Despite the extraordinary fact that there has been no substantive educational legislation of general application since the foundation of the State, and only the Vocational Education Act, 1930 at second level, Irish education is highly regulated. Many of those involved, especially school principals and managers, have received circulars about which they have not been pleased, and have felt that their right to be consulted has been overlooked. That is an interesting background to this Bill because many Ministers for Education would have wanted to introduce legislative provisions but the combined strength of forces with an interest in the matter meant they were not in a position to do so.
There is a perception that Irish education is highly successful and this is reflected in the attraction of the Irish workforce, particularly highly educated young people, for high-tech employers. A great debt of gratitude is due to those who achieved this with limited resources and less recognition.
There is, of course, another side to the story. It must be borne in mind that each year approximately 1,000 pupils fail to make the transition from primary to post primary level. Some 3,000 leave the post primary system without any qualification and about 15,000 leave with only a junior certificate or an undistinguished leaving certificate. More than 90 per cent of the approximately 4,000 who leave with no qualification whatsoever come from very poor backgrounds. Upper middle class children are seven times more likely to avail of third level education than those from poor backgrounds.
The challenge for educators and the system is to maintain the generally high standards, while simultaneously ensuring that the educational disadvantage and poverty which were illustrated in the 1997 NESC report on early school leaving and youth unemployment are addressed. That is a huge challenge for educators. The challenge for Government, which is somewhat different, is to provide resources and distribute them wisely to ensure this is possible. The challenge for the Oireachtas is to design a legislative framework which facilitates progress and regulates fairly, balancing the interests of the partners in education — parents, patrons, students, teachers and the State.
It should be clearly stated that where conflict arises between the various interests the welfare of students should have priority. The guiding principles should be access, participation and benefit. Levels of access and participation are clearly reflected in the benefit of the education system to students and, ultimately, to society and the State. In fairness, it is probably the case that resources rather than legislation are the key to progress in this area.
This legislation has been debated for a long time, beginning with the Green Paper in 1992, the White Paper and the Second Stage debate of the Bill introduced by the former Minister, Niamh Bhreathnach, which took place from 3 to 13 March 1997, almost a year ago. The Minister is not repeating his predecessor's most glaring errors which brought her into conflict with the various interests, and showed how powerful those interests are in many respects. However, we must publicly acknowledge her work as a Minister and her commitment to improving the quality of education and the service provided to pupils. The contribution of other Ministers and Ministers of State to the debate since the publication of the Green Paper, such as Deputies O'Rourke, Davern and Brennan, must also be acknowledged. The Bill has had a long gestation period.
The Minister has chosen to drop the regional education boards, as per his pre-election commitment. Any such boards or other intermediate structure ought to be judged on the basis of cost, reciprocity and democracy. I said during the debate on the previous Bill that the boards appeared to have little or no powers and I found it difficult to judge whether they were a tiny step in the right direction towards greater democratisation or a cop out. The directors of those proposed boards had excessive powers.
There will now be no immediate tier but the Minister has indicated he will encourage local partnership and co-operation in education, which is very important. I know he is aware of the Clare education forum in which all the interests at primary and second level came together — anyone who knows anything about education will know how diverse those interests are — and sought consensus over a long period. It is fair to say they reached an unprecedented level of understanding and co-operation. I would like to see an intermediate level at some stage in the future. I do not favour retaining the monolith of the Department ad infinitum as I do not think that is healthy.
It is interesting to hear the different perspectives which people bring to the debate. I am sure my views are very strongly coloured by the 20 years I spent as a teacher. I am probably required under the ethics in public office legislation to declare that interest because if I lost my seat or decided to leave the Oireachtas I would return to work as a school principal. As I said, my perspective is coloured by my experience as a teacher; others approach the debate from the perspective of a parent, which I am also. There are subtle differences which colour people's approach to the debate and to this Bill.
In the past, teachers tended to be extremely annoyed by the issuance of edicts by circular, which used to be signed by the Secretary of the Department, particularly in regard to contentious matters. I am glad this is now being put on a legislative basis.
In section 2 the Bill defines "special educational needs" as referring to the needs of "students who have a mental or physical disability". That definition falls far short of recognising dyslexia and other learning difficulties and does not appear to refer to groups with special needs, such as traveller children and ethnic minorities, which is now arising with the increasing number of refugees. There are also substantial numbers of schoolgoing children from the alternative lifestyle community in areas such as my own. Such children did not present any difficulties in my school in terms of discipline and so on. Of course, they do present some difficulties for schools as English is not always their first language.
An increasing number of rural schools in east and north Clare, parts of west Cork, Mayo and elsewhere have such students. It would be appropriate to state in sections 9(a) and 15(g), where reference is made to special educational needs, that the relevant needs of these groups ought to be considered. If that were done I would be far more at ease that students who need the assistance of resource teachers, remedial teachers or psychological counselling would be included in the special educational needs category.
Section 7(4)(b) states that the Minister shall "wherever practicable" consult with the usual interests. There is a good case for making that consultation process a formal requirement in law. I do not foresee any particular difference in the immediate future, but it might be safer to make it a requirement in the legislation and to delete the "wherever practicable" element.
In section 8(1)(b) the Minister has handled the tricky area of the powers of trustees and patrons exceptionally well. To the best of my recollection, the majority of community schools have not yet had their trustees sign and the Minister is clearly allowing space and time for that issue to be resolved. That is wise of him but, in the interest of a better system and better accountability and procedure, that area must be dealt with in the not too distant future.
