Deputy Brian Lenihan was in possession and sharing his time with Deputy Noel O'Flynn.
Education (No. 2) Bill, 1997: Second Stage (Resumed).
I welcome the introduction of this Bill by the Minister. It is long overdue. It will be the first substantive legislation introduced by a Minister in the 20th century on first and second level education.
In welcoming the publication of the revised version of the Education Bill, I will refer to the reasons for its revision. The previous Minister for Education lost her seat at the last general election. The policies pursued in the Department of Education in recent years and the perception of the way the Labour Party ran the Department contributed to that party's downfall at the last election.
The Education Bill needed revision. The current Minister has returned to the culture of the Department and the Minister listening to the people instead of dictating to them. People resented the dictatorial attitudes of the last Labour Minister in the Department. They resented the high-handed manner of her decision making.
That is unfair. She cannot defend herself.
The previous Education Bill proposed structures which were costly and unnecessary. It sought to undermine the traditional structure of our education system. The Universities Bill, as initiated, was regarded as dictatorship by the universities and the schools. It set out to erode their ethos. I supported the right to recognition as an institute of technology of the college in Waterford. It was its due. Unfortunately, it was an act of blatant political opportunism, and it backfired. It annoyed people in other deserving areas in the education sector which also deserved institute of technology status. I have in mind Cork Regional Technical College and the other colleges whose standards of excellence have recently been recognised by the Minister. I commend him on his actions in this matter. It was left to Fianna Fáil to deliver for Cork and the other colleges when the Labour brass band ran out of music.
Their implementation of programmes on relationships and sex education was done in a manner resented by many parents and teachers. Complete disregard was shown for those people's rights to information on what teachers were presenting to their children. All that was needed was consultation.
The Breaking the Cycle programme was a farce in my constituency. The outrageous and deliberate refusal of the last Government to provide Breaking the Cycle teachers to some of the schools in the north-west of Cork city in my constituency was the single greatest cause of anti-Government feeling at the last election.
What did the Deputy do about it?
It is one of the reasons I am here today. Parents, teachers and university lecturers were out to teach a lesson to the Labour Party and their colleagues in Government. They lost several seats, including the former Minister's seat in Dun Laoghaire and one in Cork. Incidentally, following the appointment of Deputy Martin as Minister for Education and Science, Knocknaheeny and Churchfield schools were granted their extra teachers, within three months of my election to Dáil Éireann. My constituents were not let down by Fianna Fáil or by me.
This Education Bill sets out to provide a legislative framework to replace the ad hoc Administration we have had since the State was founded. Deputies will notice that in the list of Acts referred to in this Bill, there is reference to only one Education Act, dating from 1930 and dealing with vocational education only. We have had Government by decree and circular letter in the area of education for 75 years. It cannot go on like this.
However, we do not need to spend a fortune on a raft of educational quangos and boards for the appointment of vested interests, cronies and administrators in order to administer education. Fianna Fáil promised to put a stop to the last Government's plans for regional education boards. This Bill fulfils that promise. It is the policy of this Government to put money into teachers and equipment. It will not waste it on unnecessary paperwork and ideology. The education system has needed a major update for far too long. Education patterns and needs are changing daily and at a rate never before experienced.
The Bill's intent to clarify the rights of students, parents and school staff will address a problem that has sorely needed attention for a long time. Education must keep step with today's technology and tomorrow's needs. We need to protect our managers and our teaching staff in their decisions. We must also give the students and their parents the right to question decisions made by management. I have always felt it unfair that students have had no right of appeal against board of management decisions.
I am glad the Minister has seen fit to disagree with the concept of introducing an intermediate education tier. If there is one thing we do not need, it is another layer of bureaucracy in the system. We need to speed up meaningful change, not to establish additional boards to debate the need for change. Any additional bodies should be set up after we have introduced the changes envisaged in this Bill — they should be formed as a result of experience gained from the operation of the new system, and they should be local and not national bodies.
It is right that the Minister has put emphasis on the element of partnership in the setting up of the boards of management. The element of compulsion in the previous Education Bill ran totally contrary to all current thinking in this and all other fields.
Schools will be expected to promote the Irish language and culture under the new Bill. This is a very positive step to promote the use of our native tongue and to ensure the realisation of our policy in regard to our national culture. The amazing growth in the number of gaelscoileanna is proof positive of the demand for such an enlightened approach. The Irish language is an essential part of our culture and tradition. A minority dismiss the language as irrelevant, but in general there is widespread affection for it. The Irish language is basic to our personal development. It is our heritage and we must cherish it.
I am glad to see the provisions to protect the integrity of our examination structures. The adverse publicity in this area over a number of years has caused considerable disquiet to students, parents and teachers. The right to appeal against expulsion from an educational establishment is built into this Bill. Every person in this democracy has the right to be advised why decisions are made which will have a major effect on their schooling and their future careers. Individuals will have to pay the price of expulsion from schools for the rest of their lives.
The role of the patron, whether religious or secular, has been an important one since the early days of the Irish education system and it is right that it is protected. In this context tribute should be paid to the role of religious orders in providing education. Many people would never have had the advantage of secondary education if the religious orders had not been there to provide it, and those who could not afford to do so were never asked to pay a fee. Many who talk today about the privileged position of religious orders in education would be slow to respond if they themselves were asked to provide the same high standards within the limited resources available to the parents of most pupils. Our religious orders deserve the gratitude of this nation.
This Bill guarantees the rights of parents to membership of boards. This involvement is vital to the successful implementation of the aims of this far-reaching legislation. Parents will now have access to records of their children's progress. They will also be involved in the formation of the school plan, and they must be kept advised of the performance of the school.
The Bill recognises the central role played by teachers in the education system. They have prepared our country for its participation in the present economic boom by ensuring pupils of exceptionally high educational standards are ready and willing to take their places in today's workforce. The teacher is now entitled to consultation on procedures for the appointment of teachers, the preparation of school plans and the operation of appeals procedures. The role of the principal is clearly outlined and given just recognition in the new Bill. We have been lucky with the calibre and commitment of the principals we have had in our school system since the foundation of the State. It is right that their outstanding contribution is recognised in the Bill.
The Minister said the legislation contains practical provisions which have as their objective the elimination of educational disadvantage. The achievement of that goal is a vital priority. The establishment of a special education review committee, set up by the Minister for Public Enterprise, Deputy O'Rourke, during her time as Minister for Education, focused attention on children with special educational needs. The Minister, Deputy Martin, spoke of students who experience educational disadvantage — there is particular need to supply additional remedial services to our schools because those who enter mainstream education do not get the help they should. Many schools do not get adequate services for remedial teaching. I know of one case where one-to-one tuition requested by parents was not made available and another where parents were refused the use of departmental aids such as instructional computer disks, which they wanted in order to help their children at home. There must be a rethink in these areas.
Parents who put children in need of remedial instruction into mainstream education deserve a first class back-up service. I have seen the progress of children who have benefited from remedial teaching and one-to-one tuition, and the happiness of their parents. I admire the personnel who work in this field and I have profound respect for teachers and staff support who care for disadvantaged children and adults.
I give unstinting praise to the Minister for his initiative in making physical education an examination subject. It was a shining example of his innovative thinking — he identified a need and acted accordingly. It would be beneficial to the national community if the use of school gymnasia and sporting facilities was actively promoted and encouraged by his Department. I congratulate the Minister on the originality and wide-ranging scope of the Bill, which will be welcomed by those who have sought positive change in education for many years. It is a breath of fresh air.
Tá an-áthas orm faoin seans chun labhairt ar an mBille seo. The context of this Bill, wide-ranging though it may be, is an attempt to respond to many matters outside the strict remit of the Minister for Education and Science. We must appreciate the difficulty of this job but we must also give the necessary pointers so that other Departments will be cognisant of the effects of their work — or lack of work — for which the Minister must pick up the tab.
Our society faces a number of trends which have a direct impact on education and relate to parents as much as to schooling. One example is the trend towards longer working hours, which does not affect TDs alone. The onset of 24 hour shopping has a significant impact on parents raising children and a consequent effect on the children's education. A UK study during the 1980s, which has parallels here, showed that people in executive jobs, who would be considered quite well paid have to work 20 per cent more time than previously. The growing gap between rich and poor is acknowledged by all economic commentators, although they may disagree as to its extent. That impacts directly on children more than on any other sector of society.
