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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 23 Apr 1998

Vol. 490 No. 1

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

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

I commend the Minister for introducing the part of the Bill which deals with persons found guilty of any offences for which he or she would be liable on summary conviction to a fine of up to £1,500 or imprisonment for a term of six months or both, and on conviction and indictment to a fine of £5,000 or imprisonment for two to three years or both. It is not intended that these penalties will relate to basic offences in relation to candidates as sanctions in this area already exists. That is a step which, unfortunately, was forced upon the system, and the Minister was correct to include that in the Bill.

On the various headings with which I was dealing in relation to teachers, the teaching profession has done an enormous amount of good in the fields of education and developing local communities. We cannot overlook the fact that teachers must continue in the educational process. Because the educational system is becoming more exposed to information technology and technology in general, the teacher training centres are essential to this part of their development. As a result, they can pass on to the pupils a greater degree of information and education with regard to the use of technology in life after school and in education.

This was brought to the fore in Kilkenny city recently which was runner-up in the Telecom Éireann technology town competition. Without the help of teachers the £1 million which the city received could not have been spent in communities. When all the programmes were rolled out, it was clearly underlined that teaching the community was an essential part of the process of spending that money. Therefore, I suggest that the further investment announced by Telecom Éireann of £10 million in the educational system generally and the £240 million announced by the Minister must go towards the education of teachers and putting in place a mechanism which will, in turn, educate young people in technology.

Most of the issues I dealt with to date relate to mainstream education. In this regard, I compliment the Minister on the vision, dynamism and leadership which he has brought to the Department since his appointment.

Education is an escape route from poverty and we should do everything possible to ensure that children are given equal rights and opportunities within the system. Furthermore, we should introduce skills based instruction at a very early age in an attempt to maintain interest and encourage involvement in areas where this is perceived necessary. However it is done, education is the foundation from which we can build a better society: it is also a ladder to a better life which should be available to all. The cost of not providing a comprehensive educational programme will be far greater than the cost of ensuring that the best we can provide is available to all.

The measures will affect only those in mainstream education and that is a comment on the administration of education in the State. We must now examine the quiet revolution which is taking place in education at community level. I instance, for example, the Fr. McGrath Centre in Kilkenny city, which has made a submission to the Department for funding to education in its community. I encourage the Minister to take a detailed look at that submission because it is the blueprint for educational needs in any community. It is a model for educating the community which can be used as part of a support mechanism for mainstream education.

The organisation in Kilkenny offers a net to young people before they fall out of the system. Community leaders, themselves only educated in the university of life, are now turning their skills to help young people stay within the mainstream educational system, and they are encouraging them through homework clubs and other mechanisms. These clubs break down the barriers between a young person who is embarrassed about admitting his or her inability to cope with homework and they offer a softer approach to mainstream education.

Access to technological education and technology has been provided by this centre. Through technology, marginalised adult groups, particularly parents who have never experienced employment, are now in a position to return to a more friendly environment with their peers to experience technology, to improve their selfesteem and their chances of future employment. It breaks the cycle for young people and their parents. It offers them a way out of the poverty and unemployment traps.

Centres such as the Fr. McGrath Centre should be encouraged by the Department. The centre should be examined as a model, as I said, it should be encouraged by the Department by way of proper funding and inclusive mechanisms which would make it part of the existing system.

As an extension of what is happening at community level, I suggest another method which is being undertaken by young Irish filmmakers in Kilkenny. Again, this is a group which was brought together by local initiative. It is administered by a returned exile from Australia, who is giving his vast experience to the young people of the city. Again, it is a poorly funded organisation. When one examines the workload and success rate of the group, it is clearly a model which the Department of Education should examine.

It offers young people the opportunity to shoot film by themselves. The group has already received great credit for itself and the city by filming "Under the Hawthorn Tree", which was picked up by Channel Four. The young people shoot films, act in them and put them together. This exposes them to a technology which will benefit them in later life.

It is interesting to note that the technology used by these young people is of the same standard as that which one would find in any Spielberg production, yet this group is motivated by a self-help ethos in the city. It is not recognised sufficiently by the various Departments or mainstream education, yet it is contributing in a positive way to the development of young people's creativity. It offers them an exciting new departure in employment when they complete their education. I encourage the Minister to examine this particular aspect of education.

