Deputy Michael Ahern was in possession but his time is almost exhausted. His contribution will be followed by that of Deputy O'Sullivan.
Education (No. 2) Bill, 1997: Second Stage (Resumed).
I congratulate Deputy O'Sullivan on her election to the House and I wish her every success in the future. I had intended to make a number of further points about the new system I proposed to the Minister. However, as time is against me, I will forward them to him after the debate.
Fianna Fáil has left a proud mark on education in this country while in power, particularly since Donogh O'Malley's term of office in the mid-1960s. This farseeing and imaginative Bill, which underpins the authority of our school system while strengthening accountability, is to be welcomed. I congratulate the Minister on his excellent work in respect of the Bill.
I welcome the fact that we are debating a substantial Education Bill. Education is of major importance to the well-being of individuals and society. It can make a huge difference to the life of an individual or the workings of a society to have a proper education system in place. If a person does not benefit from education, it can have a major impact on their future life and determine whether they can play a useful role in society and live a fulfilled existence. Similarly, if the education system works well for everyone, we can be assured that we will have a healthy society.
Education is hugely important and it is necessary to set down in legislation how the system and its structures should work. It is important that this Bill has been introduced. However, we must inquire about its nature. What should and will it do or achieve in the form in which it is presented? The Bill defines the nature of our education system, explains that system's existence and regulates it. I compliment the Minister on that part of the Bill.
As the Minister stated, the education system has evolved and developed in the past without the need for a broad legislative basis. At present, it is a huge edifice with many aspects, some of which are very good or excellent but some that are not so good. What will the legislation do for the education system? In what way will the Bill change or improve it? I do not believe the legislation does enough to improve and develop the existing system. It does not do enough to deal with the gaps, problems and inadequacies in the system. It does not do enough for those whose rights must be safeguarded.
I commented on the importance of education for an individual's development. Many individuals do not obtain much from the education system and this Bill should address their needs. The rights and entitlements of those individuals should be placed in clear focus in the Bill. I do not doubt the Minister's commitment and I saw evidence of it last week when I witnessed an address he gave at Mary Immaculate Education College. I am impressed by his commitment to education. Having said that, however, I am disappointed by the Bill because it seeks to maintain thestatus quo rather than attempting to change it in any radical way.
We should be attempting to change the system in a number of radical ways because there are clear inadequacies. When the various teachers' unions met during the past week, many of those inadequacies were pinpointed. For example, it was highlighted that there are many groups of children who, for one reason or another, do not fit into the existing system. The Bill should address that fact. However, in the context of the inadequacies to which I referred, it is very disappointing.
The Bill does not do much for those for whom the system has not delivered. There are many groupings in this area including those caught in a cycle of disadvantage who drop out of school at an early age, either in the transition from primary to second level or at second level. It is estimated that between 25 to 30 per cent of pupils drop out of education before completing second level. That is not good enough. Many children are expelled from schools and the Bill does nothing to address how they are to be dealt with in the education system.
The third grouping to which I intend to refer at length are children with special needs and those with disabilities who have been particularly let down by the Bill. The original Bill introduced by former Deputy Niamh Bhreathnach catered for the needs of children with disabilities in a broader way than the current legislation. I hope the Minister will be willing to consider amending it on Committee Stage.
They are very similar.
The approach to children with disabilities should involve investment as is the approach to other children. The word "investment" is used frequently in respect of children in general within the system. However, the emphasis in respect of children with disabilities seems to be placed on the cost involved rather than education as a right and an investment. The rights of these children are limited in the legislation by terms such as "availability of resources", "practicability" and "ministerial discretion", to the extent that they are not real rights in their practical implementation.
Children with disabilities are no longer included in the long Title to the Bill as they were in the original legislation. This is not acceptable and I would like the Minister to ensure that reference to such children is put back into the long Title. There must also be a definition of the term "disability" in the Bill. As drafted, the legislation does not include such a definition. More importantly, we need to determine what is appropriate. The Bill uses the term "where appropriate" but there is no clear definition of what is appropriate. Who decides what is appropriate? Many parents of children with particular special needs or disabilities have had to enter court proceedings to determine their rights to education. That should not be the case, particularly when this substantial legislation could define and determine those rights.