Another factor, which is also relevant to transport matters, is that children are less independent in travelling to and from school. Fewer children walk or cycle to school and they are more reliant on their parents and guardians finding means of transport to bring them to and from school. The independence of children is being whittled away due to factors which are not part of education.
There has also been an increase in school absenteeism — days lost to sickness, etc. — which is becoming more widespread in society. I could not find an Irish study on this subject but a British study found that the average number of days lost per person due to sickness was 8.8 days in 1962, which had risen to 12.2 days in 1988. This trend is continuing. Health levels are relevant to education.
With the onset of the Amsterdam Treaty, the merits of the free market are often discussed. One must also consider the negative impact which the convergence of salaries at a low level has on children and consequently on education. Food quality has been discussed in this House and that is also a factor in the education and welfare of children.
We must also bear in mind the effect on education of the level of advertising in society. Between 1950 and 1986 the budget for advertising increased five fold and that trend is continuing. We talk of education as a life enhancing experience but, advertising also reaches into our schools and in some curricular activities sets the agenda because of the incentives it provides for commercial reasons.
Against that background I will comment on the Bill, because its various parts stand out from each other. The explanatory and financial memorandum states that the Bill contains a provision for "the recognition of schools for the purposes of funding by public funds". That is an issue unto itself, but the role of the home and parents in education should be taken into account in this provision. The Minister should be aware of a 12 year study undertaken into 49 schools in Britain. There may or may not be direct comparisons with Ireland, and the position may be more pronounced in Britain, nonetheless we should take note of it. The study notes a lowering of educational levels generally, for instance in literacy and numeracy. Mr. Mike Lake, an educational psychologist, measured the performance of children aged seven to eight and detected after 1986 a distinct deterioration in their reading ability. He ascribes this to a lack of general knowledge, which appears to become more impoverished at that point. He further attributes this to a lack of discussion time at home, of interaction between parents and children and of linguistic development. Schools take this for granted when children arrive from the home but the Department should be more deliberate in recognising and assisting parents to provide the foundation which is so essential for the full education of the child and the person.
Section 6 has as one of its objectives that an appropriate level and quality of education is made available to each person in the State. That is an aspiration because no one would claim it is happening. Gaelscoileanna in particular lack texts and resources and this puts them at a disadvantage, although they tend to make up for this with a better pupil-teacher ratio and all credit to them for that. There is also a related reference to extending bilingualism in society. We must be very careful in how we go about that because a recent Irish Times report indicated that, while the Gaeltacht was becoming more bilingual, the prominence of Irish was deteriorating extremely quickly, which is probably related to the bilingual factor. We must examine how other Departments can help in that regard, such as by producing forms in both languages.
Section 10 refers to the recognition of schools, which is a prerequisite for funding under section 12(3). This refers to the capitation fees, which brings to mind a very painful experience in my constituency where the numbers in a very disadvantaged school have decreased because the demographic profile of the housing estate concerned means that most of the children are now teenagers. The Minister is well aware of that school, Toberburr national school, in St. Margaret's in north County Dublin. However, the school still has the same overheads in terms of heating, insurance and other needs. It is effectively being starved of the necessary capitation fees because its numbers have decreased, but it still must stay open to cater for the remaining children. It needs £15,000 to clear debts and pay pressing bills. The annual funding it receives from the Department and the parish amounts to £5,300, with a running cost of £11,000 to £12,000.
There is a definite need to re-examine how we measure the basic funding of primary education, which is where the foundation stones are laid. When other factors such as the widening gap between rich and poor kick in, such communities are left to fend for themselves without the capacity to so do. The Minister must deal with that in co-operation with the Cabinet.
There are other factors.
I know there are other factors and that monitoring must be part of it.
No school has to close like that.
I know the Minister will say no school has to close, but it closed on a very cold day and I do not know if he would be prepared to sit in it for the day. However, I will not go into that now because we can talk about it after this debate.
I met the school staff and we have sorted out the matter.
I am glad about that.
If the Department is alerted early enough there is no need for any school to have to close in such situations.
I trust I will never experience that again and I take the Minister's word on the matter. However, the Bill must stress that commitment in stronger terms.
Section 12 refers to the criteria which "may" allow for additional funding. I know from schools such as Toberburr and St. Teresa's in Balbriggan, which has also been looking for disadvantaged status for many years, and schools which teach children with disabilities, that the commitment which "may allow for additional funding" is not the level of commitment which they need. I ask the Minister to examine that closely to see whether "shall" could replace "may". Perhaps that should be dealt with by way of an amendment on Committee Stage.
Part III deals with the inspectorate. Will the Minister consider requiring that the chief inspector publish a report, as happens in England where Mr. Chris Woodhead reports frequently on various issues, some might say too frequently? However, a balance could be struck. In order for schools and the body politic to measure trends in education, such as literacy or the number of inspections per year, we need some form of reporting by the inspectorate. I ask the Minister to provide for that in Part III.
Part IV deals with boards of management. The general provisions are those which I would expect to see and they develop what has gone before. Will the Minister consider the boards of management of education centres? The committees running what were called teacher training centres, and are now known as education centres, do not have the same protection from liability as schools do. Perhaps that is because they deal with adults who are meant to look after themselves rather than falling and making claims. There is a need to examine what protection is available in education centres for people, many of whom offer their time voluntarily because of their interest in education and who provide a service which would not otherwise be provided. They should enjoy the same protection as school boards of management.
Section 18 provides for the auditing of accounts and the cost of this must be taken into account. It is easy for us to call for accountability and auditing — both are very laudable — but auditing can be expensive. Some schools can avail of the services of friendly accountants who are connected with the school but other schools cannot. Of course, the schools which can avail of those services are generally those which also have the ability to fundraise.
Section 20 refers to establishing procedures for keeping parents informed. I know from my teaching days that attempts to keep parents informed often resulted in reports months later of letters being found at the bottom of schoolbags. There is a definite need to formalise that communication and to assist schools in making a monthly report, for example.
Part V deals with promoting co-operation between the school and the community, which is vital. I taught in one, two and three teacher schools and those schools tend to be more involved in the community, probably through necessity because they depend on the community for their resources. I support that provision very strongly.
I greatly welcome the encouragement of second level student councils in section 27. Children should learn as part of their education to argue their corner, think for themselves and be the agents of changes which are needed in society and their own lives. Participating in a student council has a very immediate role but also a wider educational role, which I support.
Section 31 provides for the establishment of a body to "plan and co-ordinate the provision of textbooks and aids to learning and teaching through Irish", which is long overdue. Such provision has been hit-and-miss until now. Full credit is due to gaelscoileanna which have managed to overcome the difficulties in that area and attain very high standards. The problem must be dealt with sooner rather than later.
Section 32 deals with the establishment of a committee to advise the Minister on strategies to tackle educational disadvantage. That committee will have a great deal of work to do and will need to report more widely to other Departments, given that the social problems with which it will deal will relate to health, housing and transport. These features of disadvantage spread far wider than the Department of Education and Science.
Section 39 refers to bodies involved in primary and post primary education and provides for the composition of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. This area has been narrowly defined in the past and there is a temptation to maintain previous definitions. The Bill refers to experience and skills, including business and industry skills, which are important. However, we cannot depend on business and industry skills to provide an educational life-enhancing experience to children and adults who are mature students. These necessary skills include ones which are often overlooked — for example, parenting, homemaking and conflict resolution. These are issues which we often speak about in the House but generally in terms of symptoms. I hope the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment will set out a wider vision of the educational needs of children. These needs are much wider than those which the various interest groups want to promote because their brief is not to promote a wide remit but to focus on their own interests. That should be taken into account.
I have spoken to the Minister at Question Time about in-service training which is changing and developing. The system of in-service training was disgraceful and teachers were encouraged to make use of it during their holidays and were to be rewarded with days off during the year. I know from teaching in a one, two and three teacher school that one could not do so. There was no way to deliver on that arrangement. I hope we are becoming more realistic in relation to in-service training. Perhaps the Department needs to allocate more resources, particularly if we consider the problems about which I have heard concerning delays in providing in-service training which have meant that teachers have lost out and schools have made arrangements on which they could not follow through.
