Order of Business, 16 November 2012

I echo the congratulations to the Irish team, which has given us all a boost. Perhaps we would like to skip over the budget and get straight to the European matches. Unfortunately, we cannot.

I have concerns at the kite flying that is happening. Vulnerable hard-pressed families are reading headlines every day and wondering what will happen. We should all be careful with our comments.

I echo what Senator Bacik said about St. Patrick’s Institution and seeking a debate in the House. It is of extreme concern and a gross violation of our human rights record. For the sake of the children in vulnerable situations we need to act as soon as possible.

Today, I raise the issue of transition year students. Most of us are aware of the transition year programme which promotes the personal, social, vocational and educational development of students and prepares them for their role as autonomous, participative and responsible members of society.

Recently, I received an application from a transition year student to work for one week in Leinster House as part of the work experience programme. I was informed that this is not possible. What better way to achieve these goals than by allowing young people to experience a working environment through one of the work experience programmes offered by most schools that conduct the transition year programme? The Houses of the Oireachtas lacks any dedicated structure to facilitate students who wish to experience the working life of the Parliament. Work experience is available for second level students with members of parliament in the European Parliament and the British Houses of Parliament. Why can we not do it here? Even closer to home, Dublin City Council offers second level work experience.

This experience is extremely valuable, would give students an insight into our work and would help them understand what we are doing here. I call on the Leader and the House to examine ways in which the Seanad could put in place a one week programme once a year to provide transition year students with an opportunity to listen to some of our key debates and a chance to partially shadow a Senator. The programme could be open to a lottery and provide to a limited number of transition year students an opportunity to see what we do. I ask that this be given serious consideration and I would be happy to give any support and assistance I can.

Junior Certificate Reform and the Literacy and Numeracy Strategy

23rd October 2012

I welcome the Minister’s plans for the literacy and numeracy strategy. I remember working on the National Economic and Social Forum report on this subject. I was alarmed at the figures, with one in ten children leaving school with literacy issues and rising to one in four children in disadvantaged areas. Someone tried to tell me it was okay because other European countries had higher figures but I did not care whether the figures were higher in other European countries. I care about the fact one in ten children leave school with literacy and numeracy issues.

The reports all talk about an all-community approach and how it is not just about the reality in school. In the supermarket, a parent can ask the child to get peas and can spell out the letters. It involves these measures and involving the older generations in the community. While preparing the report, I heard from many parent organisations that, when they bring their loved ones to the school gates, they are told to ensure the children can tie their laces and have a lunch they can easily eat while the teachers will look after the teaching. Parents were told not to teach their children to read because the teachers will have to undo it and reteach them. I heard this going around the country talking to parents groups.

This was the message parents were getting from schools. I do not refer to all teachers. We read all the reports and talk about everyone working together in the community and how education is not just the preserve of schools. It is important that, when examining plans, we should try to involve the community. We have outstanding teachers working with communities but there is also an approach that parents do not have a role in the education of their children.

I welcome the Minister’s plans in respect of the junior certificate. I have examined them quite closely. Continuous assessment is a good principle. I wonder if I am saying this because I think I would have done better on continuous assessment than in exams. Some young people will perform better under one method than another, which makes me wonder whether it is part of my reasoning in favour of it. Continuous assessments are good practice for life and for the ability to deliver consistently. It will have a positive effect on the student’s learning experience, the development of the most-needed skills from an early age and, most important, the capacity to analyse information, communicate, to work in a team and to think creatively.

The proposed focus on the long-term development of literacy and numeracy instead of a one-size-fits-all junior certificate will encourage students and teachers creatively and allow for a more informed and self-aware process of acquiring knowledge. Students will be able to develop their interests and skills without the rigidity of learning specifically for the tests. This will, hopefully, relieve some of the pressure experienced by some students during the formal examination period.

Another proposed reform is the curriculum flexibility, which is great. It will allow schools to design new teaching programmes. Hopefully, they will involve the students in that as they will have a great deal to say. Perhaps there could be subjects on local development, new media and arts programmes. It would facilitate a much wider approach to education.

As far as the proposed assessments are concerned, teachers know their students best and are best placed to reflect on students’ performance, abilities and work. The focus on long-term overview of a student’s development will help parents to see the progress being made by their child. However, I share some of the concerns raised by the TUI and the ASTI generally about the consultation process. Could the Minister clarify this? I have read conflicting reports about it. There have been statements from the Minister’s officials saying they were consulted, while I have heard from the two unions that they have not been consulted.

