That an Education Bill is long since needed is not in dispute. Therefore, in principle this Bill is to be welcomed. The Education (No. 2) Bill, 1997, has a number of distinguishing features. It is a Bill which is designed not to raise any hackles. It is minimalist and singularly devoid of vision. Its lack of creativity is an appalling response to a period of unparalleled potential and challenge in Irish education at first and second levels.
The Bill is underpinned by cuteness as distinct from flair, incisiveness and decisiveness. It is incomprehensible that any Minister for Education and Science, who even vaguely subscribes to the concept of partnership and inclusiveness in education, could produce an Education Bill which does not impose a statutory obligation to introduce boards of management. To the best of my knowledge, there are well in excess of one hundred schools at second level which do not have boards of management. The Minister has chosen to funk the issue and intends to allow a situation to continue where parents and teachers have no formal role in the management of these schools. In an educational sense, the Minister has chosen to disenfranchise the many rather than the few.
The education system is, by and large, slow to change. In this Bill, his first major legislative challenge, the Minister has signalled in no uncertain manner that he does not intend to be a catalyst for real change against the background of a rapidly changing social order and a growing marginalised underclass. He is proceeding down the road of conservatism which he perceives to be the safest route. Worse still, unlike his predecessor, Niamh Bhreathnach, he totally rejects decentralisation and opts instead for the continuation of a model inherited — with the exception of the Vocational Education Act, 1930 — from the British.
The monolith in Marlboro Street is alive and well, with its future assured if the Minister has his way. This exercise is about providing a statutory basis to existing systems rather than encouraging real partnership, transparency and accountability. What should have been an exercise in partnership and innovation will just be more of the same. This occurs against the background of a budget which provided the princely additional sum of £500,000 for the provision of school books at primary level as the only addition to capitation or budgets in mainstream first and second level schools. The status quo remains the net position for such schools under this Minister and they will not receive additional funding.
It must always be the fundamental objective of any Government to achieve optimum value for money for taxpayers in the context of every service provided. The Education budget is of the order of £2 billion. In terms of the State's finances, this is a considerable sum of money. It goes without saying that co-ordination, streamlining and integration of services to obtain maximum output must be addressed at all times.
In the interpretation section of the Education (No. 2) Bill, 1997, there is a clear illustration of where the legislation is fundamentally flawed. I refer to the definition in the new Bill of the term, "support services", which are defined as follows:
"support services" means the services which the Minister provides to students or their parents, schools or centres for education in accordance with section 7 and shall include any or all of the following:
(a) assessment of students;
(b) psychological services;
(c) technical aid and equipment for students with special needs and their families;
(d) provision for primary or post-primary education to students with special needs otherwise than in schools or centres for education; (e) teacher welfare services;
(f) curriculum support and staff advisory services, and
(g) such other services as are specified by this Act or considered
appropriate by the Minister.
In the Education Bill, 1997 introduced by the then Minister, Niamh Bhreathnach, the interpretation of "support services" was as follows:
"support services" means the services which an education board provides to students or their parents, recognised schools or centres for education in its education region in accordance with section 9 (2) (b) and shall include the following:
(a) assessment of students;
(b) psychological services;
(c) technical aid and equipment for students with special needs and their families;
(d) provision for primary or post primary education to students with special needs otherwise than in schools or centres for education;
(e) management services;
(f) industrial relations services;
(g) legal services;
(h) teacher welfare services;
(i) curriculum support and staff advisory services;
(j) library and media services;
(k) school maintenance services, and
(l) such other services as are specified by this Act or considered appropriate by the board or the Minister.
The range of support services which were to be provided under the Bill produced by Niamh Bhreathnach have been decimated and the following services have been omitted: management services, industrial relations services, legal services and library and media services. The Education (No. 2) Bill is even worse when compared to the earlier Bill which states that support services "shall include the following"— in reference to the long list of services — while the new Bill, with its greatly reduced list, states that support services "shall include any or all of the following". One must ask what remains? The answer is that there will be fewer services, which will be centralised in the Minister's Department, and under the proposed legislation he does not even have to provide all of these services.
The Minister and the Government deem this legislation appropriate for first and second level education in Ireland in the 21st century. It is nothing short of a shameful funk, devoid of any real spirit of partnership. We are presented with a sterile bankrupt philosophy of education. There is no dynamic. This is just plodding on with nothing more than cosmetic adjustment to the inherited British model. Niamh Bhreathnach's Bill was inspired by real vision of partnership. It raised hackles and it did not seek to please everyone. The Education (No. 2) Bill, in seeking to offend no one, is bland and completely misses the wonderful opportunity presented. In effect, it does a violence to future generations and blights the prospect of real partnership in education.
