Deputy Jim Higgins was in possession and he has some nine minutes left of the time allotted to him.
Private Members' Business. - Dunboyne (Meath) School Project: Motion (Resumed).
Last night we debated in detail the merits and demerits of the proposal by the Minister to steamroll through the proposal to establish a community college in Dunboyne against the wishes of the parents and the Dunboyne community. It was a long and heated debate and both sides projected their respective views. The vast majority of people reading the newspapers today will note the groundswell of opinion. The independent commentators and the people who are examining this problem analytically will view this as a litmus test on where this Minister stands on specific issues. I had hoped that after 24 hours the Minister would have weighed up the pros and cons and taken into consideration the wishes of the people of Dunboyne and decided that democracy must prevail.
Dunboyne is a growing community on the periphery of Dublin and one that has no second facility. It has lobbied hard and vigorously. There have been files, letters, representations and promises. During the year the expectation was that Dunboyne would get a second level community school and that it should be a cause célèbre of jubilation and rejoicing. This year £2.5 million has been allocated for this purpose. Instead of the jubilation, applause and general acclaim that should greet such a development in a new maturing community the whole debacle is dragged into the mire not by the parents or the community but by the intransigence of the Minister.
We are not speaking simply about Dunboyne but rather about democracy and the rights of parents as the primary educators. Irrespective of what the Minister, Deputy Bhreathnach, the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, Deputy Dempsey, Deputy Mary Wallace, Deputy Brian Fitzgerald or Deputies of this side of the House want, our views should prevail. The primary educators, the paramount educators, the people who have the God-given as well as the constitutional right are the parents and their wishes should prevail. They have both the constitutional and the natural rights. They also have rights as citizens because we are talking about £2.5 million of taxpayers' money and, therefore, the public voice should prevail at the end of the day.
I asked the Minister what mandate she has to ride roughshod over the will of the parents. All the indications are that the parents and the community want a community school. A number of years ago that seemed to be the unanimous wish. The most recent poll indicated that it was the unanimous wish of the people. We are asking the Minister to do the honourable, decent and democratic thing and listen to the people. The best way to get the views of the people is to hold a plebiscite not in a heated atmosphere but in a cold, objective, analytical atmosphere where all the arguments would be listened to, argued and rationalised.
Who told the Minister that a community college was the preferred choice of the people of Dunboyne? There is another element to this issue which goes back to one of the Minister's predecessors. The first Minister for Education to launch the concept of parent power and to take them from their deferential position at the back of the class, raising their hand in an effort to get in on the education debate, was Deputy O'Rourke. I believe Deputy O'Rourke would not have gone down this road.
How can parents have confidence if such a fundamental issue represents a streamrolling over their views? How can they have confidence in the Minister as their custodian, as Minister for Education, to uphold their rights? How can they have any fundamental belief that when it come to management boards the Minister will ensure they will have equality of numbers, let alone the Chair? How can they have any confidence when it comes to selection committees and making choices of teachers and promotions that their constitutional and natural rights to be represented thereon will be upheld?
I am not pro-VEC or anti-VEC; I am pro-choice, democracy and parents. I ask the Minister to recant, repent, retract, withdraw, to go back to the drawing board and put this matter on hold. We had hoped we were about to enter a new era of participation where parents would undertake their rightful place as equal partners in education. What we have is an unseemly row. I suspect there is a hidden agenda. This is strange especially when we thought the Labour Party had matured into a more open attitude to education. This appears to be a throwback to the old days when at Labour Party conferences the Minister and her colleagues were throwing their arms round each other and calling each other comrades. I suspect there is a hidden agenda that is not in the best interests of education.
What about your Blueshirt tradition?
I am very proud of it. We protected freedom of speech in this country when the Labour Party was not to be seen.
There is a great deal at stake. Not alone is the Minister on trial but so is democracy. Unless the Minister makes the decent democratic decision, April 1994 will be seen as the day democracy died in Dunboyne.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Fine Gael motion. The motion has been dressed up to indicate their concern about a drift in education policy whereas it is quite clear from the contributions so far that it is an effort by the Leader of the Opposition to introduce local politics to Dáil Éireann.
I regret very much that he would use the parents and pupils of Dunboyne for what I would regard as party political purposes. By all means we should have an education debate. One thing I can say is that this Minister is not afraid to enter into debate or to listen to and discuss issues. Last night she outlined the various steps, culminating in the National Education Convention, she has taken during her 14 months in office. This was an exercise in trying to bring together the various strands involved in education to try to reach an agreed position on the White Paper and the education Act. The facts do not bear out the allegations of a lack of discussion and consultation.
At the outset, I should have sought permission to share time with my colleague, Deputy Mary Wallace.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome the Minister's announcement about the provision of a second level school in Dunboyne. Some people in Dunboyne would have preferred if the Minister had announced the establishment of a community or diocesan school, but in correspondence and at meetings I have had with the second level school committee at no time was I told that it was their policy to settle only for a second level voluntary, diocesan or community school. I purposely put this question to them and I was told it was the policy to have a second level school provided in Dunboyne and that the type of management was not an issue. On that basis I pursued the matter with various Ministers for Education and this Minister agreed to provide a second level school in the area.
The first meeting on the Dunboyne second level school that I attended was held shortly after I was elected in 1987 and it was made quite clear that the people in the area wanted a second level school and would not settle for anything less. In the period 1987-91 — I will not dwell on the detailed history as it was recounted by Deputy McGrath and the Minister — I tabled questions on several occasions to various Ministers for Education, particularly when I learned that the proposed school had been put on the back burner.