As an extension of that, there is a third level facility in Kilkenny. Local politicians have been criticised for many years for not providing a third level facility. Again, the self-help ethos and encouragement by the local community and business people to get out there and do it for themselves has led to a link by way of the Outreach centre with NUI Maynooth and the Carlow Regional Technical College. I encourage the Minister to explore this whole area of Outreach centres. I offer the Kilkenny experience as a pilot project where the Minister, instead of being fearful of the funding required to keep such a development going, should see it as a positive move in the development of our educational infrastructure. It is positive in the sense that it offers local people an extension of education from second to third level. It offers people who are marginalised the opportunity to get out of their present situation and come back into education.

Kilkenny offers the ambience of a university city and infrastructure which the Department could match with funding and encourage that project to go ahead. I appreciate that the officials are frowning on the development of Outreach centres, but it is the new way of education and does quite a lot for the local community. It not only helps to develop the local community but, by the involvement of people in third level facilities and outreach centres, students in those centres will encourage others to go from second to third level education. It keeps young people at home and helps to develop local industry. It is an attraction for outside investors and raises the esteem of the local people.

This is a self-help project funded locally. As a local group we have not ignored the possibility of funding people who cannot fund themselves. It is a project that has reached out to the marginalised, but it has yet to be properly recognised by the Department. I suggest the Minister use the project in Kilkenny as a pilot project and fund it properly. Through the information age link with Telecom, technology has been introduced in that centre. By imposing technology on an outreach centre, the Minister would have first hand experience of the extent to which the service is taken up by the local community and local groups. We have reached out to places such as the NUI in Maynooth and Carlow Regional Technical College, into which heavy State investment has been made. As well as benefiting those areas, the outreach mechanism will bring great benefits to Kilkenny.

There is great potential, through Cork and Queens University, to expand the courses available. By way of fibre-optic cable and other technological advances, it is possible to reach out to America and beyond. Courses could be introduced in places such as Kilkenny and a proper third level structure could be developed which would be beneficial to the local community. That would be sound investment by the Department. Rather than frown on such an initiative, the Department should take it on board and make it part of the development process in education for the future.

On the infrastructure available in Kilkenny through education, I compliment the Minister on investing £2.5 million in infrastructure through St. Kieran's College in Kilkenny. The go-ahead for the gaelscoil in Kilkenny will benefit the region greatly. I draw to the Minister's attention the neglect of the infrastructure in County Kilkenny in the past 20 years. Schools such as Grennan College, the vocational school in Kilkenny and the Loretto school are overcrowded and need to expand. There are sensible projects before the Department and I encourage the Minister to consider each of them because the buildings have been neglected. Ormond College in Kilkenny is a listed building. The roof is leaking and the building needs immediate attention, yet there has not been any response from the Department. That is unacceptable given that there has been a 20 year span of neglect in this area. I encourage the Minister to consider that matter.

In a city the size of Kilkenny which is expanding rapidly and has much going for it in terms of economic development, the Loretto school will have to be extended. The school which houses 730 pupils was built for about 400. We are thankful for the investment made by the Minister since coming to office, but considerably more investment is required.

A link-up with the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs is required in terms of the development of the county. Family resource centres are funded by the Department. There was a promise of funding of £120,000 over a three year period for Clogh resource centre. The Department of Education and Science should link up with such centres in terms of technology and the provision of courses because they could be operated as an educational base.

The Tánaiste yesterday met a group from Castlecomer. I encourage the Tánaiste and the Department of Education and Science to establish an education and skills centre in Castlecomer to assist in solving the unemployment problems there. It would also strengthen the infrastructural needs of the county.

I wish to share five minutes of my time with Deputy Finucane.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Education Bill. Our aim must be to make sure the best possible standard of education is available to every pupil regardless of ability, disability, social background, locality or any other factor. Every child should be given the opportunity to develop his or her natural talents and ability to the maximum. Legislation on education and the education system in general must be geared towards this objective. Towards this end, proper school buildings at every level of education is important, but none more so than at primary level. While progress has been made in recent years, three schools I have visited, the Model School in Bailieboro, St. Enda's in Scotshouse and St. Michael's in Corcaghan, are in desperate need of new schools or massive repairs. My colleague on the Government side said that some of the schools in his area have leaking roofs. In St. Enda's school in Scotshouse the water is leaking through the roof and doors. I am aware the Department is working on this matter, but the urgency of a final decision cannot be overemphasised.

