Senator Averil Power: I have tabled this matter to highlight the need for a proper digital ICT strategy for schools. When will the Government ensure that all primary schools are connected to high-speed broadband? When will the Government ensure that all schools, both primary and post-primary, have access to the equipment they need, curriculum relevant content and training for teachers?
I welcome the fact that high-speed broadband has been rolled out to our second level schools which are now getting speeds of up to 100 MB, which is the speed they need to integrate ICT properly in the classroom, use video content and upload and download things from the cloud. Unfortunately, we have a huge digital divide between primary and second level. While second level schools have high-speed broadband, the Department’s own figures for primary schools show that they have an average speed of up to 5 MB per second, which is incredibly slow. Some schools have considerably slower speeds than that.
There was an article in this month’s INTO magazine In Touch, in which a principal was quoted as saying he has 0.74 MB and that the connection was faster when he had dial-up. Such slow speeds create huge problems for teachers. It means that when they are putting together videos and planning presentations to their classes, they are not sure if they will be able to show those properly. In Touchcites scenarios where teachers get classes to sit down to watch a three or four minute video clip, but while the first minute plays, they are then sitting around watching a timer on screen trying to load the rest of it. They could be watching that for three or four minutes before the video kicks back in. Teachers are also concerned about having to bring things in on USB sticks as they are not sure they will be able to get access to broadband when they need it. It could be down. It is all extremely frustrating. Principals have also said they are supposed to make online returns to the Department and some are having to do that at home. They are having to make their OLSC entries at home to ensure that their staff are paid on time. There is a major difficulty there in terms of broadband speed for primary schools.
I understand that work is under way in the Department on a new digital strategy for schools. The reason I tabled this matter was to draw the Department’s attention to the huge deficit at primary level and to ensure it is addressed as part of the new strategy. I hope the Minister of State can provide me with an update on the Department’s thinking in that regard, the speeds it is expected will be provided to primary schools and when they can expect to have proper connectivity. There is also a need to ensure that schools have access to curriculum appropriate content. While there is a great deal available on the Internet, much of it is American or from other countries. We need to provide teachers with access to age-appropriate screen content which is tied into our own curriculum. That is a huge issue.
Equipment is also an issue. Some schools have fantastic suites of equipment, perhaps on foot of partnerships with local businesses and IT companies or sponsorship or through fund-raising from parents in the absence of sufficient State funding. There are significant gaps among schools in terms of the type of equipment they have and the gaps need to be closed. Training is also required to ensure that all teachers receive adequate training, not just those who might opt in to in-service or out-of-hours training. The people who are most likely to do that are probably already ICT savvy or at least interested in using it. We must ensure that all existing teachers in the system are brought up to speed and know how to integrate ICT into teaching, learning, assessment and all the other strands of our education system. We must also ensure that at the pre-service level we equip new teachers with the highest level of ICT competency.
There are various issues involved. Many teachers across primary and second level have embraced ICT far beyond the limits of the State under-investment and there is a need to step up. I was in a second level school in Kildare the other day where the principal raised with me the issue that because of the suppression of A posts within schools, the only way he could get an ICT co-ordinator was to expect someone to do it out of the goodness of his or her heart. If we want people to co-ordinate ICT within schools, we must consider having specific ICT posts. I ask the Minister of State to update me on that wide range of issues, the status of the digital schools strategy and whether it will address these issues.