There is a proposal from the Federation of People with Disabilities which suggests that there should be an individual educational plan for children with special needs so that these needs are followed through within the education system. Section 42.3.4º of the Constitution states that the State shall provide for free primary education. It does not state that primary education will be provided "as resources permit", "as is practicable" or "at the discretion of the Minister", it is a clear definition of constitutional right and it should apply completely to children with special needs and those with disabilities.
We must recognise that children do not learn in the same way or at the same pace. I acknowledge that the system works extremely well for average or above average children but it does not work particularly well for those with special needs. We must make statutory provision for the differing needs of these children. There should be a plan to ensure that this is done. Despite the fact that the proposal for education boards put forward by Niamh Bhreathnach was criticised in various areas, particularly on grounds of cost, if it had been introduced it would have provided a mechanism to put in place such a plan at regional level to ensure that the needs of all children are taken into account. Provision should be made in the legislation for an appeals system so that parents who believe their children's needs are not being accounted or catered for can have their case heard without the need to enter court proceedings.
There are other issues of concern to those who speak for children with special needs or disabilities such as the overlap between the Departments of Health and Children and Education and Science. The parents of children with severe and profound mental handicap are particularly concerned that, by and large, their educational needs are considered to come within the ambit of the Department of Health and Children. There is a need to address this issue.
The Bill contains definitions in relation to support services. I would like the Minister to consider including speech, language and occupational therapy, as well as areas like transport and other technical aids, under the support services heading in the Bill. In that way, these areas, which are of concern to parents of children with disabilities, can be fully dealt with in the legislation. It is also important to know how appropriate education facilities for people with special needs are determined.
Under the legislation schools are required to have their own plans, but each plan should include a strategy for dealing with children with disabilities. That would require schools to consider the way they could include children with disabilities in their school campus. In addition, the report that each school board is required to produce should also show the steps the school has taken to ensure children with disabilities can be accommodated.
Where practicable, these children should have the option to attend regular primary and second level schools, although obviously in some cases it is more appropriate that they attend special schools. Many parents are of the view that with minimal adjustment, their children could attend regular primary and second level schools. The Bill should contain a measure that would encourage schools to take steps to ensure that is possible. Teacher training colleges should have modules on disability awareness so that it is part and parcel of training teachers.
We are sick and tired of talking about the Celtic tiger but at a time when there is relative affluence in our society we should be in a position to address the particular needs in the education system. We should be willing to allocate additional funding to education from the national budget. I do not believe taxpayers would object if they were asked to give extra funding at national level provided it was directed specifically at areas with specific problems.
We would have fewer social problems if there was intervention at an early stage for children with special needs. Many excellent studies on education have been carried out, and experts in this area have highlighted the importance of early intervention where there are specific problems. Insufficient action has been taken in this area. We have had the Early Start scheme and the Breaking the Cycle initiative but they were not developed. Those initiatives were introduced by the former Minister for Education, Niamh Bhreathnach, but they have not been given additional resources since they were set up.
I urge the Minister to put extra resources into those areas and to identify specific problems such as ADD, ADHD and dyslexia. If the needs of these children are not met at an early stage, they will become disruptive and fall behind in their education. By the time their problems are properly dealt with, it is too late to make a difference.
Parents of children with such problems have told me their only hope for intervention is if their children break the law and the prison system becomes involved. That is a terrible indictment on our society which I do not lay at the door of the Minister. We must find the funding to intervene in these areas at an early stage to make a real difference. Support organisations for children with these problems have carried out a great deal of research in this area. Many of those organisations have set up their own privately paid for institutions to deal with these problems. In Limerick a dyslexia centre, for example, does excellent work and has outreach centres in other parts of Munster and beyond. Those centres are poorly funded. Most of the funding comes from private subscriptions, which is not acceptable. We must address those areas.