The schools in Deravoy and Knockconon in Truagh parish are joined with schools across the Border in a major cross-Border project funded by the EU under the peace initiative, yet those buildings are no longer fit for use. If they were in any other use such as for commercial purposes they would be closed long ago by the authorities. It is very difficult for teachers and pupils in those schools to compete with their comrades from Aughnacloy and elsewhere. I refer to the need to improve those schools because legislation without financial backing will not solve the problems.

I welcome the computer programme announced recently by the Minister, Deputy Martin, in conjunction with Telecom. This is a major step forward. We must ensure pupils in rural areas, where there is great need, have the opportunity for proper training. I ask the Minister to ensure small rural schools which do not have access to computers will be the first to be considered. Many better-off schools do not have the same immediate need.

Remedial and resource teachers must be provided as a priority. Progress was made by the former Minister, Niamh Bhreathnach, particularly in her first couple of years in office, but a problem arose with disputes about whether teachers would be taken from schools that had fewer numbers and progress did not continue. There is an urgent need in this area. There is no remedial teacher in Rockcorry, Enniskeen, Aghabog and Scotshouse. In many other areas there is a skeleton service. Children in those areas have the same rights as children in Dublin and Cork and should be treated equally.

In Cavan-Monaghan parents of the hearing impaired have a problem in regard to the second level school for their children. The parents have requested a permanent teacher for a special class in Our Lady's secondary school in Castleblayney. I spoke to the Minister about this matter, as did some of my colleagues. If this urgent problem is not solved it will be the cause of serious hardship, disappointment and cost to the children, parents and the Department. If the school is not maintained in Castleblayney the children concerned will have to be catered for in Dublin, entailing extra transport costs and overnight costs. As well as that the children would be separated from their families, which would be unacceptable. The Minister should make an urgent decision on this issue.

Consideration must be given to the views of parents' groups of this sort and parent involvement on school boards and in general consultations must be encouraged. It is not good enough to use parents to run fundraising functions to raise money for building and general maintenance. They must be given the opportunity to become members of school boards to put their views forward.

Part III of the Bill deals with the inspectorate, etc., and refers to support, advice and evaluation. When I attended school, teachers and pupils looked forward with trepidation to the inspector's visit. However, the greatest problem faced by schools today is the lack of psychologists to advise parents and teachers. In a recent case in my area a parent was obliged to wait approximately 18 months to have her child assessed. The assessment would not have taken place if pressure had not been exerted. I understand the difficulties in this area because many psychologists are deeply involved in dealing with cases of sexual abuse, etc. However, other children's needs are not being catered for in the best way possible. I urge the Minister to rectify this situation.

Urgent consideration must also be given to disadvantaged status which is referred to in the Bill. The fact that Clones junior primary school has not been granted such status — it was given to the senior primary school in the same town — cannot be explained. Clones town and district suffered more than any other area as a result of the Troubles. Border roads were closed and there was an influx of refugees from Northern Ireland. This issue was considered by a committee established by the former Minister, Niamh Bhreathnach, but its proposal did not allow schools with five or more teachers to be reclassified and no recognition was given to special needs. With the hardships suffered by many of those involved, there is a case for such recognition to be given.

A commitment was made to the chairman and committee of Largy College, when that committee was formed, to service the amalgamated VEC and diocesan school and provide a new green field school and sports hall. Five years later, the matter is still being discussed. I am not suggesting this is the fault of the Minister, responsibility lies with successive Administrations. The committee of the college, parents and pupils demand — and deserve — action. The amalgamation has worked extremely well and there is no doubt it could be used as an example for towns similar to Clones to bring about other amalgamations and provide better services and education to rural communities. However, if the promises made to those involved are not honoured, it will be difficult to encourage other towns to proceed with similar amalgamations. There is an urgent need to resolve this matter, not only for the sake of Cavan-Monaghan but also that of other rural areas. This type of partnership must be encouraged.