I had a say in convincing the former Minister for Education, Deputy O'Rourke, to undertake a further survey in the early nineties. A review took place and the demographic information thrown up by that survey confirmed that the provision of a school was more urgent than had been anticipated when the project was put on the back burner. Deputy Noel Davern, the then Minister, announced that a school would be provided and my constituency colleagues and I continued to make representations on a commencement date for the school. Earlier I stated that at no stage did the second level school committee indicate to me that their policy was for a particular type of school. I accept that some members of the committee may have thought that it was accepted that it would be a voluntary secondary school but let me emphasise again that whenever I asked that question I was told it was the committee's policy to have a second level school and the management of it was not at issue.
Subsequent to the Minister's decision I met with the second level school committee in Trim and the first question I put to them was whether it was their policy to provide a particular type of second level school and they confirmed what they had told me earlier, that they had no policy on the type of school. To be fair to the members of the committee, some of them said that a view had been formed that it would be a voluntary or diocesan secondary school but it was not the policy of the committee to have a particular type of school.
What about the survey?
I am relating what I was told. The second level school committee had no policy on the type of school and I operated on the basis that they were seeking a second level school. I was delighted, as were the people of Dunboyne, to hear that a second level school would be built. I have no hesitation in commending the Minister for making that decision.
People vote with their feet and in this instance 120 parents turned up on enrolment day to enrol their children in the school. As far as I am concerned that is the vote that counts. It is the views of people who will attend the school rather than those who may or may not attend the school that are important. I have no doubt the Minister's decision will be vindicated in the future when the school is comparable to any other school in County Meath. I object to the undertone on the type of school approved by the Minister. A number of Opposition speakers have addressed this subject and have acknowledged that the vocational education committee system is good and that they have no objections to it but when I question what is underlying these objections to a community college I can only come to the conclusion that some people have a problem about attending a vocational education committee school.
The schools are almost identical. In a community school there are joint trustees comprising the religious and vocational education committee. There is also a deed of trust. Both sides have a say in determining the policy and the philosophy of the school. While a community college is owned by the vocational education committee the policy and philosophy is decided jointly by the vocational education committee and religious.
The board of management in a community school comprises three members of the religious, three representatives of the vocational education committee, two teachers and two parents. There is a slight difference in the board of management of a community college which comprises three members of the religious, three representatives of the vocational education committee, two teachers and two parents but there is an option to have a nominee of the minority religion. I hope no one in this House will object to this.
While a community school reports directly to the Minister for Education the community college reports to the vocational education committee. Under the deed of trust and the agreements in place there is an onus on the management of a community school to ensure provision for religious education. The same onus is on the management in a community college.
There was a reference by Deputy Keogh in particular to the rights of parents under the Constitution to opt for the system of education of their choice. There is little difference in the system of education provided in a community college and a community school.
There has been much comment about the way in which teaching staff are appointed in a community college. The procedures laid down in the model agreement for community colleges in the Archdiocese of Dublin are almost identical to those laid down for community schools. They provide for public advertisement, a selection board with an equal number of representatives of the religious and the vocational education committee with a Department of Education inspector. In the case of a community school the choice of the selection board is ratified by the board and by the vocational education committee in the case of a community college. If for any reason the board or the vocational education committee should disagree with the choice made the matter has to be referred to the Minister for Education. The provisions for the appointment of staff are almost identical and are designed to ensure that the procedures are seen to be fair.
That is the position in Dublin; what is the position in Meath?
They are the same. I do not accept that teachers are appointed in a different way in vocational education committee schools in County Meath.
Are they political appointments?
They are not. All teachers in the vocational education committee system in County Meath reject the suggestion that the appointments were political. As a former member of the vocational education committee, I can stand over this. It is time members of the Opposition stopped complaining and making allegations and concentrated on the real issues in education. In making this allegation they are casting a slur on every member of the TUI and of the teaching profession in vocational education committee schools. I reject this outright.
That is not true.
What is the Deputy saying?
The curriculum laid down for post primary schools by the Minister is followed in community colleges and community schools and teachers must have similar qualifications. The length of the school year and the examination system is the same in both schools and pupils leave with the same educational qualifications. Can anyone seriously argue that the provision of a community college undermines in some way the right of parents to opt for the system of education that their children deserve?
The question of democracy was raised. What body is more democratic than a vocational education committee which comprises public representatives and people nominated by parents and other groups? While I have great respect for the secondary school system under which I was educated — I also taught in a secondary school — those in authority would have to admit that the system is not democratic although this is now changing for the better.
The Minister of State is now casting a slur on that sector.
I am not.
We have had a very good debate, largely without interruption. I want to maintain it that way.
Boards of management are now being appointed in the secondary school system. I went to the principal, a Christian Brother, in the school in which I taught in Drogheda for interview — there was no board of management — and he made the decision to appoint me as a teacher.
Was it the right way?
A wise choice.
The system was not democratic but I acknowledge that it is now changing for the better. Instructions are laid down for community colleges in relation to the right to religious education and worship. These also apply to community schools.
It has been stated that Mr. Cooney approved the provision of a secondary school in Dunboyne in 1987. I have checked the records in the Department of Education and the only reference I can find is to a post primary school approved in 1987 by Mr. Cooney.
It has been stated also that voluntary secondary schools are being neglected. This is not true. Capital expended on voluntary schools last year amounted to £6.6 million. It is projected that approximately £10 million will be spent this year, which shows that secondary schools have not been abandoned by the Minister or the Department of Education.
