Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Free Education Scheme.

85.

asked the Minister for Education the number of secondary schools in the country; and how many of these have opted into the free education scheme.

The number of recognised secondary schools in the country is 601. Of these 575 cater wholly or partially for day pupils. Of the latter number 545 are participating in the scheme of free education.

Can the Minister tell us how many of the 30 which have not opted in, if I got him correctly, are located in the Dublin city and county area?

I am afraid I have not got that information at the moment.

The Minister is being advised from the back-benches but he is not listening.

86.

asked the Minister for Education if he will make a full statement on the Government's policy on secondary schools which opted into the scheme and yet still demand school fees; and if he will give the reasons why some of these schools still charge heavy tuition fees.

87.

asked the Minister for Education how many of the schools which opted into free education scheme still charge school fees, and in what amounts; and whether he has any information that parents with children attending such schools have had to remove their children, either because of lack of means or because they were so advised because of inability to pay the fees required.

With your permission, a Cheann Comhairle, I will take Questions Nos. 86 and 87 together. The basic condition for entry into the free education scheme was that every school concerned would cease to charge school fees. Before the formulation of that scheme and of the scheme of grants for secondary schools building there were a number of schools which had incurred large capital debts. Such schools were allowed to seek voluntary contributions from parents towards the liquidation of the debts. Seeking such contributions did not violate the terms of the scheme of free education provided it was made clear to parents that there was no question whatsoever of a charge being placed on them and that in making a contribution they would be so doing of their own volition.

In a few cases where there appeared to be a breach of the spirit of the free education scheme strong warnings were given to the schools concerned.

Is the Minister not being a little naïve when he uses the word "voluntary"? Is he not aware that, in fact, the principle of free secondary education is breached in a very large number of schools by the insistence, in effect, at the risk of discovery, upon additional payments for such concealed things as recreational and sporting facilities?

I do not accept what the Deputy says. As I explained to him, this is not in breach of the free education scheme provided it is made clear to the parents that there is no question whatsoever of a charge being placed on them and that, in making a contribution, they would be doing so of their own volition. In any case where we were informed of what appeared to be a breach we got in touch with the school concerned and we gave a very strong warning. This year we only had one complaint and we are investigating it.

May I ask the Minister if he would suggest to the schools that are incurring this expenditure, that they should seek other ways of paying off their debts rather than compelling some of their pupils to pay? This is what is implied. They should seek some other means.

It should be very clearly stressed that no money can be charged for school fees. What we strongly suggested to them in a circular letter was that it should be left to the representatives of the parents to make arrangements for the collection of voluntary contributions.

May I ask the Minister if copies of that circular letter will be made available to Deputies so that we may know the exact terms of the warning which was given to the secondary schools? Does the Minister not agree that it is widely believed by parents throughout the country that if they do not ante up in these so-called voluntary schemes their children will not get equal treatment with the children of those who do?

I do not accept that at all.

The Minister may not be aware of the fact that there is subtle compulsion.

There is nothing subtle about it.

The Minister has not answered Deputy Keating's question, as to whether he will circulate this document.

I will make the circular available.

Could I ask one final supplementary? I distinctly recall the inventor of the free secondary education scheme, the late Deputy Donogh O'Malley, saying on television that he would regard such additional payments as a breach of the scheme in principle and that it was his policy to make sure that it was not breached in that way. Can we be sure that this is still the policy of the Minister and the Department and that the scheme will not be breached by theoretically voluntary, but in fact compulsory, payments of this kind?

I am not accepting that they are compulsory payments.

May I ask the Minister if he would be prepared to publish in the national newspapers the terms of that circular which he issued so that parents at large would be aware of the departmental attitude, or would he at least send it to the secretaries and chairmen of the various parent-teachers committees in the schools throughout the country? Quite frankly, sending it to us is rather irrelevant. It is the parents who need this information.

Under the free education scheme no charge can be made in respect of (1) instruction in any subject of the Department's programme for secondary schools; (2) recreational or study facilities, where all the pupils are expected to avail themselves of them as part of the school programme; and (3), any other school activity in which all pupils are required to take part. A circular letter including the above provisions was sent to all the schools in the scheme on the 11th May, 1967.

