(Laoighis-Offaly): Is it in order to share my time with Deputy Costello?
Education Bill, 1997: Second Stage (Resumed).
I am sure that is agreed. Agreed.
(Laoighis-Offaly): When I concluded last Tuesday there was no rush by Members on the opposite side of the House to contribute to the debate. I ask the Minister to ensure that, with the introduction of regional education boards, proper methods of local consultation are put in place so that the problem of lack of communication experienced by people in their dealings with health boards does not arise with the proposed education boards. In the case of health boards the only form of local consultation, local health committees, was abolished by the main Opposition party when in Government. Suggestions have been put to the Minister by various educational interests about consultation and input to policy-making at sub-regional level and I am sure she will take those suggestions on board.
I am glad that for the first time in the history of the State we are enacting legislation on governing our education system and that the roles, functions and responsibilities of boards of management are clearly outlined. Those of us who have dealings with boards of management, particularly of national schools, are aware that those boards operate very effectively, but unfortunately in many cases they meet seldom if at all, and those participating on them are unclear about their roles and responsibilities.
That is particularly true in respect of parents' representatives. From my discussions with parents' representatives at local level, they are very happy with the proposals on boards of management. The functions of the board of management and the role of parents in the operation of the board of management are clearly outlined. More importantly, parents' councils are given statutory rights to function at school level, to be represented on regional education boards and to be recognised through the National Parents' Council as national partners in the education system. It is clear from parents' comments that they very much support the Bill in that regard. It will be to the Minister's credit when the Bill becomes law that parents, for the first time, will have a statutory role in the education system. The Bill gives legal effect to the aspiration in the Constitution that parents are the primary educators of children.
I am disappointed with some of the remarks made, particularly in the past week, about the Bill. Where have many of those commentators been for the past four or five years? There was very good consultation at the National Education Convention.
It is a pity it was not taken note of.
(Laoighis-Offaly): Many of those expressing opinions on this matter, whether in national or local newspapers, have not read the Bill. The Long Title of the Bill sets out clearly what is proposed in the legislation, which is totally at variance with the allegations made, particularly in some local newspapers. The Bill is entitled “An Act to make provision in the interests of the common good for the education of every child in the State, including any child with a disability or special educational needs, and to provide generally for primary, post-primary, adult and continuing education and vocational education and training; to ensure that the educational system is accountable to students, their parents and the State for the education provided, respects the diversity of values, beliefs and traditions in Irish society and is conducted in a spirit of partnership between schools, patrons, students, parents, staff and the State”. It also states other objectives.
I commend the Long Title to Deputy Harney who, in recent days, tried to manufacture a political bandwagon on this issue. Her comments are ill-informed, ill-judged, inaccurate and are not credible coming from the leader of a party which, in its early days, tried to banish God from the Constitution. It is regrettable she is not in the House to comment on this because her new found conversion does not tally with the aim of her party in its early days. We want genuine pluralism and partnership in our education system and I thought Deputy Harney's party was committed to those principles. This Bill seeks to put those principles into practice.
I welcome the provision for an appeals procedure. Those who have dealt with complaints from parents, teachers and others at local level know the current grievance procedure is unfair and unsatisfactory. While I expect amendments will be made to the detail of this on Committee Stage, I support the objectives in this regard. Parents to whom I have spoken also support this provision.
I have received a number of requests to amend the Bill, particularly from the second level sector, and I have brought them to the Minister's attention. Changes can be made. However, I am disappointed some parties still imply that their continued support for the process is contingent on the abolition of the vocational education committees. I thought we had passed that stage a long time ago. That subject should not be revisited now. We are talking about genuine pluralism and choice. As chairman of a vocational education committee I would not claim our continued participation in the debate was contingent on the abolition of the rights of another patron or party. I am disappointed some parties still seek the abolition of the vocational education committee as a statutory agency.
The Commission on School Accommodation Needs carried out a review of the vocational education committee system last year, which will be the subject of a debate in the House at a later stage. I caution the Minister to adopt a slow and considered approach to the rationalisation of vocational education committees. I welcome her aim to bring about a revitalised and strengthened vocational education committee system, but it should be done in full consultation with the vocational education committees. If the matter is handled in a proper manner, co-operation can be strengthened.
I would like clarification on the relationship between the vocational education committees and the education boards, particularly regarding their involvement in the appeals procedure. The vocational education committee is already a statutory committee, but the Bill does not refer to its involvement in the appeals procedure. It would be wise to examine how the statutory committee could be included in the appeals procedure and other patrons might also want to be included.
I would also like clarification on the appointment of principals. My reading of the Bill indicates that the appointment of staff and teachers in the vocational education committee will remain a matter for the vocational education committee, but the appointment of principals will become a matter for the board of management. The vocational education committees need to be to be responsible for its staff appointments. Vocational education committees need to be assured they will continue to play a primary role in the provision of adult and community education, particularly in the VTOS and other schemes.
I welcome the legislation and compliment the Minister on the wide ranging and consultative manner in which she introduced it. This is the most important legislation on education introduced since the last century. For the first time, a legislative, accountable and participatory framework is being provided in the education system. I pay tribute to all who contributed to our education system in the past, particularly the religious bodies which since the last century have given sterling service to it with very few resources. We must introduce wide ranging legislation that covers the entire education system from primary to second level. We must provide a framework in this area for the next millennium.
I am extremely disappointed at Fianna Fáil's attempt to filibuster the legislation.
We have been discussing it for only a few hours.
The entire debate will last only four hours.
It does not seem to recognise the education system has been operating under a 19th century circular for the past 100 years.
The Deputy needs to be educated on the meaning of "filibustering".
Members of the Progressive Democrats have made some outrageous comments and showed no interest up to now. They now claim the Bill will undermine the denominational character of the system. I welcome this constructive legislation.
I wish to share time with Deputy Mícheál Kitt.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle
I am sure that is in order and agreed.
I am disappointed the Minister and this so-called open Government did not allow a longer debate on this matter. It raises a question about their intent.
Education is the cornerstone on which society depends for development and growth. Changes in the education system deserve and demand detailed consideration. Interested parties must be given sufficient time to study and digest the proposed changes and to formulate their policy decisions on them. The manner in which the Bill is being rushed through the Oireachtas is the antithesis of the democratic process and utterly unsatisfactory. It is patently clear it is being rushed through because of the impending general election. The Minister and her party want their philosophy enshrined in law before the general election and will use the guillotine today to stifle the views of the many democratically elected Members who wish to speak on the Bill because of its importance for their constituents and the country as a whole.