With regard to the assessment process, I wonder about small communities and the pressures that will come from parents, in a place where everybody knows each other, for a positive assessment. Would we be bringing the concept of clientelism into the school system? How will we ensure that teachers will be trained? I am aware of the Minister’s plans for teacher training, but I am referring to teachers who are already in place. How do we recalibrate how to deliver their training? I would welcome clarification of that from the Minister.

Finally, the Minister talks about phasing this in over eight years. I can understand that on paper but part of me sees it as a slow guillotine descending on the schools over the eight years. How will it work? Will there be a value on the year in which one did the junior certificate? I wonder about the reality of phasing it in and whether we are sometimes better off to just pull off the plaster and go for it. If this is the new system, eight years seems to be quite a long period for it to be introduced. However, I believe we should consider change, and I welcome the fact that the Minister has put the document in the public domain and allowed us to scrutinise it and be part of this process.

Order of Business, 16 November 2011

16th November 2011

I echo the congratulations to the Irish team, which has given us all a boost. Perhaps we would like to skip over the budget and get straight to the European matches. Unfortunately, we cannot.

I have concerns at the kite flying that is happening. Vulnerable hard-pressed families are reading headlines every day and wondering what will happen. We should all be careful with our comments.

I echo what Senator Bacik said about St. Patrick’s Institution and seeking a debate in the House. It is of extreme concern and a gross violation of our human rights record. For the sake of the children in vulnerable situations we need to act as soon as possible.

Today, I raise the issue of transition year students. Most of us are aware of the transition year programme which promotes the personal, social, vocational and educational development of students and prepares them for their role as autonomous, participative and responsible members of society.

Recently, I received an application from a transition year student to work for one week in Leinster House as part of the work experience programme. I was informed that this is not possible. What better way to achieve these goals than by allowing young people to experience a working environment through one of the work experience programmes offered by most schools that conduct the transition year programme? The Houses of the Oireachtas lacks any dedicated structure to facilitate students who wish to experience the working life of the Parliament. Work experience is available for second level students with members of parliament in the European Parliament and the British Houses of Parliament. Why can we not do it here? Even closer to home, Dublin City Council offers second level work experience.

This experience is extremely valuable, would give students an insight into our work and would help them understand what we are doing here. I call on the Leader and the House to examine ways in which the Seanad could put in place a one week programme once a year to provide transition year students with an opportunity to listen to some of our key debates and a chance to partially shadow a Senator. The programme could be open to a lottery and provide to a limited number of transition year students an opportunity to see what we do. I ask that this be given serious consideration and I would be happy to give any support and assistance I can.

SPHE Curriculum – Motion

20th July 2011

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, and the Minister, Deputy Quinn, for attending the debate. I also thank my fellow Senators for contributing to the debate. We have had a very rich discussion and have shown the reason and basis for the motion. A statistic I would like to add to the evidence put before us this evening is that half of lifetime cases of mental health disorders begin by the age of 14 and three quarters by the age of 25. In Ireland, a recent survey conducted by UNICEF, Change the Future: Experiencing Youth in Contemporary Ireland, found that half of all young people aged between 16 and 20 have experienced depression; more than one in 10 anorexia; more than a quarter have felt suicidal; and of those experiencing ongoing mental health difficulties, only 18% are receiving help. The role of SPHE and RSE in schools plays a key part in addressing some of these issues.

During the debate we heard about the report from Dail na nOg and the report of the Department of Education and Skills carried out with the crisis pregnancy agency in 2007. One of the aspects we would like to follow up is an audit on what is happening in schools in regard to SPHE and RSE. That is a specific step we would like taken with, hopefully, the full endorsement of the motion by the House. School principals are a key driver and good teachers play a key role, which the Minister has acknowledged in the reforms he is undertaking, and we would like consideration to be given for the issues we raised to be tied into the Croke Park agreement.

The Minister referred to the junior cycle review and we hope the debate will strongly contribute to it. What he is doing with this review and the literacy and numeracy strategy is essential and important. He referred to unlocking the bridge to universities. We ask him to give equal attention to the senior cycle in secondary education. While we need to focus on the junior cycle, we equally have to focus on the senior cycle. I would like to ensure there is not an imbalance and that we do not say we have ticked the box because this has been done in the first three years of secondary education. It will not have been covered because children are developing emotionally and physically and they said this in the research conducted by Dail na nOg. The senior cycle is equally important to unlocking that bridge.