Part VIII on examinations does not refer to examination centres. The legislation should ensure that those repeating the leaving certificate are not obliged to travel long distances. Travelling long distances, which many of those repeating the leaving certificate are obliged to do, is not conducive to a good performance. Note should be taken of examination centres. I look forward to Committee Stage and hope the Minister takes on board some of the suggestions made.
The Minister is to be commended on this legislation which will underpin educational provision into the next millennium. The Bill is a considerable improvement on that prepared by the Minister's predecessor and corrects the excess of the Bhreathnach proposals in respect of regionalisation and its consequent non-productive cost. The introduction of this landmark legislation gives us an opportunity to reflect on the quality of our educational provision and to evaluate the proposals contained in it.
There is a general acceptance that our economic success is directly attributable to the quality of our education. Yet this acceptance comes somewhat belatedly after years of teacher bashing by some commentators, of whom one of the most conspicuous is a Member of the Oireachtas. It is sad that teacher bashing has had the effect of lowering the status of teachers and teaching to the extent that it is no longer a highly popular career choice for our brightest and best. We now acknowledge the vital economic role of teachers and schools but the damage done may well be irreversible.
This debate gives us the opportunity to put on record our estimate and opinion of teachers. I wish to record my respect for a body of professionals and for a system which has given us one of the most accomplished and gifted workforces in the world. Much of what has been attained in terms of scholarship and academic excellence has not been as a result of Government support but in spite of Government neglect and underfunding. Teachers have delivered in spite of neglect and lack of appreciation.
I am not naive enough to suggest all is well in our schools and that they do not require regulation. There are many flaws and faults in our system and perhaps the most glaring and unfair is the exclusion of the disadvantaged from many schools. No school in receipt of Exchequer funding has the right to exclude a child by the application of an entrance test. This practice is almost exclusively confined to urban areas but it is significant in that urban areas are the last bastions of class consciousness and privilege. The opposite to privilege is deprivation and, sadly, many children in our local authority housing schemes in inner cities and suburban areas suffer almost automatic exclusion from some schools.
Many of the schools which admit only the best claim excellence on the basis of results in State examinations. Such claims may dupe the public but they do not stand up to objective scrutiny. Good teaching is not about getting good results for exceptionally gifted students but is about getting the best possible results for any student commensurate with that student's objective ability.
Results and CAO points have tended to dominate educational thinking in recent times. They have become the main focus of educational concern for most parents. We seldom track performance beyond the leaving certificate. Each year we select, through the leaving certificate examination, the best and brightest to go to university. Regrettably, up to 30 per cent of these do not graduate. We must consider the possible reasons for this and address them if we can. I hold the view, which is shared by many educationalists, that our second level teaching style does not prepare students for the demands and exigencies of third level. At second level the teacher takes control of the learning process. The teacher is virtually the sole source and purveyor of information. The student learns and assimilates the information at the teacher's behest through checking, reinforcing, exercising and testing.
When the student goes to third level the rigorous discipline of daily assignment and reinforcement exercises is not available. The student is largely responsible for initiating, organising and assimilating his or her own learning. Unfortunately, the student is frequently ill-prepared for the demands, lacking the confidence, assertiveness, insight and organisation and information technology skills to cope. The culture of dependence on the teacher, which pervades the secondary system, provides a short-term payoff in terms of points but it can be an inhibiting and retarding influence on the student when he or she goes to university.
There is a growing awareness of the need to change the emphasis in secondary education from the traditional didactic methodologies to the more progressive investigative and experimental learning methodologies which have been initiated in new departures such as the transition year programme and the leaving certificate vocational programme. It behoves this House to recognise that curriculum development initiatives such as the transition year programme and leaving certificate vocational programme are largely attributable to the responsiveness of the teaching profession to the evolving needs of their students in an ever changing world.
I hope the legislation will not discourage or inhibit the enterprise and initiative of teachers in responding to the needs of students. In this context, I am conscious of the double-edged potential of the proposed school plan which will become a statutory requirement under the legislation. I accept the need for accountability and a measurement instrument in the accountability process, but I appeal to the Minister to ensure that school plans do not become rigid frameworks which will manacle and shackle teachers to a bland menu of approved educational experiences and a slavish captivity within a prescribed structure.
I have no problem with the concept of strategic planning for a period of, say, five years and the use of such plans to press for funding for specific projects. Planning as a prelude to accountability is fine, but if a plan envisages developments which require resources then there must be some possibility of getting these resources. Otherwise the plan will be a mere sham, a device to trick one into stating one's goals, aims and objectives which will later be measured against one's performance. If this is the route we are going then the Department's inspectorate is the appropriate body to produce the school plan in consultation with teachers and management.
In many cases schools are in dire need of maintenance action plans, not educational plans. The Department should bow its head in shame at its disgraceful neglect of some schools. It is deplorable that some schools still do not have basic sanitation facilities or an adequate heating system. It is fine to point the finger at management but it does not have the resources. Even the Department's community and comprehensive schools are neglected. Many of them are falling into disrepair due to a lack of routine maintenance.
The Bill moves us to a new plane in terms of regulating school governance and accountability. However, we must provide the wherewithal to schools so that they can manage their affairs professionally, competently and systematically. We cannot legislate for change if we do not commit the resources to facilitate this change. I urge the Minister to give unqualified assurances in this regard.
Deputy Sargent referred to capitation grants. I welcome the increase of £5 in the rate of capitation grant in the budget. I made representations to the Minister on this matter. Following a radio programme last January I undertook a study of four neighbouring schools in my constituency in County Limerick. Like other counties, small rural areas of County Limerick have suffered a decline in population. This has had a knock-on effect on the number of pupils in schools. Parents do not mind paying for so-called luxuries but they should not have to pay for the basics. The enrolment in the first school has fallen from 165 pupils in 1992 to 101 pupils this year, while it has fallen from 287 to 170 pupils in the second school, from 170 to 103 pupils in the third school and from 159 to 105 pupils in the fourth school. At a recent meeting the local authority decided to build more houses in rural areas in an effort to stem the decline in the population and prevent schools closing. I ask the Minister to pay particular attention to this matter.
I give a tentative welcome to some of the Bill's provisions but give a big welcome to the exclusion of regional education boards. I agree with the Minister that these would only serve to add to the level of bureaucracy and cost. Cost effectiveness is best achieved through a minimisation of bureaucracy. The model of the community and comprehensive school is clear proof that direct contact with the Department is more economical, more empowering for schools and ensures business is processed more efficiently.
I am delighted the Bill pays particular attention to those who are disadvantaged and have special needs. The level of compassion and concern we show to those with special needs brought about by physical or mental disability or social disadvantage is a measure of our humanity. If we are to err on the side of generosity this is the most laudable error to make.
Tá lúcháir orm deis agam labhairt ar an mBille seo.
When discussing education we should never lose sight of its main objective which is to give the best possible standard of education to every pupil regardless of ability, disability, social background, locality or any other factor. All legislation on education should have this as its central aim. Every child should be given the opportunity to develop his or her natural talents and ability to the maximum. The education system must be geared towards achieving this objective. The Bill must be judged on the basis of these criteria. Its effectiveness in achieving this central objective will be revealed with the passing of time.
The Bill lacks substance when compared with the Bill introduced by the Minister's predecessor. Most of the proposals in that Bill have been watered down or omitted. Opinion on the effectiveness of regional boards proposed by the previous Minister is divided. The main advantage of such boards is that they would decentralise decision and policy making to the regions and bring it nearer to those in the system. Some people were against the establishment of these boards as they would cost £40 million a year to run. The Minister, when in Opposition, was vociferous in his opposition to the Bill. Obviously he has carried his convictions into Government and is now implementing his proposals, which is his right.
The only direct experience of county boards delivering education is the vocational education committees, which have proved their worth in the past 50 or 60 years — they were established in the 1930s. I am a member of a VEC board which is responsible for 4,000 or 5,000 post primary students in Donegal. Many of the schools under the Donegal VEC are flagship schools in their areas and they do excellent work. Considering the achievements of vocational education committees down the years, I do not know if the Minister's opposition to the boards is entirely justified. I will not, however, spend time discussing the pros and cons of the boards.
