opportunities under the Horizon Europe Framework Programme and to try to influence the future direction of European research and innovation policy. The delivery of the Tyndall National Institute development plan for a new facility on the Tyndall site in Cork will double the size of Ireland's largest research centre specialising in ICT. As such there is huge potential here to make exciting, positive change for the future of our country. I am grateful to the House for its interest in this and look forward to drawing on Members' expertise and working with them in the days, weeks and months ahead.

Senator Malcolm Byrne: Information on Malcolm Byrne Zoom on Malcolm Byrne I thank the Minister for coming to the Chamber and for the energy and enthusiasm he has shown in the establishment of this new Department and the work that he and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, have done so far. I echo the Minister in thanking the higher and further education institutions for doing Trojan work in the past few months both to adapt to the pandemic but also to prepare for reopening in these difficult times. This is particularly true for how they have ensured students, learners and trainees are at the heart of the discussion. In the limited time I have I had hoped to talk about the role of the new Department but there are a number of specific issues which the Minister may wish to respond to or that the Department could get back to me on.

  I welcome the Minister's commitment to additional college-owned campus accommodation and the commitment on adult literacy particularly with regard to digital literacy, which is a challenge for us. The Minister is very committed to the area of positive mental health and the well-being of students and I am happy to repeat the 50808 support service number the Minister mentioned. I was conscious of the priority the Minister gave to that at the Technological Higher Education Association, THEA, online seminar with the Royal Irish Academy on Monday and also of the remarks of Professor Pete Lunn.  I echo the point that when Government is providing resources, this has to be for mental health and well-being services. Key to that is the role of clubs, societies and student unions, which the Minister has recognised. They need to be supported. I know the Minister is committed to a multi-campus university in the south east and I ask him to keep us in the Seanad informed of that and of the issue of the Wexford campus being at the heart of that. There are specific issues around supporting student nurses and midwives. The Union of Students in Ireland, USI, has been in touch with the Minister on that, and if he can provide a specific update, I would be appreciative.

  The Erasmus+ programme has been one of the most successful European programmes. Unfortunately, it is much more difficult in these circumstances and we have always had a challenge whereby more Erasmus students come to Ireland than we send out. In a post-Brexit scenario, Ireland may become even more attractive for international students, but in our future relationship with Europe we need ways in which we can encourage international exchange, and I hope that will be a priority for the Department.

  Related to that issue is another issue that has been raised with the Department, namely, the challenge around international student insurance and the fact that international students now have to take out community-related insurance, which is more expensive. I would appreciate a specific update on that.

  In the field of research, which the Minister mentioned, the one thing we should not lose sight of is the importance of the relationship between Irish and UK higher education institutions. Even in a post-Brexit scenario, a lot of work has been done by the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce on this, we have to continue to foster those links. That has to be key to the research agenda, as must furthering education links with European institutions.

  I am glad the Minister has prioritised research, because in our experience of what is going on at the moment, our institutions have been responding in incredibly innovative ways. There is leadership being shown by the likes of Professor Philip Nolan, president of Maynooth University, and many others in our institutions. It is key that we look at why it is important to invest in research. I ask the Minister to look at specific programmes in research around Covid, not just into public health but also the impact this will have on other areas of society. I ask the Minister also to look at big societal challenges, including the green agenda. How can Ireland contribute toward that and be innovative in that way? Tied in with the green agenda is the opportunity to retrofit many of the existing buildings in further and higher education.

  I will speak about where I see the role of this Department. The Minister is correct to say this is not just about administrative functions for the Department and taking over a bit of the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation and a bit of the Department of Education of Skills. This is a Department for the future. With the convergence of new technology we have to look at preparing our citizens. It is about investing in digital literacy and providing digital skills for the staff in our higher and further education institutions. The Minister mentioned areas like online learning and short courses, while Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, has done a lot of work on microcredentials and how we can build awards. We have to be imaginative in what we do. We need policy councils dealing with research policy and higher education policy, tied in with the work of the Higher Education Authority, HEA, so we can get evidence-based policymaking not just driving the Minister's Department but driving the whole of Government.

  At the core of this Department has to be the learner. Our economic policy for so long has been based around the twin pillars of tax and talent. The reality is that Ireland is not necessarily always going to be able to compete on tax. We will have to compete on talent. The Minister's Department will be in the front line and I wish him well.

Senator Sharon Keogan: Information on Sharon Keogan Zoom on Sharon Keogan  I thank the Minister for the leadership he showed this country in the early days of Covid. He provided a lot of calmness to the situation that we faced as a nation, and while we did not get everything right, I thank him for the work he put in during that time.

  I will address the Minister on the important matter of apprenticeship schemes.  Apprenticeships can provide employment to people and skills to the economy which is of the utmost importance now more than ever with the challenges of rising unemployment due to the Covid-19 restrictions.

  I welcome that the Minister is making apprenticeships a priority. However, there is more that can be done. I respectfully request that the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, with the stroke of a pen introduce funding for local authorities to provide apprenticeships, employment, hope and opportunities for people. We must lead by example. Apprenticeships are an excellent way of learning, earning and getting into permanent paid employment. There are a large number of apprenticeships available in a range of industries across Ireland. Apprenticeships are an invaluable way for people to ground their learning in a practical experience of a real job. Research highlights the role that apprenticeships can play in helping to tackle youth unemployment and the significant benefits they can provide for those young people who are most likely to leave school at an early age and subsequently struggle to find employment.

  Apprenticeships have contributed to the development of many companies and industries throughout Ireland. There are 54 national apprenticeship programmes operational across Ireland, with a further 23 launching during the course of this year. There are over 18,000 apprentices completing training in Ireland, with even more growth envisaged throughout the course of the next few years. I am thrilled to note that the Minister has made apprenticeships a key priority for this Government and has already launched a consultation process on the next national plan for apprenticeships. Of particular importance in this process is the way in which we increase participation in apprenticeships, especially the ways in which we create a more diverse and gender-balanced apprenticeship population. Equality of opportunity in regard to participation in apprenticeship schemes is a laudable objective.

  I welcome the apprenticeship incentivisation scheme under which the Government will pay businesses and employers up to €3,000 for taking on apprenticeships. It is great to see the Government acknowledging the key part that apprenticeships will play in the country's recovery and in the country's future. However, I have a concern, which falls close to home as a former county councillor of many years. A consortium of industries and education partners are heavily involved in the successful provision of apprenticeships, yet there is no apprenticeship opportunities within local government. Local government is an ideal workplace in which we can provide a programme for structured education and training and where better for young apprentices to learn about politics, law, society and much more. Many local authorities will have previously engaged with promoting apprenticeships, so why not lead by example? There is no shortage of people who are interested in such apprenticeships. Working within such a broad sector as local government will allow so many to operate in varied working environments and develop countless different skills. This proposal needs to be addressed during the Minister's consultation process and implemented as soon as possible.

  Local government apprenticeships and public service apprenticeships are a vital next step for reinvigorating the apprenticeship model. By expanding apprenticeships into new fields we ensure that education through apprenticeships remains a successful avenue for people young and old and an exciting way for employers of all types to develop talent for their industries. We have 31 local authorities in this country. With the stroke of a pen the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, could guarantee 30 apprenticeships to those bodies. We could create 930 apprenticeship programmes in this country. I appeal to the Minister to lead by example.

Senator Aisling Dolan: Information on Aisling Dolan Zoom on Aisling Dolan I welcome the Minister, Deputy Harris, to the House and I thank him for the information he provided and acknowledge the proactive engagement with third level institutions by his Department over the last few months.

  The Department of further and higher education, research, innovation and science is a welcome development, bringing together the funding agencies of Science Foundation Ireland and the Irish Research Council. Ireland is renowned as a centre of learning, from Clonmacnoise to the excellence in research shown by our Irish researchers winning at European Research Council, ERC, level. We have had four winners of the ERC starter-award in Ireland this year.  As a spokesperson in this area, I very much welcome investment in over 2,200 additional student places in respect of the leaving certificate, which allowed more people to access courses and helped alleviate the pressure on points. There were over 275 places in the west, with 60 in engineering at NUI Galway and over 30 in healthcare at GMIT. I wish students well in the context of the second round offers issued by the CAO yesterday. There were over 35,000 additional posts on the Skills to Compete programme and 3,100 in postgraduate courses. There are many ways and paths to reach one's career choice. I encourage everyone who is listening to consider all different ways to reach his or her career. I also encourage people of all ages to consider further education as well. As the Minister mentioned, there is much we could learn about the digital divide and things such as social media and going online. There is so much for all of us to take on board.

The Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, also launched the third round of €500 million for the disruptive technologies innovation fund this morning. That is an initiative bringing enterprise and third level together to drive innovation. Again, it shows how important third level education is when it comes to industry in this country. A package of €168 million was designed to help the further and higher education sectors deal with the impacts of Covid-19. The new fund of over €15 million for student devices will enable access to laptops. That will be available in the student access offices across the country and in the education and training boards.

In terms of safe reopening, the Government has shown its commitment to prioritising education and the safe reopening of schools and colleges. Now, more than ever, we need research and innovation to help us respond to challenges in healthcare and climate change. It is heartening to see how all sectors work together. Many third level institutes supported the HSE with facilities to support contact tracing teams and testing. I have spoken to different colleges, including NUI Galway and GMIT, and the Galway and Roscommon Education and Training Board, and the majority of courses and tutorials are being delivered online, with the exception of practical work, laboratories and clinical. GMIT will be opening on 28 September and managing over five campuses. Covid response plans have been put in place and the investment in personal protective equipment, PPE, has been noticed and is very welcome. Colleges have been working with students' unions to offer support and guidance to students and their families. It can be an anxious time for students leaving the structure of secondary school behind. Mentor networks have been set up in many colleges, and I welcome the new investment in the student support service and the 24-7 number. One can text "Hello" to 50808 to have a chat. No problem is too big or too small.

The unique college experience for first years will also happen, albeit in slightly different ways. Online orientation is happening and clubs and sports clubs will be operating. We will see many people trying out kayaking in Galway, especially on the River Corrib. It will still be great craic and it will still be a great place where people can learn and make friends for life through their college experience. It is a wonderful time to learn and discover.

Regarding key priorities, it is important that education is accessible to all. Social cohesion, as the Minister noted, is key. The first point for me is funding of the sector, particularly on foot of the Cassells report and the review of the commission. What will be the next steps for the funding of third level, especially with the loss of international students and the funding and income they would have provided? The second point relates to acknowledging the importance of third level and how it will help our economy and society to recover. Access to skilled graduates, world-class research teams and research infrastructure is a key consideration when attracting foreign direct investment. That is crucial for Ireland. We could also consider reviewing the targets of the regional skills fora. Some of the measures the Minister mentioned, such as apprenticeship.ie, the €3,000 for taking on an apprentice and ThisisFET.ie, are wonderful resources. There are also the Skills to Compete and Skills to Advance programmes under SOLAS, Skillnet Ireland and the MentorsWork eight-week business support programme, which is fantastic and is free to SMEs across the country.

The third point is the development of technological universities, which was also mentioned by Senator Byrne. I have a particular interest in the Connacht-Ulster Alliance, which will be submitting an application shortly. The alliance brings together GMIT, the Institute of Technology Sligo and Letterkenny Institute of Technology, potentially over eight regional campuses. That shows how important it is to have access to third level in regional areas outside the main urban centres. The importance of this technological university is bringing together students, enterprise and communities in the west and north west. Is that not a great concept?

Why is our region so deserving of the Connacht-Ulster Alliance?  The west and north west are now an EU-designated region in transition. The income levels of people in the west and north west are roughly 75% of the EU GDP average, including all 27 countries. We need to see how investment in third level education is going to deliver for our enterprise, industry and entrepreneurs in our area. That is about technology transfer, engaging with innovation vouchers from Enterprise Ireland and supporting those businesses.

  I ask that we strongly consider Horizon Europe funding and that all of my colleagues ask for that support from the European Research Council. Member states are driving for that. We, in Ireland, targeted over 3% innovation as a proportion of our GDP. We have many challenges that are ongoing at the moment but we have fantastic potential.

  Our universities and third level institutions are places where world-class research takes place. We need to invest in the best and innovation is the answer. As Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon said, unless we invest in research and innovation, trusting in its best minds, "the future we want will never arrive".

Senator Annie Hoey: Information on Annie Hoey Zoom on Annie Hoey There is no clock in here, which makes things a little more difficult.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Information on Joe O'Reilly Zoom on Joe O'Reilly The Senator has five minutes.

Senator Annie Hoey: Information on Annie Hoey Zoom on Annie Hoey That is no problem. I welcome the Minister here. I am delighted that there is a Minister with responsibility for further and higher education, innovation, research and science because those are my favourite topics in the world. I am thrilled that there is a Minister focused on the area.

  I could take the Minister on a whistle-stop tour of all the different things I could talk about. I will try to get through as many as I can. Last week I met representatives of the Alliance for Affordable Insurance for International Students who are deeply concerned about the cost of insurance for international students. I do not know if this has been brought to the attention of the Minister. The ruling of the Health Insurance Authority, HIA, was perfected by the courts 11 days ago which means that the cover for these international students must come into effect on 2 October. They will be required to take out community insurance and this means that the cost will rise from €150 to €730 next week. Could the Minister address that? It will have a serious impact. We must look after our international reputation and I am concerned about the effect of this, particularly seeing as international students will get less cover than previously.

  I will talk briefly about precarious work. We know that the higher and further education sector is riddled with precarious work. I have recently been contacted by staff who are on two-year contracts and have been told that their contracts are not going to be renewed. Those staff believe that teaching is now going to be done by unpaid research, PhD, postgraduate or postdoctoral students. That is worrying. We have always known that unpaid teaching has been happening underneath the surface in the sector. We all saw recently an email that went out from an institution stating that unpaid work was going to be a requirement. That was the first time in my time doddling around this sector that I had seen that written down like that. I am concerned about unpaid work and think everyone should get a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. That should apply particularly to research students who are trying to finish their studies and share their expertise. They need respect. The Minister might consider and address that point because we must get to grips with it.

  While we are on the topic of paid work, it would be remiss of me not to talk about student nurses. One student nurse who contacted me is working on a Covid-19 ward and is not being paid. She cannot eat a clap. The candles in people's windows are not going to pay her heating bill. It is unacceptable that we have student nurses who are not being paid.

  We already know that our fees are among the highest in Europe. The Minister has said those fees are simply too high. The Cassells report was launched when I was president of the Union of Students in Ireland. There has obviously been a plot twist in my life, given that I have somehow ended up becoming a Senator a couple of years later. We are still talking about the future funding of higher education and I implore the Minister to fund the sector. The road ran out four years ago when the report was launched and the sector is bursting at the seams.

  The programme for Government commits to reassessing the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grant system. I would be interested to here what is the Minister's timeline for that. We desperately need to look at things like adjacency rates, postgraduate supports and targeted grants. I am concerned about the impact that Covid-19 is going to have on students who traditionally struggled to access higher and further education, or whatever post-second level learning opportunities they wanted to. I am worried that they will fall through the cracks. I am interested to hear what we are going to do to support them.

  The Minister mentioned accommodation and I once sat on that interdepartmental student accommodation working group. My phone is ringing off the hook with students who were told that there was going to be face-to-face learning and have now been told that is not going to happen.  They have paid for accommodation. I know that a number of institutions are being flexible but not all of them are, and that is really worrying.

  As for postgraduate fees and supports, we have some of the highest postgraduate fees in Europe. They are astronomical. I nearly fainted yesterday when I looked at how much they are now compared with when I was doing my postgrad. We need to think about how we support students. There are some postgraduate grants but they are limited, so how will we support these students?

  The stipends of research students whose research ran out during lockdown have run out. Some of them are being allowed back into their institutions to finish their research but they have no money to do so and are concerned they will not be able to finish out their PhDs.

  Staff are trying to prepare for three types of classes: online, in person, and in person but also online. That is an enormous burden. I spoke to a lecturer the other day who said they are trying to get ready but they do not know what they are trying to prepare for. That is really difficult.