It is also critical that the training of teachers is not ignored. Many Members outlined their experiences. I recall clearly at the launch of the Dail na nOg report one young teacher sharing her experience. She was in her 20s and she was the last teacher into an all-boys school. She was given the SPHE hours because that is what one gets when one is last in. She had no training in this area and she was expected to uphold the ethos of the school but she was given no direction on how to do that. She had a class of young boys with no training. That does not lead to quality SPHE teaching but she could not say ¬¬¬¬____because she was in a vulnerable position as the last teacher into the school. As Senator Moran said, life experience is essential. While in-service training is needed, life experience is also needed and I ask the Minister to give consideration to this.

I would also like to acknowledge the role of non-formal education and, as Senator Mooney mentioned, the role of Foroige. Many youth work organisations in Ireland play an essential role in non-formal education and they could also play a role in SPHE.

The Independent group will not go away regarding this issue. We hope the motion is fully endorsed and we will come back to this early in 2012 regarding the next steps we have outlined. We will ask what has happened and we hope we can support the Minister in moving this essential issue forward.

Order of Business, 20 July 2011

20th July 2011

I too take the opportunity to congratulate Senator Trevor Clochartaigh on his new addition. Here is another child whose rights we must fight for and I assure the Senator we will continue to do so.

I echo what Senator Darragh O’Brien said in regard to the European leaders summit. I am extremely concerned, as are many citizens, at the way in which Europe has dragged its feet and has not taken the necessary decisions to address the crisis. The latest signals are not encouraging in advance of tomorrows summit. When the Heads of State meet at an EU leaders summit, we expect action. We should send a clear message in this regard.

I join Senator Ivana Bacik in congratulating Mrs. Justice Susan Denham’s appointment as the first female Chief Justice in the history of the State. She is an excellent role model and it is encouraging that the two most senior legal positions in the State are now occupied by women. We are in safe hands for the future.

We have taken a welcome step forward in the provision of a new national children’s hospital with the Minister’s approval of submissions of plans to An Bord Pleanala. I was very much involved in the debate on the location of the new hospital and have come to the position that we need a national children’s hospital and must put our full support behind it. This House must do everything it can to support that process, notwithstanding the many obstacles that will undoubtedly be put in the way.

I remind Members of the Private Members’ motion my colleagues and I will put forward this evening on the important issue of the social, personal and health education programme in schools. This programme incorporates the relationship and sexuality education programme which, despite being a mandatory part of the curriculum, evidence suggests many schools are failing to implement. I encourage Members to contribute to the debate.

School Transport – Statements

28th June 2011

I thank the Minister of State for sharing his decision with Members today. I have yet to hear of a person who is opposed to the school transport system. While I realise the predicament we are in, I equally recognise the unprecedented financial times in which we find ourselves and that we have not been obliged to face such decisions heretofore. Moreover, I agree with the need to rein in expenditure. Although all these points are a given and are not up for debate, one must be careful in the actions one takes to avoid incurring additional expenditure in other areas through unintended consequences. My question to the Minister of State pertains to the displacement of pupils to which this decision potentially could give rise and which could lead to the need to increase school buildings in some areas and to the closure of schools in other areas because parents will take a decision, based on school transport costs, to change their children’s school. As it is known that such potential unintended consequences could occur, the Minister of State should indicate whether there has been an assessment of the school catchment areas. My understanding is they last were closely examined in the 1960s. How do we know what impact these decisions will have?
Moreover, although I listened carefully to the Minister of State’s contribution, I found it difficult to understand the issue and as a parent, I am trying to envisage how do parents understand the impact this decision will have. If one considers the constitutional right that the State shall provide for free primary education, I note that parents are being asked for voluntary contributions for water charges, school books and other costs, on to which another cost now is being heaped. These costs are being heaped upon the same parents and children. While one might state that this is a single charge, that is not the case as additional charges are being heaped upon the same households and families. The Minister of State noted that school transport eligibility for all new children entering post-primary education will be determined by attendance at and distance they reside from their nearest post-primary centre or school. I listened carefully last week to the Minister talking about parental choice at the forum on patronage. However, it is not parental choice if one then states the only way in which one can avail of school transport is based on distance to the school. Does this mean that children in urban areas will get to have parental choice and will get to choose the schools they wish to enter but that those living in rural areas will not have the same choice? Equally, parents and children will tell me about the fact they have changed schools because a bad situation, such as bullying, has occurred in their school and all of us, at times, need a fresh start. Are we to say that those children will not be allowed that same fresh start, that they will not get an opportunity? These are the unintended consequences. Listening to the Minister of State, I note he very carefully outlined some of the questions to which we need answers. However, we should take these decisions with these answers in hand because I agree there could be a short-term gain for us but I question at what price and whether there will be long-term pain. I am thinking of the child and the impact on that child when a parent has decided the child is going to a school because it is within the 3.2 km catchment area rather than looking at what is best for our children and the future of their education.