Part II of the Bill covers sections 2 to 12 which deal with schools, including matters such as functions of schools, recognition of schools and annual funding, which is dealt with specifically in section 12. The primary sector, the bunscoileanna or scoileanna náisiúnta, is completely under-funded. The capitation grant per pupil per annum is in the region of £40. Deputy Collins said there is provision in the budget for an increase of £5 and I ask the Minister to confirm that. In the post-primary sector, secondary, comprehensive and community schools, the capitation grant is £150 per pupil per annum. Why is there such a huge gap between the capitation grant for primary and post-primary sectors? We should not under-estimate the importance of the contribution of the primary sector, where the foundation of education is laid.
When we compare funding for primary schools here with that available in Northern Ireland we see that the capitation grant per pupil there is almost the same as that for the post-primary sector here. Those schools, therefore, operate at a disadvantage in terms of funding. The lack of proper funding for heating, cleaning and other essentials deters pupils from reaching their full potential. It also leads to teachers and boards of management having to organise fund-raising activities throughout the year.
In the parish where I live there are five primary schools and one could have a hectic social life attending functions organised to raise money for those schools. On Sunday night there is a trath na gceist in Knockfola for Meenacladdy national school; on Monday night, a whist drive is held in Scoil Mhuire, Dhoiri Beaga; on Tuesday night, Dobhar school holds a whist drive and on Wednesday night Scoil Chonaill, in my area of Bunbeg, holds a table quiz. As the week progresses the social activities become more hectic in that there are discos on Friday and Saturday nights for the local secondary schools. I could have a hectic social life, fundraising every night for the primary and secondary schools of my parish, if I had time to do so. As a former teacher, the Minister will be aware of the importance of funding. Perhaps during his time in office he will close the gap between the amount of capitation grant for primary schools and that for post-primary sector.
When an area wants to build a new school or extend, refurbish or renovate an existing school, an intolerable financial burden is sometimes placed on the board of management. I refer particularly to island schools. A major refurbishing job is planned in the near future in one school in my constituency. The school has been told it will have to raise 15 per cent of the total cost of £250,000, or £40,000. That is a huge sum for an island which has little or no employment, where most people are on social welfare and there is little or no source of funding. I hope the Minister makes exceptions for islands and economically deprived areas. I recently had an opportunity to discuss with the Minister in his office the issue of schools for religious minorities, where few families are involved. To have to raise 15 per cent of funds would be an intolerable burden on such a community.
Part III of the Bill deals with the inspectorate, an cigireacht. The three buzzwords in that section are "support", "advise" and "evaluate", with the emphasis on evaluation. The cigire evaluates management, teaching, progress of pupils and so on. In years gone by I remember looking forward to the visit of the cigire with great trepidation, but the position is now changed and the role of the cigire is of adviser, supporter and evaluator. In a book written by a well-known Donegal Irish writer, Séamus Ó Grianna, a primary school teacher who spent some years teaching on a Donegal island, he said there was such a fear of the visit of the cigire, he had an arrangement with the local boatman that on the day the cigire was visiting the school he would fly a red flag on the sail to warn the teachers that he was on his way. If the Minister wishes to verify the accuracy of that he can check it in Saol Carrach le Séamus Ó Grianna, who was ahead of his time. He talks about the day he was caught by the cigire when the school was fighting the battle of Benburb, with an armoury of sods, sticks and so on. When the cigire arrived he almost became a victim. As a result, the mór thuairisc was negative as far as Séamus Ó Grianna was concerned.
There was mention recently that a change is proposed in the approach to the inspector's visit to schools, providing for an overall school inspection with the Roinn cigire, the psychologist and so on spending time in the school evaluating the whole system. I do not know if change is envisaged in that regard. If so, perhaps the Minister will refer to it.
Part IV of the Bill deals with boards of management. I taught in a national school which had no board of management. At that time the sagart paróiste was responsible for matters such as hiring, firing and so on. In the mid-1970s boards of management were established, on which all the vital interests such as the Church, the patron, teachers and parents were represented. From my experience, boards of management have worked very well and everyone in the community feels they are involved in the school. Their establishment generated much comment, some of it adverse. However, when we consider how boards of management have operated over the past 20 years we can be happy with what has been achieved.
Part V, sections 22 to 24, deals with the roles of principals and teachers. There are two types of principals, working and teaching, in national and primary schools. The function of the working principal is to ensure that all his teachers work as a team for the benefit of the school. The teaching principal exists where the school has less than nine teachers. He has the worst of both worlds because he must teach a full class every day and administer the school, meet the parents and be on hand when things go wrong. Not only must he be a principal and administrator but also on occasions a plumber, carpenter and cabinet maker. He gets little recognition, financial or otherwise, for his labours.
Given that the Minister is a former teacher I hope he will initiate a scheme where the teaching principal will have a day or a day and a half a week to undertake the essential duties of administration, such as meeting the parents and doing what the working principal does full-time. A roster of back-up staff would allow for this. I cannot understand how a principal in a seven or eight teacher school can be expected to teach and administer the school while his colleague in a nine teacher school does not have to do any teaching.
Part VI, sections 25 to 36, covers the school year, week and day, the parent's associations, teagasc trí Gaeilge, and educational disadvantage. In section 31 the Minister recognises that there are difficulties about múineadh trí Ghaeilge.
Is minic a sheas mé sa Teach seo ag gearáin go láidir go raibh deacrachtaí faoi leith ag múinteoirí a bhíonn ag teagasc trí Ghaeilge sa Ghaeltacht agus sna scoileanna lán-Ghaeilge. Bíonn deacrachtaí faoi théacsleabhair mar shampla. Ní bhíonn an réimse céanna téacsleabhar ar fáil sa Ghaelscoil agus a bhíonn sa ghnáth-scoil. Is minic a bhíonn ar na múinteoiri aistriúchán a dhéanamh ar na leabhair iad féin agus an obair a dhéanamh tráthnona nó ag an deireadh seachtaine.
Tá an-obair á dhéanamh sna Gaelscoileanna agus tá na torthaí le feiceáil sna scrúdaithe. Tá áthas orm go bhfuil an tAire chun gach tacaíocht is féidir leis a thabhairt do na Gaelscoileanna. Tá siad ag fás ar fud na tíre agus tá súil agam go mbeidh níos mó acu ann mar dhuine a bhfuil suim agam sa teanga agus san athbheochan. Tá dóchas mór agam go dtiocfaidh an Ghaeilge agus athbheochan na Gaeilge chun cinn sna bunscoileanna. Níl aitheantas ceart tugtha againn go fóill don obair atá ar siúl ag na Gaelscoileanna. Tá súil agam nuair a bheidh Gaelscoil ag lorg aitheantais as seo amach nach mbeidh an tAire ró-dhian ar na coinníollacha. Tá súil agam go mbeidh Gaelscoil i ngach áit sna blianta atá romhainn mar go bhfuil an-obair ar siúl acu.
Tá deacrachtaí móra ag na scoileanna Ghaeltachta chomh maith. Nuair a bhí mise ag teagasc sa Ghaeltacht agus nuair a bhí mé ag freastal ar scoil sa Ghaeltacht ní raibh ann ach an t-aon teanga amháin. Ach tá na Gaeltachtaí iad féin dhá-theangach anois. Cothaíonn sin deacrachtaí mar tá buachaillí agus cailíní ag teacht isteach sa scoil anois sa Ghaeltacht a bhfuil an Béarla mar theanga baile acu agus cuid eile agus an Ghaeilge mar theanga baile acu. Tá an fhadhb chéanna acu is atá sna Gaelscoileanna.
Educational disadvantage is a very important area which needs to be looked at carefully. Deputies Connaughton and Naughten will verify that large areas in rural Ireland contain many schools which do not have the advantage of remedial teaching facilities. I cannot over emphasise the importance of providing remedial teaching and special assistance facilities at primary school level because the sooner remedial problems are identified and addressed the better. Providing such facilities at second level is often too late because by then the pupil has fallen behind by three, four or five years or even more. Problems are then much more difficult to address.
