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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 5 Feb 1998

Vol. 486 No. 5

Education (No. 2) Bill, 1997: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

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.

There are gaps in this Bill.

We will look at the gaps on Committee Stage if the Deputy feels there are so many.

Gap analysis is very important in that we are looking at primary schools, secondary schools and the possibility of entering university or getting a job, but we are not doing that in the context of the types of jobs that are available. We are encouraging businesses to set up here, there and everywhere, although I would argue that we are not doing as much of that in the north-west as we could. We should be linking what is being done at primary level and secondary level with what is being done at third level and this, in turn, should be linked to the types of jobs on offer. It could be argued that this would not give people a wide education, but a better balance must be struck.

In the context of physical and social needs, there is a large gap between what is needed and the resources and facilities available. The Minister is moving in the correct direction in providing resources for people with special social and physical needs. However, I have reservations about some aspects of the breaking the cycle and other initiatives and a review of them would be useful. Deputy Stanton's comments about the exclusion of a reference to physical exercise were interesting. I commend the Minister on making PE an examination subject. Students who do PE are healthier and perhaps consideration could be given to enabling people to continue it in their employment. The only exercise most of us get is when we walk from the car to the office, clinic or comhairle ceantar meeting and we would benefit from more exercise.

The legislation governing the education system dates back to the 1830s. I welcome the abandonment of the regional education boards. Accountability will always rest with the Minister for Education. We are fortunate that we can put questions to the Minister in the House about schools in various parts of our constituencies. I welcome the flexibility being provided in the establishment of boards of management and do not think too many will opt out. The Minister has sought to achieve consensus, which will ensure the Bill is a success.

There is an increased interest in the Irish language and culture. I learned Irish at school but do not have the confidence to speak it. I welcome the increased interest in the language. I look forward to dealing with the Bill in detail on Committee Stage and commend it to the House.

I pay tribute to those involved in the education system. Our wonderful economic growth has been underpinned to a large extent by the outstanding work done by teachers and parents at primary, second and third levels. At times people have been critical of the general nature of the curriculum and the lack of vocational training at second level, but, as recognised by the ESRI in its recent report, the high level of education given to students laid the foundations for the current economic growth. The Minister was conscious of this when introducing the IT 2000 programme which is aimed at upgrading technological education in the years ahead.

Prior to the general election Deputy Martin in Opposition assailed the then Minister, Niamh Bhreathnach — one of the best Ministers for Education in the history of the State — about various matters. Generally his response to her proposals was negative. He has been in office for eight months, yet he has done little to improve the education system. As Deputy O'Shea said, the Bill is a damp squib. While it implements one or two of the changes proposed by Niamh Bhreathnach, it essentially leaves the education system as it is.

The greater part of the Minister's contribution dealt with how the system has operated for decades. This is very disappointing given that the Minister seemed to be beavering away for years with interests groups, trade unions, managers and teachers. He emerged from time to time with various reports, yet all he has ended up with is an anaemic Bill. This is very disappointing when compared with the outstanding proposals of his predecessor.

The Minister is very good at renaming colleges as institutes. During the dying days of the rainbow Government there was much excitement in his constituency at the proposal to upgrade the Regional Technical College to an institute of technology. I welcome this upgrading but the Minister has done nothing to fundamentally reform and develop the third level vocational sector.

There has been a long standing demand by people in north Dublin for the establishment of a regional technical college which would service Swords, Ballymun, Finglas, Coolock, Donaghmede and Raheny which have a total population of between 200,000 and 300,000. The hi-tech Dublin City University is on their doorstep but it is a national university with national programmes which takes in students from all areas. At one stage the college had more students from a small area of Cork than from a large part of north Dublin. The Minister should take action on this fundamental part of his portfolio and increase the number of third level institutions. After eight months in office the Minister, who was very vigorous in Opposition, has done nothing to improve this area.

The Deputy's party provided no funding in its four years in office.