I am pleased that the Minister for Education has given the go-ahead for the school in Dunboyne and that it will be a community college as I am committed to the maintenance and strengthening of the vocational education committee system. I commend the Minister for taking this difficult decision. I have said to deputations that I do not want the provision of this school to be hindered. I want to see it going ahead. I hope the Minister will stick to her decision and let us get down to the real business of educating our children.
Would the Deputy agree with the abolition of the vocational education committees? Answer that.
Time is limited in this debate. Interruptions are welcome if they are not disorderly.
I listened to the debate last night and tonight, and there are a few corrections that I want to make. It was exactly 25 years ago that Father Rispin, then parish priest in Dunboyne, announced on the altar the purchase of the site for a post-primary school. It was also 25 years ago that Deputy John Bruton was elected as a Deputy for that area. Twenty five years ago I was a nine year old child attending the Dunboyne primary school. I was one of the children who had to go to school in Dublin because there was no post-primary school in Dunboyne. Twenty years after Father Rispin made that announcement, I was elected to the Dáil on a commitment to fight for a school for Dunboyne. That is what I have done, with my fellow public representatives. The announcement has now been made.
A few corrections are warranted relating to what the Fine Gael spokesperson on education said last night, including his comment about Pat Cooney approving the school. Nothing happened in Dunboyne until the school was sanctioned in February 1992 by the Fianna Fáil Minister, Deputy Noel Davern. In January 1992 I was told by the post-primary school committee that we needed to get a letter from the Department of Education that included the phrase "the school is now sanctioned". In February 1992 we got that letter and from then on things started to happen. People from the Department of Education came to Dunboyne to survey the site and, in July 1992, the five Deputies at the time wrote to the Minister supporting his proposals, informing the Minister that the bishop was suggesting the building of a diocesan secondary school and that they would support that too if it meant speeding up the matter. That needs to be clarified. The question of a diocesan secondary school came into the debate because it was seen as a quicker option, and for no other reason that I know of. Until then we had always spoken about a community school.
Deputy Wallace knew the parents' choice but her colleague did not?
I had no doubt about the parents' choice. I am 100 per cent certain that the parents chose a community school in 1987; 70 per cent of the people voted for that. I believe that and I do not question it. I wonder why Fine Gael is questioning it by seeking a plebiscite. I suggest that it would be better to back the 1987 decision of 70 per cent of the people to look for a community school. One of the Fine Gael speakers referred last night to the fact that in 1986 Ashbourne chose a community school which is to open in September this year. In 1987 Dunboyne chose a community school. The school is opening in September 1994 as a community college. If we are all sure about what took place in 1986 in Ashbourne and in 1987 in Dunboyne, why is there need for a plebiscite? We know what the outcome would be. We know too that the Minister chose a different type of school.
The Deputy is playing with words.
Two years ago the school was sanctioned by the then Minister, Deputy Noel Davern. Everybody knew that the big question was money. I worked closely with the Minister, Deputy Niamh Bhreathnach, and lobbied the Minister for Finance for extra money for the post-primary school buildings programme, not just for Dunboyne but for the extension in Dunshaughlin and the Ashbourne school. In south-east Meath we were starved of places at post-primary level because there was not enough money in the post-primary budget.
In the Estimates that came out before Christmas there was extra money and we rejoiced at that. On budget night there was more money for the post-primary school budget. That night, 26 January, I met with the Minister in her office, having asked Deputy Fitzgerald to come with me, to confirm whether, funding not now being an issue, we could go ahead with the announcement relating to Dunboyne and, on the basis that the Hartstown school went ahead in 1992, make the announcement in February so that the school would be in place for September 1994, albeit in temporary accommodation. We know that the new school could not be built in that short a time. Two weeks later the £2.5 million announcement was made.
The Deputy did not make it though. She was off stage.
It was made. Although we were delighted with the £2.5 million there were three things that we had to question. Two of them have since been solved. The first was that there was no mention of temporary accommodation for September 1994 and for us in Dunboyne that was critical. Neither was there mention that even if there was temporary accommodation for September 1994, it would be located in Dunboyne. The third question related to the management structure of the community college. The temporary accomodation was agreed two weeks later for September 1994. It was also agreed that the children would not go to Hartstown but would have to be housed in Dunboyne in prefabricated buildings.
For all this we are very grateful. We are grateful for the £2.5 million contract which will be started in Dunboyne this time next year and completed by September 1996. We are grateful that temporary accommodation will be ready for September 1994 and that it will be located in Dunboyne. The only disappointment related to the management structure. Certainly the people of Dunboyne did vote in 1987 for a community school and they were surprised at the announcement of a community college. The proposal relating to a diocesan secondary school was mooted only to be helpful; we thought it would be a quicker option because the bishop owned the site. The bishop said he would build a diocesan secondary school in Dunboyne if it would hurry things up, while the Minister said we should have a community college. In the middle were the people who wanted to compromise, who voted for a community school in 1987. The bishop's proposed school would be 100 per cent Church-controlled; the Minister's proposed school would be 100 per cent State-controlled. The one in between, the community school, would be controlled equally by Church and State. In 1987, and again at the public meeting in February 1994, the people asked if the Minister would agree to a compromise which would make everybody happy. It was a pity the compromise could not have been reached. We should have been lighting bonfires in Dunboyne at the prospect of a £2.5 million contract coming into our area.
Will the Deputy vote with us?
We are delighted, but it is a pity about the management structure.