Similarly, the support groups for ADD and ADHD have identified their needs and, in many cases, they are paying privately. That should not be the case because it is the job of the Minister for Education and Science to ensure we provide appropriate facilities in the national system for these children. Society would benefit greatly if that were done. Many youngsters who cause problems for their fellow citizens would have followed a different life path if their problems had been addressed at an early stage in the education system. The children who are described as being out of control have simply not fitted into the system. There are a number of special schools, but most of them have long waiting lists. Resources must be directed in that area.
Boards of management should be mandatory; this is not absolute in the legislation. Obviously there is an aspiration to have boards of management in every school, but I understand some schools still do not have them. Children will not have a safeguard if they attend a school which does not have a board of management.
Perhaps this is not entirely relevant to the Bill, but I know the Minister has been asked to consider the question of more flexibility in the primary system in particular. This matter was raised recently in relation to teachers who are trained in Northern Ireland and may not have the appropriate level of Irish. I am talking about flexibility in general. Those trained in the Montessori system and who have other types of educational expertise should be incorporated in the system. It is almost monolithic at primary level and, therefore, we should seek to provide more flexibility under this legislation.
It is sometimes difficult for parents to ensure their children have the full benefit of the education system. I am talking about simple matters like the renting of school books. Some schools operate this system, but many do not. The renting of school books could be incorporated as a mandatory provision in the Bill so that the cost of books would not prevent children from taking part fully in the education system.
Another old chestnut is the weight of school bags. I am aware the Minister has established a group to examine this problem. What progress has been made in that regard? We talk about the development of the individual child, but the physical development of many children can be affected by the weight of school bags. This is an important issue because we should be concerned about the physical development of children as well as their mental and spiritual education.
My main concern is for children with special needs. By and large the system caters well for the majority of children, but if we are to call ourselves a caring society we must prioritise those with special needs. If we do not, we will be taking the easy way out. We are doing well by the majority of young people. In that regard I compliment the Minister on the work he has done in the area of information technology, but we are failing many children with very serious needs, whether in terms of social disadvantage or particular educational disabilities. We need to focus on those children, many of whom get very little out of the education system. Those who need it most very often get the least out of the system. While that prevails, we should use whatever scope this legislation gives us to redress the balance. He will also have received suggestions from the various organisations that represent these bodies. It should be obligatory, not optional or just dependent on resources, practicability, discretion and so on to deliver to these people in the system. These constitutional rights should be pinned down in this legislation. I hope the Minister will take these points on board.
I congratulate Deputy O'Sullivan on her election to the Dáil. We served together in the Seanad. I hope she will serve a long time in this Chamber, as I hope I myself will.
I welcome this Bill although a number of things I say might sound contradictory. I have wanted to make some general points on education for a long time, so I am taking this opportunity to make them.
The Bill provides for a range of issues relating to rights and duties arising in respect of education, which we seem to have lost sight of over the years. The purpose of education, which seems to have been lost sight of also, is to send young people out into the community with the ability to reach their full potential. If one mentions education now, it is seen in terms of employment of teachers. I welcome the opportunity to bring the focus of the debate to duties and rights in respect of education, and to the rights and entitlement of young people to the best education possible which will help them to reach their full potential.
I note that it is the Minister's intention to achieve many objectives and that in trying to do so he will embark on consultations with a number of groups, including parents' groups, teachers, teachers' unions, etc. I wish him well because probably the biggest stumbling block he will encounter will be the teachers' unions. In the course of the teacher union conferences, delegates spoke negatively about aspects of the Bill which I deem to be very positive in terms of education as I perceive it. No other issue stimulates or arouses passions and debate in any community as much as the issue of education. If any of us were to be called to a meeting in our constituencies tonight on an issue of education, we could be quite sure that the meeting would be packed to capacity.
I welcome a number of aspects of the Bill. Deputy O'Sullivan referred to the phrase "within available resources". I understand the point she makes. Referring to "available resources" seems to detract from the intent of the Bill. However, it is my understanding that that is what was in the Bill published by the former Minister, Niamh Bhreathnach, and it has traditionally been included in all education Bills. That is not to say any legislation would supersede the constitutional right of young people to have the education to which they are entitled. However, I support the point made by Deputy O'Sullivan.