  Finally, I wish to give a shout out to the USI Education for All campaign, which was launched this week. I am sure USI would not mind if I invited everyone in this Chamber to engage with that campaign and listen to what USI is talking about. Education should be for everyone. It is not a privilege. It should be open to everyone who wants it, in whatever format it is wanted: post-second level, apprenticeships, further and higher education, and lifelong learning. I look forward to working with the Minister on making that a reality for everyone.

Senator Elisha McCallion: Information on Elisha McCallion  Zoom on Elisha McCallion  I thank the Minister for attending. I look forward to working with him and his officials over the coming weeks and months. I wish to put on the public record our thanks and appreciation to him, his officials and the further and higher education establishments, which have been doing fabulous work over recent weeks.

  I note with some concern reports yesterday that the individual action plans that had been agreed by various institutions would not in fact be considered or reviewed by the Department. I note what the Minister has said about the outbreak management protocol, but as for the individual action plans, why give out guidelines to these institutions if the Department will not in fact review them? Could I have some clarity on that?

  Like some of the previous speakers, we in Sinn Féin have heard many stories of students who have been told they will get a certain amount of campus time this year. While I wish to put on the record that public health should be paramount and central to everything we do in the weeks and months ahead, these people have made commitments to accommodation. I heard what the Minister said about his call to the institutions to be flexible, but have he and his Department spoken to the Government here and other Departments to look at a package that could perhaps decrease fees this year and possibly even reduce rents or help students to pay them? Students should not have to bear the brunt of the pandemic. Has the Minister looked at anything bespoke and specific to that?

  I note what the Minister has been saying about his key priorities, particularly in the coming year, but I find it staggering that there was no mention by him of Brexit, given the fact that we are possibly coming to a cliff edge in respect of the withdrawal agreement and the possibility that the British Government might not adhere to it. Where does the Minister believe the third sector is with Brexit, regardless of whether the withdrawal agreement will be adhered to? I am aware that a lot of work has been done on North-South co-operation over the years, which is to be welcomed, but there has not been enough. I therefore call on the Government and the Minister himself to take the lead on this and establish an all-island forum on further and higher education and a summit or gathering of some sort. It is really important that this is done sooner rather than later, especially given the many issues that further and higher education institutions in the North and the South will face in the months ahead in respect of Brexit. I therefore specifically request that the Minister consider putting this to the North-South Ministerial Council and establishing a task force to look at the many cross-Border issues facing our institutions.   Could I ask specifically about the Erasmus programme? It has been made clear by the EU that it will legislate for those who are currently part of the programme to continue with their studies in the event of a no-deal Brexit. What are the Minister's intentions in that regard? More specifically, while it is important to have clarity for students who are currently on the programme, has the Minister taken into consideration European students in the North who have Irish citizenship, who are not part of the current cohort but who will possibly consider seeking to access the programme in the future? Is he considering a vehicle that will allow students in the North to avail of this programme in the years ahead?

  What is the Minister's position on the Part 5 amendment to the Student Support Act 2011? Under the previous legislation, it was suggested that eligible students from the Six Counties who are studying in the Twenty-six Counties and who currently qualify for support from SUSI will continue to do so. That was part of the legislation based on the withdrawal agreement. Given the fact that we may not have the withdrawal agreement and that the Government is looking at new legislation, does the Minister believe that such support will continue? I seek absolute clarity on the Minister's future intentions regarding those students.

  When the Minister was considering his key priorities, did he give any thought to the Government's commitment under the New Decade, New Approach deal at a time when we are all quite rightly discussing the fact that the British Government intends not to honour what was agreed in the withdrawal agreement? I remind him and the Department of the specific commitment to the expansion of the Magee campus in Derry in the north west. I ask the Minister to explicitly outline the Government's position on that. I called for a task force to be established to consider many issues. There needs to be a meeting of minds between the Minister, the Government, the Executive in the North and all of the key players in the north west who are trying to ensure the project is delivered. I specifically urge that a task force would be established to progress this significant project. I remind the Minister that the political will is there and that a political commitment from the Minister, the British Government and the Executive is also required.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Information on Joe O'Reilly Zoom on Joe O'Reilly I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins.

Senator Pauline O'Reilly: Information on Pauline O'Reilly Zoom on Pauline O'Reilly I also welcome the Minister of State and I congratulate him on his appointment. This has been an incredibly difficult year for young people, especially the cohort of first-year students, and also those who are working and not in third level institutions. It is quite right that we acknowledge that not everybody goes from second to third level. We are here today to talk about that cohort of people in third level who had certain expectations. They had expectations that they would try their best to do the leaving certificate and that they would go to college and have the social experience that all of us, but particularly young people, need in order to learn in the best possible way. We talk a great deal about education feeding into us, as human beings, but it is really the other way around: it is us, as a society, who feed into these Departments and say what it is that we want from the education system. That is why I go back to one of the commitments in the programme for Government I was very keen to have included, namely, to convene the Citizens' Assembly in order that it might consider the issue of education. We can include third level education in that as well. Now that our society has changed in the most incredible ways, we can decide what we want from third level institutions.

  One of the measures in the programme for Government that has been mentioned by some of my colleagues is apprenticeships. Having spoken to the presidents of some universities, I am of the view that we have an opportunity to diversify and that third level institutions which previously did not offer apprenticeships but which have the capacity, experience and knowledge to do so could now do so.  For instance, in Galway we are experts in marine sciences. We know we must move towards protecting our marine environment, where apprenticeship opportunities exist. We have an opportunity to facilitate the greening of third level institutions because there is funding available from Europe for capital projects. Let us draw down that funding immediately for the purposes of greening - I refer to things like electric vehicle charging points and solar and wind power - thereby helping our third level institutions to be world leaders.

  The issue of SUSI grants arises all of the time. We need ways to fund institutions and we need to ensure everyone has access to third level education. I have been very critical of the overemphasis in other jurisdictions, such as the UK and the US, on an industry-led approach to third level education. When such an approach is pursued, as a people we lose control of the direction in which society is going. We are being directed by particular corporations on what people should learn and on what is valuable and important.

 The Cassells report has been mentioned. We need to see the implementation of some of the funding models. More than ever, people expect that the State will take care of its people. It is our job to fund these institutions so I welcome the announcement that funding will be provided. Our job now is to fund these institutions.

  I thank the Minister, Deputy Harris, for attending the launch of the active consent toolkit in Galway yesterday. NUI Galway has led the way on consent. Earlier this year, it conducted a survey that shows we have much further to go. We often talk about young people having an issue with consent. Young people have been surveyed and we have found out what they think about consent. There is a wider societal issue here. Young people are leading the way by feeding into the active consent toolkit and showing us what they need to learn. In turn, they are showing us what we all need to learn about having mutual respect and respecting other people's bodies and mental health.

  The question of student retention in first year relates to mental health. When people commence university or any third level education, they put their best foot forward. With the best will in the world, if students are living alone in an apartment for which they have paid over the odds and if they are in college for just three hours a week, like some of the first years I know, there is a need to invest heavily in their mental health and the kind of social experience they receive. Part of the answer involves looking at finances. I take issue with some of the guidelines. If someone can have other people in their homes when they are off campus, the Department should examine whether we need to micromanage on-campus accommodation to see whether a young person can have another person in his or her apartment.

Senator Lynn Ruane: Information on Lynn Ruane Zoom on Lynn Ruane I thank the Minister of State for being in the Seanad this afternoon. I thank the Minister, Deputy Harris; the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins; and the officials in the Department for all the work they have undertaken to prepare a safe reopening of the higher and further education sector this term. I wish to echo much of what my colleague, Senator Hoey, said in her contribution. She gave a great snapshot of all of the different issues that face students that might not necessarily have made it on to the radar of many of us.

  As a university Senator, I have engaged with universities, colleges and staff that have specific concerns around Covid. I hope we can keep the rate of unavoidable risk to the absolute minimum and allow people to start and progress with their studies despite the pandemic.

  There has been significant public discussion and controversy on the nature of entry to third level education this year, based on the nature of this year's leaving certificate and the predicted grades system as it relates to the CAO process and entry into third level education. I have been contacted by many worried parents and students who feel that the system is unfair for various reasons.  However, I also know of many cases of students from disadvantaged backgrounds who will now be attending third level because their grades were not docked on the grounds of going to a DEIS school. We have a lot to learn about third level entry from this year's leaving certificate. First, it highlights the extraordinary level of educational attainment inequality that exists based on the school someone goes to and the socioeconomic background someone is from, which is normally such a feature of the system and heavily determines entry into third level. What has really been illustrated is the weakness of such a system. I hope one of the first priorities of the Minister's term will be to explore alternatives to the leaving certificate as the primary determinant of entry to third level. Now is the time to abandon what we once knew as the leaving certificate and move to a fairer, more diverse approach to third level education.

In 2017, the Joint Committee on Education and Skills commenced a review of the ongoing reform of the leaving certificate and subsequently published its report in 2018. At the time, members expressed a real need to support students in their progression to third level. Looking back now, it is easy to assume that they were easier, less stressful times for leaving certificate students. However, we should imagine for a moment that it was not a pandemic that threw the leaving certificate on its head this year but rather the political will to have a real, inclusive education system that values students from all backgrounds and learning types in all their diversity. Had the leaving certificate been dropped in a planned, thought-out manner, we would be looking at a new era for education that recognises ability and allows young people to excel at a pace that is fair and is not based on grinds, rote learning and exam ability. The introduction to the committee's report states:

[T]he Committee sought to examine how to strike a balance between protecting the health and wellbeing of students, promoting their self-development and ensuring that they are well-equipped with the essential skills and knowledge required to successfully participate in a rapidly changing society and economy.

This is now more true than ever as that rapidly changing society has revved up a gear. This year, our third level students will be there based on much more than a mark from a set of exams in a particular year of their lives. We should take our learnings from this year and use them as a foundation for next year and the year after.

  It is crucial that we meet the changing nature of the leaving certificate this year with a review of the CAO and the limited capacity of higher education. We have an opportunity to increase the number of students progressing to third level in a much more meaningful way, but this requires a real want on the Government's part to increase funding to the sector and ensure universities are respected and resourced for the role they play in the social, cultural and financial development and sustainment of our society. Previously, it was believed that incentivising students to take higher level subjects to receive extra points was a positive step forward in securing extra points to advance to third level. This is incredibly narrow and, like many incentives, benefits those in a position to take on the burden of extra workload and to access extra grinds at a massive financial cost. Many schools are way behind in the delivery of higher level subjects and often do not even offer higher level subjects. Now we have an opportunity to incentivise the everyday engagement and participation of students in all subjects, in the knowledge that their continuous academic ability is what they will be assessed on. The third level sector benefits from diversity but the leaving certificate does not provide it.

  I also have concerns about capacity in the sector. Senator Higgins echoes these concerns. I know the Minister is proposing to increase course places to deal with points inflation this year and to assist students who did their leaving certificate last year so they are not disadvantaged. However, I have heard anecdotally that there are certain academic schools within Trinity that simply do not have the operational capacity to expand places. What is the plan not only to provide funding to colleges but also to ensure the places are actually delivered? What is the Minister's position on the Cassells report and how does he plan to enact a long-term funding model for a sector that was already on its knees pre-Covid? Higher education funding and access is an issue very close to my heart and I would appreciate if the Minister would outline his plans in this area.

Senator Fiona O'Loughlin: Information on Fiona O'Loughlin Zoom on Fiona O'Loughlin This is my fourth time addressing the Seanad but it is my first time speaking in the actual Seanad Chamber in Leinster House. I made a wish as I walked in. It is good to be in our own House at this point. The Minister is very welcome. I am looking forward to addressing a few points with him in respect of the reopening of our third level and further education colleges.  I also wish to raise a few issues that I feel are pertinent for the Minister to explore further and discuss with Government colleagues.

  As with the reopening of our primary schools in early September, the reopening of our third level and further education colleges has been a landmark event in our efforts to live with Covid-19. While, unfortunately, we have to accept that a full return to campus activity is not possible and that many universities are limiting on-campus activity, the start of classes across the sector is a significant achievement, and a testament to the educational establishments and their staff who are returning.

  We are keenly aware that students are going to miss out on important experiences that usually come hand-in-hand with the start of a new term, including events such as orientation, because the celebrations associated with this phase of term will not now take place. This is really unfortunate for those young people affected. I am mindful of the mental health of our students, particularly those who are starting, because it is a big life milestone. We have to be mindful that they are starting out on a new journey without the supports that would normally be there and we have to ensure that all the support that can be given to promote positive mental health is put in place as they start this new journey in life.

   I thank the Minister for his help and support with some issues I was dealing with on behalf of some students where clerical errors were made throughout the CAO process, although not on their part. In particular, it affected those who had changed schools in their leaving certificate year. I appreciated the way the Minister and his office dealt with the issues to ensure that the students obtained their rightful places, which was important.

  I am also convinced that the issues which pre-date Covid-19 remain, and must be addressed. The need for additional funding, which is accompanied by increasing student numbers, remains, and focus is needed now more than ever on defining the future of the sector. The programme for Government makes a commitment to develop a long-term sustainable funding model for the sector, and the actions necessary to achieve this must be a priority of Government.

  There are a few points I wish to make on accommodation at third level. I am reluctant to name specific institutions, but I understand that students were told by some universities to get accommodation because they had been promised that 30% of their time would be spent on campus. On the basis of that, students paid instalments. Then they were told that there would be zero hours spent on campus and that they would be refused refunds. There are mixed messages on this issue and we must get it right. I know of other situations, in a university not too far from the constituency of the Minister, where first-year students paid deposits for rooms on campus on the basis that they would be sharing with other students. They recently received notice that first-years would not be allowed to share accommodation, so the price of the accommodation was going to double. That is not on and cannot happen. It is only happening to first-year students, so I would appreciate it if the Minister could look into the matter.

  Some universities provided an opportunity for students to sit an extra exam in order to matriculate when they reached sufficient CAO points, but others did not. I would like to see uniformity across the sector on this issue.

  The last point I wish to raise relates to those with intellectual disabilities and their ability to access third level and further education. The Ability Programme and the 27 ability projects that support young people with disabilities to access further education, training and employment, is scheduled to close next June, and there is no thought, plan or budget as to what happens afterwards. The same happened in 2015 and there was a huge gap. I would hate to see this happening again.  This was clearly pointed out in the Indecon report on guidance in education. We have to put more thought into how we support those with disabilities in accessing higher and further education.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Information on Joe O'Reilly Zoom on Joe O'Reilly Before I call our next speaker, Senator Seery Kearney, I point out that the Minister will be coming back in at ten minutes to 2 p.m. We will find it difficult to include all Members so if they could consider sharing or shortening their speeches, please. There are more people offering than time available in five-minute slots. A Senator has also left the House who indicated his wish to speak and will be returning.

Senator Mary Seery Kearney: Information on Mary Seery Kearney Zoom on Mary Seery Kearney I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for making time available to us. It is a great excitement for me to speak for the first time in the actual Seanad Chamber.

  I begin by congratulating the innovation. I am very happy that the Department includes in its name the further education element because it is instrumental. I founded a college of further education and vocational training and it is instrumental for people’s development in their workplace and, also, to be able to come back to have modular training is a great innovation. The support and announcements by the Department in that regard have been great. I want to pay tribute to QQI, as did the Minister, Deputy Harris, in his speech. It has adapted, pivoted and worked very well in maintaining standards in education throughout this Covid-19 process, this whole nightmare of the last six months. Changing the modality of training, while still maintaining standards, is quite an extraordinary achievement.

  I very much welcome the apprenticeships. We were recently in Burke Joinery in Ballyfermot and they particularly welcomed the role of apprenticeships and to have that conduit of building skills into the workplace. We really need that. We have seen a dearth of apprenticeships over the last ten years and to have an intentionality around the Department in the provision of 10,000 places, and to encourage young people to go down a different career path that is not points-driven to begin with, is to be very much commended.