Previous speakers spoke about the situation in Dublin. I will refer to the County Cork model which has a management structure which is a 50:50 split and, instead of four members of the vocational education committee and two representatives of the bishop. There are three representatives for each. That is something that can be considered. The board of management in Dunboyne is not due to be appointed until 16 May 1994.
Sixty children enrolled on enrolment day and another four have enrolled since. To be fair to the principal teacher who has been appointed to this school, he has done an excellent job in meeting with parents. The people who have enrolled their children in that school have given it their vote of confidence. However, 50 per cent of the people who turned up on enrolment day questioned the management structure. They wanted to back the school and not boycott it. They did not want to jeopardise it but they were certainly concerned about the management structure. Nobody wants to do anything that will delay the building of this school. A plebiscite might delay it and we know what the result would be. We know that 70 per cent of the people wanted a community school and none of us is in any doubt about that.
The motion provided an opportunity to have a debate on this important issue. I support the Minister's amendment because it highlights the greatly increased budget for capital spending on second level education. I lobbied the Minister, Deputy Ahern, for some time in this regard and am delighted he has provided the additional money for the Department of Education. I support the amendment which refers to the decision of the Minister to sanction a second level school in Dunboyne. She must be congratulated for her work at the education conference in Dublin Castle and she would be a very popular person in Dunboyne if she reconsidered the management structure.
She would be popular if she listened to the parents.
The motion tabled by Fine Gael purports to be essentially about parental involvement in education and the rights of parents to be consulted. However, as I suspected, it is essentially about the type of second level school that should be located in Dunboyne. Having listened to the contributions of two colleagues from the Meath constituency I suspect this is a local issue and somewhat similar to the position of the unfortunate Meath corner back in Croke Park last Sunday.
Did we not do well?
As I do not represent the constituency and am not a member of a party which has a representative there, I am at a loss in regard to this debate. I am depending on the fairly extensive press coverage of the issue and the debate here to establish what this is about.
From my understanding of the matter, it is essentially a question of whether the school in Dunboyne should be a community college or a community school. There are many parts of this country, including parts of my constituency which I share with the Minister, where parents would be very glad to have the luxury of debating whether their second level school should be a community school or a community college. In many areas parents have been seeking a second level school for years. This has been the case in Dunboyne for the past 25 years since the parish priest first called for the establishment of a community school, notwithstanding his opinion of Deputy Bruton's candidacy during the general election and its influence on the outcome of this matter.
Most people cannot understand why there should be a debate about the difference between a community college and a community school. Their titles, buildings and the subjects taught in them are similar. At one time a vocational education committee controlled school was assumed to teach mainly practical subjects whereas secondary schools were assumed to teach academic subjects, but that is no longer the case. All schools in the second level sector now teach a similar range of subjects. Practical subjects are taught in some of the more exclusive schools and academic subjects, up to honours leaving certificate level, are taught in vocational education committees. Postleaving certificate courses which were once almost exclusively confined to the vocational education committee sector are now being held in the voluntary sector. Therefore, the same subjects are taught in community schools and community colleges. Teachers in both schools must qualify in the same way, have similar professional competence and there are only minor differences in their boards of management. It is regrettable if this is a question of whether there should be three representatives from the vocational education committee and three from the Church or whether the ratio should be 4:2. Most people would regard such a debate as obscure.
The only difference I discern relates to the question of control and ownership and it is regrettable that it is debated so vehemently when there is a willingness on the part of most people involved in education — the Minister, vocational education committees, parents or teacher unions — to co-operate in producing the best possible education system and schooling for our children. It is also regrettable that some people, particularly members of the churches, have sought to include as a central element in the debate the question of control and ownership. In the lead up to the education convention, I recall spokespersons for the Catholic Church in particular making controversial remarks about the question of ownership and control and their right to hire and fire teachers. It is unwise of the Church authorities to place that issue on the agenda because other people do not consider it of such importance. It is as if the churches think there is a hidden agenda and that somebody wants to drive them out of education. I do not know of anybody who wants to do that. They have made an honourable and generous contribution to education and many of us are beneficiaries of the educational skills of their members. Some of the best educationalists are in the churches and I am not aware of anybody in the educational field who wants to push them out of education. Most people in education are trying to involve the churches in a new relationship in the education field, a field in which there is an equal relationship involving parents, teachers, the churches and the State representing the taxpayers who provide the money for the educational service. A major debate is taking place as to what balance should be struck in that area.
It is regrettable that the Dunboyne school issue has been elevated to a type of test case in this debate. I respect the opinion of parents on this issue, but it is becoming a test case for an obscure battle about control of educational resources that should not be part of a debate on education. Although I respect Deputy McGrath's entitlement to do so, it is regrettable that this matter has been presented here cloaked in the velvet glove of the notion of parental involvement. Effectively, what we are asked to do here is to say it should be a community school. That is what this motion is about and I do not propose to support it.
As the issue has been put on the agenda, perhaps the Minister and other interests in education should take on board the question of the role and involvement of parents in the educational system. I am a strong believer in the involvement of parents in the educational system and in the principle of parents as the primary educators. That should not be confined to periodic consultation with representative bodies of parents, be it at the education forum or at meetings between Department representatives or other educational authorities and parents. The principle and idea of the rights of parents to determine the education of their children should be pursued more actively. It is encouraging that this issue has been put on the agenda, albeit with a different end in view.
It is not a school choice.
I will deal with the question of school choice. Many schools have been built in the past 25 to 30 years, especially in developing urban areas around the perimeter of Dublin and other cities. There was little consultation with parents about what type of schools they should be.