Section 6 refers to promoting opportunities for adults to avail of education. I welcome that very much. Before I became involved in politics, I was involved with an adult education group and found that finding an area in which to park adult education was the biggest problem. To be fair to the vocational education committees they were the only group who would take any interest in the area or facilitate us in providing various types of courses for adults. Another big problem was finding premises. It is ludicrous to suggest that there are no premises that could be made available, given the huge number of school buildings around the country. However, the group in which I was involved went out of existence because the rooms we were using had to be given to other groups. I do not accept that availability of premises is something that cannot be tackled. We need to enlist the support of school principals and boards of management to ensure that rooms which are not being used by schools in the ordinary day-to-day business of providing education to young children can be made available for adult education. The Minister should certainly push in that area.
Section 6 also refers to promoting the right of parents to send their children to a school of their choice. That is very important. During the previous debate on education there was a feeling that schools with a Catholic ethos were being degraded and that all schools should be non-denominational. What we have to ensure is that there is a right to choose. It is the parents' right to choose which should dictate the kind of education we provide. Nor would I suggest that we should simply abolish a particular type of education because it is felt that it is not the way to go. The right of parents to choose the type of education they want for their children should and will dictate the type of schooling we make available.
I am a member of the British-Irish Interparliamentary Group which examined the interdenominational schooling available in the North and the gaelscoileanna. If we looked only at one system of education we would be sold on it. We met the interdenominational people and they were convinced that interdenominational schooling was the way to go, that it was the only way to integration, the only way to peace. However, the other providers of education argue very forcefully that they contribute in their own way to the right of parents to choose the type of education they want. They have what is called EMU — education for mutual understanding — and various other things. We should not come down on one side or the other in terms of education, and block off all other choices. The type of schooling we provide should be determined by the right of parents to choose.
At last week's debate at the teachers' conferences, and in the context of the British-Irish group, there was reference to bilingualism and the need for Irish. There were conflicting views from the INTO which has representation in the North and in the Republic. One view was that a teacher from Northern Ireland could not be employed in the South, despite being a qualified teacher. I understand that the position is that a teacher has three years to complete the Irish language requirement for primary school and a year to reach the required standard for second level. Teachers would admit that it is not tremendously difficult to obtain the céardteastas. I would not support the suggestion that there should be no requirement at primary level to have the Irish language. Irish is one of the core subjects in primary school. It is only right, therefore, that teachers wishing to teach at primary level should be qualified to teach Irish. Even in the interests of partnership in the context of the debate we had this morning on the British-Irish Agreement, it is not sensible that teachers wishing to teach in the Republic would not be required to have an Irish language qualification.
I support the reference in section 6 to extension of bilingualism in our society. The situation whereby Irish was forced on pupils has long since changed and this is something we encountered on our visit to schools in the North. There is a cultural awakening and an embracing of the Irish language. People are coming to it of their own will. The past arrangements whereby one could not pass the leaving certificate without Irish have changed. We do not need to drop the Irish language requirement. The providers in the North with whom we spoke made the point that they needed more teachers with Irish. We should wait to see how matters develop. I support the reference in section 6 to the extension of bilingualism.
The school inspectorate was criticised at the teachers' conferences and I find that difficult to understand. As a parent I would like to know what people find objectionable about establishing procedures to assess the efficiency of the operation of school management, including the quality of teaching and the academic standards of students. I am not and have never been a teacher but I cannot understand why school managers or teachers would consider such a provision unacceptable. The Minister has made it clear and it is obvious in the Bill that we are not talking about a points rating system which applies in the UK, whereby parents made choices between schools on the basis of a league table of performance. We are talking about ensuring schools are able to provide the best quality education to children. Deputy O'Sullivan referred to educational disadvantage and we must ensure that children are not disadvantaged, regardless of where their school may be.
I cannot understand why this provision is objectionable to some. I wish the Minister luck with the trade unions. However, this is not an issue on which he should have to give ground to receive a positive response. I advise him to hold his ground. This is a basic premise of education — something to which children are entitled and which parents should demand.