  My other points for the Minister are rather pedestrian when I compare them to those of my colleagues in the Seanad. I have three things that I appeal to the Department to consider. We have a cohort of students at present who are going through the appeals process for the leaving certificate. Some may require to sit the leaving certificate examination again in November. That is a whole issue which I will raise with the Minister, Deputy Foley, this afternoon. We now have that group of students, and we also have 2019 students who in good faith postponed their application to college for this year and, as a consequence, have been prejudiced by the sudden increase in leaving certificate points and how these points have been arrived at. Both of those groups are now going to be inhibited and impeded from entering college this year. I am appealing to the Department to give some consideration to some sort of stepped means of access into this academic year, given that these students cannot travel abroad and there are limited work opportunities for them. Perhaps we could consider an additional capacity of some sort. I acknowledge that there already has been additional capacity added to the system. As we change how college places are being delivered, perhaps there is some means by which that additional capacity could be added. Perhaps it could be done through pre-courses or some such means of addressing these students, so that in January we could have another group accepted into year one of college.

  My other point is to do with the disability access routes to education. I have had a number of representations on this where people have made the application at the material time required by the CAO, at the same time they make the application for their disability access route to education status. Consequently, when they sit down to calculate their CAO options and what their preferential choices will be, it may perhaps be based on achieving or being granted that status, and thereby being able to access courses which they will be able to get on a slightly lower points basis by virtue of their status.  However, the two people who approached me subsequently found that their status was rejected and they had to reappraise their CAO application process. I do not know whether that is universal or unique to these two individuals, and Senator Hoey might assist me on that, but if that is the case it seems to me that having a system where people could be pre-certified regardless of whether they achieve their status and then achieve the CAO place it would be a far less stressful process.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Information on Joe O'Reilly Zoom on Joe O'Reilly I call Senator Mullen who has five minutes.

Senator Rónán Mullen: Information on Rónán Mullen Zoom on Rónán Mullen I welcome the Minister and thank the Government for what it has been doing to ensure the continuation of education, not just at third level but at all levels, during this time of crisis. We are fire-fighting at the moment and to some degree we have put aside consideration of many of the things we would aspire to see happen while we deal with the immediate challenges but there are lessons in these days. I think about how we have been going on and one would relate to the leaving certificate and the progression to third level education, which is increasingly seen as a box-ticking exercise by young people but a very serious and stressful exercise, and a system that seems to be built fundamentally around the needs of third level colleges as they assign courses to people.

  I spoke to a highly experienced teacher recently who observed that second and third level education in 21st century Ireland has nothing to do with knowledge and everything to do with skills. We might refine that by saying that it has a lot to do with skills, something to do with knowledge but often has little to do with wisdom. That is because our system is increasingly constructed with employers and multinationals in mind, treating our young people as economic units rather than as individuals whose well-being and personal development matters deeply. While it is true and valid to say we must educate people for economic life we also have to educate people for quality of life. I believe we are in danger of losing sight of that and we need to reflect on that in these days.

  So far as the third level educational experience is concerned, the core issue continues to be the big crisis around funding or, as has been described by Trinity Provost, Dr. Patrick Prendergast, the time bomb. I do not quite see the point the way other Senators see it about the need to establish a separate Department for further and higher education. Given that only one page out of the 126-page programme for Government has to do with higher education it seemed it was fairly thin. We can prescind from that, however, because we are where we are now and I have no doubt the Minister will be zealous. That funding issue has to be addressed but I note that the commitments in the 2020 programme for Government were fairly similar to those in 2016, so let us hope there will be movement on that big issue.

  An issue on which we need to show courage and curiosity is the question of student loans, which I have brought up in the past. We would be kidding ourselves if we said that the abolition of fees in the mid-1990s did not erode the sense of the value of third level education and cheapen it somewhat as a resource. That is evidenced in our high drop-out rates, which is an incredible 33% for institutes of technology, according to the Higher Education Authority, HEA. We could look at something that would allow students to take out loans for third level education but the repayment of that to be linked to income in the future. We have to have a discussion about that as we go forward because there will not be money for everything.

  I am very glad to hear the focus today on student welfare in the current situation. I note the term "blended learning" is being used a good deal. That is putting nice language on the rather sad fact that for the foreseeable future the quality of the student experience will be greatly diminished. I welcome the Minister's student support package around student well-being and mental health. I agree with him about the need for higher education institutes to be flexible around accommodation. I note, for example, the reluctance with which the University of Limerick repaid €3.5 million in rent to students for accommodation that they could not use due to Covid-19.

  On the issue of consent, I am conscious of the fact that the frontal lobe of the brain in human beings is not fully developed until the age of 25.  I know what the Minister is trying to achieve, but it will be a very thin and ultimately unsuccessful effort to tackle the serious problems of sexual violence and harassment unless we situate that in a wider context about values, human respect and love. We need to be more reflective about the culture of individualism in our society. It will be a long time before we know whether these efforts on consent will be successful. I am concerned that they are not rooted in a sensible and thorough anthropology. We need a more thorough approach to bringing about behavioural change. All of that said, these efforts are laudable and they must be supported.

  The Minister was in NUI Galway yesterday. I was surprised to see recently that when NUIG put forward a mandatory requirement for students to sign a pledge to adhere to public health advice as a condition of registration, a breach of which would have been a disciplinary issue within the college, the college was subjected to a campaign of criticism through social media and eventually had to drop it.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Information on Joe O'Reilly Zoom on Joe O'Reilly I thank Senator Mullen. There is a queue of people trying to get in.

Senator Rónán Mullen: Information on Rónán Mullen Zoom on Rónán Mullen I would love to know if the Minister took time to discuss that with the people in NUIG yesterday because it seems very reasonable to have a mandatory requirement of signing up to a code of behaviour in the current circumstances.

Senator Garret Ahearn: Information on Garret Ahearn Zoom on Garret Ahearn There are many topics we could discuss in higher education. I welcome the Minister of State here today. The Minister touched on mental health in his opening remarks. I welcome what he said about prioritising the funding that was announced last month and that must go first and foremost towards counselling services.

  I have three questions which the Minister of State might be able to answer or the Department could write back to me on them. I seek clarity on how that funding is managed. A letter the CEO of the HEA, Dr. Alan Wall, sent to the higher education institutions, HEIs, stated: "The HEA is encouraging all HEIs in receipt of this funding to distribute it in support of specific students facing areas such as...". Will the Minister of State provide a concrete guarantee that there is no loophole in the use of the words "such as" and give a clear message that this money is to be directly used for the expansion, development and improvement of student counselling services specifically. The same letter stated: "This package includes additional funding of €3m to underpin wellbeing and mental health and student services in our HEIs and is in addition to the €2m allocated for 2020 as notified to your institution in this year’s grant letter." Will the Minister of State confirm that this money should not be used to fill previous existing roles in student counselling services budgets, but rather that the allocation should be in addition to the existing student counselling budgets in future?

  I ask the Minister of State to provide reassurances that budgets for student counselling services are to be protected and earmarked in the future to avoid potential cuts in the coming area. I welcome what the Minister said. This funding was announced last month to be ring-fenced for mental health services. Managements cannot decide to use it in other areas that are not directly for mental health. I welcome the Minister, Deputy Harris, saying that it should be predominantly used for counselling services before anything else.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Information on Joe O'Reilly Zoom on Joe O'Reilly I thank Senator Ahearn for his generosity with time which allows us to facilitate the three remaining speakers. I understand Senator Carrigy will be sharing time with Senator Cummins.

Senator Micheál Carrigy: Information on Micheál Carrigy Zoom on Micheál Carrigy Many of the issues I was going to raise have been covered already. I want to speak about two issues in third level education.   I welcome the additional places made available for third level courses throughout the country in recent months to deal with the increase in the number of students seeking to go to college. I want to ask about 2021. I realise I am looking into the future but we are all aware of the serious circumstances of the large number of students who sat their exams in 2019 and who have not got a place in college because of the large increase in points attributable to the system introduced for 2020. That will be an issue. If some of the students do not take up places this year, how will those whom I hope will sit exams in 2021 be affected? Are there plans for an increase in the number of courses in 2021?

  I would like an update on the development of a technological university in the midlands and mid-west. The Minister of State will be quite familiar with this. I refer to combining Athlone IT and Limerick IT. This could be transformative for the midlands and the mid-west. Athlone IT and Limerick IT are innovation partners of choice for both industry and academia and are central to the development of the entire midland area.

  I welcome the funding already allocated by the former Minister of State, Mary Mitchell O'Connor. It amounts to €90 million over the next three years. I ask that the Government commit to the funding and that more be put in place. Athlone IT and Limerick IT have recently joined the Regional University Network of the EU with the aim of transcending languages, borders and disciplines. This puts their proposal ahead of other technological university proposals, some of which have been mentioned here already. I ask that the proposal for the midlands and mid-west be accorded top priority.

Senator John Cummins: Information on John Cummins Zoom on John Cummins I will try to be as brief as possible. I welcome the Minister of State to the House and wish him the very best in his new role. The establishment of the new Department is very welcome. It is a great step forward for the sector. In the face of Covid, it will probably be one of the most important Departments. Many people will require upskilling and retraining to fill the gaps that will exist in light of Covid-19. It is often when people are faced with adversity that they really see the opportunities that exist. Lifelong education and learning certainly present opportunities. As a secondary school educator, I wholly subscribe to this idea.

  With regard to priorities for the Department, like my colleague from Wexford I would like the establishment of the technological university for the south east, specifically referred to by the Minister in his opening remarks, to be a top priority. I am not going to go into the long history of university designation for Waterford and the rest of the south east. Suffice it to say that it is important that the new Department and Government focus on it. To that end, I welcome yesterday's announcement by the joint presidents of Carlow and Waterford institutes of technology and the chairpersons that they are aiming to have designation by 1 January 2022. My view differs from theirs slightly regarding the date by which they seek to have an application with the Department, that is, by the summer of next year. I ask that, when the meeting takes place between the Minister, Deputy Harris, Mr. Boland, the presidents and chairmen, a buffer be built in at the front end so the application will be submitted by spring, just in case there are any difficulties in the adjudication process that might result in further delay.

  I will leave it at that. It is really important for the young people and industries in the south east to have university designation. The south east is the only region in the country without university designation. It has to be a top priority for the Department.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Information on Joe O'Reilly Zoom on Joe O'Reilly I thank Senator Cummins. He managed brevity with no ambiguity. The Minister of State has generously ceded some time to Senator Lombard, who has a few minutes.

Senator Tim Lombard: Information on Tim Lombard Zoom on Tim Lombard I thank the Minister of State for giving me a few minutes to make a point on the allocation made by the Department for the mental health of students. Students at various levels are struggling during the Covid crisis. The allocation of €5 million is very worthy and I very much welcome it.

  I want to mention UCC and CIT in particular and the number of students going through these institutions. UCC has more than 20,000 students at present. It has an amazing complex. The lack of a counselling service there is a major issue. It would be worth the Department looking into it to ensure that a campus with more than 20,000 students would have a capable counselling service. Will the Minister of State examine this and make sure that we have enough counsellors? They are required given the unusual circumstances we have with Covid. In many ways, students have been pilloried as spreaders of the disease. This is very unfair. They have suffered because of this. They have suffered physically, mentally, emotionally and socially. The lack of a good counselling service on these sites will be an issue. I will leave this with the Minister of State and I hope he will revert back to me in time on what can be done to increase the counselling services on these two campuses.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Information on Joe O'Reilly Zoom on Joe O'Reilly I thank the Senator for his brevity. We are trying to be inclusive but many people are offering. Before I call the Minister of State, I warmly congratulate him on his appointment. I am delighted to do so. I shared radio studios with the Minister of State several times and found him to be a gentleman. I wish him well. I apologise that he was held up.

Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills (Deputy Niall Collins): Information on Niall Collins Zoom on Niall Collins I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for his kind remarks. We have all heard today about the incredible amount of planning that has gone into supporting all elements of the broad education and training sector through this most difficult period and the work done on reopening schools and third level facilities. As Minister of State with responsibility for skills and further education, I wish to update the House and actions taken to support these sectors in responding to the Covid-19 crisis to date and in future. I will cover the ongoing work to reopen educational facilities generally. As the Minister, Deputy Harris, mentioned, a Covid-19 adaptation framework was developed by the Department of further and higher education, research, innovation and science to assist in this work. Changes to public health advice that are likely to be made throughout 2020 and 2021 will change the shape of the learning experience in further and higher education, and the framework has been developed in a way that eases accommodation of these changes for the sector.

  The planning for a return has been significant and is ongoing, but we must remember that managing the response to the Covid-19 crisis will not stop at the end of September. The framework will provide a structure for the ongoing management of the Covid-19 crisis as we move through the academic year. Blended learning will need to continue and be enhanced for learners according to the current local public health situation and prevailing circumstances in the institution and provider. However, as the acting Chief Medical Officer stated earlier this week, there are no zero-risk options for reopening schools or any other environment and outbreaks are likely to arise despite all the best precautions. We must reopen in as safe a way as possible by ensuring that all appropriate public health measures are in place. Physical distancing, hand hygiene and other health and safety guidelines will require adaptations to the physical environment and any new restrictions. Institutions and providers are prepared to show their resilience by responding quickly and innovatively should there be a return to a higher level of restrictions, as they did during the emergency period of the pandemic. Everyone will need to stay abreast of the emerging situation as people return to campuses, training centres and facilities throughout the State. The Health Protection Surveillance Centre and the HSE will continue to publish advice and guidance to help us all deal with the changing situations.

  The general principles that apply to the management of Covid-19 include the safety and welfare of employees as well as students and learners. There are responsibilities on all facilities to ensure compliance and it is incumbent on all employees returning to the workplace to comply fully with any plan.   In regard to skills, my Department has also been considering how to respond to emerging skills needs in light of the impact of the public health crisis on employment and the labour market and the broader impact of the future world of work in areas such as the green economy and digital skills. The skills infrastructure is well positioned to respond to the impacts of the public health crisis on employment and the labour market.

  These issues have been considered by the national training advisory group and the National Skills Council. They bring together employers, Departments and agencies, and education and training providers, and a set of recommendations have been developed through this process. They have been communicated to providers and employer bodies and were included in the national skills summer statement in May. The recommendations emphasised how education and training supports for companies and workers, as well as expanded activities in providing skills and a wider pool of jobseekers, should be informed by medium to long-term skills priorities. This includes responding to the rapid pace of workplace change, which has intensified over the period of the pandemic.

  The centrality of digital skills in virtually all occupations, the need to drive the green economy and to respond to the challenge of Brexit, and the importance of leadership and management are made even more apparent as workplace change and product and service innovation have accelerated in recent months. The balance of the impact of the pandemic has also placed an increased emphasis on the need to support regional development and focus on reskilling people in vulnerable employment.

  All programmes will need to be delivered flexibly to an increasingly diverse set of learners. In particular, interventions to support jobseekers will be short, focused, agile and well integrated with the workplace. The tertiary education sector is now moving to expand its skills provision to support those displaced or impacted by the crisis. Following the announcement of the July stimulus, the Government is investing in skills through a new initiative, skills to compete, developed by SOLAS and the education and training boards to shape the delivery of education and training for jobseekers.

  Funding has been provided to increase system capability for skills development in retrofit. We are expanding Springboard+, rolling out the human capital initiative in higher education, and delivering a set of interventions through Skillnet Ireland.

  The health and safety of everyone in further and higher education remains the paramount objective. Our approach is anchored in the national public health advice, as has been shown during the initial emergency period of the pandemic. Having clear lines of communication provides clarity and encourages strong and ongoing engagement with further and higher education which, by its nature, is a diverse sector. Therefore, it is essential that communications are delivered by universities, colleges and training providers with clarity for all learners, research, teaching, service and support staff, stakeholders and industry. There will be continual and ongoing communication with students, learners, staff, stakeholders and industry when the new academic year commences and institutions and providers reopen.

  I thank all of the Senators for their contribution during this session. Any specific issues raised with me or the Minister, Deputy Harris, will be responded to directly.