I welcome the Minister's decision to leave vocational education committees, more or less, in their current form, particularly that of Cavan-Monaghan which is dealt with on a county by county basis. However, I accept there is justification for amalgamations in areas which are served by two vocational education committees. Provision was made for this in the previous legislation and I encourage the Minister to reconsider the situation.

I welcome the fact that work has commenced on the much needed and overdue extension to Ard Scoil Lorgan, Castleblayney. However, every effort must be made to include Inver College, Carrickmacross, in this year's capital programme because the current standard of accommodation there is completely unacceptable.

Many improvements have already been made to Ballybay VEC which is situated in the town where I live. However, as the only secondary school in the area, it deserves to be provided with additional accommodation for both work and play. Good work also continues in secondary schools in Castleblayney but the provision of proper accommodation for sports activities is long overdue at St. Macartan's College in Monaghan town. To this end the authorities at the college have raised a great deal of money — approximately £300,000 — but sanction is urgently required from the Department of Education and Science to allow construction to proceed.

Sport is important. In that context, and in light of the, hopefully, permanent peace initiative recently put in place, St. Macartan's College is involved in sporting activities with schools situated in Bangor and elsewhere in Northern Ireland. If children from these schools visit the college, the only place for them to engage in sporting activities — often on wet days — is outside because the old gymnasium can no longer be used. A proper sports hall must be provided in the near future. The recent grant provided to the collegiate school in the town was much appreciated. However, a new extension programme is necessary and sanction for it is urgently required.

I have referred to these issues to highlight a number of success stories in secondary schools in the Cavan-Monaghan area and to illustrate some of the outstanding problems. For example, there is no VEC or third level institution of any kind in Kingscourt, a sizeable town on the Cavan-Monaghan border. According to independent statistics, the real problem in Cavan-Monaghan is that the number of students pursuing third level education is almost the lowest in the country. The situation will deteriorate further after September 1998 when many of our students attending colleges in Northern Ireland and the UK will be obliged to pay college fees.

I am extremely concerned by the Minister's decision to increase capitation grants from £150 to £250. This increase has been introduced through the back door. When car tax was abolished, we were informed that the £5 levy introduced as a registration fee would be just that. However, car tax remains in place today. On the other hand, I welcome the aid given to students attending other colleges.

The Mifet PLC in Monaghan town is the only institution in the area which provides third level and further education. It has submitted a proposal to sanction its purchase of the premises it currently occupies. This institution must be given proper funding because it is involved in joint projects with colleges and universities in Northern Ireland. Tanagh Outdoor Centre has also been under discussion for many years and recognition must be given to it. Several groups in Monaghan are using the Internet and other mediums for educational purposes at present. The national certificate from Queen's University is being dealt with by the Farney group in conjunction with the VEC.

Above all, however, there is a group of people who must be catered for and given proper funding, namely, those involved in the furniture, engineering and food industries. The latter is the most prominent industry in County Monaghan. These people should not be obliged to travel to Dundalk, Waterford or Kerry. They should be able to attend day and evening classes in their area. Computer education is important and I recognise the fact that the VEC is doing great work through the community groups' mobile training unit to provide part-time students and housewives with the opportunity to pursue courses in this area.

Vocational education committees and teachers play a major role in education. However, I am concerned about the mechanisms used in the past to appoint teachers and others to vocational education committees. Other Members may not agree, but I believe independent bodies, free of political influence, should be established to make such appointments. Our children should be above politics.

Teachers play a major role in community work. Members of this House are often accused of working a short number of days. The same accusation is made against teachers but they do a great deal of work after school hours for the general good of the community.

There is a need for major long-term financial commitment to education. The Celtic tiger economy has been sustained by the fact that we have an educated workforce. People who come to this country are prepared to accept that we may not have the cheapest labour but we have the best educated workforce. In order to feed the Celtic tiger, we must ensure that education is properly financed.

I will conclude shortly as I want to give some time to my colleague. The Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea, has responsibility for school transport. I am aware he is examining this question but some of the school buses being used are unfit for that purpose. These buses are not in use for many weeks during the year and on school days they are only used for perhaps an hour in the morning and evening. The whole question must be examined. Privately owned minibuses and other forms of transport could be used also for school transport.