There are seven or eight schools in an area of my constituency, from Dunfanaghy to Creeslaugh to Murroe to almost as far as Letterkenny and to Kimacrenan, without a remedial teacher. I have raised the matter in the House on a number of occasions. That should not be tolerated because the children in these schools are as constitutionally entitled to the services of such a teacher as pupils in other parts of the country. In one area a remedial teacher covers four schools, including the one in which I taught. This means the teacher can spend a day or a day and one-fifth in each school. While it is better than nothing the pupils in need of such teaching are left to cope in the classroom four days a week. Much more needs to be done in this area.
Part VIII deals with examinations, which are usually applicable at post primary level. Examinations are a necessary evil. I am not aware of a fairer system. Much criticism is made of the points system, which can be unfair at times. However, as with democracy, it is the worst system except for all the others. At least all students play on a level pitch.
There appears to be an industrial difficulty with examination staff in the Department. This is a cause of concern to students who will sit the leaving and junior certificate examinations this year. It would be a great pity if they were inconvenienced or if their futures were jeopardised. I hope the Minister will act to resolve the matter.
Bhí áthas orm deis a bheith agam labhairt ar an mBille. Tá súil agam nuair a raghaidh an tAire trid an Bille arís go nglacfaidh sé le amendments agus go n-éireoidh leis oideachas den scoth a chur ar fáil d'aos óg na tíre.
I support this Bill. It is an appropriate moment to compliment everybody involved in the education sector. Teachers especially should be complimented on the quality and excellence of the teaching standards that have been attained in our schools. It would be remiss of me as a Fianna Fáil Deputy if I did not ask the House to note the tradition my party has established in education from Donogh O'Malley's time to the publication of the Green Paper by the former Minister for Education and current Minister for Public Enterprise, Deputy O'Rourke. The Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Martin, is continuing a proud tradition for our party.
We had a few of them too.
Not to the same extent. Fine Gael has not made as major an impression on education as Fianna Fáil since the foundation of the State.
The Bill is the result of widespread consultation and the distillation of opinions from many groups since the publication of the Green Paper in 1992. Its main feature is the practical approach taken by the Minister. One of the main difficulties identified by my party in the former Minister, Niamh Bhreathnach's Bill was the proposal for regional education boards. When in Opposition Fianna Fáil opposed this element of the Bill. The idea of establishing regional boards which would operate side by side with vocational educational committees was nonsensical. It was bureaucratic and extremely costly. The idea of wasting £40 million on such bureaucracy defied belief. I was interested in the reference to the regional boards by Deputy McGinley. It was almost as if he hid while the first Education Bill was debated and he is now coming out of the corner. The Deputy obviously shared Fianna Fáil's view at the time and, as a member of a VEC, agreed that the regional boards had no place in the education sector.
The Minister has underpinned the role of vocational education committees in the Bill. It is important to note the magnificent role played by vocational education committees over the years. Vocational schools are now community colleges and they are much more acceptable. The stigma that was once attached to vocational schools has been, by and large, removed and this is most important.
The Bill is important because it recognises the central role of teachers. I come from a teaching background and it is correct to say that teachers are consulted on matters relating to schools. The Minister has ensured in the Bill that teachers will have a say in the running of schools. Another important feature relates to the autonomy of schools which has been recognised in the Bill. There is statutory recognition of school patrons who will be obliged to appoint boards of management which reflect the interests of all those who hold a stake in the school. The board must encompass the interests and objectives of the various people involved and this is welcome.
Accountability is central to the spirit of the legislation. Boards of management will be accountable to parents, school patrons and the Minister who, in turn, will be accountable regarding the funding provided to schools. The Minister will also be accountable to the House regarding the quality of funding for schools.
Children with special needs have been mentioned. This is correct and the Bill states that the needs of these children must be met. Extra and appropriate money has been made available by the Minister to schools which are particularly disadvantaged. It is appropriate to compliment the Minister on his policy relating to one teacher schools. These schools are in the heart of the country and they have played important social and educational functions over the years. The Government will ensure that they remain in existence by providing extra teachers in each school. The Minister also intends to introduce initiatives to increase the number of remedial teachers. This area has been a bone of contention for many years, not least during the lifetime of the previous Government when the former Minister was harried because she did not provide sufficient funding for remedial teachers.
An aspect of the Bill which is particularly welcome is the placing of the National Curriculum Assessment Agency on a statutory footing. The NCAA has operated on an ad hoc basis for too long. I will refer later to the examinations appeals system which will be put in place.
Deputy Sargent mentioned the promotion of the Irish language. It has a special place in our culture and this is recognised in the Bill. This should be welcomed. The growth in the number of gaelscoileanna and the emergence of and demand for all-Irish second level schools is testimony to the fact that parents and children want to be taught in their native tongue. This must be encouraged in every way. However, while encouraging gaelscoileanna, we should not over-look the quality of the teaching of Irish and the commitment to the Irish language and culture among teachers in many national schools. This should not be forgotten because the quality of Irish taught in many schools is excellent.
When the first education Bill was discussed, it was accepted that rationalisation of vocational education committees was necessary. The Minister agrees there is a role for rationalisation. The extent of it can be debated but the presence of two vocational education committees in a small county does not stand up to scrutiny. Rationalisation in such areas should be carefully considered.
The roles of education and enterprise and employment have been pigeon-holed too often in the past. Each looked after its own sector and there was little interaction. It is to the eternal credit of the Minister that he recognised the importance of interaction between enterprise and education. When he took office, he ensured that the £250 million programme included interaction between these areas. That programme is to be welcomed because it meets the demands of industry and the economy. Career guidance counsellors have played a major role in this area and must continue to do so. They will have to point out to second level students that traditional courses may not have the career prospects they once had. I carried out a study of university graduates that showed 34 per cent of graduates had a B.A. or B. Comm., while only 6 per cent had engineering qualifications. When one considers the amount of hi-tech industry we have attracted to Ireland, such a statistic begs the question of whether educational establishments are geared to and meeting the needs of the economy. The Minister's approach will ensure that there is greater emphasis on encouraging students to consider entering the hi-tech area.
The Minister mentioned the importance of oral capability with languages. He has asked why we test students' oral ability with Irish and the continental languages but do not test their ability in English. I am glad he wants oral tests in English to become a feature of examinations.
Dr. Michael Kelleher published a paper recently on disadvantage and suicide. There was a belief that the points system was responsible in some way for suicides, particularly among young males. I was glad he blew that myth away when he indicated that severe disadvantage was more likely to be a cause of suicide among students.
We seem to have lost the old emphasis placed on the school attendance officers. They were the barometers that helped to pinpoint those students who were absenting themselves from school. Often there was no follow-through on the causes of those absences. The school attendance officer is very important in helping to identify the difficulties of students, because if these problems are tackled early they can be corrected. The appointment of school attendance officers is very important and should be encouraged.
We have many schemes for early school leavers, and various groups have been set up to give them a second chance. We owe them a debt because the system has let them down. The Minister has built up good relations with industries which might set aside a number of places for those who left school early. Those people could then be employed in their local areas. Multinational companies owe the areas in which they operate a debt and should look after such people.
The Minister plans to continue with the vocational education committees, but those organisations are concerned about funding. I understand that the schools are to be assigned funding individually. The vocational education committees are afraid that their administration costs will be deducted from the funding being made available to them. The Minister should address this issue.
There is a suggestion that there may be different curricula for different types of school. The VEC sector would not like to return to the time when some schools geared themselves for the university sector and others geared themselves for the regional technical colleges and institutes of technology. I know that is not what the Minister intends, and he should clarify the matter.
Another section of the Bill which the Minister should clarify relates to the establishment of sub-committees and boards of management in the vocational education committees. It has been suggested that it is not incumbent on vocational education committees to ensure that boards of management are in place, though many exist and operate effectively.
The community and comprehensive schools are affected by sections 7, 8 and 15. Those sections suggest that the provisions of the deed of trust for community schools and articles of management for comprehensive schools have the same force of law as the provisions of the Bill. This would mean that while the provisions of the Bill generally would apply to community and comprehensive schools, the provisions of the deed and articles would have precedence where there is a conflict between them the provisions of the Bill. This would mean the provisions of the deed and articles, about which the Bill is silent, would also have the force of law. Clarification is being sought on that matter.