Sections 10 and 11 deal with the recognition of schools and the withdrawal of recognition. It would be helpful if, for example, in section 10(2)(a) the Minister were required to specify the numbers required for recognition and the withdrawal of recognition. I understand it is difficult to do that because special circumstances pertain in some geographic areas, such as islands, which would not readily accommodate themselves to a general rule. However, the failure to specify numbers may create difficulties for future Ministers. The Minister, and anybody who has looked at future planning for education will be aware that the demographic forces at work will create many difficulties for future Ministers and, indeed for this one. There is a plus in that teachers are becoming available because of the drop in enrolment and may be redeployed where the Minister sees fit or where the greatest need arises. The drop in numbers at primary level and, subsequently, at second level will have an impact on the type of enrolment which makes a school viable. It will bring pressure to bear on school amalgamations and other rationalisations which, undoubtedly, will create difficulties. We will witness objections and demonstrations in defence of schools. I am glad sections 10 and 11 have been included but I would prefer if they were more precise in relation to numbers and the criteria to be used in making judgments in such cases because it is always easy to be precise in the absence of a specific case than when dealing with particular cases.
Section 13 deals with the inspectorate which has made an enormous contribution to the evolution of education. Since its role changed from that of policeman of the system to facilitator of growth and development inspectors have, individually and collectively, made an enormous contribution. That is probably more evident at primary level where it is easier for them to contribute than at second level where inspectors tend to inspect with regard to specific subjects and probably find it a little more difficult to impact on the system generally. I note they are to conduct assessments and advise students and parents. I am not clear about the rationale for that but I thought those who would advise pupils and parents in the first instance would be teachers. If outside personnel are to do so — nobody could argue but that inspectors are well qualified to do so — there could be practical difficulties. That is a matter about which I am a little concerned and an area in which I declare an interest. The interest of the teacher might be somewhat put upon in such a circumstance, particularly if it was not handled as it should be.
Under section 13 the Minister proposes to set up the psychological service and include it in the inspectorate. It is a much needed service. Without giving the matter much consideration, I would have assumed the way to set it up would be to set it up on a statutory basis at national level but the Minister obviously has good reasons for including it in the inspectorate. I will be interested to hear the rationale for that decision and I am sure it will be debated at length on Committee Stage.
Fáiltím roimh an plean ag an Aire Coiste a bhunú in a Roinn chun pleanáil a dhéanamh i leith leabhar agus áiseanna do mhúineadh na Gaeilge. Tá ceist le freagairt againn mar Stát áfach. An bhfuilimid i ndáiríre faoin nGaeilge a athbheochan? An bhfuil stádas na Gaeilge ag dul chun cinn nó ag cúlú? Is ceisteanna deacra iad sin. Má fhéachaimid siar ó bunaíodh an Stát ceapaim nach mbeimis sásta leis an freagra má tá freagra macánta le tabhairt ar an cheist sin. Tá súil agam, áfach, go mbeidh dul chun cinn éigin againn leis an Bhille seo ach nílim chomh cinnte go mbeidh.
Another element of the Bill which interests me and which I see, to some extent, as an omission is the area of discipline and a code of conduct in schools. Section 22 deals with principals and teachers, section 23 with the principals and section 24 with staff matters generally. While it is clearly implied that under the school plan there would be a code of conduct or discipline for pupils, it is not spelled out in the way teachers, in particular, would like. On the counter side, there is a grievance procedure and other procedures for appealing decisions of teachers but from my reading of the Bill, there is little provision for sanctions. It is not fashionable to talk about sanctions nowadays but anybody who has stood in front of a class, as the Minister has done, will know there is a need for discipline. It is not something we can sanitise out of the education system and I am not sure it is wise to attempt to sanitise it out of education legislation as well. I am sure it is an issue which can be sensibly revisited on Committee Stage. Perhaps I have misread the Bill because there seems to be plenty of opportunity to provide a code of conduct. It is a reality in any education system and there should be a specific provision for a code of conduct or discipline per se.
The school plan has been mentioned, which I welcome. The introduction of the school plan over the years has been a great contributor to development in Irish education. It has encouraged staff, even in the smallest schools, to consider their roles and to put on paper a system to develop an educational provision for children which best meets their requirements. It also enables teachers to perhaps identify their strengths and weaknesses and to devise a school plan which provides for the best interests of the pupils in their care. I am glad the school plan has been included in the Bill and that it still has considerable potential for development.
The provisions for examinations are welcome. There is a comprehensive range of provisions to protect the integrity of the system which is important after the glitches in recent years and the publicity surrounding the loss of examination papers. Of all the elements in the education system, nothing requires protection of its integrity in the way the examination system does. It is seen as an objective assessment of a pupil's educational progress. There are plenty of arguments in favour of changing the system and that is a matter which may be looked at in terms of the provisions proposed by the Minister. He has left adequate room for various possibilities to be explored. However, the examination system must be seen to stand independently and be beyond reproach. The provision in the Bill will go some way in this. We must accept that people believe the education system needs to go some way to show the system of examinations can stand up to scrutiny.
There is the parallel debate about whether the education system, as it stands, is the most appropriate way to deal with the assessment of people and their growth in educational terms. There is room for another provision in the Bill which sets up the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment on a statutory basis. Much work needs to be done in this area.
All the reports I have read which measure the lack of participation in education by people from poorer backgrounds and the lack of benefits to them from education point, among other things, to the overly academic school curricula being pursued at various levels. I wish the Minister well with the Bill and urge him to bear in mind some of my suggestions.