The issues surrounding the huge difference between the definition of support services in both Bills are at the kernel of difference between the creative progress the earlier Bill would have brought about had it become an Act and the paralysis the new Bill represents. The education system requires leadership and direction. It is primarily in the Minister's care and no amount of glib PR work can conceal the fact that the Government lacks the courage to challenge the system and release the creative energy emanating from the positive synergies between the partners in education into the system at first and second level.
Section 7 is new and outlines the functions of the Minister as follows:
(1) Each of the following shall be a function of the Minister under the Act:
(a) to determine national education policy, and
(b) to plan and co-ordinate—
(i) the provision of education in recognised schools and centres for education, and
(ii) support services.
Section 7(4)(b) states that the Minister:
shall, wherever practicable, consult with patrons, national associations of parents, recognised school management organisations, recognised trade unions and staff associations representing teachers and such other persons who have a special interest in or knowledge of matters relating to education as the Minister considers appropriate.
This is a far cry from real partnership in education when compared with section 27 of the earlier Bill which charged the directors of education boards with producing an education plan as soon as may be after they were appointed and at such intervals as may be specified by the Minister. The plan would set out the objectives to be achieved by the education board in the three years following its preparation or in such other periods as may be specified by the Minister, the priorities accorded to these objectives and the means by which they would be met by the education boards.
Niamh Bhreathnach's Bill further provided that:
(3) The education board shall, in accordance with such directions as may be given by the Minister, consult with the parents, patrons, students, teachers and other persons or bodies likely to be affected by the plan or who have an interest in the plan in the education region concerned, on the plan as prepared by the Director.
(4) The education board may, having regard to the consultation as provided by subsection (3) either approve of an education plan without modification or following appropriate consultation with the Director approve of the education plan submitted under this section with such modifications as it thinks fit to make.
(6) An education board shall ensure that—
(a) a copy of the education plan is given to each school in its education region
(b) a copy is made available at the main office of the education board for inspection by any person who wishes to inspect it
(c) access to the plan for the purpose of inspecting it is given to such person or persons during normal office hours
(d) a reasonable number of copies of the plan are deposited in each public library in the education region and,
(e) copies of the plan are available for sale to the public at a reasonable charge
(7) The Director of an education board shall review the education plan annually and shall make a report on the plan to the education board which may amend the plan on the basis of that report.
(8) An education board shall provide the Minister with a copy of the report made by the Director under subsection (7) as soon as practicable after it has considered it together with a copy of any amendments to the education plan arising from it.
I stress the education system has served the country exceedingly well. Irish people are among the best educated in the world. The previous Minister, Niamh Bhreathnach, informed the House of an international report which concluded that Ireland was second only to Singapore in the contribution made by education to the competitiveness of its economy. However, we cannot stand still and, while building on success, we must adapt and manage change.
It is timely to quote from a speech the Minister's predecessor made in the House in May 1996 when she described the Department of Education as follows:
The Department of Education is overwhelmed with the day-to-day business of the education system, a system in which more than 1 million students and teachers are involved every day. The Department, through sheer pressure of business, is seen as bureaucratic, unresponsive and slow. Communities develop a dependency culture while waiting for a central Department to make decisions. Partnership in planning for education is stifled. Competition rather than co-operation between different schools can result. This is why now, more than ever, we need decentralised structures in education. Given the maturity of our educational system in the 1990s there is now the need to look afresh at the administrative arrangements.
Has the position changed to any extent since that speech was made less than two years ago? Is there no less need now for decentralisation in the Department? Does the Minister accept that the Bill offends in a very profound way against the principle of subsidiarity enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty and endorsed in the Amsterdam Treaty? In what way is the Bill anything more than a touching up of our centralised system of administration which originated in the 19th century?
When the Department of Education was established in 1924 and assumed responsibility for all national secondary and technical education, it took over the existing system. The Vocational Education Act, 1930, was positive and effective devolution. However, we now find ourselves with a unique level of centralisation as against that which pertains in the rest of Europe. The Minister is refusing to follow best international practice in education matters which matches need and distinct traditions in education systems.
We need a model which would confine the Department to areas such as overall policy matters, curriculum supervision and quality assurance. It should also devolve administrative matters such as staffing, school building provision and developing linkages with the business community to the regions. On Committee Stage the Labour Party will seek to substantially amend this Bill. We will seek in our amendments to introduce decentralisation, accountability and transparency to legislation which looks back rather than forward and challenges nothing.
I seek clarification on one of the functions of a school listed in the Bill. This function is to "promote the moral, spiritual, social and personal development of students in consultation with their parents having regard to the characteristic spirit of the school." The term "characteristic spirit" needs much more precise definition. Although the Minister in his contribution went some distance down this road, I still find the concept he presents to be very vague. In addition this function replaces the function in the previous Bill — to "provide social, personal and health education for students". Why was the word "health" dropped? Why has the function changed from the specific "provide . education" to the vague "promote . development". I look forward to the Minister's response.