Openness, transparency and accountability were the catch words of the new Taoiseach and his rainbow Government in 1994. They implied greater involvement of the people and greater devolution from the centre. However, like many other matters, this Bill flies in the face of those high flying principles mooted in the forgotten days of November and December 1994.
The Bill reinforces and strengthens ministerial control over education and does not devolve authority from the top. Resources available to the Department should be put into the classroom and used to provide for children with special needs, to provide science equipment in classrooms, adequate classroom and recreational space, more remedial teachers and to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio. However, the Minister is setting up regional education boards which could cost up to £50 million a year. The Minister has admitted she does not know how much these boards will cost. This is an admission of failure and a dereliction of her duties. This Minister has held herself up as the saviour of Irish education. However, the establishment of regional education boards will not be regarded as one of her finest hours. Instead of giving individual schools greater independence and autonomy, she is bringing everything into the centre. Totalitarianism is creeping back in under the Minister and the Government, which does not surprise me given the make-up of the Government.
I am doubtful about the objectivity and independence of the boards if their members are chosen and sanctioned by the Minister. All boards appointed by the Government have been excessively weighted with political followers of the three Government parties. Fianna Fáil believes in devolving as much authority as possible to local school boards of management and we are totally opposed to the establishment of regional education boards, which we will abolish when we return to office.
The interaction between children, teachers and parents is fundamental to the education system. Resources must be made available and inequality must be eliminated before the establishment of regional education boards. This Bill flies in the face of what is needed and it is a waste of valuable resources.
Voluntary and secondary schools of any denomination are being treated unfairly in terms of grant aid compared to vocational schools. They are not getting the resources they deserve and the students are suffering. These students are the children of taxpayers who are entitled to the same level of grant aid as those in other schools. It is time to stamp out this form of discrimination so that all children are treated equally. The president of the Catholic School Parents Association, Mr. John Whyte, has described the Bill as repugnant to voluntary education, especially voluntary Catholic education. It is not only repugnant to voluntary Catholic education but to voluntary education of any denomination, whether Protestant, Jewish or Muslim. This was agreed by all denominations at their recent unprecedented meeting. Any Minister and Government which ignores such a consensus is digging a deep grave for themselves.
Section 43 has been described as the greatest intrusion by the State into the management of schools not established by the State. While we must acknowledge that the Minister and the Government have a duty and responsibility in terms of the education system, there is no need for such intrusion. It is a type of dictatorship from the centre which is outrageous. Fianna Fáil has made it clear it will repeal this and other odious aspects of the Bill when it returns to Government.
In recent years multi-denominational schools and gaelscoileanna have been established. Under section 9(2)(g) the regional education board is the only body with the statutory right to recognise a new school and to lease land or buildings to any person or groups of persons establishing a school. Does this mean that if a group can provide a building or land to establish a school, it will not be accepted? This is short-sighted economics which points towards complete control by the centre.
There is no demand to radically change the system of denominational education. Parents have the right to send their children to denominational schools to be educated. Many aspects of this Bill fly in the face of the ethos of a particular denominational school. Section 57 gives widespread power to the Minister in almost all matters of education administration. Such unbridled powers could be used to undermine the ethos of denominational schools. This section is unwise and unnecessary.
I understand the deeds of trust, which have been negotiated with the primary schools partners, are subject to examination by the Attorney General to determine their legality and constitutionality. It is high-handed of the Minister to publish the Bill without knowing if the deeds of trust, which are essential for the establishment of school boards of management and the continuing agreement of all school partners, are constitutional. Under normal circumstances the Bill would not be published without knowing if the agreement, which would underpin the Bill, is legal. However, we do not know if the deeds of trust negotiated between the Department of Education and the primary school partners are constitutional or legal. It is unwise for the Minister to proceed while these matters are still in a state of limbo. This shows the arrogance of this Administration.
The manner in which patrons have been treated in this Bill is a cause of great concern to denominational school interests. The Bill ignores the patrons who have ultimate responsibility for the school and who must play a significant role in its development. It pushes the role of patrons into the background by establishing regional education boards. CORI, in its analysis of the Bill, is critical of this provision. It states:
The Bill's misrepresentation of the role of patron and its failure to take account of the consultation process leading to the White Paper are fundamental flaws. These flaws mean that the harmonisation of existing rights which the Bill was meant to enshrine has not been achieved. They also undermine the Bill's stated commitment to diversity of school types and they threaten the Bill's constitutionality.
CORI has also strongly criticised section 37(7) which will freeze the funds of schools which fail to comply with the ministerial order on boards of management. It has argued that there is a strong body of legal opinion which suggests that any legislation which gives the Minister for Education the power to require a school to be managed by a particular type of board will be unconstitutional. The legal advice available to CORI and to Fianna Fáil indicates that section 37(7) would not pass a constitutional test.
This Bill is putting patrons in a consultative role; it misunderstands the role and duties of the patron in the operation of schools. The patrons are the owners of the schools and they are ultimately responsible for decisions on all capital and current expenditure and on changes to future status, such as amalgamations and closures.
It is disgraceful that we have been forced to limit our contributions by the Government's decision to guillotine this important debate. When we get back into power, we will make changes to the odious sections of this Bill.
The Deputy party's will not.
I am disappointed this debate has been guillotined. The fact that one of the Minister's colleagues only had two minutes to speak shows how farcical it is.
That is because an hour was lost this morning.
I had only two and a half minutes to speak on the Universities Bill, 1996. Every education debate in this House is a complete disappointment in that Members have less and less time to speak. This is making the House more irrelevant and insignificant.
I am also disappointed that the Taoiseach asked us this morning if we wanted an education system like the one in Great Britain. I am afraid that the passage of this Bill will bring us more into the realms of a British system. I can say, as a teacher, that the Irish system of education has been very successful. There has been a delicate balance between the role of denominations and the State in education and I do not see why we should slavishly follow any other system. I agree, however, with the Taoiseach's comments about the role of parents, which is most important.