As another speaker said in the debate last night, the school transport areas should be restructured. Just because a bus travelled down a particular road ten years ago does not mean it should continue to go down the same road today. Buses may have to travel additional miles in a particular area to accommodate more pupils because roads are so dangerous. Pressure is put on couples to have two cars in country areas where it should not be necessary. Privately owned buses could be used to great effect at night which might help to reduce the number of accidents caused by drink driving.

There has been a major improvement in support for disabled persons but the position in rural areas is different from that in cities. Children living close to the various support centres in Dublin can travel without much cost but the opposite is the case in Cavan-Monaghan and other areas where parents often have to drive their children to these centres at great cost to themselves. If they do not have a medical card this travelling can be a major drain on their resources. This area has to be examined.

The Minister said this Bill is only a means to an end. We will all have to work together to ensure education is moved into the next century in the best possible way, and that must be through partnership.

This is an emasculated version of the original Bill. I pay tribute to the former Minister for Education, Niamh Bhreathnach, for making the decision to abolish fees for third level students. That had a significant impact on many middle class families in particular who were burdened with those costs. It is unfortunate that the electorate did not recognise the great achievement in that area.

I raised on the Adjournment last night the question of providing a remedial teacher for three schools in County Limerick and the Minister responded accordingly. In regard to remedial teaching, a great deal of emphasis has been placed on information technology. I do not object to funding being provided for this area but we may be losing out in regard to other basic needs. For example, if 74 per cent of pupils who attend primary schools nationally have the benefit of either a shared or full-time remedial teacher, the other 26 per cent do not have that facility. Approximately 14 or 15 per cent of the cohort of pupils attending these schools may need the benefit of a remedial teacher. If they do not get that service they will go on to second level at an educational disadvantage. The drop out rate from second level education is high and that creates inherent social problems.

The Minister has said that the provision of a remedial teacher for all schools at national level is a priority. If we have 3,227 schools nationally and 2,459 have remedial teachers, that means 768 schools do not have that facility. I welcome the fact that the Minister is making this a priority.

I come from an area where there are special schools in different locations because we have a large number of travellers living in the area. Many of those travellers, some of whom are third generation, have successfully integrated into the community and even resent being called travellers. That is a tribute to them. Many communities continue to experience problems because some travellers do not accept the norms of the settled population. The education process can help to achieve compatibility between the settled and the traveller communities.

I have read many reports on travellers but I would like the Minister or his officials to find out the number of travellers attending special schools who go on to sit the junior and leaving certificate examinations. What happens to the travellers who do not sit these examinations? In many cases they drop out of school. That is a major problem particularly among teenagers in the travelling community. Dropping out of school can lead to other social difficulties. The question of education for travellers must be fully examined.

The Celtic tiger was mentioned by an earlier speaker but we are experiencing skills shortages in certain areas. Some have been identified in the tourism area where special skills are required, particularly in the crafts trade.

The time allotted for the Deputy's side of the House has been exceeded.

I have much more to say but I will have to leave it for another day.

I congratulate the Minister on bringing forward the Bill. There is much talk about the Celtic tiger but second level education was one of the milestones in the birth of the Celtic tiger. In Kanturk, Boherbue or any other part of north Cork, almost 80 per cent of the pupils who complete their leaving certificate go on to third level education. They in turn become the young, well educated workforce that is currently fuelling the Celtic tiger. We owe a great debt to the late Donogh O'Malley and the Department for introducing free education. After 30 years of it the country is doing well.

Education forms the basis of our society, but there are problems with the system, particularly in the primary sector. While third and second level education seem to be well funded, many schools in the primary sector are in a deplorable condition. I call on the Minister to address that. I know he is looking at schools in my constituency with a view to improving conditions there. It is no longer acceptable that young people should be educated in substandard accommodation. We have to put funds into primary level education.

I compliment the Minister on providing computers in schools. Up to a year or two ago I was almost computer illiterate and the average seven to ten year old could teach me how to use a computer. That was one of the benefits of providing computers for schools, and it is an indication of the direction our education system is taking.