The record is clear. Eight months have passed since this Government came to office — some Governments lasted only eight months and this Government might not last long either depending on the result of the by-elections — and the Minister has taken no action. That is the fundamental problem.

In regard to disadvantage, only two previous Ministers went against the prevailing vested interests at various levels of education. Donagh O'Malley decided there would be a second level system for all and Niamh Bhreathnach, one of the most vigorous Ministers, decided there would be a third level system for all and that something would be done about areas of disadvantage. I live in the postal district of Dublin 17 and in that area, with the postal district of Dublin 10, there is the lowest take-up of third level opportunities.

There were four years of a Labour Party Government.

The Minister has had eight months to deal with this matter. The previous Minister, against all the odds, introduced the breaking the cycle scheme. There was opposition to her proposal, orchestrated by the present Minister. Some schools said that even though they did not have sufficient numbers they would retain an extra teacher. Arising from demographic changes, the then Minister decided to send the extra teachers to where they were most needed, the most deprived areas of Dublin city, Cork city, Galway and so on, where there are high rates of unemployment — in Cork city and Dublin city there are rates of unemployment of 40 to 70 per cent.

Eight months after Fianna Fáil came to office, the children have nothing to hope for from the Government. Breaking the cycle was intended as a developmental pilot scheme which would operate in some of the most deprived areas. My constituency of Dublin North-East was fortunate to get a number of those programmes, particularly breaking the cycle and the early start programme, which have been successful.

I commend the Minister on calling a convention on pre-school education and attempting to include all interests, an objective towards which the former Minister Niamh Bhreathnach had been moving before the rainbow coalition went out of office. After eight months, however, Deputy Martin as Minister responsible for a crucial office dealing with young children, has not said from where the resources will come. His colleague sat in that chair a few weeks ago and slashed capital gains tax by 50 per cent. The budget was geared towards the wealthier sections of the population while there are many thousands of children whose opportunities in education are non-existent. The Minister has shown no incentive in this regard. He simply reiterated in legal terms the elements of the failed system. In his deliberations over three years, the Minister has shown no tendency to target children in disadvantaged areas.

There are some belated programmes in operation. DCU which is located in Ballymun, close to Coolock, is beginning to take action. Mr. Tom Murphy, provost of Trinity College, recently expressed concern about how the college, which is located in the inner city, will interact with the inner city. After 400 years the provost is rightly concerned about the relationship between those in the college and the young people who live in the area. The Minister's role should be to give leadership. He did the opposite in Opposition and tried to encourage vested interests in third level education to put barriers in the way of working class children, preventing them from gaining access to third level education. He orchestrated that campaign.

That is propaganda.

The Minister has had eight months to consider the early start programme, which has been enormously successful. He must have visited some of the schools where it is in operation and seen the enormous benefit to children of two and a half to three and a half years. When will the Minister introduce fundamental initiatives to build on the work initiated by the former Minister Niamh Bhreathnach? She proceeded against opposition from vested interests who did not believe that resources should be targeted where they are most needed. I hope the Minister initiates developments in that area.

I commend the Minister on his steps in technological education, which are innovative. The programme was launched in the Taoiseach's alma mater in my constituency, but it was not possible for me to be present that morning. I presume every child in first level and second level will have access to computer technology.

The Deputy from Donegal who has just spoken congratulated the Minister on abandoning the proposal by the education forum to establish regional education boards. Nobody wanted to see £40 million spent on shifting bureaucrats around the country, providing them with expenses and so on. The idea behind the regional boards was to create a modern democratic structure for education so that there would be accountability to this democracy. That was the central objective of the Bill introduced by Niamh Bhreathnach, but the Minister has walked away from it and restored the status quo.

As I asked in recent weeks, when will disadvantaged status be granted to Scoil Eoin in Kilbarrack, which is a denominational school and a gaelscoil? It is the Minister who must make a decision on matters such as that, but he seems to have taken no initiative in that regard since coming to office. There is reference to the poverty strategy and clear accountable procedures to give extra resources to schools, but there are no initiatives in regard to disadvantaged areas.