The Minister cannot say that by introducing this Bill she is reforming the education system. Far from it. It is very illiberal to say there will be State control in this sector. The Minister for Finance said recently that Ireland was a mature post-Christian society. I do not know if he has ever explained what he meant even though he was questioned about it.
He tried to get around it on television the other night.
I do not watch as much television as I used to.
It was a very good explanation as Gaeilge.
Some of his Labour Party colleagues tried to explain it. Many people are afraid that this Bill is all about the fact that this is a mature post-Christian society. Is the Minister for Finance complimenting himself or the people? He should explain himself.
People hold dear the denominational system of education. I heard somebody say recently that Irish people possess great spirituality. Certain people believe in supporting the "Faith of our Fathers" album, which has been the source of amusement to some people, but it has been a best seller in the charts. I only refer to that because there was a reference earlier to the fact that one party in this House wanted to abolish God from the Constitution.
The Deputy's party's prospective partners.
Other parties may have different views on this. This Bill does not deal with the delicate balance between the two systems. People are concerned about the introduction of a secular State education system and I hope the Minister will address that.
The powers which this Bill confers on the Minister are a matter of greatest concern to primary and post-primary schools. The Minister can now appoint boards of management to schools in addition to deciding on their composition and their powers.
The fact that the Minister can dictate the core curriculum of schools is also a concern. Bishop Thomas Flynn was quoted recently as saying that the system of second level education grew in Ireland in spite of opposition from Irish and, indeed, British Governments before 1922 and that there was little support from the State in the early years, although he welcomed the present level of support.
The bishop asked what indication the Minister has received from the public that it wants the current system changed. The White Paper promised consultation and the education conference which the Minister organised was most successful but there is no demand for this change. Regarding an educational monopoly in the State, Bishop Flynn asked if it is just to change from one monopoly to another if, in fact, churches want to run the schools. To transfer a system, lock, stock and barrel, from one monopoly to another is not a positive development. It is not a question of the bishops trying to protect themselves or their turf.
There is no indication where the money will come from for the ten education boards or how much they will cost to run. A figure of £50 million has been mentioned and this question should be addressed. I would like to see resources channelled to the classroom, not to an undemocratic bureaucracy. If this Bill is enacted, there will be a need to address the issues of disadvantage and poverty. As of now, the Bill warrants amendment.
There has been no consultation on the core curriculum. The primary school curriculum was changed in 1970 and now there is talk of changing it again. Buzz words, such as "integration", are in use but there is no talk of funding and there is little in the Bill about adult education.
The area of psychological services and remedial and resource teachers, to which the Minister referred, must be addressed. She spoke about the increase in the number of remedial teachers and stated that the service now covers 87 per cent of schools. That service is only provided for a few hours one day per week in many schools and the Minister must address this immediately.
No Government has addressed the question of school transport since the regulations were first introduced. With the falling school population, one cannot maintain for much longer rules which state that an area must contain ten school children between the ages of four and ten to be eligible for transport. The Minister should forget about the ideology and tell us what she will do about that.
The Minister gave a reprieve to some of the two teacher schools last year. She must let us know what she intends to do next September when at least 16 schools will lose a teacher. She knows Deputy Martin has said that two teacher schools would be allowed to retain their second teacher under Fianna Fáil's education policy. I hope the Minister will address that.
The powers of the Minister under the Bill are not specified. There are major questions about the financing and cost of the boards. It is confusing that the role of the patron or the boards of management is not identified.
I welcome an opportunity to speak on education, a matter which is important for all of us as public representatives and parents. As my mother said, education is no burden. It is an important area in all our lives.
It was rather remarkable that Deputy Michael Kitt referred to the Progressive Democrats and the motion before its conference to remove God from the Constitution. One of the Kerry delegates was questioned that week when he got home. Somebody said, "I see that motion was defeated" whereupon he replied "Of course it was. We were all at Mass at the time."
I am glad we have the opportunity to address the Stanley letter and start doing things in Irish education 166 years later.
Did we not introduce free secondary education in 1966?
I did not interrupt the Deputy.
He only interrupted me.
I apologise. Deputy Kitt asked who is asking for changes in education. He must not have been listening to the radio this morning when the representative of the national primary school parents' council, which represents 3,600 primary schools and 45,000 pupils, congratulated the Minister on what she is doing.
I thought this morning that some of the Fianna Fáil Members who disrupted the House for one hour had not looked at the history of education in Ireland. They are talking about the Minister taking on powers whereas the reality is, of course, that the Minister and all Ministers since the foundation of this State have always had unregulated powers in education. The education reforms we are proposing are long overdue. I must also remind the Fianna Fáil Deputies that the Minister for Education had the full support of the Fianna Fáil Ministers in Cabinet between 1993 and 1994 when she set out on this track. That is a fact.
What about the Minister, Deputy Higgins?
If Fianna Fáil was still in Government it would support the proposed long overdue reforms in education before the House, which I welcome.
Viewed on a world basis our education system has served us extremely well by any standards, but the highly centralised way we administer it has not changed for more than 100 years. The rights of citizens to education and within the education system have never been stated in statute. The roles, rights and responsibilities of the partners in education are to say the least ill-defined. The partnership which must underpin the education system is not clarified in statutory form. Nowhere is the right balance spelled out. Parents, who are recognised in our Constitution as the primary educators, have always been regarded by the providers of education as something akin to customers and often not even as people who are entitled to a high level of customer service. The concept of parents as full and equal partners within the planning and delivery of education has been an alien concept.
By the same token the power of Ministers for Education to determine the lives and futures of our children has been awesome. It has been matched only by the lack of accountability. Members will have vivid memories of a time not so long ago when thousands of people were forced to take to the streets over rising class sizes. We said then in this House that one of the most scandalous aspects of that crisis was the fact that the circulars which decided that children should be educated in increasingly overcrowded schools owed nothing to the wishes of this House and were not based on an accountable framework of law because they dated back to the Stanley letter of 1831.
From the moment the Minister, Deputy Bhreathnach, convened the National Education Convention in 1993 to the publication of the Education Bill on 7 January all that began to change. For the first time all the partners in education were invited to sit down and plan with the Department and the Minister. The process of listening and genuine consultation which the Minister initiated has involved all the partners as they had never before been invited to be involved in the delivery of education services. That four years of genuine dialogue is the basis on which this Bill has been built.