As in every other sector, there are always people who are unable to keep up with the standard. There is a great need for the Youthreach projects, and there has been tremendous growth in them. Having a sister who taught on a Youthreach project for five or six years in Mallow, I understand that it was of tremendous benefit particularly to people who dropped out of school at the age of 13 or 14 and who as a result faced marginalisation and other difficulties. Under the Youthreach projects such people can be brought back into the system and educated for different types of work. This area has to be expanded and properly funded and prioritised because people who drop out of the education system early face great difficulty in life.

There is no provision in the Bill for regional education boards, in accordance with the preelection commitment. That has meant tremendous savings, and the money that was to be spent on bureaucracy can be better spent in the classrooms.

In the context of school transport, no other Department has to negotiate such a minefield of rules and regulations. To answer even the smallest query on school transport one would need to consult a senior counsel. It has been said that the only transport service in rural Ireland is the school bus which is in operation for one and a half to two hours morning and evening and is idle for the rest of the day. Such buses, which belong to the State or to a semi-State body, could be used at other times to provide a service. Such a project has been operating in County Clare and it is working quite well. This idea should be explored further.

I want to draw the attention of the Minister to the question of the teaching of civics not only in second level schools but in national schools. During the last presidential election a mock election was conducted in a school in north Cork among a group of 13 and 14 year olds. It transpired that 33 per cent of them did not know a presidential election was taking place. The political parties do not seem to have got the message across. That is worrying. It is true that 13 and 14 year olds think politics is boring, that it is not cool. A few years ago politics was topical in schools but recently it has been neglected. I would encourage the Minister to do anything he can to ensure that schoolgoing children are taught about the whole range of things that are happening outside the school gate. We are supposed to be educating people for life. It is great that they are computer literate and get five or six As in the leaving certificate examination, but they also need to be educated on the workings of the various systems in the country.

I will turn now to the provision of classroom assistants. It is necessary to have a more integrated education system. It is no longer acceptable that children with special needs should have to go to special schools. They should not be singled out or made to feel inferior. They should be integrated into the mainstream education system so that they can mingle and make friends with people in their own locality. It is an area that needs more funding. The Minister should encourage the integration into mainstream schools of more and more children with special needs.

I compliment the Minister on inviting tenders for St. Mary's Secondary School in Charleville. It is a great boost to the area.

There is a lot of building going on in north Cork.

The Minister might do the same in Roscommon.

I am delighted that school is going forward. I compliment the Sisters of Mercy in Charleville on their work. Many of the religious orders have given great service in the area of education over many years.

Deputy Crawford mentioned that teachers, like politicians, are often vilified for not working long hours or because they work only a certain number of days a year. Teachers give a great amount of time and work voluntarily, particularly at second level, in organising sports and other activities. We do not give them sufficient praise for their work and commitment. We should be grateful for it. Teaching means much more than the work done during school hours. My former secondary school won the all-Ireland football championship recently and the matches were played at weekends. Great efforts were made on the part of the teachers to bring about the success. Such efforts are made in every school at primary and secondary level.

I compliment the Minister on the revisions contained in the Bill. The Bill will bring about a great amount of change in the education system. Education is the foundation for the economic and social development we have experienced. The founding fathers of the State put a lot of time, effort and funding into education. Despite the horrors that occurred in some of the educational institutions, overall education in Ireland has stood the test of time. We must try to improve it at every level.

It is important to apply as much funding as possible to education. Although great progress has been made, there is still much work to do. There are many schools which require remedial teachers and many primary schools are structurally underdeveloped. I know the Minister is giving priority to such issues. As much funding as possible must be provided because without a proper education system we will not be able to advance society. Society faces difficulties from drugs and other problems and the only way to solve them is through education. People must be given the opportunity to be educated and to advance themselves, particularly those who are born into disadvantage. In an ideal world we would apply all available resources to that end.

I support any legislative changes which will help as many people as possible to receive a proper and just education. We must improve educational facilities. It will not be possible to do everything in a short space of time but a planned process supported by funds will provide the necessary range of services and facilities over a relatively short period. Education matters because it is the bedrock of our State.

I welcome the establishment of the inspectorate on a statutory basis. However, the Minister will need to strengthen that section of the Bill. Each school which receives State funds ought to have its teachers inspected in the classroom. There are about 40,000 teachers in Ireland and if only 1 per cent of them are not doing their job properly that is 400 teachers, which is a significant figure and puts many students at a disadvantage. If the State is funding a school the inspectorate should have a right to inspect it.