Admissions policy must also be addressed. In areas of growth and where pupil populations are diminishing there are accusations of poaching and creaming off pupils with entrance exams. Every school should set out its admissions policy. Such policies should be based on the catchment area — for post primary schools that should be the primary schools in the various parishes — and additional places might be extended to others who apply. There must be open and transparent admissions policies, as referred to in the Bill.
The withdrawal of recognition for schools which do not satisfy requirements is included for the first time in legislation. This refers to identifying schools where the education to which children are entitled is not being provided and taking action. There has not really been any form of sanction for schools which do not perform. Schools should not be shut down but they should be supported and put back into shape, so to speak. However, there has not really been an effective sanction available to the Minister. Such arrangements coincide with the theme of rights and duties which runs through the Bill.
Section 12 refers to the determination of where additional funding is needed for students experiencing educational disadvantage. Despite the application of additional resources, the early start programmes and other initiatives, further improvements are needed. We need to focus on areas of disadvantage and if money were to be made available it should be spent on such areas. The early start programme has a great part to play. It is the case, particularly in areas of disadvantage, that the earlier children are brought into school through early learning the better their chances. However, early start programme ignored the providers who were there beforehand. I have made the point in the Seanad that the programme was so organised because there was pressure from the teachers' unions. Before the requirement of the programme for a qualified primary school teacher and an assistant was introduced how did all the children who came through community pre-schools manage to do so well? If the Minister is considering expanding the early start programme, he should consider including the former providers and giving them an opportunity to obtain a qualification which would enable them to partake in the expanded programme.
All Members are aware of cases in which children taking a subject with a particular teacher need to seek grinds. It seemed that nothing could be done. There must be a way of dealing with such circumstances in which most of the classes are fine but where there is a consistent exception. We should not seek to penalise teachers who are not performing up to par but we must ensure they get the in-service training or other supports they need to ensure they perform to their potential.
I have been on three boards of management. At present I am a member of the board of management of Coolmine school in Blanchardstown, which is an excellent board of management. It seems to have anticipated having to put in place all the measures required by law. It seems to fit into the criteria as defined by the Minister. It sends newsletters to the parents and the students and there are regular board meetings.
I resigned from the board of management of another school because I believed the way in which problems were being dealt with was wrong. There have been instances of such problems, in particular the suspension and expulsion of pupils, in the newspapers recently. That school was in a very disadvantaged area and it had a high number of pupils who might be considered troublesome. Suspensions and expulsions came before the board of management regularly. We could say that it was our responsibility as legislators and the Minister's responsibility to deal with the issue.
I do not believe that suspending young children from school is the best way to deal with problems. It simply lets them out of school. On a number of occasions I have suggested that they be kept in school, for example to clean the school if that was felt an appropriate punishment. However, there should be a way to keep them in the school system.
The response to my suggestion was that schools would be responsible for children kept after school and, therefore, a proposal other than suspension was not acceptable. I am not talking about violent pupils who attack other pupils or teachers. I knew a young boy who was deemed not to be academically suitable to do his leaving certificate because he was not putting in the hours at school. Many of us in this House, myself included, would probably have been evicted from school if the same criteria applied in our day. I urge the Minister not to allow a school suspend or expel a pupil simply because the principal believes he or she could not pass a leaving certificate examination because of lack of effort. There must be other ways of dealing with the problem.
The young man to whom I referred had serious problems at home and was expelled from the school. He then went to another school which was a long way from his home but did not fit in. His mother later threw him out of the home. I know that young boy did nothing wrong because he lived with us for some time. He later died from a drugs overdose although, to my knowledge, he was not heavily involved in drugs. Reported in the yesterday's newspapers was a case of a person in similar circumstances.
The response from those who have had the benefit of a good education is not acceptable. When a person applying for a teaching post is asked how he or she would deal with such children, he or she quickly and efficiently outlines a number of ways they would deal with the matter, but in practice teachers cannot cope and the children suffer as a result. If it means taking on the teacher unions, something must be done about this problem rather than allow young children, mainly boys, fall through society's net.