The future of education is a future of partnership, of much greater equality, combating disadvantage and partnership between school patrons, parents, teachers and the students. That is what this Bill is all about. It is about giving education a statutory basis for the first time in which the rights, roles and responsibilities of all the partners are clearly spelled out. It is about putting in place education boards so that the planning of education can be done in the regions by the citizens of the regions responding to the needs of the regions and encouraging regional decision-making, and I welcome that.
This is the greatest decentralisation of power in recent times from a Government Department to the regions. I find it difficult to understand why anybody objects to that concept. It will transform the highly centralised bureaucracy commented on by the OECD report on education in Ireland, which states we have a highly centralised bureaucracy running education. It will give parents, with the other partners, a real say in planning education in future.
The Bill will ensure that every parent in each school will have the right of access to their child's records, the right to receive the school annual report and the right to appeal decisions which significantly affect their child's education. It will also ensure the body of parents in each school will have the right to form a parents' association and to have members on the board of management.
The Bill will further ensure that parents will be members of education boards and will be consulted when the board draws up its plans. It contains statutory recognition of the National Parents' Council as the voice of parents at national level, but it does not confirm the rights of parents by denying the rights of the other partners, as is being suggested. On the contrary, teachers too have firmly recognised in the Bill their rights to membership of boards and to be involved when schools and education boards draw up plans. The rights of patrons of all school types, including denominational schools, both new and existing, to maintain, promote and hand on the characteristic spirit of the school will be enshrined in the Bill. Those who seem to regard the Bill as promoting a threat to ethos have not read it carefully enough.
Contrary to the carping criticisms of the Opposition — I say this as a parent — this Bill is not about State control of education. That is just a smear typical of the rather infantile approach which passes for analysis on the Opposition benches. Those who wish to see the education system again in the hands of Fianna Fáil might care to reflect on the appalling history of neglect we inherited when we came into Government. Those who wish to see the Progressive Democrats getting next, nigh or near the education system might equally reflect on the laissez-faire approach that party takes to virtually everything.
This Bill is not about extending ministerial power, it is about creating a model of partnership in education in which the partners freely and openly plan for an increasingly complex future. It brings to education a social partnership model which is the norm in a Europe in which Ireland plays an increasing part. Through regionalisation, we join the mainstream of education in Europe where devolution to the regions has long been the norm in, for example, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands and where centralised control of education in countries such as Sweden and Italy is now significantly devolved.
The process of defining the rights, roles and responsibilities of all the partners in education is not easy and nobody ever expected it would be. There are concerns and reservations expressed by some of the partners. The spirit of partnership may prove elusive when we try to encapsulate it in the cold letter of the legislation. The complexity of the task is why the Opposition for all its carping, criticism, censure and condemnation never succeeded in bringing forward an Education Bill. It is not an easy process, but it is necessary. It is essential to have a statutory basis to plan education in a way appropriate to a modern democracy. It is also essential to have a statutory basis to underpin each citizen's right to education and it is necessary for real popular participation in education decisions.
This Bill was built on consultation. During its passage through the Oireachtas, the Minister has undertaken to address concerns and reservations with continued consultation. That is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of real strength and confidence to ensure this Bill will achieve its objectives.
The last four years have seen a radical transformation of education. The commitment and energy of my colleague, the Minister for Education, Deputy Bhreathnach, have paved the way for new and exciting opportunities for all involved in education — teachers, parents, school owners or students. What has been done in the past four years by the first Labour Party Minister for Education adds up to a record, I suggest without parallel, of any Minister for Education in recent history. Education is central to the Government's agenda for progress, change and development in society and in the economy. Our approach in education over the past number of years has been to move decisively to tackle the problem of underfunding — a legacy of scandalous neglect by Fianna Fáil and its accomplices, the Progressive Democrats. Since the Minister, Deputy Bhreathnach, took office the education budget has increased by more than £700 million, almost 45 per cent and that extra funding has gone straight into the classrooms. The result is that day to day funding of primary schools has increased from £28 to £45 per pupil, an increase of more than 60 per cent.
The result is that we have been able to introduce a series of new initiatives to specifically target educational disadvantage, initiatives which will do far more than sloganising to reduce alienation in our society. Our initiatives have protected the viability of small rural schools which Deputy Brennan, when Minister for Education, said he would close. Our initiatives have substantially increased the number of remedial and resource teachers and teachers for pupils with special needs. They have led to the introduction of the Early Start scheme, catering for a total of 1,800 children in pre-schools, helping to break through a cycle of disadvantage and neglect. They have included the introduction of the Breaking the Cycle initiative, which caters for 14,500 pupils in targeted disadvantaged schools with a new pupil-teacher ratio of 15:1 in urban schools and 25 rural clusters availing of a co-ordinator for each cluster.
During the last four years funding spent on primary school buildings increased by 80 per cent. More than £120 million has been invested in the primary school building programme and over 7,000 minor works have been sanctioned by the Department of Education. Four years ago the Minister for Education, Deputy Bhreathnach, inherited a shameful legacy from the Fianna Fáil-PDs Government — almost 300 schools in appalling condition. More than two-thirds of the backlog of Fianna Fáil neglect is now cleared, but it is not enough. The Government is determined to tackle the remaining 90 schools. We cannot allow such lasting damage ever again to happen to the primary school building programme. The past four years have seen more than a doubling in the numbers in adult and continuing education. This Government has made it possible for every family to consider, in some cases for the first time in their family's history, the possibility of third level education without the very real barrier of thousands of pounds in fees. We have sought to encourage people to go to college at night by introducing a tax relief for those who are studying and holding down a job at the same time.
I wish to share my time with Deputy Lynch.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle
I am sure that is agreed.
The past four years has seen a transformation in our education system. We have treated the Department of Education system not as a spending but as an investment Department making the most important investment possible in the future of our community. This Bill offers all the partners in education the way to build on this investment through dialogue and partnership, with rights and responsibilities spelled out. As John Hume said in a different context, dialogue threatens nobody. The future of our education system is an issue of crucial concern to every citizen and parliamentarian. It is a fundamental right that every citizen should have an opportunity to have a full say in that future. That above all is why I support this Bill and commend it to the House.
I thank the Tánaiste for sharing time. I am aware that this issue is important to him and he would have been anxious to say more.