I am disappointed there are no proposals in the Bill to decentralise education. I accept there were difficulties with the existing local bodies, the vocational education committees. Debates took place in the Dáil Chamber and at various committees of the last Dáil on the performance of those committees and the idea of merging them with education boards. Since the Minister abandoned the proposal by the previous Minister, he should at least provide for another type of decentralised procedure. The Minister envisaged that as being too difficult, and just walked away. The fear is that he abandoned much of the research and many ideas. The regional boards were proposed after a great deal of consultation with parents, school managers and trades unions. The Minister has opted for the easy answer. Rather than pushing the boat out in this area and letting Cork look after Cork schools and Dublin look after Dublin schools everything must be channelled through the centralised monster of Marlborough Street where the Minister presides.

One of the glaring errors in the Bill is that the Minister has not imposed any statutory obligation on boards of management as far as I can see. We are told, for example, there are still at least 100 schools in which there are effectively no boards of management. Although the Minister has had a great deal of time to think about it in Opposition and prepare a Bill, there will not be statutory obligations in that area.

Effectively, the Minister has also agreed to support the exclusion of parents and teachers from the management and development of their schools. This is an area to which the Minister would be advised to return on Committee Stage.

I note the Minister, has depleted the range of support services in education. There were support services running through 12 key areas in the Bill produced by his predecessor Niamh Bhreathnach. They included areas such as assessment and psychological services, an area in which we want the Minster to introduce significant initiatives, technical aid and equipment for students with social needs and their families, provision for primary and post-primary students with special needs, teacher welfare services, and curriculum support and staff advisory services. In addition, in the Education Bill, 1997, the then Minister also included provision for management services, industrial relations services and legal services. Like all the Opposition Deputies who have studied the Bill, I miss the provision for planning and the development of an education plan for a school which was contained in the last Bill.

It is in it.

I know, but the former Minister Niamh Bhreathnach adopted a more thorough approach than that which the Minister has introduced here. The Minister also seems to have gone back on the provision for gender balance in boards of management which was envisaged by his predecessor.

I commend the Minister for the one initiative which he seems to have taken since he became Minister but, unfortunately, this Bill is a damp squib.

I welcome this Bill in general but it does not go far enough and that is my biggest complaint. It gives a more central role for parents, allows for greater accountability of schools as far as results and performance is concerned, and proposes an appeal system for parents.

I welcome the establishment of student councils in second level schools. That was badly needed in the past to give young people a say in their education system. It exists at third level and it must we welcomed at second level. It is important that young people's voices are heard in the education system as young people are well capable of seeing inadequacies.

Phrases such as "wherever practicable" and "as far as possible" are used throughout the Bill, and there is no commitment in certain areas. There is a hope that things will happen, but there is no guarantee.

Section 9 refers to children with special needs. There are big problems with children who are constantly disruptive or who cannot be sent to school because of educational difficulties or because they have been troublesome in the past. There are no proper facilities or psychological services for such children. There are only four schools to cater for this growing problem, one of which is in Galway in the Western Health Board region. There is a great deal of frustration among a number of parents of such children. Children who have been expelled from other schools have nowhere to go, and that issue must be addressed. Some of these children — there are approximately 60 in Dublin — are not being admitted to other schools and facilities must be made available for them.

The Minister also spoke of students who experience educational disadvantage. There are many children who would have gone to special schools in the past who now go into the mainstream education system and do not get the proper back-up resource there. I could list numerous cases where this is happening, where the school does not get the services of a remedial teacher even for a couple of hours per week. It is very difficult to ask parents to put such children into mainstream education when they do not receive proper back-up.

In my constituency we tried to get a computer for a primary school pupil whose needs demanded it. It is nearly impossible to get such basic resources for a school. I will list some the instances to the Minister afterwards. These difficulties create great problems for parents. It is very frustrating to have to decide whether to send a child into mainstream education or into special schools where there are facilities and the classes are smaller. At the end of the day, children receive the resources there, but it would be great if we could have these children attending mainstream education.