The Minister proposes to adopt a number of measures under the legislation. I welcome section 28 which deals with the right of appeal. He must tackle the question of young children who are expelled from the school system at ten or 11 years of age because of a lack of school attendance officers. That is the area that concerns me most and I urge the Minister to deal with it.
I wish to share time with my colleague, Deputy McGrath.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
The Bill deals with a most fundamental aspect of the State's organisational control and development of her children. Education is the great social equaliser, releasing the power and potential for people to move within the social structure of the Irish community while equipping those who wish to travel or work in other countries. The skills they acquire ensure they do not end up in the low paid run of the mill jobs their forefathers were forced to accept, but that they are to the top of the appointments lists when the good jobs are given out.
I welcome the legislation. It has been a long time coming. It deals with strong interest groups, who have their own views on how education delivery should be organised. The Minister recognises the changing society which demands inclusion in decision making. No longer is it acceptable to leave the control of this important social builder in the hands of a few. It is important that we provide for openness, accountability and inclusiveness. For too long educational management has been a closed shop, which denied itself the value of the wisdom of the other stakeholders. I concur with the Minister's view in respect of regional education boards, they would be a considerable waste of public money.
The concept of establishing a county education network is good as it could be workable. It would involve developing a country-wide educational philosophy, ensuring services are complimentary and meet the community needs, without squandering public funds. Many educational needs are met on the double rather than by developing courses. We must ask if there are too many service providers? Should non-primary and second level activity be controlled exclusively by the VEC education officers? This would ensure value for money and a quality product leading through to a composite and recognisable certificate of award. The issue of local control and accountability is important. The work commenced by a former Minister, Richard Burke, in 1974 in establishing the board of management system in vocational education schools has stood the test of time. It has played its part in the success of the development of community colleges and schools. I am aware County Dublin VEC has in some fashion developed his concept and in the interest of democracy has afforded empowerment to the parents through tenure and overlap of service.
I am also pleased the Department accepts that projects, such as Youthreach deserve board of management status. The Department, in conjunction with the County Dublin VEC, has put in place a model of those boards, drawing on the experience of the staff, the local business community and members of the committee. Boards of management are important in that they give a say to sectors involved in the life of the school.
We must also consider how students at second level may have their voices heard at the management table. Some schools have been successful in involving their students in management projects and students have formed disciplinary committees to make recommendations on sanctions to the school managers. Many schools invite students to contribute to the establishment of codes of conduct and decisions on uniforms or give them control of the management of the school shop. Those schools are facing up to the reality that things are changing. We must engage with young people and not be afraid of them. They have much to offer. There are challenges for those who hold power. We must learn to share while encouraging openness accountability and responsibility. In drawing up guidelines for the boards, I ask the Minister to address this matter and push interaction between students and boards of management.
The Minister's comments on the gaelscoilenna movement are welcome. The revival of interest in the Irish language is great and we must do all in our power to promote it. I am aware of the Department's support, in the establishment of new schools, for this revival, but more is needed. SchooIs must not be allowed compete for students on an unequal basis. We must ensure the best buildings and facilities are made available. This would show practical support for a welcome development in education and reflect our confidence and pride as a nation.
Education commences at birth and concludes at death. We must meet the different needs which exist during a person's lifetime. Action must be taken to provide what is termed pre-school education for all children of the nation. This is not just an issue for families who because of work requirements wish to place their children in a créche. It is one of stimulating and servicing in a socially structured way, the natural eagerness of young people to learn. Money put into early focused education is money well spent and it will save the State later. It will pick up those with learning difficulties at a point where intervention is most effective.
In the area of adult education, great opportunities exist for those who keep their skills up to date. We must ensure that dynamic education services, meeting today's and tomorrow's needs, are delivered in a focused and cost effective way that reaches out to all. We have a long way to go in that regard.
I thank Deputy Cosgrave for sharing his time with me. I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill and examine the educational provisions in the State. We have evolved a diverse system of education that is the envy of many other countries around the world because of its quality. We can be proud of the quality of education of our students who emerge from primary, secondary and higher education institutions. This is signified by our ability to attract many international companies.