In the area of primary education the question of parental choice may be more immediate. It is argued that children attending second level schools are more mobile and in theory there is some degree of choice. However, at primary level one is stuck with the school in the area in which one lives. During the past 25 to 30 years few parents were consulted about the type of school in which their child should be educated. When an area was being developed a small committee was established comprising officers of the local authority, representatives of Archbishop's House and of the Department of Education. They decided before people moved in to new housing estates what type of schools should be provided. The result was a crude head count on religious grounds. The numbers of Catholics and Protestants were counted and a decision was made as to how many Catholic schools were needed and where schools for other denomination should be located.
Parents who wanted a different type of education, whether multi-denominational, Gael scoileanna or whatever, had to obtain it the hard way. In many cases they had to battle against the most outrageous obstacles put in their way when they tried to establish forms of schooling to meet their needs. That is not the way our educational resources should be organised.
The Minister for Education should take up the statements by Bishop Smith and other bishops about parental involvement. She should discuss with them the establishment of a permanent arrangement for the consultation of parents on the choice of school to be established in particular areas. She should do so in a way which establishes parental wishes. In the primary area she should establish the number of children over a given period who will require denominational education of one type or another, multi-denominational education or a Gael scoile and seek to ensure that the resources for school buildings are provided.
The Minister should seek to put back into the educational system school buildings no longer in use. I asked questions about the number of schools closed in recent years. I have details of figures from the Minister given in a reply on 17 November last and from her predecessor, Deputy Brennan, on 14 October 1992. Thirty-seven schools were closed in 1988, 21 in 1989, 18 in 1990, 27 in 1991, 21 in 1992 and 13 in 1993. Many national schools are no longer in use and I ask the Minister what has happened to them. In many cases the property is being sold for speculative housing and other types of development.
Recently, the owners of St. Anne's School in Milltown, which has not been closed, spotted a chance to make money. Like the owners of the Shamrock Rovers grounds, they discovered there was great money to be made by closing the school and selling the property for housing or other speculative development. Many schools provided by taxpayers' money but vested in private ownership are being sold for such development. Many are located in communities in which there is a demand for an alternative type of schooling. That practice should not be allowed. If there is a willingness now — the Minister should put this to the test — on the part of church authorities to give parents the ultimate say and recognise their right to be primary educators, that writ should apply beyond Dunboyne across the whole educational system. The wishes of parents should be established. It should also be established if churches are prepared to allow school buildings to be used for alternative education purposes when no longer required for use as a denominational school.
The involvement of parents in education has been put on the Dáil agenda. We should put this issue to the test by making parents the primary educators. Let us have democracy in that area. With available technology it is possible to have a formal system whereby parents will be periodically consulted about their educational needs. Depending on the demographic shifts over time those needs will inevitably change. A primary school building may be no longer needed for that purpose but there is no reason it could not be used at second level or for adult education classes instead of being sold out of the educational system.
I welcome the fact that the issue of educational involvement is on the agenda. In the context of the controversy in Dunboyne it is something of a Trojan horse. The idea should be taken up, acted on and parents given real involvement to vindicate their constitutional rights in respect of the education of their children. I wish to share the remainder of my time with Deputy Deenihan.
The taste of democracy becomes bitter when its fullness is denied. In the case of Dunboyne the taste of democracy is extraordinarily bitter because that fullness is denied in the most fundamental way. In a country that purports to be a democracy, democracy is denied in the issue of parental right to choice in education and the right to a say in the schooling of their children. The parents of Dunboyne have been denied the right and that is unprecedented in the history of Irish education. We have come to associate this position with the totalitarian states of Eastern Europe before the collapse of communism. The Minister's decision is evocative of Henry Ford's dictum: you can have any colour you like provided it is black. The Minister is saying you can have any school you like provided it is a community college and in doing so she has contrived to cast a cloud over the splendid work in which these schools are engaged.
The Deputy is doing that.
The question being asked by those who care and by those who are interested in education is why the Minister is behaving in this way. She may argue that she is being influenced by democratic considerations, but this is palpable nonsense in that the majority of those involved, in this case parents, have demonstrated again and again their preference for a deed of trust community school.
Many people involved in education are firmly convinced that the decision reflects the ideological bent and disposition of the Minister and Government. If this is an accurate analysis of the position the Minister should have the courage of her convictions, come clean and declare publicly that the decision is primarily ideological and that this is the shape of things to come. She has launched the education service in a direction without precedent.
Some cynics are of the opinion that the decision is not based on principle, that it is a sop to the vocational education committees. This is the worst of all worlds in that it patronises the vocational education committees who deserve better than to be treated in such a fashion. Why should the Minister propose a sop to the vocational education committees when she is about to dismantle them under her proposal for a reorganisation of education and the introduction of regional bodies? It is perplexing. Maybe the Minister blundered into this decision because she did not know or comprehend the differences and distinctions between community school and community college. Whatever the reason behind the decision, whatever the principled pragmatic misadventure, the House, the education system and the country are entitled to an explanation and a rationale, but this has not been forthcoming.
In the context of the Green Paper and the forthcoming White Paper and Education Bill, the Minister travelled the country preaching the virtues of democracy, accountability, transparency and partnership. The principle behind the Minister's decision on the Dunboyne issue amounts to political nonsense. It is a high price to pay for the principle of democracy when the Minister violates Labour Party policy on parental involvement in education, the principles and commitments in the Programme for Government and the guidelines of the Department of Education in this matter. For example, Circular M27/91 to management of secondary schools states:
The Department recognises that schools-family relationships are particularly important. As the primary educators of the child, the parents have a right to be assured that the child's needs are being met by the school. It follows that the parents should be given as much information as possible on all aspects of the child's progress and development. Parents as a body are also entitled to know whether the school and the education system are meeting the children's needs.