It is great to see that the boards of management are to have a greater role. However, with that in mind I hope they will receive more resources. I am afraid it will be difficult to get parents to participate because of the increased workload. It is important that parents take an active part on boards of management. We do not want to discourage them from taking an active role.

I welcome the student councils, but it is a pity that students do not have a voice on the boards of management. That should be put on a statutory basis. Where there are student councils, they should have an automatic seat on the boards of management to put forward the views of students. This facility exists in universities where a representative of the student union is a member of the governing body. The same should apply with second level boards of management to give young people a voice.

The appeal system does not go far enough. Teacher behaviour cannot be appealed and there are a number of cases throughout the country where children are being victimised by teachers. It is a small number of cases but it occurs, and there is no appeals mechanism to cope with it. If a student complains to the board of management, he or she gets into further trouble with the teacher when the teacher realises the pupil went to the board. The child will be victimised further. A case came to my attention recently where parents had to take their children out of the school because the family in question was being victimised by a number of teachers. There were two families being victimised by teachers and they had no redress. That leads to a great deal of frustration as parents must look for another school for their child half way through the academic year, and it is unfair.

The Bill also refers to educational disadvantage. There is a drop-out rate of between 25 to 30 per cent in second level schools. That means 25 to 30 per cent of young people who begin second level education emerge without a qualification and there are major problems of adult illiteracy. The Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy O'Dea, has responsibility in this area and he has spoken about it on many occasions. The problem of adult illiteracy must be tackled at primary and second level. Some young people entering second level education are not able to read or write. If we do not invest resources in primary education and reduce the pupil-teacher ratio, serious problems will arise in second and third level education. A number of reports indicate that this will cause difficulties for the adult population in general.

The Minister stated that religion will become an examination subject. He should consider including politics or current affairs as examination subjects because, in recent years, many young people have become disaffected with politics and the political system. They should have a better understanding of that system and knew how to mark a ballot paper. The vast majority of people do not know how the PR system works. At the recent election I had to explain the workings of that system to people who have worked as tallymen for many years.

In the past civics was included on the syllabus but it was not taught in many schools, including the second level institution I attended. There is a need to introduce a subject of that sort which, perhaps, might include a mixture of current affairs and environmental topics. This would give young people a greater understanding of their environment and how administration and government work. Hopefully, knowledge of the system's workings would encourage more young people to take an active participation in society by casting their votes at elections.

I am glad the National Council for Curriculum Assessment will be placed on a statutory footing. I welcome this important development. I intend to raise these points on Committee Stage but perhaps the Minister will consider them in the interim. I hope he will agree to some of my suggestions on Committee Stage.

Deputy Broughan referred to boards of management, which have not been placed on a statutory footing. He stated that there are approximately 100 schools which do not have boards of management. The Minister should reconsider this issue because it is important that parents be given a say in how their children are educated and that they have an input into the operation of schools.

With regard to education in general, there is a need to put in place resources in many facilities — be they special schools or normal schools — to cater for the needs of children with disabilities. There is much frustration on the part of the parents of these children. I accept that the allocation of such resources would have to be done in conjunction with the Department of Health and Children. These children are the silent minority in society and it would be a pity if we were to discriminate against them.

Ireland has one of the highest pupil-teacher ratios in primary and second level education in Europe. Remedial resource teachers are included in that ratio which is wrong. We must reduce the pupil-teacher ratio if we are to tackle problems such as illiteracy and difficult children who on progressing to second level may be expelled. Many of these problems could be resolved at primary level if adequate resources were put in place.

That leads me to the issue of psychological services. Are the people who enter the psychological service active in the teaching profession? Are they being removed from the system and trained in the provision of psychological services or are they students of psychology who have been trained to enter the education system? It is important that those providing this service are qualified psychologists because they will face many serious problems in dealing with children from deprived and disadvantaged areas.

Debate adjourned.