I understand there was a to-do in the newspapers last week when the TUI indicated that it would not accept the whole school evaluation programme. The ASTI indicated that it had no difficulty with it but it does not allow its members to be inspected, only the school management. This matter must be addressed. Students are put under so much pressure to get points for college that if one teacher is not doing his or her job properly the inspectorate should be able to deal with it. I ask the Minister to examine this matter and I will return to it on Committee Stage.

The Minister's predecessor proposed a regional structure which I thought was ludicrous. To put a regional structure on top of the VEC structure would have been overly and unnecessarily bureaucratic. If a regional structure were to be introduced the VEC structure would have be removed. As a member of a VEC, I accept there are difficulties in the system and I am glad the previous Minister addressed some of them, particularly the political problems that arose when vocational education committees interviewed for teaching positions. She introduced a different interviewing system which is welcome. Overall the vocational education committees have done a good job and at a local level they provide a better form of administration than a regional structure. I welcome the Minister's decision to stick with the VEC structure. The Bill does not refer to the importance of the 1930 Act which provided for the establishment of boards of management for community and secondary schools. Neither does it refer to the Act which gave VEC committees a similar management role for vocational schools. This matter must be teased out on Committee Stage. Under the Minister's proposals the body corporate of boards of management can be sued. Under the Bill a board of management could be set up in a VEC school where a VEC committee already acts as a board of management. If a board of management has responsibility for the teachers and finance of a vocational school and a VEC committee has similar responsibilities, who would be sued?

The VEC. We will bring forward a separate Bill on that matter.

I welcome the role given to parents' associations in the Bill. It is important that parents play an active part in the educational process. Free education is a misnomer because parents' groups are busy trying to raise funds for extra curricular activities to assist the educational process. While that is welcome, additional State funding could be provided, particularly for the remedial sector.

I am disappointed the question of school transport was not covered. While I do not know how the matter can be addressed, something must be done. I welcome the report on school transport. Although it would not be a good statement to make outside churches during an election campaign, I believe the day of free school transport has long passed. Most families should be able to contribute towards the school transport system. It is frustrating to be told the school bus route cannot be extended because a national school was in a particular location in, say, 1940. It is very difficult to tell one's constituents that their children cannot avail of the school transport service because of that. Many of those people would willingly pay for a bus service to take their children to the school they wish to attend. School transport is an extremely important part of the educational process and should have been dealt with in the Bill.

I welcome the tenor of the Bill. Education is the foundation of the State and I look forward to debating a number of issues on Committee Stage. I wish to share the remainder of my time with Deputy Kenny.

Acting Chairman

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I have not had an opportunity in recent months to tell the Minister that I know he has an enormous responsibility in the Department of Education and Science. As a junior Minister to the then Minister for Education, Paddy Cooney, I had some experience of Marlborough street in 1986. I had responsibility for school transport and primary and secondary school buildings throughout the country with the exception of County Longford, and we did a reasonably good job at the time.

When speaking in the national Parliament — and the glamour of a Ministry is promoted in the best way possible — one tends to lose sight of the fact that the Minister for Education and Science is the political guardian of the future of this country. The children who are now having their lunch breaks in primary schools throughout the country will grow up in the age of a technological revolution. While there have been rapid changes in the past ten years, the changes in the next ten will be equally important. When the children currently attending primary school reach their teenage years, they will be able to download their favourite music from their personal computers in their homes. They will not have to bother with music shops. In terms of technology, research and innovation the Minister, Deputy Martin, has an enormous political responsibility. A former Minister once used the phrase "going through the Department like a dose of salts". It is not as easy as that.

In a document produced on 1 April, the Small Firms Association stated that 72 per cent of small firms are experiencing recruitment difficulties while the prospective employees of 45 per cent of companies seek to be paid off the books. Is this the type of world for which the Minister, as the political master, is educating our children? The document also states that it is incomprehensible to have 240,000 people receiving social welfare payments while 72 per cent of small firms currently engaged in recruitment are experiencing difficulties filling vacancies.