I welcome the Education Bill. The Minister for Education, Deputy Bhreathnach, deserves credit for a wide range of initiatives in the education system which is about to be further improved. The decrease in the birth rate has provided an unprecedented opportunity to improve educational services without incurring significant increases in spending. In prioritising education, the Government and the Minister have not only made modest improvements in pupil-teacher ratios but have also established new services and expanded existing ones.
I particularly welcome the expansion of services for schools designated disadvantaged. These include the development of the home-school-community liaison scheme, the introduction and development of the Early Start programme, the establishment of the teacher-counsellor pilot project and the innovative Breaking the Cycle programme. These services target resources at areas of greatest need that were neglected in the past, including my constituency of Cork North Central where inadequate educational provisions, long-term unemployment and social marginalisation form a continuing cycle of deprivation. Many of the measures introduced by the Government will help to break the cycle but much more needs to be done. I urge the Minister to target further educational resources at areas of real need such as the northside of Cork city. I am aware that she will be reconsidering the Breaking the Cycle initiative and in this respect I ask her to look again, as she promised, at the cases of St. Mary's on the Hill and Churchfield national school.
The Education Bill provides a comprehensive framework for the operation of primary and secondary schools. It provides for the active involvement of parents in the education of their children and makes long overdue provision for the decentralisation of the education system. The legislation is largely intended to give effect to the proposals in the White Paper which was widely welcomed. The drafting of that paper included extensive consultation with teachers, parents and those responsible for managing our schools, whom we must never forget.
Parents have the right to know not only that their children will receive schooling but that they will receive an education. These are not always the same. Pupils have the right to learn well with adequate support in an environment conducive to learning and without undue disruption. Our education system should have a quality mark. For some pupils and parents those rights remain aspirational. Each year, approximately 3,200 pupils leave school before the junior certificate. This figure includes 1,000 who leave after primary school which is a shocking statistic. Some of those remaining in the education system attempt to learn in substandard buildings with inadequate or no science, arts or sports facilities. There are growing concerns that some of those who make it through the system are schooled but not educated.
An unacceptable number of students continue to leave the education system with varying literacy and numeracy problems which adversely affect their functioning in the workplace and society in general. There are numerous difficulties to be tackled but the Government has made much progress on many of them. With so many students being denied access to first chance education it is vital that provision be made for second chance education. I particularly welcome the explicit requirement in section 9(2) for education boards to plan and co-ordinate the provision, by schools and centres for education, of adult or continuing education or vocational education and training. That is essential.
The problems to which I referred earlier will not be directly addressed by the Education Bill but it provides a framework within which they can be addressed. For example, the establishment of regional education boards means that schools will not be obliged to refer upgrading works and relatively minor decisions to the Minister for sanction. This will enable her and the Department to concentrate on policy formulation rather than administration detail. The composition of education boards, outlined in section 8, ensures that all relevant interests such as patrons, parents, representatives of trade unions, local authority members and people who belong to minority religions will have an input into the administration of schools in general.
The framework enshrined in the Bill is transparent and accountable. Provision is made for the publication of reports by the new education boards which will fall under the remit of the Ombudsman. This is a new, imaginative and worthwhile development. In addition, parents who believe their children have been unfairly or adversely treated by teachers or other staff members will have the right of appeal under section 55. This is particularly welcome. Most parents resolve problems within the school system but there are some which are more difficult to resolve. In this regard, I urge the Minister to examine section 55 further on Committee Stage with a view to providing representation for the parties involved at an appeal and developing a better balance on the appeals committee. However, these matters can be teased out on Committee Stage. In enhancing the role of parents by making statutory provision for parents' associations, the Bill, for the first time, gives parents a stake in their children's education and makes them active partners rather than passive clients in the education process.
Any debate about education in Ireland must invariably touch upon the role of the churches whose educational involvement has been historically determined and has benefited generations of Irish children and the State. In devising a new educational partnership responsive to the needs of a changing society, the churches are not, in any sense, being sidelined. They are being challenged to adapt and develop their role to meet the needs of a society which is no longer homogenous but is European as well as Irish, increasingly multi-cultural and in which the numbers of those professing minority faiths or no faith are increasing.
The rights of school patrons are enshrined in the Bill, as are those of other partners in the education process. In a statement yesterday the Minister reassured the Catholic Bishops' Conference that the intention behind the Education Bill is not to bring about a State takeover of Irish education but to achieve a balance between the rights and responsibilities of all the partners in a pluralist system. The key words are "partners" and "pluralist". In making the regulations governing management board appointments, the Minister is required to consult with patrons, any national association of parents, recognised trade unions and staff associations representing students. The boards will be appointed by the patrons, having regard to the regulations made according to the above criteria under section 43.
The Bill provides that, among their functions, boards of management shall support the characteristic spirit of schools as determined by the cultural, educational, moral, religious or social values and traditions which inform and underpin the objectives of those schools. I am sure that more time will be available on Committee Stage to tease out the other elements of the Bill in which I am interested.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle
The order of the House deems that the Minister must be called no later than 12.45 p.m. Therefore, only 16 minutes remain for the next time slot.
(Wexford): I propose to share time with Deputies Killeen and Batt O'Keeffe.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle
Is that agreed? Agreed.
(Wexford): I listened with interest to the Tánaiste's contribution which contained very little other than the usual cynical attack on Fianna Fáil and its record in Government. However, my party's record on education speaks for itself. The Tánaiste would be better employed discussing the closures of Tralee and Wexford vocational education committees rather than attacking Fianna Fáil.
I welcome the opportunity to engage in a debate on education structures. However, it is a pity that so little time remains to debate this important Bill. I question the Minister's wish to have this Bill hastily passed. Surely she and her party are not that averse to criticism of its deficiencies. Is it being rushed through because of an impending general election or to allow the Minister load the education boards with political hacks of the Fine Gael, Labour or Democratic Left parties? We have already witnessed what has occurred in the new harbour boards. The membership of one in New Ross is comprised of political hacks, most of whom would know as much about harbour operations as I would about flying aeroplanes. The outgoing coalition Government appears to be grasping an opportunity to nominate party people to boards, ensuring the Minister's ideas are espoused nationwide.