The Minister is corrected by her Department's guidelines. This is not democracy or partnership at work. What about the principle of accountability in education? The Minister singularly failed in this criterion also. Why has there not been an explanation or clarification on this extraordinary decision? The Minister has continually fudged this issue.
Where does the Minister stand on the issue of transparency? Will she explain to the House, the education system and the country why she attempted in a hamfisted and bizarre fashion to use the Official Secrets Acts to curtail legitimate debate on a matter of public interest and attempted to extend the operations of that Act to responsible partners in the education process? This may be GUBU II at one level, but at another level it is serious in that it represents a conscious, deliberate attempt to stymie debate on an issue of public concern. It contrasts most acutely with the commitment of the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste to open government. My information is that the Minister attempted such a course of action.
And open schools.
Why did she engage in this exercise? The whole world knows that despite their loyalty to the Minister, the Government and the institutions of State, many key officials believe that the Minister's decision is ludicrous and they have attempted to distance themselves from it. The Minister must confront this reality rather than engage in a cover up through the mechanism of the Official Secrets Act. Will the Minister say why the officials take this view?
This is a disgrace.
The Minister is a disgrace.
What model of partnership is being promulgated by the Minister in the Dunboyne case? It is a partnership that ignores the wishes of the most important people in the enterprise. The Minister stated last night that no one partner should dominate, but the Minister is in breach of that principle in the Dunboyne case, or does she not see herself as a partner in this enterprise?
In Dunboyne the principles of democracy are being undermined and subvented by a Government with a huge majority. We find that some are more equal than others. We are experiencing the antics of big brother and the process of thought control.
If the Minister pursues this policy and this decision she will have crossed the Rubicon. She will import ideology into the education system, a system that operated successfully without ideological debates or intrusions. If this happens the Minister's name will, I regret to say, go into the history books not as a reforming Minister but as a person who had a dictatorial role in the education system.
She provided schools that the Deputy's colleague could not provide.
A similar case could arise in my county and I hope that before a decision is made on a major amalgamation, consultation will take place with the school authorities and the parents involved so that they will have an input in the decision. I have followed closely the Dunboyne issue and the Minister has set a very dangerous precedent in this instance. She is importing ideology that has never been used in the system——
The Deputy brought it in.
——and that will never be fully understood. I find it extraordinary that there are two hecklers over here. Deputy Fitzgerald had very strong views on the coursing issue but he marched in behind the Government on it. When he had to make a decision on that matter he was found wanting. I am referring to the principle behind the Minister's actions in this instance. As a former teacher, I believe it is the wrong way to proceed. It is not the solution. If the Minister ignores the parents' wishes, she will do so at her peril.
Deputy Higgins said earlier he is not pro or anti-VEC, but quite clearly he is anti-VEC, as is his party. He cast aspersions on every pupil, past pupil, teacher, parent and interest involved in the vocational education system and he should be ashamed of himself.
I was a member of a vocational education committee and I pointed out that what the Minister is doing is a disgrace.
The Deputy's colleague, Deputy McGrath, argued strenuously about the exclusive right of parents to decide on the type of school their children attend. The Minister dealt with this argument comprehensively yesterday and it is the most reported part of her speech in today's media. Parents are one of the partners but there are other partners involved and there is also the issue of the general good of society. The Minister, in her brief career, has an outstanding record of consultation with all interests. A previous Fianna Fáil speaker said the previous Minister for Education introduced parent power. This Minister has increased that impetus. In the national education convention she deliberately went out of her way to consult all interests in education and she did so on her position paper on local education structures.
This Minister has had a tremendous record of consulting the interests involved, far more than any other Minister for Education in the history of the State. I have had to listen to this nonsense about ideology from Deputy Deenihan and it is quite evident from him and his colleagues' contribution that whatever decision was made by the Minister would have been elevated to a statement of national policy. If she had decided on a voluntary secondary school, this would have been seen as the pattern for the future and likewise, if she had opted for a community school. The kind of arguments now being put forward about ideology and so on would have been applied to any decision the Minister might make.
As I understand it, the decision made by the Minister relates to a particular case, namely, Dunboyne. It does not represent a statement of national policy. It does not prejudge White Paper proposals nor does it pre-empt any debate surrounding the White Paper. A community college was chosen for Dunboyne because it is part of the clear pattern developed and enunciated by many Minister, as far back as 1976 and prior to the current Minister taking office, as to the most suitable school for a green field situation.
It must be said that the saddest role in this whole phoney debate in the past few days has been played by the Leader of the Opposition. He is the local Deputy, the person who should know better and who has one of the longest careers in this House. Deputy Wallace remarked that the struggle for this school went on for 25 years but during that time the Deputy from Dunboyne was a Member of this House and held high office, including a post in the Department of Education. Yet, was there any progress in relation to this matter. There was no progress until this Minister came forward with this wonderful news for the people and the children of Dunboyne. Deputy Bruton should not interfere or play politics with the education of the children of his own area. That is a most regrettable course of action and one that he should not have embarked upon.
I must remember to take the Deputy's advice.
It has been said that the Minister is in some way trying to lever the Church out of education but if one were to examine the pattern of capital expenditure in 1993 and 1994 in relation to second level education, they would see that this Minister has displayed a most even-handed approach between the voluntary sector, community schools and community colleges. The facts and the figures are there as she elucidated them for us last night.