Order of Business, 21 June 2011

21st June 2011

My first question is on special needs assistants because the lack of clarity is deeply worrying. We know the important role special needs assistants play. If we looked at it in a purely fiscal way we would see that we save money in the long term by supporting children in the early years to mainstream education. Special needs assistance was an indication of a major move from an old Ireland where we hid our problems behind closed doors but instead we have become a society of which we all wish to be a part. It is very important that we get clarity around special needs assistants and that children are allowed to be educated together as we would hope them to grow up in society together.

Second, I ask that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs would update us on the national vetting bureau Bill and her intention to put the Children First guidelines on a statutory basis. That is often talked about but as we know reports will be forthcoming, not least the Cloyne report. It is a serious discussion because we make the statement that we should put the Children First guidelines on a statutory basis but in terms of the way we will do that this House could play a role in framing that.

My third question is on youth mental health. There are many actions in this area but they are not often co-ordinated among Departments. We should consider a debate to examine the various aspects of youth mental health, not just in terms of hospital beds but in schools also and the long waiting lists for children to be seen after a teacher has identified a need.

Progress on the 20 Year Strategy for the Irish Language – Statements

9th June 2011

Thank you very much. I apologise. Three weeks ago I did not know I would be standing here and I have another pressing commitment. I trust the House will understand.

I welcome the strategy and its ambitions. I hope I can be one of its successes by building on the Irish I learned at school and, in a future debate, I may be able to contribute as Gaeilge. That is a challenge I have set myself. I very much welcome the information provided by the Minister of State. The Cabinet sub-committee is central to driving the implementation of the strategy and I am happy that it has been established and has met twice. I look forward to hearing more about that.

I also welcome the fact that the Minister for Education and Skills is a member of the sub-committee. The backdrop to the debate today is the many thousands of students sitting the junior certificate Irish examination, including my nephew. I hope all our students, including him, do well. However, I refer to the issue of how Irish is dealt with in the education system. I welcome the changes being made, but we need to do more to ensure Irish remains a living language not only in gaelscoileanna but throughout our education system with children being exposed to the language in preschool and through the media and so on.

I lived for three years in Brussels, which is a bilingual capital. It taught me that all advertisements have to be in two languages. My husband is Dutch but I did not know him at the time. I gained great exposure to Flemish during my time in Brussels because I had French and I was able to compare both languages. Subliminally, one’s vocabulary increases. There is something to be said for subliminal exposure aside from formal education. For example, in our system, Irish classes are held for set periods of 30 or 40 minutes. The language should seep through our education system in smaller, fun and creative ways so that Irish becomes a living language for children from an early stage. They should not be restricted to set periods where they have to learn, rehearse and recite. They should be encouraged to play games and engage in activities. A number of sporting organisations are doing this and that is welcome. There must be a greater focus on the aural aspect of the language and we need to be creative in how we do that.

The Minister of State announced that there will be a new statutory definition of linguistic borders based on studies. Will he elaborate on the criteria that will be used and on the studies? I tried to research them but I was unable to establish whether they had been published. Perhaps he can advise us on this. I welcome his planned approach to Gaeltacht networks where Irish is spoken so that an appropriate environment can be created and they can expand.

I very much look forward to future debates on the language in the House. I hope we will be able to support the Minister of State in the implementation of the strategy. It is rightly ambitious. This is a good time for us to have this discussion but we need to examine the strategy’s implementation and ensure the language gets to live.

The Lancet

In July 2021, Jillian co-authored an article in the world-renowned medical journal “The Lancet”