I draw the Minister's attention to the widespread disgust at her proposed disgraceful, shameful abolition of the Town of Wexford Vocational Education Committee, especially when one remembers the many contributions to that committee of a former Tánaiste, the late Deputy Brendan Corish, Dick Corish, people like Tommy Byrne and many other prominent Labour Party members who served on it for many years. It is amazing she has decided to abolish one of the most progressive, innovative town committees, which has been to the forefront in the development of vocational and general education in Wexford town for a considerable period. It is one of the few urban vocational education committee colleges that has experienced an enormous growth in its pupil numbers, and has been very innovative in its participation in VTOS, Youthreach, adult education and third level courses. For many years the County Wexford and Town of Wexford Vocational Education Committees have worked closely in the development of new courses for students in Wexford generally, resulting in ever increasing numbers of pupils. The numbers are predicted to increase considerably next year. The Minister's decision to abolish the vocational education committee will undermine parents' confidence in their long established excellent vocational education system.
I question why the Minister proposes to abolish any town committees. If her objective is to achieve savings, I predict she will achieve none. Since each meeting costs £14 per member, a town committee of some 20 members having 11 meetings annually would cost £3,300. The Minister is out of touch with the happenings in major urban centres. Wexford town is an expanding urban centre, in need of a town committee to cater for its vocational education system.
The silence of the Minister for the Environment, Deputy Howlin, and that of the Labour members of that vocational education committee over the past six months amazes me. This proposal is disgraceful and it is time they voiced their opposition to it. In the interests of students, their parents and teachers, I ask the Minister to seriously reconsider the closure order in respect of the town of Wexford vocational education committee.
I hear rumours the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs is not very happy with occurrences in the town of Tralee. I was surprised he did not refer to the proposed closure of Tralee town committee. Even at this late stage I ask him to intervene and request the Minister to reconsider her decision in respect of that committee.
The regional education boards will not be capable of operating practically. The members of the various health boards have become far removed from locals in their respective regions and I foresee the same happening in the case of these regional education boards. For example, where will the headquarters of the six counties comprising the south east be located? Will students, parents and teachers have to travel from Wexford to, say, Tipperary, Waterford or Kilkenny to have their grievances heard or will the same nonsensical system apply here as in the case of the regional health boards?
My greatest criticism of the Minister and Government today is their denying Members of this House an opportunity of contributing adequately to this debate on an important Bill which will change our education system. That three Members must share a time slot of 15 minutes is a disgrace. One can only conclude the Minister's endeavour is to silence democratically elected Members in this House.
Like the previous speaker, I realise how fortunate I am in being given an opportunity to say a few words in this debate on a Bill of enormous importance. The manner in which the role of democratically elected Members and the objectives of the Bill are being denigrated or diminished by the Government's conduct of business today is unfortunate.
The Taoiseach's performance this morning was quite disgraceful. Since my recent entry to this House I have not witnessed such a performance by the Leader of Government. In suggesting Members on this side of the House oppose the establishment of a statutory framework within which our education system can function properly, either he is not aware of the facts or chooses to ignore them. Clearly he knows nothing about the role of education or its provisions as specified in the Constitution, the Vocational Education Acts, 1930 to 1970 or generally how those provisions have been implemented. The Government's guillotine appears to be based on the premise that it does not want an open debate on Second Stage of this Bill, which is a great pity. Many Members have been denied a proper opportunity to represent and voice the views of our constituents and those of the various partners in education.
This Bill does not represent a radical devolution of authority and responsibility. The Minister's proposed regional education boards — which my party opposes for a number of reasons — will not vest far-reaching powers in their members. In so far as such powers are devolved at all, they are vested in the directors who will have an extraordinary amount of power, in some cases, surpassing that of a county manager within the present local authority structure. I question that. It is a fallacy to suggest the various members of those boards and the interests they represent will have any real power within the proposed new system. The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs acknowledged that the system, as currently constituted, has worked quite well. He appeared to contradict what the Taoiseach had to say this morning about the fact that, to some extent, that structure had been based on the Stanley letter within the British system which, all his previous utterances on the subject, would have led one to believe warranted immense merit in the eyes of the Taoiseach rather than the opposite.
Major funding issues also arise which, within the timescale proposed, will be very difficult to tease out fully and which are of enormous importance to the provision of education. There will be the cost of the establishment of regional education boards, estimated to be in the region of £50 million. Despite what the Tánaiste appears to believe, there remain huge numbers of substandard school buildings, six at primary level in County Clare, where no repairs have been done within the lifetime of the present Government although some were undertaken by the present Minister when her party was in coalition with Fianna Fáil. There is a second level school in Kilrush the existence of which has been hanging in the balance for several years. There are huge deficiencies to be addressed in the case of remedial or resource teachers. To some extent, this is acknowledged by the Minister in her anti-poverty initiative. While I disagree with the manner in which she went about resolving that issue, at least she recognised its existence.
Primary school education is underfunded. The Minister has established a steering group at second level which will report, no doubt to the next Government, and which will highlight the deficiencies in that area.
The Bill does not address the area of educational disadvantage in a real way. It hinges on access, participation and benefit but I do not see that happening. There are many other issues I would have liked to deal with and I hope I will have an opportunity to raise them on Committee Stage. However, I do not consider that to be the appropriate mechanism for considing the Bill. I regret the Government has decided to impose a guillotine.
It is a disgrace that the debate on one of the most important Bills relative to education has been cut short in such a hamfisted way. It does not reflect well on the Minister, the Department or the Government that Members have not been given an opportunity to represent the views of the people they represent on this important Bill.
I agree with Deputy Killeen's comments about the ecstatic performance of the Taoiseach this morning. It was without precedent, was neither justified nor logical and was compounded by the Tánaiste entering the debate with his kango hammer mechanism to indicate all was well on the Government side. We know how many Fine Gael Members were present. On the ground these people are not happy with the way the Bill is being dealt with.
Section 7(3) deals with the setting up of the education boards and subsection (4) deals with the Minister's role pending the appointment of a body to review the operation and effectiveness of the education boards. Both subsections raise a number of important issues. Following the enactment of the Bill, will the education boards — the foundation stone of this Bill — have to wait for finance to fund new buildings, salaries, services and redundancies in the vocational education committees before they come into existence? That appears to be the case in the Bill as drafted. Will education boards be established in some regions and not in others? Under the Bill, as drafted, that will be the case.