  I thank Senators for their support in recognising the further education and training needs of our society and community, in particular apprenticeships. We have a big job of work to do as public representatives to show leadership in the whole area of apprenticeships. Unfortunately, some people within our society view apprenticeships as a lesser form of earning potential and a career path, and a means to an end in terms of finding a sustainable career and job path. We have to try to quell that myth and encourage people, as much as possible, to consider the apprenticeship option. The apprenticeship action plan is in the process of being updated.  A public consultation is proceeding on that and while we have approximately 56 recognised apprenticeship programmes at the moment, we must radically expand that into newer areas. Obviously, we welcome the new areas that have come online and on stream recently. In particular, we must address and recognise the gender imbalance across the apprenticeship spectrum. I encourage everybody in the Chamber with leadership roles within their own communities and spheres to push that agenda of apprenticeships.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Information on Joe O'Reilly Zoom on Joe O'Reilly Thank you very much. A colleague had indicated that they wanted to come in. I point out that by order of the House, nobody can come in after the Minister responds to statements. I humbly suggest that colleague write to the Minister. I am sure there will be no difficulty with getting an answer. That concludes statements.

  Sitting suspended at 2.06 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.

School Transport, Leaving Certificate 2020 and Reopening of Schools: Statements

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly We are delighted to have the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Foley, in the Chamber for the debate on this important and difficult issue. My nephew, Dylan, is chairman of the bus on the way to school in Réalt na Mara so he tells me all about the challenges relating to school transport in Kerry. I am sure the Minister will inform us about the issues beyond that. Will she proceed with her opening statement?

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Norma Foley): Information on Norma Foley Zoom on Norma Foley Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. I will say at the outset that it is my first time in this august Chamber and I am honoured to be here. On the previous occasion, the House sat in the Dáil Chamber so I am honoured to be here.  I am particularly happy to be here to provide Senators with some updates on a range of topics in the schools sector and also to hear their views. This session was initially scheduled to come just after the Government launched Resilience and Recovery 2020-2021: Plan for Living with Covid-19. That plan sets out the framework for restrictive measures and is a risk management strategy for the next six to nine months. It is designed to allow individuals, families, businesses and services to better understand, anticipate and prepare for the measures Government might introduce to stop an escalation of the transmission of Covid-19. In the context of the plan, I assure Senators that Government has been very clear that at all times the priority guiding the plan will be to keep our schools open, while keeping people safe and protecting the resilience of our economy and communities.

  I have used every opportunity I have had to speak in the Houses to acknowledge the huge effort by school communities right across the country that has gone into ensuring our schools could reopen over the past four weeks. Government played its part in committing the necessary resources to the roadmap for reopening our schools. My Department worked with the education partners to develop detailed guidelines for schools to operate within and school communities worked incredibly hard and indeed generously at the local level to get schools reopened. The test, of course, will be how we keep our schools open but as I have said, the plan for living with Covid-19 will prioritise keeping schools open. That is a signal of the importance I and Government attach to ensuring our children and young people receive as close to what we used to call a normal education as possible in our schools. Again, I have previously said one size does not fit all and schools working with families will be working at a local level to address any particular concerns or challenges that emerge. There were challenges in the first days in some schools and this was always to be expected on the basis that we have approximately 4,000 schools in a range of shapes and sizes across the country. It is a testament to the work undertaken at school level by school communities that, in the main, we can refer to the reopening of our schools as having been successfully achieved. However, we cannot be complacent.

  In preparing for the reopening of schools, we knew that most students and indeed their families and school staff would be looking forward to going back, reconnecting with school, with staff and friends and settling back into school work. Significant work has been undertaken at school level to ensure schools reopened safely and now stay open. The approach taken may look or feel different when compared between schools but this reflects the local circumstances in a given school. Schools are best placed to communicate the arrangements in their own schools directly to students and parents about matters such as start times, finish times, drop-offs, pick-ups and other logistical arrangements. However, all of these arrangements take account of the roadmap from Government and the extensive suite of supporting documentation made available by my Department. It will be necessary for all stakeholders or partners to reflect on experience over the initial period of schools being open and any further or evolving public health advice. The dedicated support phone line in my Department remains available to schools which may be experiencing any specific individual challenges. Parents, students and other stakeholders may continue to have questions about particular issues or circumstances including, for example, whether to send a child to school or what happens in a school if a child or staff member displays symptoms while in school. The HSE has published very clear guidance for parents on what to look out for in determining whether to send their child to school or not. In the guidance provided to schools, they have been advised to identify isolation spaces in their buildings where any suspected cases will be brought and also on what follow up steps are appropriate. Any further actions in a given school and circumstances will be taken based on the advice provided by the local public health advisers.

  In an open letter on the reopening of schools, the acting Chief Medical Officer pointed out that "there are no zero risk options for reopening schools or indeed any other environment", but that international evidence shows that child-to-child and child-to-adult transmission of Covid-19 in schools is uncommon and that for the overwhelming majority of children who are diagnosed with Covid-19, their symptoms will be mild. Therefore, the aim is now to keep our schools open by ensuring that all appropriate public health measures, such as physical distancing, hand washing and respiratory hygiene, are implemented where appropriate.  The Government has also published up-to-date information for parents on what to do if a child has symptoms of coronavirus, along with other commonly asked questions.

The reopening of schools has been a very important milestone for Irish children and society. The safety and well-being of staff, students and the whole school community has been of paramount importance in the Government's planning for school reopening. Pivotal to this has been schools' engagement with public health advice. My officials have been closely with officials from the Department of Health and the Office of the Chief Medical Officer, public health specialists and other key personnel from the HSE to support schools in this regard.

At the beginning of September, the HSE briefed all education stakeholders in relation to Covid-19. My Department continues regular engagement with the health authorities and the educational partners. All schools were provided with a HSE document - Schools Pathway for Covid-19, the Public Health approach - setting out the approach to managing isolated confirmed cases of Covid-19 within the school community and also the principles that will underpin the management of outbreaks or potential outbreaks and the aligned testing strategy within an educational facility.

It is important to note that the response to confirmed cases or outbreaks of Covid-19 in the community or in a school is the responsibility of, and will be led and managed by, public health HSE. All decisions as to appropriate actions following a confirmed case or outbreak will be made by their teams in the context of a full public health risk assessment procedure. Any actions to be taken by the school will be communicated directly by public health HSE. School management will be informed as and when such actions as exclusion of children or staff or partial or full closure are deemed necessary on public health grounds. If a school is not so informed, it has not been deemed necessary by public health.

We know that when cases are confirmed in the community and arising in households, this will be reflected in the school community. The procedures set out by public health specialists have been tested across the country as confirmed cases arise among staff and students or in their families or close contacts. We cannot eliminate this completely but we can provide as much information and support as possible for school leaders, staff and parents. We can provide funding and practical supports to schools to ensure they can access substitutes, appropriate personal protective equipment, PPE, and other health measures. We can make sure public health teams respond quickly and testing is prioritised for those close contacts within the school community of confirmed Covid-19 cases. My Department has received enormous co-operation from the health authorities in that respect and I sincerely acknowledge that. A public health specialist from the HSE attended stakeholder meetings at the beginning of the school year to describe the public health approach for stakeholders and to answer questions and address any concerns raised. Webinars and other resources have been developed by the HSE specifically to address issues raised by schools around the approach taken when cases are confirmed in the school community and such resources are being circulated as widely as possible. Information and guidance has been made available on gov.ie/backtoschooland I urge all members of the school community to make full use of those resources. Schools are being provided with out-of-hours contact email addresses so that they can raise issues and queries as they arise.

I would like to acknowledge in particular the principals of our schools. Due to the nature of their role and their access to the kind of information that public health specialists require as speedily as possible to prevent further transmission of infection in schools, they must of necessity play an active role in engaging with the public health teams. This may of course occur at the weekend, depending on when cases are confirmed. Any principal who has been called upon in this way has done their utmost to co-operate and support the public health specialists in any way that they can. We owe them an enormous debt of gratitude.

For our part, my Department also has continuing engagement with the public health authorities on a weekly basis to streamline procedures and information flows and ease the administrative burden on all concerned in both the education and health sectors. In the event of a positive case of Covid-19 being detected in a pupil or staff member of a school, the school setting is notified to the local HSE public health department for a public health risk assessment. This assessment includes identifying any close contacts of the positive case. This will vary from school to school according to a range of factors considered by medical specialists. Immediately following the public health risk assessment, the principal is advised by the public health team of any actions to be taken, including requesting parents to collect their children or advising staff to go home, restrict their movements and await a test appointment. Covid-19 test appointments are issued as a priority for school-based close contacts through a specific schools referral process within the HSE.  At the point of testing, swabs for the school group are sent to the laboratory as a red-flagged batch to be processed as a priority on delivery to the laboratory. The swabs will also have a specific school reference number to allow batch reporting of results for the particular school setting.

  During planning for school reopening, the stakeholders and I were in full agreement that reopening schools must be in accordance with HSE public health expert advice whose recommendations have been published and are kept continually under review as new evidence emerges. My Department has engaged extensively with stakeholders in developing the plans for reopening, including regular formal meetings, as well as informal contacts. The views of stakeholders have been taken into consideration at every stage of the process, including their emphasis on a public health-led approach to planning for school reopening. I am, however, aware that ASTI has indicated its intention to ballot its members for industrial action on a range of issues. My Department will continue to consult with stakeholders following the reopening so that we can address any remaining concerns of staff, students, parents and others and ensure schools remain open safely.

  I know that Senators have a keen interest in school transport. My Department received updated health advice from NPHET on 18 August, the Tuesday before schools reopened, which impacted on the planned operation of post-primary school transport services. This advice stated that for secondary school students on school transport strict distancing should be ensured in line with that on public transport, along with the wearing of face coverings, and that primary school students should distance where possible. Government then decided that the arrangements made for the primary school transport scheme, including special educational needs, SEN, primary transport services, would proceed as planned when schools reopened with additional measures in place, such as preassigned seating and additional hygiene and cleaning measures, on these services. The Government also decided that the post-primary scheme, including SEN post-primary services, would commence operation when schools reopened with additional measures in place such as preassigned seating and additional hygiene and cleaning measures on services and with the rolling implementation of measures to provide physical distancing in line with those required on public transport, which is using 50% of passenger capacity on the post-primary services as required.

  Every effort continues to be made to provide a safe transport service. However, if parents decide not to avail of transport services, they may request a refund on the cost of their ticket for the 2020-2021 school year. For those children who are eligible for transport under the terms of the post-primary school transport scheme and whose parents decide not to use post-primary transport for the 2020-2021 school year in light of the impact of most recent health advice, the Department will provide a grant to support them with the cost of private transport arrangements.

  My Department has engaged with Bus Éireann to implement measures so that services that could operate from the start of the school year at 50% capacity did so and over the coming period all other post-primary transport services will be reorganised and additional services will be provided as required to allow for physical distancing. Bus Éireann has advised that in the region of 20% of a total of 2,100 mainstream post-primary services are in a position to operate at 50% capacity. This figure is subject to change as final tickets are allocated and consideration is taken of those parents who opt to seek a refund and-or avail of a grant from the Department to support the cost of their own transport arrangements for the 2020-2021 school year.

  With regard to children on dedicated post-primary SEN services, more than 70% of these services are operating at 50% capacity. With regard to children who attend special schools and who may travel on services with children of mixed age groups, 54% of these services are operating at 50% capacity. Over the coming period, all other services will be reorganised and additional services will be provided as required to allow for physical distancing. In line with the mainstream post-primary services, parents who wish to avail of a grant instead of using transport have been offered the option to do so.

  Bus Éireann recently invited applications from operators who wish to be considered for the provision of additional post-primary services that may be required. It is estimated that more than 1,600 additional buses and drivers will be required to deliver 50% capacity. To date, more than 140 applications from contractors have been received and evaluated. Bus Éireann is assessing the extra resources that may be required to assist in the areas of customer care, procurement and resources to implement the roll out of 50% capacity as required on post-primary services and the Department is reviewing its analysis in this regard. All children who are eligible for school transport and who applied and paid on time have been accommodated on school transport services for the 2020-2021 school year.

  The school transport scheme family portal was temporarily closed for applications and payments on the 20 August 2020.  This temporary closure was necessary to complete the work required to issue tickets to families who, at that time, remained due to be allocated a ticket for school transport services for the 2020-21 school year. The school transport scheme family portal reopened with effect from 7 September. Parents and guardians making an application or payment at this time for the 2020-21 school year are reminded that the closing date for payments for the 2020-21 school year was Tuesday, 4 August. While it is possible to submit a payment, payments made at this time are now late. Late applications and-or families who pay late are not guaranteed a seat and will only be allocated a seat if capacity is available once seats are allocated to those families who applied and paid on time for transport services for the 2020-21 school year.

  Primary tickets will be allocated to those who apply or pay where capacity exists on routes. No tickets will issue to post-primary late applicants or payees until such time as routes are rolled out at 50% capacity for those who applied and paid by the deadline of 4 August. As routes are rolled out and if capacity is available, tickets will be allocated to those applicants. Although capacity issues are far more constrained in the post-primary scheme than was the case in 2019, the Department is keeping under review where significant numbers of concessionary applicants may exist, who paid on time and who are 4.8 km from their nearest school but are attending their second nearest school. However, the current priority is to facilitate 50% capacity on services for those who have been allocated and issued tickets. In the event of not securing a ticket where no capacity exists, or on cancellation, a full refund will be issued.

  Turning to the leaving certificate class of 2020, more than 60,000 students received their calculated grades on 7 September and the CAO has issued its first round offers, with the second round offers issuing this week. Calculated grades were developed as a direct result of not being able to hold the conventional leaving certificate examinations. It was an agreed model, first mooted by students and developed with stakeholders. As Minister, I have been at pains to ensure that students are a priority and informed of all developments in the calculated grades process. That will continue.

  The additional 5,000 plus places in higher education approved by the Government for the 2020-21 academic year meant that the CAO was able to make 78,950 first round offers on Friday, 11 September last, 6% higher than in 2019 while, overall, CAO applications were up only 0.6%. Some 80% of CAO applicants for level 8 courses got one of their top three choices this year, which is similar to the case in previous years. The calculated grades appeals process opened on Monday, 14 September. By the appeals closing date on Wednesday, 16 September, 12,292 students had appealed results in 33,677 grades. The calculated grades office will seek to process these appeals as quickly as possible.

  The leaving certificate calculated grades model relied on a process of national standardisation to ensure that a consistent standard in results was applied in schools across the country. If this process did not occur, it would have led to unfairness to students across different schools and subjects and to very significant inflation of marks that would not be credible in a single year and which could do major harm by undermining the status of the leaving certificate. Students who remain dissatisfied after the appeals process can choose to sit the written leaving certificate examination in one or more subjects when they are held, commencing on 16 November. Registration for the leaving certificate written examinations to be held in November will open from Monday, 28 September, at 9 a.m. on the calculated grades student portal.

  Candidates who had previously registered for the leaving certificate examinations which were postponed from last June can enter for the leaving certificate in any or all of their registered subjects. The written examinations will be run by the State Examinations Commission, which will oversee all arrangements. A circular outlining all relevant details will be provided to schools later this week. Examinations will be held across the schools network during evenings and weekends. The logistical details will be finalised by the State Examinations Commission when the numbers of candidates for the examinations are known. There will also be an opportunity for adult learners who were due to sit the junior cycle examinations in June to sit written examinations in November. These junior cycle examinations will also be offered to early school leavers who had been registered to sit the June examinations and who had left school after junior cycle 2020 and are not continuing in an educational pathway that would lead to formal certification.

  A small number of students have taken legal action against the calculated grades process, with High Court proceedings in train in those cases. It would not be appropriate, therefore, to engage in discussion of those specific cases, but two cases have been ruled on which involved out-of-school learners. The State has given notice of its intention to appeal the first of those High Court rulings, and as the second judgment was given this morning we will consider its implications urgently. The appeal that has been lodged will in no way impact on the position of the student, who received his leaving certificate results under the calculated grades process on 7 September along with the other more than 60,000 leaving certificate students.  The appeal is being taken on certain legal issues arising from the judgment.

  The Government undertook to put the calculated grades process in place so that the leaving certificate class of 2020, who have already been through an unprecedented and difficult experience, would be able to proceed to the next stage of their lives. That was the Government's priority.