Section 51 provides that the Minister may refuse access to information which would permit the compilation of information on results not otherwise available to the public. Why is the word "may" rather than the word "shall" used in that context? Is it because of the data protection legislation or the Freedom of Information Act?
I will deal with the other matters that concern me on Committee Stage.
I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on this Bill, particularly about the disadvantaged and pupils with special needs. The long title states "An Act to make provision in the interests of the common good for the education of every child in the State. ..". If the Bill is taken at face value that means every person counts. If that is achievable I wholeheartedly support the Bill.
Like every other facet of Irish life, education is evolving at an enormous rate to try to meet the aspirations of a new generation. Education is by far the most important tool in society, through which every individual is given an opportunity to make his or her way in life with confidence and dignity. Almost one-third of the population — approximately one million people — attend school every day and the taxpayers pay 42,000 teachers to teach them. If there are approximately one million pupils, by definition there must be approximately two million parents with a direct interest in what is happening in the world of education. In other words, there are approximately three million people directly involved in this important subject.
The Minister has unhitched the bandwagon of the regional boards and the concept has been derailed. While I saw the need for such boards in the last Government, I did not believe they would come with a price tag of £40 million. I do not know how that figure was assessed. I hope there was no double counting which, as the Minister knows, can easily happen in a Department.
The figure was conservative.
In his briefing document the Minister stated that £10 million will be allocated for minor capital projects at national schools. Will he clarify what he means by a minor capital project? If an extra room is needed in a national school in a rural area, there is generally no difficulty getting planning permission and there is usually a person in the community qualified to draw up the plans to the standards required by the Department. The local community might also have to put up more money to get the room built quickly. In such circumstances, it should be possible to short-circuit the torturous route such simple projects currently take. It can take years to build a room to a national school. Does that concept come under the Minister's minor capital projects? If it does he will make many friends. It would do away with the multi-stranded bureaucracy that currently operates for such minor projects. This is not a political point because most Deputies agree with it.
While I accept the Minister is legalising a system that already exists, I welcome the provision which states that teachers should be consulted on a wide range of issues, including appointment and appeal procedures and school planning. Teachers play a vital role in society and we have been very fortunate with the standard of teachers in the past. However, like every other profession, 99 per cent do an excellent job and 1 per cent do not. It is frustrating for parents who have to deal with a teacher they consider is not up to standard. While I accept the integrity of teachers must be safe-guarded against frivolous complaints and so on, in some cases boards of managers and parents genuinely believe it is not possible to have a teacher removed for very serious matters. We are lucky to have such good teachers. It is only right and proper that parents and children have rights under the Bill.
I wish to refer to special needs children. I acknowledge that our education system, relatively speaking, has been extremely good and we can be proud of it. Compared with other systems, not alone in Europe but across the world, we stand head and shoulders over the rest. However, there is a problem in the same way as in the Celtic tiger phenomenon in our economy. In the past four or five years living standards have improved and a great majority of people are better off. Equally, for whatever reason, a substantial minority are finding it as hard to live as ever. I want to equate that to the education system. I come across young people who, for one reason or another, slip through the net of education and arrive at a second level school neither able to read nor write. We now have a system which proves scientifically that if one can identify the problem at three or four years of age — I am not involved in education but I am a parent and I know a fair amount about the system from observation — a great deal can be done in the education system. Equally, if the problem is not identified and students get into the second stream of education they will get nowhere.
This is not a political matter because it is a plague on all our houses. I cannot understand why every national school does not have access to a remedial teacher and a resource teacher or even the cluster system where four or five schools can share such teachers. The Government of which the Minister is a Member has done its part as did the previous Government when a number of remedial teachers were appointed in east Galway area as in many others. There are huge gaps in the system. The problem is there are many competing demands in education but only a small amount of extra money is available for the appointment of remedial and resource teachers.
As far as the mental handicap system is concerned, there is a direct correlation between students who were missed in the infant classes in our national schools and the entry to the mental handicap services of people between 12 and 16 years of age. Given the amount we will have to spend on special needs children in mental handicap institutions, if they could be accommodated in national schools there would be enormous savings.
I make a special appeal to the Minister, that whatever else we do in the world of education, to put in meaningful resources so that in two or three years' time every national school will have a remedial teacher and, where necessary, a resource teacher. I understand from the figures available we are a long way from that aspiration.
While the Minister has been praised, and rightly so, for part of the Bill, politicians from all sides of the House can hang their heads in shame unless we can deliver on the remedial teacher in the next two or three years. Any grandiose Bills we might introduce are not worth tuppence in the sense that we are turning our backs on a vitally important part of community life.
If we cannot deliver on the remedial teacher we may need a tribunal of inquiry. We are at a stage where we have a tribunal for everything. It appears that is how Irish life and society is geared. We will soon need to have a tribunal to investigate the education system which may prove that we have abdicated our responsibilities to a very important part of the lives of young people, who missed the education net, for whatever reason. It is not fair to blame politicians on their own. We can blame teachers who did not identify them in the classroom and parents who did nothing about it. I know parents who are aware their children have a learning difficulty and are either afraid or ashamed to tell anyone. That will not work. They share a great responsibility for this. However, we can draw attention to it publicly on the floor of the House. The day will come when someone will set up a tribunal asking why this was not done. All the evidence was available and it was clear what would make a difference but nothing was done about it. I have not had an opportunity to say this for a long time. I hope that whatever Government will be in office in the next couple of years will deliver. The need is specific, all the authorities accept it, young people are trained as remedial and resource teachers and we have the schools. I understand that up to 10 per cent of students in national schools could avail, with advantage, of remedial teaching. We are a long way from providing the service required. In areas of Ballinasloe, such as Kilconnell and Aughrim, there are mothers who are making every effort to get remedial teachers. Any Government who turns its back on them will live to regret it.
The teaching of languages is a hobbyhorse of mine. In the past five or six, or even ten years, our education system was geared to ensuring that every student leaving second level would have one or two continental languages. As a trading nation, we have to export to survive. We rub shoulders at trade fairs with the best salespersons in the world who are highly proficient in languages. If one cannot speak the language of the buyer, one is finished. If one has to await the arrival of an interpreter, a deal will have been done with somebody else. There is, therefore, a need for greater interaction between industry and education to ensure people are trained for a particular job. I only hope we will be more successful than we have been when it comes to the teaching of continental languages.
Gaelscoileanna have much to offer. They are not in competition with ordinary national schools. It is incumbent on us to help them. They are managed and funded by people who have a deep interest in the Irish language. While they may have been slow in getting off the ground, they are the key to rekindling an interest in the Irish language.
I congratulate the Minister and wish him well. I am highly impressed by the start he has made. He has hit the ground running. I can verify that he adopts a similar live wire approach to all issues. He has a great interest in his portfolio in which I am sure he will be successful. Since taking office he has accepted many challenges. It has been mentioned that he tabled 100 amendments to the previous Bill. I am sure he has included those amendments that needed to be included in this Bill.
There is more finance available than at any time in the history of the State to improve the education system. There is clear recognition of the need for a good education. It is no coincidence that a similar process of evaluation has been initiated in Northern Ireland, England and Wales. Society is changing rapidly and we have to keep pace. We are living in the information age. Telecom Eireann is to be congratulated on supporting the Government's programme by providing an extra £10 million to finance the information age schools plan.
A number of issues which may have a detrimental effect have been mentioned. We must ensure that, in the dash for excellence, the gap does not widen for those who are challenged, either physically or mentally, and socially excluded.
This Bill is the result of a lengthy process of consultation which began with the publication of the Green Paper on Education in l992. It is based on the concept of co-operation and partnership. That is the key. The Minister is anxious to ensure a good working relationship at all levels between pupils, teachers, parents and patrons of schools. We can no longer accept the standards of the past.
It is an indictment of all previous occupants of this House that this is the first Bill of general application to deal with the way education is organised. The system is being placed on a statutory basis. It is crucially important that the work done by 42,000 teachers in over 4,000 schools, by parents in supporting and motivating students, by the churches and other sections of the community is recognised. They have forged a successful partnership.
Everything in the garden is not rosy. It has been argued that small primary schools are discriminated against in the provision of secretarial and caretaker services. Schools with over 195 pupils receive a grant of £30 per child to provide such services. The capitation grant for primary schools is less than one third of that for second level schools. These issues need to be discussed and debated.