Why is there no time limit on the period within which the Minister can exercise the functions of education boards? Those three points do not suggest a co-ordinated or an integrated approach to the whole issue of the education boards which are a disaster and should not be embarked on.
Under the definition of "parent" there is no attempt to come to terms with the conflicting educational rights and duties of separated parents, whether separated judicially or otherwise, or a parent against whom a barring order has been made. The promised divorce legislation will further complicate this issue. Support services are defined as the services which an education board provides to students or their parents, recognised schools or centres for education and includes legal services. It follows from this that the education board is obliged to provide legal services to both sides in a dispute between, for example, the school or the parents. Under that definition the Minister is putting in place a litigator's charter.
The inspectorate of the education boards will be made up of inspectors seconded from the central inspectorate plus seconded teachers. They will have the role of evaluating the management of the schools, the education standards of the school and assess the implementation of the regulations made by the Minister. It is extraordinary that such powers should be conferred in law on temporary inspectors. It does not add up.
I ask the Minister to examine the appeals system because it is an absolute labyrinth. A decision can be appealed by parents and students over the age of 16 years to the board of management which can refuse to enrol a student. It then goes to the education board, is appealed to the Ombudsman and finally goes to the Minister. I ask the Minister to get out of this labyrinth and ensure a logical approach to the appeals system and let us put a proper shape on what is a discredited Bill.
On a point of order, on behalf of the Fianna Fáil Party I wish to state that we have at least ten other Members who wish to speak in this debate. We wish to protest at the way the Government is jackbooting this legislation through the House.
That is not a point of order.
It is a point of order.
This Bill was published on 7 January 1997, following the publication of a White Paper at Easter 1995 in which many of the provisions of the statutory framework planned for education were spelt out. The White Paper followed two years of consultation which had commenced as far back as November 1993 in Dublin Castle. I hosted the conference which invited all those who have a constitutional obligation and involvement in education to plan and manage the education system——
That is our primary duty.
——not by competing for rights under the Constitution but by weaving a tapestry which would ensure that interested parties would develop into a partnership that would benefit and plan the education system into the third millennium. The legislation which is being debated for a second day will go to a select committee where I look forward to a large attendance of those who have expressed an interest here today.
The Minister is aware what the committee will do.
Attendance at Committee Stage debates on the other legislation with which I have been involved has not indicated——
The Minister treats the House with contempt. She does not like the House and her record in dealing with Deputies is poor.
What we are doing in this legislation——
There is a fundamental difference between Committee Stage and Second Stage and the Minister ought to draw an important distinction.
The Minister, without interruption, please.
I am surprised at the filibustering. If I had taken every contribution——
The Minister does not understand what the word means.
It is a disgrace.
I look forward to the Deputy's intense activity on Committee Stage to get to the kernel of what is being decided, that is, the provision——
The Minister is trying to hoodwink the people.
Maybe we will have another U-turn from the Minister.
I am being prevented from discussing the kernel of the Bill——
The Minister will probably table 100 amendments to the Bill.
——which is the need to put the education system on a statutory footing, to spell out the rights, rules and responsibilities of the partners in education, to deliver the education system and establish the school boards — reflecting the partners in education——
There is no partnership in the Bill. It is a dictator's charter.
There is a need for a voice at board level to reflect that partnership. The Opposition has proposed the setting up of country fora. All I can do in the few moments I am allowed to address the issue of education——
We are not allowed to have our say.
——is to nail absolutely the ridiculousness of the proposal by the Opposition spokesperson on education to establish country fora. On the one hand I am proposing to establish, under statute, ten regional boards where we can deliver education on a regional basis——
The Minister will not have a chance.
The Opposition is questioning bureaucracy and cost and offering——
The Minister does not know the cost.
——country fora to discuss and plan for education.
The Minister would not answer parliamentary questions.
I ask Deputies to refrain from interrupting the Minister.
I dismiss the notion of country fora.
Big deal. We will abolish the regional education boards.
I dismiss the idea of country fora which is not worthy of discussion. It would be very hard to account for such a complex administrative structure of 30 individual bureaucratic bodies. Because of the cost implications, the proposal should be taken off the table.
The Minister should put the costings on the table.
The National Education Convention concluded that the number of regional education boards should be reduced, although it agreed education should be delivered through a regional structure.
A balance must be struck with the county structure.
Delivery, not devolution.
During the years the main Opposition party was in Government it pursued the notion of centralisation whereby the Department of Education takes the decisions, issues circulars and makes regulations. There was no reference to the Houses of the Oireachtas.
The Bill is full of references to ministerial regulations. Does language mean anything anymore?
The Minister cannot be heard.
We are saying to the people that they will have a voice through the regional education boards.
They do not have a voice.
Mine cannot be heard as I am being shouted down. We will establish regional education boards to get to the core of the education debate.
On a point of order, Deputies on this side of the House were anxious to contribute but the Government would not allow them to speak.
That is not a point of order.
That is what happened.
The Deputy should please resume his seat and allow the Minister to continue.
Deputies on this side of the House were denied the right to contribute on Second Stage. That is disgraceful. So much for the Labour Party's commitment to democracy and social partnership.
I look forward to answering the questions raised by Deputy Batt O'Keeffe on Committee Stage. Deputy Browne raised the question of the vocational education committee sector. We will not abolish this sector.
That is not what people in Drogheda are saying.
(Wexford): What about Wexford?
It may have been the intention of some of my predecessors to do so.
The Minister will go down in history as the person who abolished it.
She has abolished five.
Deputies should be very careful about making accusations.
The Minister is threatening the House.
We are planning to amalgamate rather than abolish or ignore the work and responsibilities of vocational education committees.
The Minister undermines them continually.
The accusation has been made that religious instruction is being banished from the curriculum. This is to ignore the provisions of the Bill under which the regional education boards——
The Minister should ask the people concerned.
I ask Deputies to listen.
The Minister sent her programme manager to talk to them. She would not go herself.
The commitment to diversity and pluralism in the education system will be underpinned not by an aspiration or a manifesto but by statute. There seems to be a dread of including in legislation the rights, roles and responsibilities of the partners in education.
Deputies do not have a say.
The religious are always wrong and the Minister is always right.
The core curriculum has been laid down by the Department. The Bill, as drafted, enshrines this power in legislation.