What about the green field site?
Capital expenditure has been allocated depending on the specific needs of each situation. I am proud to say I am a teacher and for most of my career I taught with the Christian Brothers and with teachers in other voluntary secondary schools. It was one of the most astonishing achievements of this Minister, and this partnership Government, that two of the most famous Christian Brothers schools in my area on the north side, St. David's CBS in Artane and St. Aidan's CBS in Whitehall, got the go ahead this year for new buildings following a 25 year struggle. This Minister does not carry ideological baggage and it is nonsense to infer that she does.
Reference has been made to the constitutional issues. They do not affect the Dunboyne situation and, furthermore, there are more complex and diverse views, and even arguments, on the constitutional issues, that the constitutional provisions conflict with each other. I do not propose to pretend they can be analysed and fully clarified in this debate but many of the comments made display a misunderstanding of the complex constitutional issues relating to education and a disregard for the role and constitutional rights of the general community.
The Minister's decision in no way diminishes or attacks the constitutional rights of parents as the primary educators of children, with which we all agree. It is a gross over-simplification of a complex area of constitutional law to imply that parents have the final direct say in all and every aspect of the educational system. The decision in no way impacts negatively on the religious, moral, intellectual, physical or social education of children. Neither does it represent coercion by the State, in violation of the conscience of lawful preference of parents, to send their children to a school. These parental rights are acknowledged and guaranteed by the Constitution. The decision is one properly arrived at by the constitutionally appropriate arm of Government which, in the context of the separation of powers, also provided for in the Constitution, is charged with the allocation of resources in the interest of the whole community.
A community college will be opened in Dunboyne in September 1994. As the Minister stated last night, the people of Dunboyne effectively voted with their feet on that famous day of 9 April, and voted confidence in the new school and the new principal.
That is not what Deputy Wallace said.
I would repeat what the Minister said; the new building will meet the highest possible standards and will provide excellent educational opportunities for the children of Dunboyne. There has been much argument about parental choice.
I must ask the Deputy to conclude.
The Opposition has sought to hype this issue because of its incapacity to identify and develop arguments on substantial issues. When has a member of the Opposition — even an ex-teacher like Deputy Deenihan — given any comprehensive view on or made any contribution to an education debate? I am confident that in 12 months time the people of Dunboyne will remember Minister Bhreathnach as the Minister who gave them a school and these political, opportunistic and hypocritical arguments, which have been advanced by Deputy Bruton, among others, will have faded into the oblivion they deserve.
I wish to share my time with Deputy John Bruton.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I am glad Deputy Broughan's contribution had to be terminated because he was digging a very big hole for himself and he had been allowed to continue digging, it is hard to know where he would have ended up and what difficulties he would have got into.
I thank the people who contributed to this debate, including Deputy John Browne (Carlow-Kilkenny), the Minister for Education, Deputy Bhreathnach, Deputy Brian Fitzgerald, Deputy Keogh, Deputy Jim Higgins, Deputy Dempsey, Deputy Mary Wallace, Deputy Gilmore, Deputy Deenihan and Deputy Broughan. Some inaccurate statements were made tonight by the Minister of State, Deputy Dempsey, and Deputy Mary Wallace. They indicated that I said last night that a former Minister for Education Patrick Cooney, had sanctioned a voluntary secondary school for Dunboyne. That is incorrect and I have been completely misquoted. I will quote from my script for the record of the House:
In 1985 this committee got a commitment from the then Minister for Education, Gemma Hussey, that a second level school would be built in Dunboyne. This sanction was progressed a step further by the new Minister for Education, Patrick Cooney, who, in 1986 gave the go ahead for either a voluntary secondary school or a community school.
That is the quote and I would ask Deputies not to misquote me in future.
It was not a sanction, it was only an approval. The Deputy should not use the term "sanction".
Deputy Dempsey and Deputy Wallace outlined clearly to the House the situation that pertains in the Dublin and Cork areas in relation to community colleges but they did not outline the situation in Meath.
They asked that the Meath system would copy the Dublin system. They went on to state that a board of management would be appointed in the near future, within a month or so.
On 16 May.
If that is the case do they not think that this Minister would have the courtesy to at least ask the diocesan authorities whether they wanted to be involved in a system such as they have in Dublin——
They have been asked.
——and give them the option of being in or out? To my knowledge, to date they have not been asked this.
They have been asked. Deputy McGrath has his facts wrong; he should let his colleague, Deputy Bruton, speak.
There should be no megaphone diplomacy without meeting them face to face and getting them involved. That is total arrogance.
Fianna Fáil and Labour, by supporting the imposition of one particular type of school in Dunboyne against the wishes of local parents, are showing that they do not believe in partnership in education. They are willing to involve parents in minor educational decisions but when it comes to a major decision, such as choosing the type of school for a particular area, the Minister alone makes the decision. That is not partnership.
This represents a major change of policy for Fianna Fáil. Up to now, Fianna Fáil supported the principle of allowing parents a real say in deciding the management structure of their local school. In Ashbourne, for example, Fianna Fáil supported the following of precedents set by previous Governments and agreed to allow local people there decide whether they wanted a community school or a community college. In Dunboyne, under pressure from the Labour Party——
The Deputy is wrong.
——Fianna Fáil is accepting the statist principle that the Minister alone should decide the issue. The parents of Dunboyne are informed and wise enough, and have sufficient commitment to social justice, to be allowed to make a choice for themselves between a community college or a community school without having a "superior" person deciding the issue for him.
