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

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

On 11 February, before moving the adjournment of the debate on which we are now resuming, I mentioned that the decision to hold a general election in June was fortuitous for the education system, as the centrist bent of the previous left-dominated Government was cut off just in time. The current Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Martin, came on the scene and illuminated the whole education area with his dynamic performance at every level. He has been willing to meet people and to listen to them which has not been done for some time. The results of his deliberations are seen in this Bill which goes back to the process initiated by the then Minister for Education, Deputy Mary O'Rourke, and the extensive consultations with many groups, as a result of which process this Bill came into being. The information was available to the previous Minister, but she, for her own good reasons, decided to ignore what the majority of people wanted.

One item on which the former Minister was hung up was the setting up of regional education boards. In our pre-election commitments we stated that we would remove that element. The Minister has kept his word. It would have cost £40 million which the Minister in the previous Government did not tell us about. That £40 million is now being used to improve facilities in all our schools throughout the country together with large amounts of other funds which are also being made available. It would have been extremely difficult to justify the setting up of an extra layer of bureaucracy using funds that are badly needed for disadvantaged pupils and substandard schools. I welcome the Minister's decision to keep the promises he made prior to the election.

Another central aspect of this Bill relates to the important role of teachers which is recognised in this Bill. Under this Bill, teachers are to be consulted on matters relating to schools. I have some experience, albeit only two or three years, as a teacher. Being very junior at that stage, I did not expect to be consulted about anything that was going on. However, other more senior members of the staff in the school where I taught felt they were not being consulted by the management of the school. With the progression of time, that has changed. This Bill now enshrines it in legislation, and I welcome the decision of the Minister to do that.

The autonomy of individual schools is enhanced by the statutory recognition of school patrons who will be obliged to appoint boards of management which reflect the composition of all those who have a stake in the school. Since 1987, we have seen how co-operation among all elements of society helps it to go forward. We had the programmes for national recovery, the PCW and other national agreements which enshrined the views of all elements in our society which came together to forge a way forward. It is only natural that this should happen also in the education area. If we do not all swim in the same direction the maximum benefit will not go to the people who are entitled to it, that is, the pupils. The spirit of this Bill is to get all elements in a school working together to provide the maximum benefit for the pupils therein.

Accountability is another every important element of the Bill. The boards of management are to be accountable to the parents. Many of us are parents with children in school and are personally interested in what is happening in the schools. It is only logical that parents should get information from the boards of management and that the boards of management should be accountable to the parents. Boards of management are accountable to the patron and to the Minister. The Minister is accountable to the people and his day of reckoning will come when he has to go before the people.

I also welcome the measures in the Bill relating to children with special needs and the provision of extra funding for schools where there are children with particular disadvantages. Great strides have been made in providing extra funding for disadvantaged areas. Pilot schemes have been operated. However, there is still a deficiency of remedial teachers throughout the country. The Minister is attempting to ensure that he gets sufficient funds to improve that situation. He has improved it already and wants to improve it further during his term of office.

There is discrimination between schools which will have to be looked at. In respect of voluntary secondary schools £1 per pupil is spent; in community schools, the capitation grant is £1.57; and in vocational schools it is £1.75. Members of the same family could be going to different types of second level school and one school gets more funding than the other. This is not right. The Minister should examine the position to ensure that one sector of our school-going community is not discriminated against, as is happening in this case. This also applies where school chaplains are fully funded on a teacher's incremental salary in community schools, at a scaled rate in vocational schools, but where no provisions is made for voluntary secondary schools. With regard to buildings, voluntary secondary schools must provide 10 per cent of any building costs, while the amount that must be provided by community schools depends on the type of school and the vocational schools pay nothing. In addition, voluntary secondary schools are allowed £435 per square metre for building costs and vocational schools are allowed £682 per square metre. Vocational schools are allowed 13.39 per cent for design team fees while voluntary secondary schools are limited to 12 per cent. If there is an overrun on the cost of a new building, secondary schools must pay 100 per cent of the overrun, whereas the State pays 100 per cent for the vocational schools. If a lift has to be installed in a school, voluntary secondary schools must pay the full amount. I believe that all schools should be treated in the same manner.

It has also been brought to my attention that some fee-paying secondary schools are getting bills for rates. The Constitution provides that all our children should be treated equally. I ask the Minister to inquire into the incidence of schools being required to pay rates and the reason for it. I look forward to hearing from him in that regard.

I am also aware of the lack of true opportunity for education in certain sectors of society, especially in areas of high unemployment. In the past many of us thought that educational underachievement was due to laziness or stupidity. However, in many cases that was not so and many people who underachieved are now unemployed or working in jobs with no future. We had a myopic and patronising view caused by a lack of exposure to the lives and problems of people. However, as public representatives we can encounter and understand the problems of people in disadvantaged areas.

Many children are born into lives of State dependency with little hope of self-sufficiency and developing a better life for themselves and their children. This sector of society will grow in each generation by a factor based on the average size of their families. Something must be done about this. Many excellent people are working to alleviate this problem and I will throw a new idea into the ring in the hope that it might be of assistance.

My proposal starts with the assumption that there are clever teenagers being held back from achieving their true potential in terms of education and employment because of their family circumstances. They most likely live in inner city areas or in sprawling council estates and may be exposed to drug abuse, poverty and have low self-esteem generally. They see little hope in the future. It is our responsibility to provide those teenagers and young children with the structures to allow them to achieve their potential. They have little living space for themselves and have a peer group which has no respect for the system. We need to provide a new system if they are to succeed.

This will not be easy and will involve a combination of proposals. Much ground work and planning would need to carried out to ensure the success of the programme. Participating students would enter a contract to pursue a specific structure of education with appropriate targets for achievement. A code of conduct, support structures and motivational issues would be included. They would receive a weekly allowance to cover basic living expenses.

Debate adjourned.