The weight of school bags has been mentioned. There is no need to waste time by establishing a working group to examine the matter. Knowing I would participate in this debate, I weighed my son's school sack last Sunday night and it weighed exactly two stone. It is criminal to expect young people to carry that kind of pack every day to and from school. That type of handicap would not be put on a horse. We are talking about a maximum weight of 10 per cent of the person's body weight, but that is a ridiculous target at which to aim. We must move immediately to rectify this problem by providing proper locker and storage facilities which should be incorporated in the design of schools.
A sensible suggestion from the parents of one child appeared in a newspaper during the past year, that text books should be published in sections. That would involve the use of folders and binders but it would allow the child to take to school the section of the text book required on a given day. I am sure many other methods could be employed but we should not continue to tolerate this problem and say we will examine it in 12 months' time. Sections of the industrial health and safety regulations prohibit that type of weight being lifted by people of this age. We should examine this problem and see if we can address it.
Deputy Jim Higgins mentioned another area that has been debated for a long time, namely, the question of the sloping desk and the physical problems that creates for children. This problem too has been tolerated for years and its solution would not require the setting up of a new forum or committee. The people in the Department dealing with educational facilities over the years should be capable of correcting these types of problems.
The pupil-teacher ratio is not addressed in the Bill but it will be the most critical aspect of the future of education outside the provision of the required technology.
Another item on which the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea, is working closely and with which I hope we can deal quickly is the question of school transport. I will not go into that this evening because I know the Minister of State has already prepared a report on it.
The question of regional boards is addressed in the Bill. The Minister has been totally consistent in his approach to these boards. He objected to them when he was Opposition spokesman and he continues to object. On the question of the duplication of existing services, a cost of £40 million has been put on that by the Department and the Minister. I will not argue for or against that figure but it would be quite large.
Most of our services in the future will be administered by regional boards. We currently have the health services, the fisheries board, the tourism authorities and the eight regional authorities. Some common area will be found but this was a fairly impractical suggestion from the outset considering the current position. The Minister was right to drop that from his programme, and he will be well able to defend that.
My constituency colleague, Deputy O'Keeffe, referred earlier to vocational education and said there was a type of stigma attached to it. There is not so much a stigma attached to it as a degree of snobbery. Literally speaking, the graduates from vocational education built this country. They were capable of erecting the buildings, equipping them and doing everything else that was required.
The snobbery about vocational education still exists. The Department cannot change that attitude in the minds of the public but we must work at changing it because there is now a shortage of trades people. People working in this area can command enormous fees because of that shortage and we have had complaints from vested interests such as the Construction Industry Federation.
I have been involved with the training of apprentices who have successfully represented this country abroad against the best talent in the world. The recognition they received here was slight, however, in comparison to the recognition given to people who achieved success in the academic field. These people did not get sufficient recognition and we will have to change our thinking on that. In the past, many parents were willing to allow their children accept a lower paid job if it was in the white collar area. That was snobbery of the worst type.
The shortage of apprentices was referred to today and yesterday. The primary reason for this shortage is the changing structure of employment for trades people. When C2 certificates were issued to every trades person who wished to become self-employed, it more or less did away with apprentices overnight. From that day builders and others refused to sponsor young people and it was left entirely to FÁS to sponsor apprentices. However, because of financial reasons, FÁS was limited in its ability to do that. We must address this issue immediately because trades people will always be needed. The public must recognise the importance of that type of work.
The question of teacher training is dealt with also. There must be continuous training throughout every teacher's career, and it must be supported fully by the State. Those training requirements will change from time to time but training must take place in specialist areas to allow people deal effectively with pupils with special needs, such as those who are mentally or physically challenged or others from particularly difficult backgrounds. Problems can arise for students because of the financial or social problems of their parents. They may be drink or drug related, and teachers must be in a position to respond to the needs of these pupils.
One of my concerns which I would like the Minister to address when replying is the question of the appeals procedure. This allows a pupil who is expelled, suspended from school for a short-term or refused admission to a school for reasons other than lack of accommodation to appeal against such decisions. The reason for my concern is that people can be given the right to be heard, but what happens if the student is expelled anyway? Do we point them in the direction of Portlaoise, Mountjoy or Limerick Prisons and tell them this is their next port of call? Some type of follow up procedure must be put in place for pupils who are expelled. There is a need for psychological examinations and other facilities.
I am glad the Minister has been totally consistent in his support for the gaelscoileanna. Like the former Minister, Deputy O'Rourke, who had a particular interest in this area as I am sure had other Ministers, I appreciate his commitment to the gaelscoileanna. If the Minister was still here I would have been a little parochial and asked him to address the question of Gaelscoil Uí Riada in Bishopstown. There is some move in that regard. It has taken seven to eight years to establish that school, locate it, get prefabs, secure parental support and establish a good team. It has been suggested that the facility should be relocated two or three miles to what is hoped will be a vacant school some time in the future, but that will not work. A characteristic of gaelscoileanna is their identification with a particular area. Where attempts were made to relocate them they have seldom been as successful. Gaelscoil Uí Riada in Bishopstown should be examined with a view to allowing work to proceed on it as quickly as possible. Drawings were submitted and it was sanctioned but matters seem to have come to a standstill.
Section 7 deals with special needs. Autism was mentioned by a number of speakers, an area in which we have been negligent. It is shameful that people have had to go to the Supreme Court and that constituents of mine have to run events ranging from race nights to bed pushes to raise funds to send children to a facility in America. Given the greater level of co-operation and co-ordination of services the use of school facilities should be opened up to the general public after classes finish at 4 p.m.
As a teacher I would be expected to comment on the Bill given that most Members who are teachers have made contributions. I welcome the Bill. I also welcome this debate on education as we do not have enough debates on it. However, the Bill is a watered down version of what we set out to achieve when the Green Paper was published in the early 1990s when the Minister of State present was in office. We then had a White Paper and since then major consultations have taken place between the various organisations and interest groups. This Bill will not create any waves or bring about much change. It merely gives formality and structure to what is accepted practice at present.
It is magnanimous of Deputy Dennehy to recognise the talent of his constituency colleague. No doubt they have enjoyed a good friendship and there has been much mutual admiration. As a Cork man Deputy Dennehy will recognise that the previous five Ministers had an input to this Bill. The former Minister in particular spent five years consulting and having discussions with various groups and put forward a much stronger proposal here. We now see a diluted version of it before us. Nevertheless there are worthwhile provisions in it that will be welcomed by the general body of educational interests.
There is a natural love and appreciation of education dating back to monastic, bardic and penal times when penal laws outlawed education, but it survived in the form of hedge schools. Many young people went to the Continent to be educated, including the great Daniel O'Connell from Kerry, and others left to become priests. That great love of education has survived to the present day and there is no need to give a long history lesson on that. Nevertheless we can become complacent about education. When we are promoting this country as an industrial location we cite as one of our main advantages our young educated workforce. That is why Hewlett Packard and Intel say that one of the reasons they invested in Ireland was the availability of an educated labour force. That is a result of our education system, the Department of Education and Science. Successive Ministers and Governments must take credit for that because they had the foresight to put in place a comprehensive education system.
Free education was probably the most liberating measure ever introduced. It gave opportunities to many people to develop to their full potential. Some of those people are now leaders in industry and members of the medical and legal professions. If we did not have free education we would not have our current standard of education. We must recognise that credit for that must be given to the late Donogh O'Malley. The need for it was emphasised at that time in a Fine Gael document on a just society. There was a common wisdom in the House about the value of free education. That has driven our economy and given us confidence. In years to come when that measure will be fully analysed it will be deemed one of the most important measures introduced to enhance the spirit, state and future of this country.
