I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this Bill. While we all realise that our education system is one of the finest, it would be dangerous to become complacent about it. We must not take what we have for granted and we must take cognisance of current difficulties in education.
There was much talk today about success in education. We must commend well educated Irish people who have good jobs throughout the world. However, there is a big gap between those who have succeeded and those who have been deemed by our education system not to have succeeded. We must look not only at our high fliers but at the difference between the top achievers and those at the bottom level. The way forward is to look at the changes taking place around us as we move into the new millennium and to create a structure that can respond effectively and efficiently to those changes. That is what the Bill is trying to do.
It is amazing that our education system derives from the early 1830s and that comprehensive legislation has not been passed by the Oireachtas. There has been significant consultation, debate and review during the drafting of this Bill. I commend the Minister for Education and Science for introducing it. It was said during the debate that the Bill was flawed despite the process of consultation and debate. I reject that suggestion and look forward to discussing it on Committee Stage.
I congratulate the highly trained and professional body which is our teaching profession. The key focus in any Education Bill must be the student. As a former teacher, I recognise that the key objective is to provide a legislative basis for the respective roles and functions of all the partners in the education system. Everyone is a partner under this Bill because of the process of consultation. The partners in education have visibly expanded throughout the years with the role of
Government, school owners, parents, teachers and pupils developing in the common good. The Bill aspires to overcome any sense of administration by an elite few and formally acknowledges the role of all the partners.
Teachers acknowledge that the increasing involvement of parents in their child's schooling must be welcomed. Parents are the primary educators. Teachers rely on parental involvement and their good exploitation of early education at home. While their role in the home is important, their support and interest in the school is vital for the mutual advancement of everyone.
There was a wide-ranging debate on the concept of the regional education boards which I am glad is not being pursued in this Bill. Some argued against such a structure which they felt would make the education system more localised. However, few people were able to put real figures on the establishment and running costs. Costs in providing carpeting, furnishing, heating and lighting buildings could not be justified at a time when so much is needed in the classroom. Estimated costs of £40 million a year to run these institutions would have been far from insignificant in terms of the overall education budget. Many schools in Donegal North East are crying out for extensions, modernisation and new facilities. Their record in providing remedial services is atrocious. It would be better if the Minister used such expenditure in the classroom.
The concept of regional education boards meant the Minister made all the decisions so it was not true devolution. Questions were asked during this debate if this Bill or the previous one meant more centralisation. If we devolve power to regional boards, not only will we set up ivory towers which will cost £40 million, but we will ensure that all decisions must be made by the Minister. Perception and reality are not the same, and devolution to the regions was not what it was perceived to be because the Minister had the final say. Deputy Kelleher's summing up was interesting. It was originally proposed that local communities would be accountable, but local representatives should always be held accountable because they can be subjected to the ultimate sanction the next time they go before the public.
I make a personal appeal to the Minister at this stage to look more closely at the provision of special education in Donegal. I have raised the subject on numerous occasions in the past. According to the statistics, 78 per cent of people have access to a remedial teacher, but the fact that 104 schools out of 178 do not have a remedial teacher speaks for itself. There were no remedial teachers in Donegal two years ago, and one was appointed last year. I trust that the poor response in the past to the need for this facility in our region will be redressed in the near future. I would like the Minister to specifically address my constituency and I make no apology for being parochial.
It is also desirable, where possible, to integrate pupils with special needs into mainstream schools. I congratulate the Minister on the implementation of a pilot scheme in Buncrana. The school in Buncrana was an ordinary national school, but the people concerned took the initiative of starting a special class for moderately handicapped children and, as well as a teacher, there was a classroom assistant. Subsequently, they got approval to start a class for profoundly handicapped children, on a pilot basis, which was to go ahead in September. Unfortunately they were informed this time last year that when their class for profoundly handicapped children was up and running, they would lose the classroom assistant assigned to the class for moderately handicapped children. In August the Minister came to the rescue and gave approval for the appointment of another classroom assistant, thus enabling the school to have one assistant in each class. Let me be so bold as to ask the Minister to consider approving the appointment of a second classroom assistant for the profoundly handicapped class — I believe there are institutions in Cork that have that facility. Much work is being done towards integrating pupils with a handicap into mainstream schools. That is the way forward, but resources are needed to achieve it.
It is very difficult for people in rural areas who have a child with a specific need to gain access to suitable facilities and to get transport. I congratulate Scoil Íosagán which has developed two classes to cater for different degrees of handicap. However, the Minister's task is enormous because there is such a range of special needs and it is so difficult to bring people from varying distances and provide a suitable facility for them.
Similarly I acknowledge the Minister's positive attitude to pupils with special needs. However, I would refer him to any primary teacher training handbook which emphasises the importance of music in the early development of a child's language, rhythm and co-ordination. The Minister should seriously address the provision of music in the classroom, not merely as a subject but as a mechanism for dealing with special needs at an early stage of development. This would bear fruit in the long-term, not just for individual children but for the teachers and the class in general. I do not think I am oversimplifying matters when I say that if a child with a special need is recognised early enough, he or she can be helped through music which, because of its effects on language development and co-ordination, means that the child will be happier, first for having knowledge of the subject and second because he or she is able to keep up a little better. If the child is happier, the class, the teacher and the parents are happier and the whole thing spirals in a positive direction.
I am glad that the Bill will put in place an effective appeals system. In the vast majority of cases there is little controversy between student and teacher or parent and school. However, it is important that where parents or students feel an unfair decision has been made against them there is a facility to investigate it. I am glad also that the Bill aims to balance the rights of students and parents against the effective operation of the school.
Other important elements in the Bill relate to statutory backing of the boards of management and the lack of coercion in their formation. The strong protection the Bill gives to the integrity of the examination system is important, as is the recognition it gives to the Irish language and its development, the continued recognition it now gives to the patron, and the relatively new recognition of parents' rights as partners in education. The Bill arose from debate and consensus and will provide a framework for reform and development rather than bureaucracy and an expansion of State control.
Education should not be regarded solely as a means to an end, a means of getting a job. It should be regarded as a preparation for life. Some people succeed at school and others do not do so well. However, what is important is that a child should be able to reach his or her potential and be in a healthy state, physically and mentally, for life after school. Success in life does not depend on intelligence but on personality and the ability to interact with other people. People who have a good personality and the ability to interact with other people succeed as well as people with a high level of intelligence.
We should be looking at gap analysis in the context of education.