  I assure Senators that I and the officials in my Department will continue to work hard across the range of challenges we continue to face in the school sector to ensure that we can keep our schools open, complete the leaving certificate appeals process, support the preparation of the 2021 examination students, and support students and school communities throughout the country as we have done through the challenges presented by Covid-19.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly I thank the Minister for coming into the House today. As a Kerry representative, it is always great to see a Kerry Minister in the House, and long may that tradition continue.

Senator Aisling Dolan: Information on Aisling Dolan Zoom on Aisling Dolan I welcome the Minister to the House. It is great to be in this wonderful room. To have the opportunity to speak twice today is a real honour.

  I thank the Minister for the detailed update. She went through a lot of information. To make a general point about the reopening of schools, I know that there was great excitement. I kept hearing about all the kids who were excited for the first week back and thought every day was like a school tour day. That novelty might now be wearing off but the joy of parents is still there.

  More than 1 million children have gone back to school and that was achieved through the public health guidelines and measures put in place by the Government. It is now a priority to stay vigilant. I pay tribute to some of the people in the background who we sometimes do not see, namely, the caretakers of schools who did great work throughout August, along with principals and teachers, to prepare the schools. They pulled things apart and put things together. It was like there was a MacGyver in every school.

  I have spoken to many primary and secondary schools in my area, and many principals have paid tribute to the Department of Education and Skills helpline, which they said was supportive. They also acknowledged the Settling in - Slow Down to Catch Up guide for post-primary and secondary schools from the National Centre for Guidance in Education. It was an excellent guide targeted at career guidance teachers at post-primary level. I know that teachers in Garbally College in Ballinasloe found it useful for all teachers.

  We are dealing with low levels of anxiety, as everybody is during the pandemic. It would be interesting to know a little more about the mental health supports for children at primary school level and how to help students, especially those with special needs, express themselves in a healthy way.

  Some feedback I have received from secondary schools highlighted the challenges for teachers adapting to new layouts. Teachers would previously have been based in one classroom and the children would have moved around whereas now children are based in a classroom and the teachers are moving around. Issues around the lack of supervision have sometimes cropped up.

  Staggered breaks appear to be working very well. One of the key issues at primary school level is something that I am sure the Minister is fully aware of, namely, the comparison of school sizes in Ireland with those in the EU. The Irish Times of 8 September reported that the average class size in Irish primary schools is approximately 25 students and the EU average is 20. The Creagh primary school in Ballinasloe has 27, 28 or 29 children per class in fourth, fifth and sixth class. That is putting pressure on schools to achieve social distancing. I am interested to hear from the Minister what measures might be put in place for schools with very high numbers, particularly for the coming year.

  The minor works scheme was a great support and many schools welcomed it immensely. However, it has been highlighted that more support for IT at primary and post-primary levels may be required. Many schools are not using lockers and, to avoid students carrying heavy schoolbags and all the rest of it, teachers are trying to do more and more things online. Homework is being given out online.

  I also received feedback to the effect that a lot of primary schools have been doing well with videos and putting material online about how to encourage children and parents to know what it is like to return to school. I thank some of the local companies, entrepreneurs and enterprises who have been donating to local schools. One company donated hand sanitiser with friendly animal figures to encourage kids to do more hand sanitisation. Many community groups and volunteers have helped out in schools.

  I acknowledge the work of the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, on special needs and inclusion. I have dealt with her an awful lot on request needs for special needs assistants for children with highly complex needs.  I am sure I will be dealing with the Department of Education and Skills on the allocation of resource hours. There are primary schools in south Roscommon that do not have very many resource hours, compared with the number of students. There has been a large increase in the population over the last number of years, particularly in the area outside of Athlone.

  In terms of school transport, many families must use private buses to access schools. I have received representations from councillors around the country about the difficulties in accessing a place using school transport. I appreciate the challenges and difficulties facing the Minister with 50% access, as she mentioned. I can only wait and hope that her Department will work with all of the stakeholders involved to increase access. Families have adapted by putting private buses in place and it is good to hear that parents can avail of a grant.

  I congratulate the 60,000 students who completed the leaving certificate. I also congratulate their families. The extra allocation of over 2,200 places has helped to alleviate the pressure on points. There are over 35,000 places in further education with 19,000 places on the Skills to Compete programme and 2,300 places at postgraduate level, which was mentioned this morning. I cite all of that to highlight the fact that there are many ways for people to reach their career of choice. There are apprenticeships available in accountancy, auctioneering and so many different areas. Yesterday, about 2,500 CAO round 2 offers were issued to students and I wish them well. All of these people are now on their journeys of discovery and I encourage them to consider all methods and ways to reach their goals. I like a quote by W.B. Yeats that I discovered when I visited the website of Creagh National School: "education is not the filling of a pot but the lighting of a fire". I hope we can maintain the confidence of children returning to school. It is important that we deal with anxiety levels.

Senator Fiona O'Loughlin: Information on Fiona O'Loughlin Zoom on Fiona O'Loughlin I welcome the Minister back to the Seanad. It is her first time to be in the actual Seanad Chamber because we were in the Dáil Chamber the last time we met her, when she had just published the roadmap for schools to reopen. I cannot even begin to think how daunting an experience the preparation of the roadmap must have been for the Minister, her office and her Department. It is a testament to her and those who support her that the return of 1 million children and their teachers to school has been an outstanding success. I also acknowledge all of the incredible work that is being done by school communities.

  I am grateful to have another opportunity to discuss a number of key issues that affect the primary and secondary education sectors. I acknowledge that the Minister has consistently said that the reopening and continued opening of schools has been and continues to be the number one priority for her and the Government. I pay tribute to principals, school management, staff, caretakers and school secretaries around the country who were very committed to the reopening process from the start. The success of the last few months and weeks have vindicated that work. I had an opportunity to see at first hand some of the work that took place in the week or two before schools reopened. I am impressed by what the school communities achieved with the help of the Department, including the financial injection that was needed to make schools safe and secure. All of our thanks must go to the school communities because, as I mentioned when the Minister first met Senators, schools are the building blocks of society and democracy.

  We all made sacrifices to battle Covid and make sure that schools could reopen, particularly in County Kildare. At that time a second set of restrictions had been initiated in the county. I was concerned that this could mean the reopening of schools in the county would be delayed. There was no sense that such a thing would happen and everybody rallied together to ensure all schools opened. The reopening of schools is a very significant achievement and a vital part of the move towards living with Covid-19.

  The closure and subsequent reopening of schools has caused a number of logistical challenges that require the continued focus of the Minister and the Government.  It is absolutely not the case that now the schools have reopened, we can move on to the next set of challenges. The challenges in question include those relating to the provision of school transport and calculated grades. There were additional difficulties with school transport this year as a result of existing issues within the school transport system, which were exacerbated by Covid-19, but the problem did not start there. There have been ongoing problems with school transport over the years, in particular in the months leading up to and following the reopening of schools.

  Every year, we have approximately 120,000 children, including 14,000 with special needs, who rely on the school transport system. There are 11 dedicated local school transport offices throughout the country but despite the fact that 100 people work in those offices, parents regularly report that every year it is almost impossible to get a timely reply on their children's school bus situation. Problems with the portal seem to occur every year. Customers cannot correct inadvertent underpayments because the amount of money they owe is not listed as an option. The portal must be developed to facilitate such payments as it would save a significant amount of administration all round.

  One of the problems I found in my constituency is one I am sure is replicated elsewhere. I refer to the fact that private bus companies cancelled a lot of routes leaving parents with no transport option for their children. I appreciate that they are private bus companies, as opposed to being run by the Department, but there must be some way the Department can address private bus routes too because when both parents in a home are working one has to take leave to ensure their children get to school, especially at present when children are not encouraged to share lifts. This is an issue that must be examined down the line.

  School bus drivers should be given priority access to testing. The Minister said that school staff are being given priority access to testing but school bus drivers should be given similar access.

  It is part of the programme for Government that the entire school transport scheme would be examined and evaluated. That is most important. The minimum requirement of 4.8 km is quite a distance. We must do that urgently in order to help facilitate families and students and also to ensure that we do not have bottlenecks at schools at both drop-off and collection points. I welcome the commitment in the programme for Government to seek better outcomes and to reduce car journeys. I look forward to engaging with the Minister on the issue.

  It is very welcome that those in the class of 2020 have now received their leaving certificate results. The delivery of the results was a significant achievement both on the part of the teachers who provided the estimated marks for the first time and the departmental officials who delivered a workable alternative to traditional written exams. We have had concerns in particular concerning the grind colleges and some private schools. We do not want to see anybody being disadvantaged. I will finish now.

Acting Chairman (Senator Eugene Murphy): Information on Eugene Murphy Zoom on Eugene Murphy Senator O'Loughlin is way over time. I have been very liberal as regards her time.

Senator Fiona O'Loughlin: Information on Fiona O'Loughlin Zoom on Fiona O'Loughlin There is no clock so it was difficult to know how much time I had left. The issue is whether the Department's standardisation process was good enough to pick up trends at the level of individual schools. That is probably where the ranking came into play. I will leave it at that. The challenge for the Minister is to keep schools open and we must all work together to achieve that and to take all of the precautions that are part of the new normal in terms of hand hygiene, minimising contact, physical distancing and taking personal responsibility.

Acting Chairman (Senator Eugene Murphy): Information on Eugene Murphy Zoom on Eugene Murphy I do not usually interrupt, but speakers have five minutes and I ring the bell 30 seconds before they are due to finish. I apologise for interrupting Senator O'Loughlin.

Senator Annie Hoey: Information on Annie Hoey Zoom on Annie Hoey I welcome the Minister to the House. It is great to get to address her for a second time. It is a great opportunity to get to look at what has happened recently and to delve a little further into the reopening of our schools and other recent issues. I fear, however, that what we are now seeing in primary and secondary education are the chickens coming home to roost and all the issues Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have been putting on the long finger for a couple of years.

  Class sizes have been a consistent cause of concern for teachers, their unions and the Opposition in this House, and here we are now with class sizes affecting not just educational outcomes but also, possibly, medical outcomes. Teachers are genuinely concerned about their health and that of their immediate contacts. We heard again and again from Fianna Fáil when it was in opposition that class sizes were not acceptable, yet during the confidence and supply Government's time in office we saw nothing delivered. I hope we will see something delivered during the Minister's time in office.

  There is a rumour going around that class sizes will potentially increase in budget 2021. A number of teachers and parents have contacted me about this. I hope the Minister will be able to put the rumour to bed because it is causing a lot of distress. It would be great if we could get clarity on this because I have heard from people who are deeply distressed about it. I hope the Minister will be able to make a commitment that class sizes will be in fact reduced in budget 2021.

  There is also the failure to address pay disparity, which has now led one of the second level teachers' unions, the ASTI, to ballot for strike action as they face into the unknown teaching in the Covid pandemic. As anyone who has been an active trade union member will know, workers, especially essential workers such as teachers, do not ballot for strike action lightly. I therefore ask the Minister for Education and Skills to listen and not to take the concerns of 17,500 second level teachers lightly.

  I also ask the Minister not to allow the issue of teaching post-Covid to be used as an eraser with which to remove other long-standing issues in education which her own party when in opposition, and then in government from the Opposition benches, told us had to be rectified. I am speaking specifically about the treatment of two vastly undervalued groups of workers within education, namely, SNAs and school secretaries. The pandemic has shone a very harsh light on the precarious nature of work in Ireland - in our retail sectors, our tourism industry and all across our tertiary economy - but what we have never really acknowledged is that precarious employment happens everywhere and happens to people directly employed in schools. The vast majority of Ireland's school secretaries work for poor pay, and some are denied the respect of the most basic of employment rights such as secure contracts, pension rights and even sick pay. This week we have had great discussion about sick pay and mandatory sick pay. My colleagues in the Dáil proposed the Labour Party Bill for sick pay for all. It is concerning, as I have said already in this House, to see that that will be kicked to touch for six months. Workers need sick pay now, during a global pandemic, not in six months' time. The school secretaries' campaign, supported by Fórsa, is for a guaranteed wage and security of work. This is not asking much; it is simply to acknowledge the roles these workers play as key administrators, supporters and staff in school. All those roles are valuable. I am sure the Minister, as a former teacher herself, will acknowledge this. I ask her to make it a priority in her term to formalise school secretaries' contracts and provide them with the entitlements and protections equivalent to grade 3 or grade 4 of the Department's pay scale, which is only appropriate.

  Another key group of workers in schools who face precarity are our SNAs. This group of workers is deeply under-recognised and underappreciated. In the past few days I spoke to an SNA who said to me she felt as though SNAs were an afterthought when planning was done for primary and secondary schools. There is all the documentation for procedures to follow in our schools but, with all due respect, teachers and staff following good procedures do not necessarily change the reality of our schools. It is near impossible, and in some cases dangerous, for SNAs and teachers to remain 2 m away from students, so I ask the Minister to give that consideration.

  This week with my Labour Party colleagues, Senator Bacik and Deputy Ó Ríordáin, I attended a meeting with Involve Autism, which is active in Dublin 6 and Dublin 6W and surrounds. We spoke about the appalling shortage of ASD classes in the area. Out of 30 primary schools in the area, just one had an ASD class. We also discussed the group's concerns about the section 37A process. That issue is not limited to this area; the shortage of ASD classes and the reluctance and reticence of schools to step up and take on ASD classes is massively problematic. It is a national issue that is causing incredible stress for families across Ireland. The legislation gives the Minister the power to open ASD classes directly. Is she willing to step in and ensure ASD provision for students across the country?

  I hope the Minister will take some of these concerns into account. They are quite specific, I know. A wide range of issues have been discussed today, but these are concerns that are causing massive distress for students, our school secretaries and our SNAs and their classes. We have enormous class sizes.  They simply have to go down in numbers. We cannot increase them any more. It is affecting our children's education and, as I said, class sizes are now not just affecting educational outcomes but could affect medical outcomes as well.

Acting Chairman (Senator Eugene Murphy): Information on Eugene Murphy Zoom on Eugene Murphy I thank the Senator for her co-operation on time. Senator Warfield is next. I nearly called him Derek Warfield earlier but it is Fintan. Imagine Senator Derek Warfield.

Senator Fintan Warfield: Information on Fintan Warfield Zoom on Fintan Warfield It is not the first time he has been mentioned in the Chamber. I welcome the Minister to the House. I, too, want to focus my contribution primarily on class sizes. We have some of the largest class sizes in Europe. The OECD average is 20 and, as was mentioned by a Fine Gael Senator, we have class sizes above 30. Way back in July Sinn Féin was suggesting emergency measures on the issue of class size and that we start tackling classes of 30 and over. This should not just happen in this budget, because the budget is approaching, and it should not happen in a pandemic. It should happen because it is the right thing to do. It is the best way to guarantee that schools can remain open. We need to see class sizes come down to the OECD average of 20. That would help schools maintain social distancing in a system in which classrooms are often small already. School facilities and buildings need to be looked at as well and there needs to be a capital programme and capital commitment for those struggling most with a lack of space.

  I congratulate those students who have received offers on the second round of the CAO. I would like to ask for clarity on when appeals lodged against the initial results will be completed and made known to those students. On the issue of school transport, recent figures show that 23,000 fewer pupils accessed the school transport scheme for this academic year compared to last year. Some 97,000 pupils are currently accommodated on the school transport scheme including 26,200 on concessionary tickets. We are told that a total of 120,000 children were carried on the school transport bus scheme last year. Is the Minister absolutely sure that every pupil who applied for a place on a school bus was able to get one? How does she explain such a sharp decrease in the numbers if everyone who requested a seat got one? As with class sizes, let us not just go for a temporary measure. Let us solve the problem this year and make sure that in the future no parent has to worry about their child getting a seat on the bus. Single households may have several children at one school or children at various schools. This is where securing school transport becomes an annual nightmare. The fleet has to be dramatically increased to accommodate those thousands of children who are so far left without transport, so we need a plan for future years.