There was a reference to an OECD study. Having read previous OECD studies I take note of them as they are usually pretty accurate. That study showed that 17 per cent of the 16 to 25 year olds who left school without certification have a low level of literacy and numeracy and as a result have found it difficult to get and keep a job. Studies confirmed that up to 21 per cent of children leave school inadequately prepared and ill equipped to cope with the pressure of obtaining and holding down a job. From my experience, and I am sure the Minister and Deputy Michael Ahern will agree that from their experience, it is difficult for employers to get suitably qualified staff. The officials should note that in some cases those young people can barely read or write and have come through the system without the bare essentials, mastery of the three Rs. While technology is important we should not get carried away with it. We should not ignore the basics. The three Rs are as relevant now as they have been down through our history. One would not have to go far to meet an employer who has taken on an employee to work in a supermarket who can hardly read a label and has difficulty counting. Our education system must address that problem. I do not know if that will be addressed in this Bill. Whether the framework will be provided to ensure that standards will be set remains to be seen. The Minister and his Department must face up to this important issue. In England there has been a return recently to the use of national achievement tests and we may have to consider such a course. The old primary certificate was an important indication of the standard of young people leaving primary schools. The teachers' unions would be against testing children at such an age but we must have a form of national standard for literacy and numeracy.
I agree with the policy of putting a computer into every school and giving young people an opportunity to gain experience using them. However, we should not lose sight of the basics. We can get carried away with grandiose ideas which may leave our children less well equipped educationally. The American experience has shown that children can find anything on a computer but may find it difficult to write a simple paragraph or to spell.
In his speech the Minister said that a main achievement of the Bill is scrapping the regional boards. If I were he I would not brag too much about it. I can see merit in his arguments in favour of scrapping them but there was merit in proposing them. In a European context there is an increasing emphasis on policy which addresses the specific needs of regions. There is a shift towards regional policy and regional development. In the southern region a regional education board corresponding with the Southern Health Board would become an important institution in that region. Children at primary and secondary levels need support from the health boards, especially in the case of children with special needs, as much as from the Department of Education and Science. As many policies on sex, diet and hygiene education emanate from the health boards as from the Department. There is an overlap in this regard which might be avoided with regional structures.
The Minister indicated that this measure would save £40 million. If there were regional authorities much of the administrative work carried out by the Department would be delegated to the regional bodies and a saving would be made. The Minister is a skilled political operator because he and the Fianna Fáil Party put across a skilled message before the election about the regional boards. While canvassing on the doorsteps it was clear that people were confused about them. They were portrayed as another layer of bureaucratic quangos set up to look after people of a certain political persuasion. The positive aspects of the boards were not properly explained.
I am convinced that the regional structure concept will be revisited in the future. The OECD recognises the importance of regionality in education. A region such as the south-west has different needs from Dublin. It has been a problem in south Kerry, for example, that we have been tied in with national policies, whether for industry, infrastructure or education. As a result we lose out because our needs for industry, for example, are not reflected fully in the education provided in the region. It would be a good idea to have a strong regional education policy for the Cork-Kerry region or the SFADCo region.
The regional concept will be revisited. It is unfair of the Minister to say that the regional education boards would be bureaucratic monsters which would cost £40 million. It was Fianna Fáil policy to scrap the boards and it followed through on it. However, it is wrong not to recognise the advantages which could have gone with the regional boards. In his speech the Minister advocated co-operation along the lines suggested by the regional boards. This may prove difficult given the absence of that structure.
The issue of the appointment of teachers is not addressed fully in the Bill. Teacher appointments vary between the private secondary system and the VEC system. I spoke in the House some years ago on the appointment of VEC teachers and I expected the Bill would address this issue. We advocated that the appointments should be taken out of the hands of the vocational education committees and politicians. It is not right that teachers should be chosen by politicians because there may be pressure on a political party to choose a member or supporter of that party for a teaching post. There have been examples of people who were not the best candidates at the interview getting jobs because a particular party had a majority on a VEC and it controlled the appointments. We suggested that the function should be vested in the Local Appointments Commission. I will suggest to Deputy Richard Bruton that an amendment to this effect be tabled on Committee Stage.
The Minister has funked the issue of an education ombudsman. There are ombudsmen for many sectors and the function is widely accepted. It works well. It satisfies consumers because if they have a grievance there is an individual or body to whom they can refer it. The Minister should make a stand on Committee Stage on the appointment of an education ombudsman. Deputy Richard Bruton dealt with this matter in some detail. As he said, the Minister has fudged the issue by making no provision for it in the Bill.
The Long Title of the Bill seems to cover children with special needs, where it refers to ". any child with special educational needs .". I welcome that provision. However, now that it is to become law, there are bound to be several court cases on foot of it unless we provide facilities for children with special needs. Already this week I have spoken to groups representing the families of children with Down's syndrome in Kerry. They want their children to attend local schools and be integrated in mainstream education. However, because of lack of facilities or lack of training in this area, teachers cannot cope with these children's needs. We need more resource teachers if we are to cope with the range of disability. I have submissions from the Irish Deaf Society and other groups representing various forms of special need. This very day I had a call from a mother whose child suffers from dyslexia. She is caught between the Southern Health Board and the Department of Education and Science, and has nowhere to go. This provision will enable such people to bring a case against the Department to have facilities provided to look after their children. We in Ireland have put a lot of money into education. We are giving free education to millionaires. Fine Gael introduced free education at third level. People with special needs need financial resources and they should be targeted more than people who have the means and the ability to learn. We are not doing that and these people have no voice and not enough power electorally to influence decision-making.
For a long time mine was a lone voice advocating more health and physical education in our schools. I welcome the Minister's recent announcement that physical education will be part of the leaving certificate curriculum. That is a welcome departure from original thinking. It is a futuristic proposal. I hope it will be implemented. If it is I will be the first to recognise the Minister's initiative.
I am glad to have the opportunity to say a few words on this Bill. Education, whether vocational or academic, is the cornerstone of the development of people. Regardless of what walk of life we choose, it is of the essence that we get the necessary education from our youngest days.
In March 1997 the then Minister for Education introduced the Education Bill, 1997. It was published about seven days prior to being discussed in the Chamber. It caused consternation among interested organisations as it gave no meaningful time in which they could give a considered view of the Bill. Adequate time should have been given to all the partners in education to study the Bill, to reflect on it and to formulate a policy on it. The Minister tried to push the Labour Party philosophy through before the general election which was looming ahead. However, the attempted sleight of hand of that Government did not succeed. On polling day the people passed their verdict on the policies of the Labour Party, with telling results.
That Bill was fundamentally antidemocratic. It was the antithesis of true devolution of authority and responsibility. Control from the centre permeated every section of that Bill. It attempted to reinforce and strengthen ministerial control over the education system at all levels. One of the planks of the Bill was the establishment of ten regional education boards. Fianna Fáil in Opposition totally opposed this extra tier of bureaucracy on the grounds that it would be too expensive and too remote from local education interests and would take control at local level from the schools. The Bill gave the Minister effective control over the regional boards so that all control flowed back into her hands.
The Bill also had a bias against denominational schools and the CPSMA were of the view that section 43 of the Bill represented the greatest intrusion by the State into the management by schools which are not established by the State. Denominational schools have been of fundamental importance to the development and growth of education since the foundation of the State and prior to it, and the Bill seemed to have ignored their rights. Through our spokesperson, Deputy Martin, now Minister, we in Fianna Fáil promised that on our return to Government we would repeal the type of dictatorship from the centre as proposed in that Bill and also all the other obnoxious centrist proposals contained therein.
The Bill now before the House, the Education (No. 2) Bill, 1997, reflects the Fianna Fáil philosophy on how the educational system should grow and develop into the new millennium. It is universally acknowledged that our education system has served this country extremely well without the strangling, overwhelming central control which some on the left would like. As our society has become more educated and more sophisticated, the silent partners in the education system, that is, parents and teachers, are taking a greater, more active role in the education system and wish to have their role given formal recognition.
I welcome the Bill as it has as one of its key objectives the provision to put on a legislative basis the roles and functions of all the partners in the education system. Since his appointment as Minister for Education, the Minister, Deputy Micheál Martin, has not hidden away in his office in Marlborough Street. He has consulted widely and wisely with all the partners in the education field to ensure that this Bill includes the provisions that will ensure our education system is up to speed to meet the rapidly changing demands in this era of technological development and of need for greater language skills.
I welcome the decision by the Minister to exclude the setting up of regional boards so beloved by the former Minister. We have been told since the Minister came into office where he was able to get information, even though the previous Minister was unable to give any idea of the cost of those regional boards. Now we know they would have cost about £40 million.