The circular continued—and this is in relation to what can be done in regard to voluntary subscriptions—"There are a number of schools which involved themselves in large capital debts in respect of building projects which were begun before the scheme of building grants was introduced. Some of these schools have considered entering the free education scheme on the basis of parents making a voluntary contribution towards the liquidation of these debts. Such an arrangement would not contravene the terms of the scheme, provided it was made absolutely clear to parents that there was no question whatsoever of a charge being placed on them, and that in making a contribution they would be so doing of their own volition." As I said, it was strongly urged that it should be left to the representatives of the parents to make the arrangements for collecting the voluntary contributions.

Could I ask one more supplementary in view of the Minister's most helpful addition to his original statement? Is the Minister not being a little naïve in speaking of recreational facilities in which some pupils do not take part? Is there not a strong class distinction there—for example the building of a gymnasium or a swimming pool or anything like that? Is the Minister not being a little naïve?

In any school activity in which all the pupils are required to take part a fee cannot be charged.

In other words, a pupil can opt out of taking part in an activity for which his parents do not make any "voluntary" contribution.

88.

asked the Minister for Education if he will give details of the areas where no secondary school has opted into the free education scheme; whether this refusal applies more to secondary schools for girls than for boys; and if he will give the precise number of these schools.

Taking an "area" as a circle of three miles radius based on any day secondary school, there is only one such area—that of Gormanston, County Meath—where no secondary school has opted into the free scheme. Seventeen secondary schools catering for boys, 12 catering for girls and one mixed school have opted to remain outside the scheme.

89.

asked the Minister for Education how many schools in the free education scheme seek payments from parents towards the elimination of building debts or for other purposes.

Since voluntary contributions by parents towards the elimination of old building debts and charges for optional extras in respect of facilities over and above those provided in the general school programme are permitted under the terms of the free scheme, particulars of such arrangements are not required to be furnished by secondary schools and I am therefore unaware of the number of schools in which such voluntary payments are made by parents.

Would the Minister not agree that it is quite unsatisfactory that he should not even know the scale or nature of this problem and, if he has no information as to where such payments exist, to what extent can he inspect to ensure that the terms of the circular are being carried out? If he does so inspect, how is it that he does not know what schools or how many schools do in fact make such charges?

I have given the situation as it is. The schools are not obliged to let me know. I would have a reasonable idea of the situation from the number of complaints which come to my Department.

Can the Minister tell us how many complaints come to his Department on this subject?

I can tell the Deputy for this year—one.

There is only one school at it?

May I ask the Minister if he would have a survey carried out and ask such schools to forward to him——

That is a separate question.

——on a statutorily regulated basis, if necessary, the details of the supplementary payments made so that this information would be available to the House and to his Department? We can hardly discuss free education if we do not know what supplementary payments are being made.

If payments are made on a voluntary basis, first, the payments will vary and, secondly, the individual people concerned may not want anyone else to know what payments they make.

I am not particularly interested in individual payments by parents but rather the total amount received by each school outside the scheme, the aggregate of allegedly voluntary payments made to such schools. This is something which a survey of investment in education sought but was not able to get and something which everybody is entitled to know.

Where payments are made voluntarily it would not be proper to delve into the situation. If we get complaints in regard to the spirit of the free education scheme being broken, we will follow them up.

Would the Minister not agree that if, as everybody knows, voluntary payments are being made it is ridiculous to refer to the scheme as free?

(Interruptions.)

The scheme most assuredly is free.

How can it be free when payments have to be made?

It is a free scheme.

But you have to pay.

It was suggested a moment ago that parents would be slow to complain. I can assure Deputies that parents are not so very slow to complain.

Is it not true that a child cannot get into a secondary school in Dublin unless payment is made? There is a scarcity of places. Is it true he will not be allowed in unless he pays?

It is very wrong of Deputy Belton to make a generalised charge like that.

It is true.

It is very wrong of the Deputy to make a general charge in this House.

I did not make a general charge. I say it is happening.