  I request that the Minister speak with the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, about the Creative Schools programme. She may have seen the documentary. Creative Schools is the flagship strand of the Creative Ireland programme. I am a supporter of this incredible programme. It is massively important for children's mental health, for their development and future at work. I would love to see that programme rolled out to every school across the State. It would obviously cost a significant amount, between €5 million and €10 million according to my own sums. I ask the Minister to focus particularly on that if she is speaking with the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin.

Senator Pauline O'Reilly: Information on Pauline O'Reilly Zoom on Pauline O'Reilly I welcome the Minister, Deputy Foley, to the Seanad Chamber. We are delighted to have her here. Since she has taken up the role she and her Department have really hit the ground running. There is no doubt that this is an area that has faced one of the biggest challenges. The massive challenge we have faced as a society has been to open back up. I will not say it was easy to lock everything down but what the Government has faced is this challenge of opening up gradually. We have all pulled together as a society.  I would love to say that we have pulled together politically as strongly as we have as a society. The Government parties and the public are behind all of the work being done. The staff have done Trojan work in coming in throughout the summer to get their schools ready and to draw down the funding that was made available in the July stimulus. The challenges will be ongoing for staff. Special needs assistants, SNAs, in particular faced the challenge, potentially, of having vulnerable families themselves and being in close quarters with vulnerable children. I would like to see us put into place a long-term plan for SNAs that is different than that for the other staff members.

  I have spoken to the Minister's Department on the issue of vulnerable families. I have been contacted, in particular by those who are on transplant waiting lists. Those waiting lists are not moving at the moment. There is someone within my own party who is waiting for his third transplant and is at home but still wants his children to have the school experience. However, there are others who may be lone parents and who are not willing to put their health on the line. We have to be more flexible and say that school is not for everyone at the moment and it is okay if a child is not going to school. I was delighted to hear from the Minister's Department and the head of schools that there is some flexibility around the number of days' absence, but we need to hear what that flexibility is and what it looks like. Are parents going to feel that the Department will come down hard on them if their child cannot go to school, not because the child is sick but because a parent, grandparent or someone close to them is sick?

  On the issue of school transport, I can see the huge infrastructural challenges for us as a society. It is not a quick or easy fix. One thing that I do ask is that the Minister looks creatively at the issue. There are small projects and things that could be done to change things for people. For instance, a family from County Donegal contacted me about two schools, St. Eunan's College and Loreto Secondary School in Letterkenny, which had a private bus service. Like one of my colleagues mentioned earlier, the bus service was cancelled after 20 years. It had been run by Bus Éireann, but it moved into private ownership and the State did not have control over it. What I have been told is that it is less than a mile from a Local Link bus to the school, so if there were extensions of Local Link services, particularly in rural areas, that would help a lot of parents. It is not just the case that maybe both parents are working outside of the home, but that sometimes people plan their entire lives around the fact that they do not need a car because they have access to a bus service.

  With regard to energy efficiency, schools have contacted me about the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, community energy efficiency programme. It has been difficult for local groups to administer this programme, and it needs matched funding. It would be ideal for schools to avail of this funding, but as the Minister is aware, they do not have the capital in place for the matched funding. Now that we have the funding for these capital programmes, let us put it into education. Not only will we be doing something for the environment, we will be lowering the costs of energy bills for schools and we can teach children about solar energy, wind turbines and about all of these things. It would be education in motion for them.

  I thank the Minister for the briefings provided in relation to exams. There is a moment in time now where we have an opportunity as a country to look at exams, what they mean and what education should mean further down the road. What was put in place was the best we could do at the time, but we need to look to the future. Are we facing more inequality if we do not re-examine how we do the leaving certificate?

Acting Chairman (Senator Eugene Murphy): Information on Eugene Murphy Zoom on Eugene Murphy I apologise but I am trying to keep everybody to time. I thank the Senator. Our next three speakers are Senators Higgins, Craughwell and McGreehan. I call Senator Higgins to speak now.

Senator Alice-Mary Higgins: Information on Alice-Mary Higgins Zoom on Alice-Mary Higgins I thank the Acting Chairman.

  I warmly welcome the Minister to the House and it is also my first chance to congratulate him on his role. Like others, I want to open by giving credit and paying tribute to all of those teachers, principals and parents who have been working extraordinarily hard over months to try to prepare for reopening schools in difficult circumstances and in going above and beyond the call of duty. There are also the cleaning and maintenance staff in schools and, crucially, the school secretaries. This is a clear moment for them. The case for school secretaries was strongly made in the last Oireachtas. They do such vital work and are the locus and exchange for information between parents, families and schools in many cases, and as the Minister can imagine, have been doing extraordinary work in this. They really need to be rewarded and recognised.

  It is also very important that we look at SNAs. If we are valuing this work and calling it essential and are effectively asking everybody doing this work to take additional risk, we have to show that it is valued.

  We then come to the question of staffing. Substitute teachers should not be in a situation where they do not know which school they may be in or when they might need to be there. We need to move to a situation where there are long-term contracts for additional staffing linked to specific schools. I suggest to the Minister that this is something that should be looked at and linked with the question that others have raised on class sizes. This year there certainly should be no classroom with more than 25 students in it. The OECD average is 20 and we know there are cases of 23, 24 and 28. Additional staff should be provided on contract and linked to specific schools for the year, which also means that there will be a little bit of reserve in the school if a teacher, or a number of teachers, for example, become sick or have to self-isolate. It is really important that we increase the capacity beyond the minimum class size numbers. Class size will be crucial. We need to go below what would be necessary so that we can deal with the additional issues that arise. The ASTI has raised many of its concerns but these are concerns right across the education system.

  On class size, another things which would alleviate these pressures is to look at situations where there is additional physical capacity within a school. Perhaps there are additional rooms, meeting rooms that are not normally used or other spaces that can be considered. In those schools - it will not be every school - additional physical capacity plus an additional staff member would allow class sizes to reduced. That should be looked at.

  Another issue, which was highlighted, was the use of outdoor classrooms and activities. Given that even since the roadmap was launched, the science on ventilation and on aerosol transmission has been making it very clear that it may be 18 or 20 times safer to have outdoor activities. We need a rethink. We know that individual schools such as St. Patrick’s in Wicklow and others have piloted that idea of having an outdoor classroom as an option. Let us look at how that might be supported and if capital resources are necessary they should be given to schools to make that an option.

  An important issue raised by Senator Pauline O’Reilly is that a classroom situation may not be for everyone. At the moment for many people there seems to be a stark choice between home-schooling, which many parents know they are not qualified to do as it is not their skill area, and in-classroom teaching. We need to look at a remote and distance-learning option, which may involve occasional visits to a school with a large number of days taken up by remote and distance-learning, in situations where students are particularly vulnerable or may have a family member who is high-risk or vulnerable, and indeed where teachers may be in an at-risk category.

  In the case which we know of in San Francisco in the United States, they have looked at setting up additional schools for a year which will be remote-learning schools, where students will have the option to return to their original school next year. Can the Minister to look at that?

  On the leaving certificate, which is a really good example, I hope to engage with the Minister further to discuss equality and algorithms and how we might address that.  That public duty regarding equality in the context of algorithms is important.

  I recognise that there are additional places in many of the colleges but there are not enough in terms of the arts and many other sectors. We need to address the issue of those who sat the leaving certificate last year, particularly in the context of disciplines such as social care and the arts for which there are no additional places. We want to make sure that students have the option to fulfil whatever career path might be appropriate for them.

  I will not get to speak on transport but would simply say that in addition to these schemes, in terms of getting to 50% capacity and doubling the number of spaces on the roads, can we look to investment in cycling safe zones, perhaps through the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, and a grant for families on family income supplement that would allow them to purchase bicycles.

Acting Chairman (Senator Eugene Murphy): Information on Eugene Murphy Zoom on Eugene Murphy Can I point out to the Senators that almost all of them are not adhering to the five minutes they have been given. I said I would ring the bell when there are 30 seconds remaining. I hate crossing people but if we are to have a proper debate and allow every speaker in, I have to adjudicate and give fair play to everybody. That is what I will do while in the Chair. I ask all Members to co-operate and I thank them for doing so. I call Senator Gerard Craughwell, who has five minutes.

Senator Gerard P. Craughwell: Information on Gerard P. Craughwell Zoom on Gerard P. Craughwell The Minister is very welcome. I congratulate her on her elevation. First things first. I have in front of me two series of questions that were sent to her Department, the first on 20 August and the second on 9 September. To date, I have not received answers in respect of any of them. They were raised on behalf of parents, principals, boards of management and teachers and it is not good enough that I was not able to get answers in time. Having said that, I offer the Minister my congratulations on getting the leaving certificate results delivered. College places are now beginning to be sorted out. I am aware that some court cases are currently in progress but, ultimately, the Minister - and her predecessor - managed to do something we would have thought impossible not terribly long ago.

  The first issue that needs to be addressed is that relating to the occupational health company, Medmark, which looks after our teachers. It is not acceptable that a teacher who is referred to Medmark because of an underlying condition gets a letter stating that he or she is suffering from a high-risk illness but that it is not a very high-risk illness - without defining the difference between the two - and then passing it to the board of management to decide whether he or she should be taken back into his or her school. If the teacher is not taken back into the school, he or she is told to go to his or her GP. The latter will put the person on sick leave and, under sick pay rules, he or she will be taken off the payroll, as the Minister and I both know, within a six-month period. That is not good enough.

  The second issue I wish to raise relates to the wearing of masks by children in secondary schools. Some children, particularly those with disabilities - including learning disabilities - are simply not suited to wearing masks. We have to have an alternative. We also have to have a situation where those children who are wearing masks for the full day at school get breaks out of the school to give them a chance to take off their masks during the day. Some children cannot wear face masks and we have to include a proviso that they can wear visors or something else.

  Children who suffer from learning disabilities such as dyslexia or any of the other conditions who cannot tolerate a situation where they cannot see someone's face are not able to avail of one-to-one teaching because they cannot move through their schools. We have to find a solution to that also. Parents are contacting me about children with various disabilities who should have individual learning programmes set up for them but who do not have individual learning and are forced to sit in classes in which they have no interest. As a teacher, the Minister will know that it is detrimental to their learning to have them sit in on classes in which they are not interested. I cannot understand how we expect children to engage in physical education while wearing masks.

  We have the situation where a child in a school presents with a high temperature, the principal takes all the necessary steps to put the child into isolation, the child is sent home and subsequently diagnosed with Covid-19.  Two different stories are coming out, one from the Department of Education and Skills and one from the HSE. Should all the siblings be sent home at the same time as the child? The HSE says "Yes"; the Department of Education and Skills says "No". That is my information at the moment, unless the position has changed. What about the children who rely on school transport to get to and from school? How do we get them home? Do we ask principals to put themselves at risk and drive them home? That is simply not good enough.

  Senator Higgins mentioned homeschooling and schooling for children whose parents have underlying conditions or they themselves have underlying conditions. Why is the Minister expecting the schools to lay on e-learning or blended learning systems for those children? Teachers have enough to do already. Why will the Department not set up a learning portal for each of the national school and secondary school subjects, and allow students to do what they did during the initial lockdown when RTÉ laid on classes and have classes laid on? It only takes one teacher to be able to deal with an e-learning portal for the entire country in first class in national school, with another for second class, another teacher for third class, etc. Instead of expecting schools to do the job that should be done on a national level, we must start looking after the children themselves and living up to our responsibility to deliver an educational process.

  If a child is sent home on a Friday, the diagnosis may not be confirmed until the Monday or Tuesday of the following week. Is that fair to the teachers involved? Should teachers not be immediately told that this child has been sent home or has been kept home because they are a suspected Covid-19 case?

  I have many other things I would like to say. I am quite happy to give the Minister the four or five pages of questions I have submitted to the Department and which have remained unanswered in order to try to get answers for those people who asked the questions of me. It is simply not good enough. While a great job has been done on Covid-19, all Ministers need to speak with one voice, giving the same answers to the same questions.

Senator Erin McGreehan: Information on Erin McGreehan Zoom on Erin McGreehan The Minister is very welcome. I congratulate her on the reopening of schools, which was a mammoth task. Things are not perfect, but in the main it is positive that our children are back at school, back with their friends, and are working well in the bubbles and pods. I know my children are very happy with the rules. They are so happy to be back with their teachers, their routine and their learning. It is a pleasure to send happy children out to school every day.

  I congratulate and thank all our teachers, SNAs and other school staff who have worked incredibly hard and who continue to do so. Like us all, they are fearful that a case of Covid will come into their school. There have been such cases and this is not a failure. This is the situation we are in and there should be no Covid shaming in schools of teachers or children. There have been many personal sacrifices by many teachers and school staff to reopen our schools and to keep them happy, fun and safe places for our children.

  I have one point of contention in the context of some schools having to close classrooms and losing teacher numbers. This has resulted in larger class sizes. I have written to the Minister on numerous occasions and have received comprehensive responses about three schools in my area, but it has not helped the situation. Rampark school, Dulargy and St. Patrick's in Monasterboice were just within the threshold to keep their teaching numbers. I will use Rampark school in the north of County Louth as my example. It is a fantastic school that has to cram classes in together. It has a classroom sitting empty while it is struggling and failing to deal with social distancing. It took all the advice and pulled out all the furniture possible. It made an appeal through the independent process and was denied. It is struggling. The solution is one teacher. I urge the Minister to show flexibility in this matter and look at such situations across the country. I know resources are tight but these are spectacular times. We have a Government commitment to reduce class sizes. I hope this represents an opportunity to do so.

  I also want to discuss the annual difficulties with school transport. Every year we have a mess. The Minister has inherited this problem or tradition.  Some buses take some children on concession tickets, and there is an unfair lottery system that penalises some parents at several points. I am aware that the Minister has a comprehensive answer about social distancing on post-primary school transport but does she have a date as to when this matter will be taken care of? In my local area, there are 48 pupils crammed into several buses and there is no social distancing. Their parents and the teachers are very concerned. There is very careful social distancing within the school but not on the school transport.

  With regard to the school transport system in general, cost efficiencies are possible. Money is being lost. I ask the Minister to fast-track a review of the entire concession tender system and process of the school transport scheme this year and to be ready for next year's school term. We are aware of how many children will be travelling to each school every year. In fact, we can estimate this several years in advance. We have great private bus operators and great Bus Éireann drivers all over the country. The private operators have suffered incredibly over the past few months. Efficiencies can be achieved to the benefit of these businesses. It will save the State money in the long run but also bring business to private bus operators. We need to think creatively about this.

  One of my local private bus operators is getting €8 per day to clean six buses. That is €1.30 per bus and it must pay for both equipment and time. This is wrong and should be examined. I hope the Minister takes my points into consideration.

Senator Emer Currie: Information on Emer Currie Zoom on Emer Currie I thank the Minister for her time today and for her efforts over the past few months. I am aware that she is in demand so I will have to give her a whistle-stop tour of the issues affecting Dublin West.

  What can be done about the removal of the sibling-first admission policy in primary schools which has been undertaken by the archdiocese in Dublin? I realise this relates only to schools that are oversubscribed but it affects a significant number of schools in Dublin 15, which has one of the most dense populations in the country. Parents who are already struggling to strike a work-life balance cannot be commuting to two, three or four different schools every morning. The patron is showing a distinct lack of understanding of the realities of family life.

  A DEIS primary school in my area made an appeal because it is losing two out of its 15 teachers this year, despite its number of pupils for September 2020 being at the mark where it should lose only one. After an arduous appeal process, which I know about because I was involved, the school did not hear directly from the Department of Education and Skills about the retention decision. It heard second hand. This left it disappointed, disillusioned and short-staffed in a year in which schools need flexibility to cope with Covid-19.

  This brings me to the survey of pupils to determine teacher numbers next year. I believe the deadline is 30 September. There needs to be flexibility this year for schools on the verge of losing teachers. Some schools have reported to me that not all the children have been able to return to school yet because of self-isolation or international travel restrictions.

  On the issue of personal protective equipment, some suppliers delivered very well but some did not. What mechanisms are in place to deal with the companies that did not deliver? Personal protective equipment is not just required for school reopenings.