The education system evolved in a piecemeal fashion and we should be grateful to our forerunners who did such a great job. Tribute should be paid to the teaching profession. It is a model of good workmanship comprised of people who go about their work in a dedicated fashion and produce results. Teachers, like politicians often get a hard time on popular radio talk shows and are severely criticised, but when they are compared to their counterparts in other countries, they are found to be top class and this should be recognised.
Within the profession, the role of the principal should also be recognised. The Minister as a former teacher will acknowledge a huge burden of responsibility is placed on school principals. They often take up the posts without any formal training on how they should manage schools or staff. They do a tremendous job and should be complimented for it. The Minister should examine how middle management in schools can be made more efficient as there is a need to improve it. Middle management should be rewarded for their efforts but additional rewards should be given for training and greater efficiency.
The religious bodies have done a great deal for education over the years. It is popular in the media to criticise the Christian Brothers and nuns for what they did but were it not for the dedication particularly of the Christian Brothers founded in Waterford, many towns and villages would not have received the quality education they did. Various orders of priest, nuns and brothers put a great deal into education and they should be thanked.
The Minister introduced the Bill following the election and he lived up to his promises in that he made the changes to the original Bill which he forecast. When writing a script or formulating a response to a parliamentary question, once the initial draft is ready it is much easier to amend and improve it. However, the Minister recognised the difficulties in the original draft and made amendments, some of which I wholeheartedly welcome.
He moved sensibly in regard to regional education boards. I had grave reservations about them and when I spoke on the original Bill, I expressed these. I acknowledge the role intended for them. They were to be a halfway house between the Department and schools but I was not sure there was a need for them. Manchester has the same number of pupils as Ireland and has two education boards looking after the entire schoolgoing population.
The other major difficulty with education boards was the cost implication, which the Minister homed in on when in Opposition. A huge cost was involved and we could not reconcile setting up education boards and maintaining the VEC structure. Perhaps it was political cowardice that we did not have the guts to say we would go with one or the other. Dropping the boards is no harm and while the Minister has been criticised by various bodies, such as the National School Parent's Primary Board and the Conference of Religious Superiors who expressed reservations, he was correct.
With regard to the imposition of boards of management on all schools if we were starting in a green field site we would say all schools should have a board of management but recognising how the education system evolved, we must be aware it cannot happen in certain schools as there are 25 privately owned secondary schools. I know one fine individually owned school in Tipperary and the pupils demonstrate with their feet the fine establishment that it is. How could we go to this individual who has bank borrowings, etc., and tell him he must hand his school over to a board of management to run? It would have been constitutionally wrong and the Minister sensibly amended that. I recognise what he has done in the second draft of the Bill and commend him for it.
He reinforced the statutory recognition of parents' associations in the original Bill which is very worthwhile. We cannot overemphasise the need to involve parents in the education of their children. For so long, they were not involved and it is important they are given various educational roles. We must tread carefully on occasion as some parents lose touch on a merry-go-round of sub-committees and review groups. I am reminded of one individual who is almost a full time junketeer on various committees and is associated with one parents group. This must be avoided and areas of responsibility for parents should be spread among parents.
The Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy O'Dea, was reprimanded in one of today's newspapers by a parents' group which quoted him as saying it could be a charter for busybodies. I do not agree with him in that because parents bodies have been tremendously worthwhile. At a time when resources are in scarce supply parents in most schools must row in to provide additional funds by running raffles, dog nights, etc. They take on much of that responsibility but should not only be seen as fundraisers. They have a role in setting out criteria and standards for schools and that should be respected.
Another good aspect of the new Bill was dropping the concept of an annual report. It was sensible because there would have been many difficulties for schools in producing them, including the cost factor and the competition that would have been generated between schools. They would have gone all out to produce a glossy report so that they would be able to attract students in their areas but it might not have had anything to do with the quality of education in the school.
We have to deal with some of the deficiencies. The description of the Bill reads: "An Act to make provision in the interests of the common good for the education of every child in the State". That is a laudable aspiration. I welcome it and it is important to insert a commitment to treat all children equally. I regret the reality is that some children do not get a fair crack of the whip. I refer particularly to the disadvantaged. It saddens me that there are some children who do not get the opportunities they should get and are not treated equally.