Labour Party speakers in this debate have tried to say that those who demand a right to choose for the parents of Dunboyne have some antipathy towards community colleges or vocational education committee run schools in general. This is not the case. I demand a plebiscite be held on this issue for one reason: it is the democratic entitlement of the people of Dunboyne to make that choice. The Minister's decision to refuse to allow the people the option of choosing a community school or a diocesan school is capable of being construed as a reflection, by her, on the quality of education provided in community schools. She is not willing to allow the people in Dunboyne to choose a community school.
What is the Minister's hidden agenda? What has she against community schools that she would not even allow the people in Dunboyne the opportunity to choose a community school but decided her will had to be imposed? If we are looking for a hidden agenda, as the Labour Party members seem to be, and for people to blame and malicious motives behind the scenes, we might look at the malicious motives of the Minister in saying that the people should not be allowed the option of choosing a community school.
Why did the Deputy not provide it?
What has the Minister got against the community school in Coolmine and elsewhere that the people should not even be allowed the possibility of choosing such a school? What has she against the many diocesan and voluntary schools that she would not allow them the possibility of deciding in favour of either of these? What has she against those who teach in community schools, secondary schools and those who attend community schools? What has she against those parents who choose to send their children to community schools rather than community colleges? What is the poor opinion she has of those people that she would not allow the people in Dunboyne to select such a school?
This is a national not a local issue. Those who reject the principle that Dunboyne parents should have a say in this case are seeking to establish a new principle that all parents be excluded from decisions in regard to the choice of management structure for their local school.
The Deputy is on a dangerous path.
That will be the rule henceforth if the Minister gets away with this tonight and if Fianna Fáil let her do so. It is a deliberate pattern to centralise control of education which is part of the new agenda of Labour and Fianna Fáil.
The Deputy was a Minister also.
This was implicitly admitted by the Minister for Education in the debate last night. The only argument she advanced in favour of imposing a community college was one that would equally apply in favour of a community school except she said the Minister must be satisfied that those involved in running the school are ultimately accountable to her as regards expenditure of State funds——
——and for implementation of educational policy in the wider sense. That is why the Minister went for a community college.
The Deputy had no problem. He accepted it.
A community college is a State run school whereas a community school is effectively run by the local board of management.
Remember last February.
Community colleges have boards of management but these boards have no control over the financial affairs of the school or over teacher appointments. That is the difference.
I will accept any structure.
Community school boards would make the important educational decision about appointing teachers and about finance locally. That is one of the reasons the local people want a community school. They would have control over the way the school is run.
The Deputy had no problem with it.
If the Chair would protect me from these unruly Labour Party Deputies who are good at talking about free speech for themselves but not for others——
Who delivered the school? The Deputy failed to deliver it for over 25 years.
The Deputy to continue without interruption.
This is not a matter of Church versus State but whether local people should control their own school or whether it should be run by a vocational education committee or a regional education authority sitting in Navan, Wicklow or elsewhere. The people in Dunboyne want control of their own school and the Minister's option will deny them that opportunity.
The Deputy was against that.
The Minister of State, Deputy Dempsey, regretted bringing local politics into the Dáil.
The Deputy forgot about Dunboyne when he was a Minister.
The people of Dunboyne do not want local politics brought into the internal affairs of their local second level school. Many in Dunboyne object to the extensive role played by local politicians in appointing teachers in community colleges. That is the way the teacher appointment system works in community colleges. It is something to which the unions representing teachers in such colleges object and it is a system the Minister seems willing to impose on the people in Dunboyne.
That is a scandalous slur.
The local board of management has responsibility for running the school and should appoint teachers not a panel of local politicians meeting in Navan, Wicklow, Dublin or elsewhere.
The Deputy to continue, without interruption.
The Minister of State, Deputy Dempsey, claimed that a community college and a community school are almost identical, an endearing phrase. They are not. If the Minister believes they are, why does he object to the people of Dunboyne deciding which they want?
The Deputy had 25 years in which to provide this school.
It was in 1968.
Some have claimed that allowing the parents to decide in a plebiscite what sort of school they want would hold up the building of the school. The contrary is the case. If the people voted for a community school it would be provided quickly because a site is more readily available for a community school than for a community college.
Why is it not available for a community college?
Deputy Wallace said it was a pity the Minister did not accept the compromise of a community school. The really pitiful sight is the abject failure of Deputy Wallace and her Fianna Fáil colleagues who believe the people should be allowed have a say in this issue to stand by their convictions and the democratic rights of the people to decide on this issue.
The Deputy has been a Member for 25 years, I have been a Member for only five years.
We are talking about whether the Minister alone should decide this issue. The people of Dunboyne want a community school. The Minister does not and many have questioned the validity of that decision. In order to assure the Minister, if such assurance would sway her thinking, that the people want a community school a plebiscite should be held.
They wanted it 25 years ago.
The Deputy was a Minister.
If we are looking for a compromise, I am aware that the Catholic Bishop of Meath would be willing to accept the results of a plebiscite and co-operate fully with a community college if that were the outcome.
He was not prepared to accept it at the end of October.
If the Minister and Fianna Fáil are looking for a compromise, that is a fair one. The Bishop and people will accept the result and so should the Minister.
Now the Deputy is admitting there is a hidden agenda.
The level of interruption from Members who had an opportunity to speak in the debate and pour out all their bile in their speeches indicates clearly that they might do with a spell in the community school.