  There has been a problem with prefabs for growing populations and overcrowding in schools in Dublin 15. Is the Minister aware of this? I am sure the issue must be arising in other areas. There was a Covid-19 planning suspension, as the Minister knows, but surely, then, preparations could have been made to deal with delays on the other side in respect of supply, especially when social distancing was always going to require more school accommodation. The Department was aware of the schools that had made applications, yet there does not seem to have been a sufficiently urgent approach to securing the prefabs as soon as possible.  Pupils have been refused school bus transport from Lucan, where there are no school places for them, to a new school in Luttrellstown, which has space. If they cannot get the school bus their parents cannot drop them by car to access the only school places available to them in the vicinity of their home. Surely common sense must prevail over bureaucracy.

  The grades of 16% of students were less than predicted by teachers and the majority of these came from fee paying schools. Will the Minister explain this discrepancy and how it came about? All children, and they are children, are entitled to fair treatment regardless of the choices their parents have made for their education. In choosing for their education, some of these parents have taken the decision to forgo the things we might associate with a privileged life to pay for school fees. Many have ordinary jobs with average wages. The decision to send a child to a fee paying school might be for all sorts of reasons. I was disappointed to read in the media about these children being branded entitled or privileged. I seek clarity on their behalf.

Acting Chairman (Senator Eugene Murphy): Information on Eugene Murphy Zoom on Eugene Murphy I thank Senator Currie, who was inside the time. The next three speakers are Senators Sharon Keogan, Malcolm Byrne and Mary Seery Kearney. I apologise to Senator Byrne. At the time I told him he would be next the Independent slot was not filled but Senator Keogan is here and I am sure Senator Byrne will understand.

Senator Sharon Keogan: Information on Sharon Keogan Zoom on Sharon Keogan I will not take too long.

Acting Chairman (Senator Eugene Murphy): Information on Eugene Murphy Zoom on Eugene Murphy The Senator is fine.

Senator Sharon Keogan: Information on Sharon Keogan Zoom on Sharon Keogan I thank the Minister for coming to the House today and I am glad I get to speak to her. I compliment her on the wonderful job she has done to date. She has been an excellent communicator and I look forward to seeing how she will take on the role as Minister for Education and Skills.

  I do not normally come in here with a parochial hat but this time I have done so. This morning when I arrived in my office I had 35 letters from children in St. Patrick's national school in Ardcath. The 36 pupils in fifth and sixth class in that school are in one classroom. I do not know what they will do. The board of management sought another teacher for the school but was refused. The school has a spare room. If we are trying to adhere to social distancing and to create safe environments for our children in which to be educated I ask the Minister to please see what she can do. I am sure there are other schools throughout the country in the same position.

  There is another issue I would like the Minister to look into. It is happening in my area and I am sure it is happening in many other areas where Senators and Deputies work. Young children are not going back to school because they are afraid. In recent weeks I had to get a child psychologist into the local hall to give private counselling sessions to young children. They cannot get anything from the child and adult mental health services because nothing is available for them. I do not know what the Minister can do to address this. At present, four children go on a Tuesday evening to get counselling to try to ease their fears or whatever worries or anxieties they have. I am sure there are other children throughout the country who are feeling this. Is it possible for schools to have a counsellor appointed to them? I know it is a very big ask but if we can solve the issues they have at this stage perhaps down the line bigger issues will not manifest.

  These are the issues I wanted to bring to the attention of the Minister. I wish her good luck in her portfolio and I thank her for her time.

Acting Chairman (Senator Eugene Murphy): Information on Eugene Murphy Zoom on Eugene Murphy I thank Senator Keogan, who was very much inside the time. I am looking at a sheet of paper that lists 11 speakers and the Minister must speak again at 4.20 p.m. I ask people that if they do not need the five minutes not to use up all the time and we will try to get all speakers in. I want to be fair to everybody.

Senator Malcolm Byrne: Information on Malcolm Byrne Zoom on Malcolm Byrne I thank the Minister for coming to the House. One of the hallmarks since she has become Minister is that she is somebody who is willing to listen and engage with all of the stakeholders in the sector. She certainly has been willing to engage with teachers and boards of management. I particularly compliment her on being willing to engage with students. She has actively engaged with the Irish Second-Level Students Union.  I would encourage the Minister to continue to do that.

  I would also ask that a very clear process of engagement with stakeholders would be put in place, as I know has been the case elsewhere. If counties or areas move into different levels of lockdown due to further outbreaks of Covid there should be constant communication around this issue. Senator O'Loughlin referred to the experience in Kildare. When people know what is going on, they are able to work within the restrictions.

  A number of colleagues raised the issue of class sizes. It was unfortunate that when Senator Hoey spoke she decided to politicise the issue. She seems to forget that the Minister, Deputy Foley, was the first Fianna Fáil Minister in this Department in a decade. There were two Labour Party Ministers in the interim. The two most significant growth levels in pupil-teacher ratios happened under those Ministers.

  I am glad that there is a commitment in the programme for Government to look at reducing class sizes. The evidence is also quite clear that in DEIS schools if there are targeted reductions, particularly in infant classes in primary schools and so on, that tends to have better longer-term educational outcomes. The work of the Educational Research Centre in DCU would indicate that. I ask that we reduce class sizes for the younger classes in disadvantaged primary schools as a priority.

  I also agree with Senator Warfield on the creative schools programme and the importance of creativity and design. That should be highlighted.

  Senator Higgins raised the question of algorithmic decision-making in the leaving certificate results. I would share some of her concerns. I would like the Minister to outline for the students who are due to do the leaving certificate in 2021 what may happen. We are dealing with unknown unknowns in many ways, but it is important that they continue to be informed.

  I was glad that the historical record of schools was not taken into account in the algorithm that was used to determine the results for this year. That was the correct approach. However, there was some grade inflation which affected the leaving certificate class of 2019. I am still concerned about how we could facilitate students who sat the leaving certificate in 2019 and what impact the decisions made this year will have on those sitting the leaving certificate in 2021.

  School transport is a bugbear for nearly every Deputy, Senator, councillor and elected representative. I am sure the Minister knows this is the case. I would echo the comments of others on the issue of private buses. M and F Leonard Coaches in north Wexford brings a number of students from north Wexford villages to Carnew in County Wicklow. It cannot operate because of the 50% capacity requirement as it is not financially viable to do so. We also have to take into account private bus services that have to step in to fill the need.

  There is a clear commitment in the programme for Government for a review of the school transport scheme. The school transport model that we have dates back to 1960s. Everybody knows there are major problems with it. I ask that the Minister give a very clear commitment that the review would start within the next few months. I know we are in very difficult times and it may be difficult to resolve the issue by next summer because of Covid, but we should at least be prepared. I ask the Minister to give a commitment on that.

  There are many other broader policy issues that I would like to raise, but I will focus on two. Digital resources are an issue. Schools should have access to the necessary IT equipment, but we should be constantly upskilling our teachers so that they are able to communicate with students digitally, as Senator Craughwell mentioned.

  On the teaching of languages, I would support the in the introduction of the primary languages initiatives. The Minister knows there is a major shortage of language teachers at secondary level. This has to be a priority, particularly in terms of Ireland's role in an increasingly globalised world. As a policy issue, the Minister should consider re-emphasising the primary initiative. I would also like the Minister to outline what is happening with regards to ensuring a greater roll out of language teachers at second level.

Senator Mary Seery Kearney: Information on Mary Seery Kearney Zoom on Mary Seery Kearney I want to begin by congratulating the Minister on the enormous success that school reopening has been for her and her Department.  I thank the principals, parents, boards of management, teachers, SNAs, school staff, ancillary staff and students who have made this a great success.

  I want to address the Minister on the topic of the algorithm and the prejudice relating to schools with a large number of high achievers. The process of calculated grades was designed to ensure that the teacher's judgment was central to the process. In fact, great care was taken to protect the position of teachers so that they felt able to give their professional estimation and were able to make decisions unencumbered by any outside influence, and that was right. The calculated grade system had three elements to it. The final element was removed following the scenes in the UK and the prejudice that was evident there, particularly regarding schools in disadvantaged areas. I am delighted with the way this has worked out and that schools in the constituency in which I live, Dublin South-Central, benefited and realised great achievements.

  There are also schools with large numbers of high achievers and they have come out at the wrong end of this. The standardisation algorithm was applied to take into account a teacher's estimated marks and the ranking of the relevant student in his or her class. However, if a student was ranked at level ten in a class with a normal spectrum of achievement, and, indeed, non-achievement, compared with a class with a large number of high achievers, the person who was ranked at ten in that class was going to be prejudiced when the standardisation algorithm was applied.

  Schools with disproportionate numbers of high achievers and have been disproportionately downgraded. The application of the algorithm has meant that a student in a high-performing school who got a mark of 95 was much more likely to be downgraded to a H2 than someone in a school with a normal spectrum of achievement who got the same mark. In some instances, students in high-performing schools were downgraded for no reason other than they happened to be in classes with extremely capable peers. This brought about devastation when it came CAO offers. When one combines that with the points inflation that naturally arose out of this situation, it is apparent that we have doubled the hardship they have had to endure.

  These students have worked extremely hard. It is unfair that they are deemed entitled or privileged. They are people who had ambitions and who had a reasonable expectation of what was ahead of them when they got their leaving certificate results and their CAO offers. Now, however, they find that the blunt instrument of standardisation has completely prejudiced their hard work. While many students have been lucky and have scraped through and got their first choice, others have been left out in the cold and find themselves with their sixth or seventh choice. This year, for the students who have suffered the most the suffering continues because they are now in the appeals process. The Minister has, to be fair and with due respect to her, reached out to them the most.

  I appeal to the Minister to in some way consider making the appeals process a little bit more than a clerical exercise and rectifying the wrong that has been done to high-achieving students. We still have time to do that and it needs to take account of the past history of the student and the teacher's opinion of his or her estimated grade. The process needs to allow for the setting aside of that ranking because that has been the key instrument in bringing about prejudice. We can alleviate that hardship on students who just happened to be in a class with a number of very high achievers. It is not a sufficient backstop for students to be permitted to sit the exams in November as an alternative when the college year will be lost to them. It is not a satisfactory appeal process as a consequence because it is disproportionate hardship. I am aware that would not be the Minister's intention.

  I absolutely appreciate that the decisions this year were made in an unprecedented context and have had an unintended consequence. However, if it is within the Minister's gift to rectify what has happened and bring about some redress within the process - such as by looking at the history of those particular individual students - then I appeal to her to exercise her discretion.

Acting Chairman (Senator Eugene Murphy): Information on Eugene Murphy Zoom on Eugene Murphy I thank the Senator for her co-operation. I am looking at a list of eight Senators who want to contribute and I am anxious that everybody gets his or her say. I suggest that Senators cut their contributions to three minutes.  It may not seem fair but in order that all Members get a crack of the whip and that the Minister be allowed ample time to respond, I ask you all to co-operate with me. I am not going to rule on it. I am asking for you to co-operate with me, and if Members can fit their contributions into three minutes, I would really appreciate it.

Senator John McGahon: Information on John McGahon  Zoom on John McGahon  I will be very brief because I just have one or two points to raise. The first is on the leaving certificate and how well we did with it. Looking at what some commentators in the media and some Opposition politicians were saying back in August, they were willing the Minister to fail. They were not giving us a chance. They were saying the leaving certificate would be exactly like the exam results in the UK, that it would be a mess. We absolutely sailed through it thanks to the Minster and her hard work. I do not believe she was given proper credit for how well it went.

  I will be very brief on my second point. I am from Dundalk and live ten minutes from the Border with Northern Ireland. If there is Covid in a school in the South, the HSE notifies the school which is then able to put in place the procedures it needs to put in place. One of the problems we have in the Border region relates to children who live in the North but attend school in the South. This situation can arise between Derry and Buncrana, Aughnacloy and Monaghan or Dundalk and Newry. For example, I know a family in Crossmaglen whose children go to school only ten minutes away in north County Louth. The family in Crossmaglen had an elder sibling attending university in Northern Ireland who tested positive for Covid-19. What are the processes and procedures for the NHS in Northern Ireland to alert family members who attend school here in Ireland, as well as the HSE, when a positive Covid case exists there? Those individuals need to be notified properly and have the same procedures we do here. What is happening at the moment, in essence, is we are leaving it to the families or parents to alert the school in the South themselves. We need to tease out the procedure of what is there between North and South. If a person is living in the North and a Covid-positive case is identified in their household by the NHS, what procedure does the NHS follow to let us in the South know about it?

  Before I finish, a Chathaoriligh, I must say that, as a new Member of this House, I find it so rude when Members speak for more than five, six, seven or eight minutes and take time away from the rest of us towards the end of debates. We are all professional politicians and if Members cannot speak sufficiently within the allocated five minutes, then something is seriously wrong.

Acting Chairman (Senator Eugene Murphy): Information on Eugene Murphy Zoom on Eugene Murphy I really appreciate your support, Senator. I call Senator Wall of the Labour Party.

Senator Mark Wall: Information on Mark Wall Zoom on Mark Wall I will not be taking the full five minutes. I welcome the Minister and thank her for holding a Zoom meeting for Oireachtas Members from County Kildare while we were in lockdown. All the Members appreciated the time she took from a very busy schedule to answer a lot of questions for parents and students alike, so I thank her very much for that.

  I thank also the entire school community for the way they have handled the reopening. It is my experience that from principals to teachers, SNAs, school secretaries, caretakers and of course pupils, co-operation has been excellent. Where issues have arisen they have been dealt with speedily and professionally.

  I raise, as others have done, the issue of the leaving certificate class of 2021. They are now back at school, having lost more than five months of direct teaching. Will the Minister confirm whether her Department has set up any ways of dealing with these young students as they begin their final year of secondary school? Has the curriculum they will sit changed in any way to reflect the unprecedented times they will face? I have been contacted by a large number of students from this cohort and by their parents, and indeed my own child is now in this leaving certificate class. There is a lot of worry among the school population as well about what may happen if schools are forced to close again because of the pandemic. The Minister might reassure everyone in this year that should this happen, her Department has a plan for it and will put it in place, as well as a plan to deal with the leaving certificate exam of 2021.

  On school transport, I am getting a lot of queries about private bus drivers retiring after some great years of service. I appreciate that they are private services but they play a vital part in supporting school transport overall. This is causing a lot of problems with replacing school runs, especially in the rural communities I come from. Perhaps this is something the Minister and her Department can investigate.   As part of the topic of school transport, I raise the issue of those who are over 70 and cannot continue working as bus drivers. Given the need to employ additional bus drivers, surely we are losing out on a large pool of capable people who could solve many of the problems that are being experienced. These same drivers are continuing to work, fully insured, with private operators and I ask the Minister to urge her Department to review this important resource of more than capable people.

  I encourage the Minister and her Department to proceed with much-needed construction plans for schools in the area where I live. These schools include St. Paul's in Monasterevin, which is hoped to go into construction by the end of the year and is a school that the community of Monasterevin is waiting more than 15 years for; the provision of a new school at the Curragh, County Kildare, where I understand the Minister and her Department have identified a site; and not forgetting Coláiste Íosagáin in Portarlington in respect of which I am told the Minister has received a stage 1 report.

Senator Timmy Dooley: Information on Timmy Dooley Zoom on Timmy Dooley I welcome the Minister to the House. It is a great honour to be in a position to work with her. I have known her for a very long time and I am delighted that she is in this Department and particularly at the considerable successes she has had in her short time there. Like others, I feel a debt of gratitude for the way the Minister has handled interactions with politicians, the public and schools and the way she has been able to get people back to school and address the issues surrounding the leaving cert. Her capacity to work with teachers, who are also owed a significant debt of gratitude, bodes well for the future, notwithstanding the normal fractures and fissures that happen from time to time. I will speak on a couple of issues and we will have more time to discuss matters in the future.

  The leaving cert has been a success overall, but it has been difficult for some and it would be wrong to suggest it is just the high achievers who have had difficulties. There are people with average results who have also seen their results downgraded. Maybe they have not been as vocal and maybe that is due to the schools or the backgrounds they come from but I have had contact with parents and students from many of the more average schools who have seen their grades downgraded. Some are accepting of it and some are upset but overall it has been a successful outcome.