In an article inThe Irish Times today a representative from the Association of the Severely and Profoundly Mentally Handicapped said that currently only 460 to 480 of the estimated 3,000 severely and profoundly mentally handicapped children in the State actually receive free primary education. If that is true, it is a huge indictment of our system that so many children, albeit with major problems, are not receiving the type of education they should receive. Given their problems they should get extra help.
In my constituency there are difficulties. A young man in my area, who has behavioural problems has not been able to attend school for the past three years because he needs a child care assistant who has not been sanctioned by the Department or by the Department of Health and Children. It is a shame he should miss out on his education because that additional resource is not available to him. I understand from the Department there are 250 such children throughout the country in need of child care assistants to help them at school. These individuals cannot function properly at school without those assistants and it is a shame they cannot be appointed. I urge the Minister to make that his priority.
Children with hearing impairment also have difficulties. A school in Ballymahon, not far from my area, caters for deaf children. Recently following the tabling of parliamentary questions I discovered that class was discriminated against when compared with other schools throughout the country. The pupil-teacher ratio for that school was out of kilter with that of other schools for the deaf. I am pleased the Department has responded and it may be due to the parliamentary questions.
The other item I wish to raise is outside the remit of the Department but I ask the Minister to liaise with his colleague, the Minister for Health and Children on the provision of language therapy for deaf children. The provision of such a service is hit and miss throughout the country.
I am disappointed the Bill did not refer to school transport. School transport is important in rural areas where there are many problems, including overlapping of services and crazy situations where people in house A can get school transport to a school while people in house B which is next door cannot get transport to the same school because of the catchment area. That type of problem should be resolved. I encourage the Minister to address that issue.
When summing up will the Minister consider the issue of health and safety in schools. A friend who works as a health and safety officer informs me that if he and his colleagues were to do their work in schools as in factories and other places, schools would rank badly. I do not want an Army deafness type scenario developing. We cannot have two sets of standards, one for schools and another for everybody else.
I welcome the Bill and recognise it as one that will bring some order to education. It recognises the involvement of all the partners in education: parents, patrons, students, teachers and the State. I welcome the various headings in the Bill which deal with the issues that have been outstanding for some time. That State examinations will be reviewed and listed on an ongoing basis is essential because change will be necessary as we develop into an age of technology that is fast running ahead of each of us.
I welcome the Minister's decision not to proceed with regional education boards. The saving of £40 million will be better spent in mainstream education than in setting up a bureaucracy within the education system. Boards of management are welcome. The partnership outlined earlier stressed the importance of boards of management, many of which have been established in areas which had the foresight to appoint them. Local communities were first to recognise the need for boards of management and the participation of all those involved in day-to-day school management. The role of boards of management is different from that of a number of people in a local community who are asked to raise funds. Their role goes far beyond that. I am pleased the Minister has spelled it out clearly in the Bill.
The Irish language, its place in our communities and the development of gaelscoileanna are important to the development of the overall education system. Given that we are moving into a new united Europe it is important that our culture and heritage is protected within the education infrastructure I welcome the various sanctions against students and others who make examination papers and other information available to the public or to a number of participants in any one examination. The introduction of fines for people who deliberately do so is welcome. The imposition of a penalty against those who steal the information and put it on the market is welcome.
The appeal procedure within the system for students or others in relation to the board of management is welcome. Like previous speakers I pay tribute to the sisters, brothers and priests who participated in the education system in the State and helped to develop it. In the past they were the only people who provided an education system and gave leadership on how education should be developed here. I mention particularly the Christian Brothers and others who are often criticised in the media for one thing or another. There is another side to that story. A large number of pupils were turned out in an excellent fashion and play a full role in society today.
The recognition of the role of parents is important. Parents of young people participating in the education system, have many responsibilities placed on them. Parents who participate on school boards will have a responsibility and every parent carries the responsibility of educating his or her child to his full potential. That is not an easy process. Along with being involved in schools' boards of management and raising funds, parents must deal with the process of homework and ensuring the student is not left behind in the system.