Part III, section 13(2)(iv) relating to the functions of an inspector states that the inspector "shall advise parents and parents' associations". The previous Bill provided only for advising parents' associations. Why has the Minister brought about this change in drafting and is there a danger that the inspector could have an inordinate amount of his or her time taken up with discharging these functions to the detriment of other duties? Why is there no specified function for the inspectorate in the provision of inservice training? Will he put down an appropriate amendment in this regard?
Will the Minister explain why in section14(5), relating to the establishment and membership of boards of management, the phrase "which has an appropriate gender balance" has been dropped? It seems the Government and the Minister have been exposed for their total lack of commitment to gender balance. I call on the Minister to restore the phrase on Committee Stage.
Section 15(2)(g), which refers to the functions of boards of management, states that a board, in carrying out its functions, shall "within the resources provided to the school in accordance with section 12, make reasonable provision and accommodation for students with special educational needs". This is an extraordinarily weak subsection and effectively confers no rights on students with special needs. The section requires substantial strengthening if it is to have any worthwhile impact and I await the Minister's response on this. The Labour Party will accept nothing less than the proper addressing of provision and accommodation for students with special needs.
Section 18(2) deals with the keeping of accounts and records. It states:
(2) Accounts kept in pursuance of this section shall be made available by the school concerned for inspection by the Minister in so far as those accounts relate to moneys provided in accordance with section 12.
There are moneys voted by the Oireachtas whereas the Bill introduced by the previous Minister states:
49. (1) A board shall keep, in such form as may be approved of by the education board, all proper and usual accounts and records of all income received by it or expenditure of such moneys incurred by it.
Why is the Minister, in this era of public accountability, excluding accounting for donations from the accounts of boards of management?
Section 30(2)(b), (c) and (d), which deals with the curriculum, raises the question of a clear and concise definition of "characteristic spirit of the school". Section 32 deals with educational disadvantage, but does not define it. It is imperative that all the partners in education understand what the legislation means by educational disadvantage. Why does the Bill omit any reference to further education? Does the Minister intend to introduce separately a further education authority? Does he not agree this extremely important segment of the second level sector urgently requires co-ordination and direction?
I am also puzzled by a term "staff associations" which appears in Part III, section 13(7), Part IV, section 14(1), Part VI, section 25 and section 28(1). This term is not defined in the interpretation section of Part I and did not appear in the Education Bill, 1997. How does this inclusion improve the Bill and what does it mean? Who do the staff associations represent? Have they a negotiating licence because the Bill seems to involve them in industrial relations areas?
Many people, including myself, are concerned about children who are young offenders, very disruptive in school or generally out of control. The schools cannot deal effectively with such children. It appears that some 1,000 children annually do not make the transition from first to second level and many others leave the education system at a very young age. There is a serious deficit of parenting skills in the community. As a primary teacher I believe dysfunctional children can be identified by teachers at an early age. The antisocial behaviour of such dysfunctional children can be effectively addressed only in a family context and the sooner this is done the better. I have long believed that there should be at least one school welfare officer in each VEC area. Such officers should have the backing of statute law in being enabled to co-ordinate the various statutory and voluntary organisations which would have a role in resolving the difficulties of dysfunctional children in a family context. The problems relating to these dysfunctional children are multi-faceted and require a co-ordinated multifaceted response. Without such a dedicated devolved response, no meaningful widespread progress will be made.
To say the Bill is disappointing is a major understatement. I look forward to Committee Stage where I will seek by amendment to develop real partnership in education.
The Minister said that following the passage of the Bill he would review the establishment of county education fora. Basically, he is saying he is prepared to consider the establishment of institutions that would have no base in legislation. If the Minister intends to do that, he should introduce an appropriate amendment on Committee Stage. When the word "fora" is decoded, it suggests talking shops. Such fora should have a more solid base and even though this is much less than what the Labour Party would seek, it would be progressive. However, institutions set up after the legislation has been enacted will not have the necessary teeth and would have limited value in education.
I am sure the Minister agrees that the number of places for young offenders is inadequate. The system, inasmuch as it relates to such offenders, is too fragmented. The Department of Education and Science should be the lead Department in dealing with those people. Children as young as nine and ten — even a small number of them — can wreak havoc in communities. From their point of view they are on a trail to nowhere and will merely go further down the road of offending. While there is certain sympathy in the Bill for that group, real structures must be put in place because those children have a huge detrimental effect on the educational system. They are part of a system which has difficulty coping with them.
The Bill is disappointing, but the Labour Party will table constructive amendments on Committee Stage. I hope there can be an effective meeting of minds in the select committee.