It is unconstitutional. Certain sections will have to be withdrawn. I have seen the legal opinion.
I ask Deputies to please restrain themselves.
It is very difficult.
No respect is being shown for the Chair.
No respect is being shown for this side of the House.
The Minister showed no respect for the Deputies who wanted to contribute. The debate is being guillotined.
The Bill, when adopted by the House, will provide for the membership of communities, particularly minority groups, on regional education boards.
It is being jackbooted through the House.
I ask Deputies to please restrain themselves.
I ask Deputies to listen to the voice of parents.
We have done so. This is one of the Labour Party's claims to fame.
The voice of parents in the 3,600 parish schools will be heard loudly.
We met them yesterday.
They asked that their right to be represented be established in statute.
The Minister only met with them when they had the temerity to criticise the Bill.
Since publication of the Bill officials of the Department have been engaged in a process of dialogue with the partners in education on its provisions. It is proving difficult to respond to the views expressed in the course of the debate.
I ask Deputies to please restrain themselves. No respect is being shown for the Chair.
(Wexford): No respect is being shown for us.
Or the Oireachtas.
I will listen and continue the process of dialogue.
The Minister is preventing dialogue.
It is like drama school.
This Bill started its journey with the support of the Opposition. It received its support and encouragement——
(Wexford): The Minister should not be so arrogant.
——but when it comes to putting it on the Statute Book, suddenly those who had responsibility for many years in the Department of Education are running away.
The Minister is hoodwinking the people. This is gobbledygook. The Minister is engineering the education system to suit the Labour Party's ideals.
There is a need to establish in legislation the right of all the partners in education to be involved in planning for the future.
The partners in education tell a different story.
The Constitution recognises the rights of the different parties.
There is not one Fine Gael Member in the House.
Since November 1993 we have been involved in the harmonisation of these rights in legislation.
What about the views of Members of this House?
The voice of the partners in education, the owners, patrons, parents, teachers and the local community, will be heard.
I ask Deputies to please restrain themselves and allow the Minister to conclude.
This is a disgrace. Why is she afraid of debate?
For the first time since the foundation of the State the right of all the partners in education to be involved will be established in legislation. I am proud to commend the Bill to the House and I will be prepared not only to listen but to heed the concerns expressed.
The Minister talks to nobody, rather she sends her programme manager, who is being paid £45,000, to meet every group.
This is a Bill of which we can be proud as we near the end of the century and which will help to manage change which is upon us.
Why is the Minister afraid of free speech?
The Minister has the arrogance to speak about dialogue when the debate has been guillotined.
As it is now 1 p.m. I am required to put the following question in accordance with the Order of the Dáil of this day: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
- Ahearn, Theresa.
- Barrett, Seán.
- Barry, Peter.
- Bhamjee, Moosajee.
- Bhreathnach, Niamh.
- Boylan, Andrew.
- Bradford, Paul.
- Bree, Declan.
- Broughan, Thomas.
- Browne, John (Carlow-Kilkenny).
- Bruton, Richard.
- Burke, Liam.
- Burton, Joan.
- Byrne, Eric.
- Carey, Donal.
- Connaughton, Paul.
- Costello, Joe.
- Coveney, Hugh.
- Crawford, Seymour.
- Creed, Michael.
- Crowley, Frank.
- Deasy, Austin.
- Deenihan, Jimmy.
- Doyle, Avril.
- Durkan, Bernard.
- Finucane, Michael.
- Fitzgerald, Brian.
- Fitzgerald, Eithne.
- Fitzgerald, Frances.
- Flaherty, Mary.
- Gallagher, Pat (Laoighis-Offaly).
- Gilmore, Éamon.
- Harte, Paddy.
- Higgins, Jim.
- Higgins, Michael.
- Howlin, Brendan.
- Kavanagh, Liam.
- Kemmy, Jim.
- Kenny, Seán.
- Lynch, Kathleen.
- McDowell, Derek.
- McGahon, Brendan.
- McGrath, Paul.
- McManus, Liz.
- Mitchell, Gay.
- Mitchell, Jim.
- Moynihan-Cronin, Breeda.
- Mulvihill, John.
- Nealon, Ted.
- Noonan, Michael (Limerick East).
- O'Keeffe, Jim.
- O'Shea, Brian.
- O'Sullivan, Toddy.
- Owen, Nora.
- Pattison, Séamus.
- Penrose, William.
- Quinn, Ruairí.
- Ring, Michael.
- Ryan, John.
- Shatter, Alan.
- Sheehan, P.J.
- Shortall, Róisín.
- Spring, Dick.
- Upton, Pat.
- Walsh, Éamon.
- Ahern, Dermot.
- Ahern, Michael.
- Ahern, Noel.
- Andrews, David.
- Brennan, Matt.
- Brennan, Séamus.
- Briscoe, Ben.
- Browne, John (Wexford).
- Burke, Raphael.
- Byrne, Hugh.
- Connolly, Ger.
- Coughlan, Mary.
- Cowen, Brian.
- Cullen, Martin.
- Davern, Noel.
- de Valera, Síle.
- Dempsey, Noel.
- Doherty, Seán.
- Fitzgerald, Liam.
- Flood, Chris.
- Foley, Denis.
- Geoghegan-Quinn, Máire.
- Hyland, Liam.
- Jacob, Joe.
- Kenneally, Brendan.
- Keogh, Helen.
- Killeen, Tony.
- Kirk, Séamus.
- Kitt, Michael.
- Kitt, Tom.
- Lawlor, Liam.
- Lenihan, Brian.
- Leonard, Jimmy.
- McCreevy, Charlie.
- McDaid, James.
- McDowell, Michael.
- Moffatt, Tom.
- Molloy, Robert.
- Moynihan, Donal.
- Noonan, Michael (Limerick West).
- O'Donnell, Liz.
- O'Donoghue, John.
- O'Hanlon, Rory.
- O'Keeffe, Batt.
- O'Keeffe, Ned.
- O'Leary, John.
- O'Malley, Desmond.
- O'Rourke, Mary.
- Quill, Máirín.
- Reynolds, Albert.
- Ryan, Eoin.
- Sargent, Trevor.
- Smith, Michael.
- Treacy, Noel.
- Wallace, Mary.
The Bill is being bulldozed through.