  I have had a number of students in touch who are considering taking the written paper in November and they are now led to believe that whatever result they get from that will override the predicted grade. The Minister is shaking her head, which seems to suggest - and I hope is the case - that they can pick whichever result is the greater at the end of that process. That will shorten my speech even further and I declare that a result. I thank the Minister for making me very popular in many houses, including my own.

  There is an issue with school transport in County Clare which has been going on for a while. It relates to the village of Quin and the desire to have a school bus to the secondary school at Tulla. There is an issue around distances but I think if the Department looks at it again, it will establish that it is the appropriate distance and there should be a full-time bus from Quin to the village of Tulla as it is the closest school. There has been a good deal of correspondence with the Department over the past number of years but I hope common sense will prevail and the Minister will bring fresh thinking to that matter on which I will follow up with her again. I will respect the Chair's decision to try to shorten this as much as possible.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Information on Joe O'Reilly Zoom on Joe O'Reilly I thank Senator Dooley for his co-operation. We might get everybody in, at a push, but we have a good few offering yet. I call Senator Ahearn.

Senator Garret Ahearn: Information on Garret Ahearn Zoom on Garret Ahearn I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach. Senator Dooley has delivered for Clare and his own home on that.

  I will be brief as we are caught for time. I congratulate the Minister on the opening of schools and the process she went through to make that a success and I wish her well in that.

  I have two issues to raise and they have been spoken about by most Senators today.  I echo Senator Wall's very practical suggestion to the current crisis within school transport in terms of the over 70s being given the opportunity to drive school buses. It is very practical and it would be easy to do. The situation needs to be resolved and this could play some role in solving it.

  As stated earlier by Senator Malcolm Byrne, the school transport scheme dates back to 1960s. I echo his suggestion in terms of reviewing it and putting in place a new process. Every public representative in this country has issues this time of year in terms of school transport and it is difficult to get any sort of successful conclusion to them. Changing the system and improving and updating it to a model more suitable to 2020 would be welcome.

  In terms of leaving certificate results, like other Senators, I have received numerous telephone calls from people who feel very aggrieved at the downgrading in schools that would traditionally be high achievers. We made the case a number of months ago that everything we were going to do in terms of the leaving certificate was to try to make it as similar as every other leaving certificate that went before it. Although the decision that was made a number of weeks before the leaving certificate was well-intended, it changed the structure in terms of how leaving certificate results were delivered this year in comparison with every other year. People who have been in what are traditionally known as high achieving schools or classrooms have suffered predominantly in that regard. The narrative around this is that these are people who are privileged and so on. That is not the case. There may be a high cost in terms of attending these schools but those who attend are not privileged people by any means. Rather, they are people who make the decision that education is very important for them and they feel that a certain school in a particular area might be important in that regard. I know of a number of people who are devastated over downgrading on four or five subjects. One person, who I know very well, got over 530 points but did not get one offer in the first round on ten choices. That is really upsetting. He was as conservative as he could be in terms of the results he got but it is really upsetting for him and for many others.

  In terms of school openings, the Minister has done really well and I wish her well on it.

Senator Micheál Carrigy: Information on Micheál Carrigy Zoom on Micheál Carrigy I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. Like others, I take this opportunity to pay tribute to her, school principals, teachers and departmental officials for getting our schools opened.

  I would like to comment on a number of issues, the first of which is the students who sat the leaving certificate in 2019, deferred going to college that year and did not get any offers this year owing to the inflation in points. Is it proposed to put in place any provision for the leaving certificate students of 2020 who defer going to college until next year? Please God, we will have a leaving certificate examination next year and points will drop back to the levels they were at previously such that they will not be at a disadvantage if they do not take up a place this year? I ask that that issue be examined.

  Second, the school transport system needs to be overhauled. I cannot understand why applications for school transport must be made in April but people do not find out until mid-August if they have been successful in securing a place. We have do our business better. Parents and students left without transport should be made aware of their situation a lot earlier. I agree with the sentiments expressed by Senators Ahearn and Wall in regard to the over 70s. My family operates a bus company. A number of its drivers are over 70 years of age and the company is struggling to get drivers to fulfil school contracts owing to the rules in that regard.

  I would like to also raise a couple of local issues in regard to schools in my area. I would welcome an update on an emergency works scheme application for Scoil Samhthann, Ballinalee, Longford, and an update on an additional school application from St. Mel's College in Longford, my own alma mater of over 500 pupils, which has submitted an application for an upgrade of the old school, which is the former diocesan college building. I am aware that a number of schools have received funding in recent times for upgrade works on buildings so that additional classrooms could be put in place. I ask that the latter application be prioritised. As I said, it is an application for an upgrade to the existing old school building on the campus.  Perhaps I could get a reply on that. I have also been contacted by a number of teachers to highlight the key issues with regard to budget 2021 and class sizes. I will forward that information to the Minister and I ask that it be considered.

  Finally, I take this opportunity to highlight the provision of occupational therapy and speech therapy in the school system. The programme for Government proposes to implement a successful trial that was carried out about 18 months ago on bringing that into the school setting rather than a clinical setting. The availability of the services at the school age scene is quite minimal, with long waiting lists. I am aware of this from personal circumstances. I ask that this be prioritised. I have raised it with the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and I look forward to seeing it implemented in the short term.

Senator John Cummins: Information on John Cummins Zoom on John Cummins I pay tribute to the Minister, the Department, principals, teachers, caretakers, office staff, cleaning staff and boards of management across the school system who have done Trojan work to get the system back up and running, and continue to do so.

  I wish to raise two issues. I am not sure if the Minister referred to the first one in her opening remarks, but it relates to schoolbags. In fact, one of my colleagues mentioned the issue. The guidance issued from the Department encouraged schools to declutter classrooms and free up spaces. I appreciate that and the constraints that exist, but it is having a negative impact. It has been raised extensively by parents in Waterford because students are obliged to bring books into and out of the school. A circular was issued by the Department 15 years ago in 2005 regarding the weight of schoolbags and recommended that the weight should not be more than 10% of a pupil's body weight. However, the calls to my office refer to students carrying bags that weigh well in excess of 50% of their body weight and the negative impacts that may have on their future development and on back issues in the future. I can suggest a solution to it, given that there are base classrooms now for students. While I appreciate that we do not wish to clutter them, if students could leave their books in their base classroom, where possible, and use online e-books at home for their homework, it would remove much of the problem. I understand that the Minister cannot go into the nitty-gritty of each school, but some guidance from the Department in that regard would be useful.

  I also wish to refer to school transport, which many of my colleagues have raised. The Minister said that primary tickets will be allocated to those who apply and pay where capacity exists on routes. I raised such an instance in the Seanad last Friday. It is a family with three children who have been accessing school transport for the last number of years. There are four places on the school bus and it passes their front gate, yet there appears to be no joined-up thinking to point out that there is space on the bus to give them access. Perhaps there could be a clearing house where such issues could be brought to the Department. I suggest that the Minister take that on board. I thank her for her time.

Acting Chairman (Senator Joe O'Reilly): Information on Joe O'Reilly Zoom on Joe O'Reilly There are two speakers left and I will give them an Irish minute each, with the co-operation of the Minister. I call Senator Lombard.

Senator Tim Lombard: Information on Tim Lombard Zoom on Tim Lombard I welcome the Minister. It is great to have her here. I wish to refer to two issues. One is school transport, which has been raised by many Members. The upper age limit of 70 years for drivers must be examined because there is a major shortage of drivers. They are still doing private work and their not working on school work is a big issue. The Department also needs to do some work with regard to Bus Éireann, which is the principal operator of school transport services. Bus Éireann works with private operators as well and there is a conflict at times because sometimes private operators work against Bus Éireann on other routes.  A body of work needs to be done. There are four buses in a private yard in Skibbereen at the moment with 2019 and 2020 registration plates. For some reason, we cannot get them on the road to provide after-school transportation. Conflicts such as that need to be looked at. It is a considerable issue because school transportation services are only running at 50% capacity at the moment. I appeal to the Minister to work with Bus Éireann to see whether we can move away from those blockages.

  Autism spectrum disorder, ASD, units and the manner in which they have been rolled out in primary schools throughout the country have been an amazing success. The integration of those units has been powerful and has worked well with communities. That said, we need to engage more with secondary level institutions and colleges to ensure we follow through. We have a great primary network at the moment but I am not sure the secondary network is as strong. I know of a school that has been looking for an ASD unit for the past four years but has been refused. It is an unusual scenario that a secondary school is being refused because the policy in the Department does not support the school to have an ASD unit. It is a fee-paying school and that is why it has been refused. It does not fulfil the required criteria and there is no policy within the Department that it can satisfy. The school has offered to waive the fee for all children who would attend that unit if it were to be set up. Bandon Grammar School is the school in question. It has done the right thing by putting its hand up and asking for a unit. The school authorities believe it is appropriate because there is a need for such a unit within the community. It is a Church of Ireland school and covers a cohort in west Cork. I ask the Minister to look into that because they are working on a matter of principle about inclusivity when seeking the classrooms they require.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Information on Joe O'Reilly Zoom on Joe O'Reilly We will, appropriately, offer the last word to Senator Murphy, who earlier chaired a portion of the debate.

Senator Eugene Murphy: Information on Eugene Murphy Zoom on Eugene Murphy Like many other Members, I pay tribute to the Minister for the way she has handled her brief. It has certainly been a baptism of fire but her silence and work behind the scenes have been incredible. I want to give her a clear message from the parents and teachers from my region. We all know that we have challenges but they really appreciate and are proud of what the Minister has done. I have been told to bring that message to the Minister. I think education is in good hands. I thank all Members, across party lines, for appreciating the work that the Minister has done.

  We need an overhaul of the school transport system. There is a commitment in the programme for Government to review it. We need a radical shake-up in that system, and the Minister is the person who can do it.

  I made contact with the Minister a number of weeks ago on the following point. Where a private bus has pulled out and where CIÉ or Bus Éireann are not providing services, there are community buses available which are parked up at the moment. They were paid for by the taxpayer down through the years. Communities are willing to take on those roles if they get the go-ahead to operate in any areas with a difficulty. I suggest we look at that if we have a problem anywhere in the country because it makes perfect sense to use those vehicles. They are small minibuses with a capacity for 18 people. We cannot bring 18 passengers at the moment but they are safe and modern buses. That is a good idea.

  I welcome the Minister's engagement with students, as Senator Byrne mentioned. That is important, particularly with second and third level students. I welcome the fact that the Minister is doing that.

  I wish to put on the record that a number of teachers have contacted me about class sizes in primary schools. I know it is a challenge. The Minister is focused on one area at the moment and I appreciate the work she is doing there.

  Next year's leaving certificate students have lost out and some of them are quite concerned. Seeing that no conclusion to the Covid-19 pandemic is coming any time soon, I am sure the Minister will take that on board and see how we can help them out. I thank the Minister.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Information on Joe O'Reilly Zoom on Joe O'Reilly I thank all Senators for their co-operation. I will now call the Minister. I congratulate her on her appointment and the successful opening of the schools.

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Norma Foley): Information on Norma Foley Zoom on Norma Foley My opening remarks afforded me the opportunity to set out again the commitment of this Government, and indeed of my Department, to the education of our schoolgoing students, their families, schools and communities.   The Senators will know that I have listened not just today but since my appointment to what colleague public representatives like them have to say because their wisdom and experience is an incredible resource. They also bring a proactive positive approach to tackling the issues that exist within the educational sector. I compliment Senators on what they bring to the table and I appreciate the earnest and sincere way in which issues were raised. I am committed to working with them on an ongoing basis. I appreciate that I do not have enough time to reply to everything that has been raised here today. If Senators want to raise specific matters with me then I shall make myself available on another occasion and on an ongoing basis.

  Each appearance before the House is an opportunity for me, as Minister, to listen to what Senators have to say and understand the issues that concern the communities they represent. I was firmly of the view that we needed to see children return to school as they had lost enough since schools closed in March. Our schools have reopened and while they may not be exactly the same as they were before they are familiar places. They are the best places for our children to learn in the broadest sense from their teachers, peers, the experience of being together and from the structures, routines and supports that schools can give them going forward.

  I am very much aware that schools are rooted in local communities. In order for schools to remain open their communities must play their role in following the public health advice. Yes, it will be challenging to keep schools open over the coming weeks but huge resilience and initiative have been shown across society since March. We all have a role to play and we will continue to have a role to play going forward.

  The reopening of schools has been a major logistical undertaking, which I appreciate has been a much used phrase over the last while. Some people have expressed concerns about whether there was enough time to prepare, can we keep going, will additional staff be available and what might happen if there is an outbreak of the virus. All of these issues have been addressed as they arose within schools. There will be an increasing number of issues as time passes but we will deal with each issue as it arises. I acknowledge the collaborative spirit demonstrated by the representative bodies and school communities right from the beginning when the schools closed in March to the present day. We will all work together so that challenges we face will be resolved together.

  Today, Senators raised many issues and there was a huge commonality in terms of their comments on school transport. The provision is not without its challenges. As I said in my opening remarks, on the Tuesday prior to the reopening of schools we were issued with the public health guidelines that sought a 50% capacity in second level schools and for everyone to wear masks. We were happy to abide by the guidelines and we are attempting to do all of that on a roll-out basis. Everything in the roadmap is underpinned by public health advice. We continue to work with the advice and respect same. That has caused difficulties on the ground and Senators have been generous enough to acknowledge there have been ongoing difficulties with school transport over a long number of years. We are currently working through the advice to have 50% capacity. Everyone who was eligible and paid on time received a ticket this year. Where there was extra capacity, there was concessionary availability and that was availed of. We are currently working at 50% capacity. If and when there is additional capacity the additional places will, without reservation, be made available.

  As I said in my opening remarks, Bus Éireann has advertised to recruit additional buses. I am talking about in the region of 1,600 buses thus 1,600 drivers are required. I appreciate the point made here about facilitating people over 70 years but, unfortunately, that is not within my gift. We are steadily, quickly and safely working through all of this, which is very important. The Senators mentioned private buses. Again, it is not within my gift to resolve the matter as private buses are the responsibility of another Department.

  Reference was made to October returns. Some students will be hesitant to return to school.  Issues of well-being and the supports available were also raised. We were very clear about additional well-being supports within schools. As the schools reopened, an individual, class-based and whole-school approach was taken. I have been in other forums where it has been acknowledged that there has been very positive engagement with all the SPHE resources that have been made available in this regard. Notwithstanding that, I appreciate there are individual cases, and I invite those cases to engage with the school community because the community is very positive in acknowledging that students and parents might have concerns.

  That brings me on to the issue of the October returns. There is a view that some students might not be in place in time for the returns. I acknowledge that this might be an issue for allocation going forward. All I can say at the moment is that I am aware of the issue. We are taking a well-being approach to the return of students to school and we will have to be cognisant of the issue as we evaluate the October returns when they come back.

  Some Senators raised digital resources, ICT and so on in schools. I very much acknowledge that this is hugely important. Over the past three years more than €160 million has been made available in this regard. From March, April and May we were looking at the inclusion of €50 million for the provision of resources within schools to meet those needs on the ground, whether laptops or whatever else. There will be additional funding in that regard amounting to tens of millions of euro in the coming weeks in the context of the budget. That is what we are aiming for.

  Lots of other issues were raised. Creative Ireland was mentioned by two Senators. From personal experience, I am a great fan of it. I absolutely value it and appreciate that it falls, as was outlined, into the category of mental well-being support within schools. Funding for it will come within budgetary constraints, but I wish to put on the record that I know its value and the value of the arts within the school community.

  A whole variety of other issues were raised. We will continue to work through those issues and challenges. Equally, however, it would be remiss of me to conclude without saying we need to reflect on all that has been achieved as well over recent weeks. Some 4,000 schools have reopened and 1 million children have returned to school along with 100,000 staff. That is the result of the magnificent collaborative partnership approach from the beginning to the very end.

  The Seanad adjourned at 4.33 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Friday, 25 September 2020.

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