The historic Agreement reached with the British Government in terms of the future of the island and its people contains a section dealing with the Irish language as a minority language in a European context and refers to its promotion by the British Government and the new council in the North where possible. One of the core values of Fianna Fáil, as espoused by a former Minister Mr. Flynn, was the restoration of the Irish language. While a large number of man hours are spent teaching Irish in schools on a weekly basis, many children cannot speak Irish competently when they finish secondary school. Children attending international schools have no difficulty taking on four or five languages. A message appears to be going through the system, even from some high authorities, telling children to forget about Irish and take up French, Spanish or Italian because Irish will not be of any great value to them. It is only when the tap is turned off that one realises the value of water.

I am a passionate believer, without ramming it down people's throats, of the value of the Irish language. It gives us a unique personality and makes its mark in political, social and economic negotiations and in trade and business on the international front. I was surprised the Irish National Teachers' Organisation wants the Minister to recruit teachers from Northern Ireland who are not proficient in Irish. If that happens, it will be necessary to recruit other teachers to teach Irish classes in those schools? I do not know whether the age old resolution by all Governments to do what we can to have all people speaking the Irish language has been watered down.

One teacher schools are a sore point for those involved. I acknowledge the Minister does not have a magic wand in Marlborough Street and cannot sort it out overnight. However, in respect of the commitment he has given, he should set in train a programme and timetable to deal with it. These teachers are in breach of the Organisation of Working Time Act, 1996. Section 12(1) states:

An employer shall not require an employee to work for a period of more than four hours and 30 minutes without allowing him or her a break of at least 15 minutes.

There is no collective agreement among teachers that they should be exempted, similar to the garda or members of the Defence Forces, and that needs attention.

It is impossible for a trained teacher to spread himself or herself over eight or nine classes encompassing different age groups, standards and levels of competence and to bring the children to a point where they can enter the second level system in as agreeable and competent a fashion as they should. More ominously, I hope an individual will not make a false sexual abuse allegation against a teacher in a one teacher school because there will be no one else in the school to deal with this. For example, people involved with GAA juvenile teams drop children off from training at different houses. They must be careful because of the way the pendulum has swung. If a child gets sick in school, a teacher normally brings three children with him or her to the child's home in case abuse allegations are made. In the case of one teacher schools the teacher has full responsibility for all the children. I hope the Minister will look at this.

I will do that.

If we value the children of the nation equally, they should be given the basis for equal education also.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. The education system has operated and developed in a mainly ad hoc way since its inception. It has lacked focus and direction and the absence of a statutory basis for it is one of the main reasons for this. Therefore, in principle, I welcome the publication of the Bill.

Few Bills introduced in this House have had a more extensive period of gestation than this one. It is a process which my party and, in particular, my party colleague, former Minister, Ms Bhreathnach, were centrally involved. The Labour Party was first to take effective action to establish a statutory basis for our education system, and without our initiative in this matter I very much doubt if legislation of this nature would ever have been produced.

In its preparations to introduce major legislation the Labour Party realised broad and extensive consultation with the partners in education was necessary. The Bill derives from that process, which began with the Green Paper in 1992, was followed by the White Paper on Education, the Education Convention in Dublin Castle and the publication of the first Education Bill by the previous Government. The Minister has had a wealth of research and opinion to draw upon, the envy of any legislator, in producing his Bill. However, it is up to him to pull these various advices together in a coherent and innovative way. He and the Government have failed to do this and have produced anodyne legislation that does not serve the best interests of education.

Many speakers have commented on the value of education, particularly as it relates to our economic performance and I concur fully with these sentiments. As a deputy who represents the northside of Dublin I am acutely aware of the difference education can make in the lives of our youth. Our level of education is one of the driving forces in our current economic success. It has provided companies with a multi-skilled and talented workforce that is the envy of many countries across the globe.

Despite this, it must also be recognised that our education system has failed some children. It has failed to be responsive and imaginative and these failings, which are felt most by children from disadvantaged areas and children with special needs, should have been tackled. The system has refused to recognise for too many years that these children have a right to an education and that the State has a duty to uphold that right.

We have comforted ourselves for too long with the mantra that our education system is among the best in the world. However, it rings hollow for the parents of children with disabilities or serious behavioural problems. Our education system, primarily due to its centralised nature, has not treated such children equally. Their educational needs have too often been pushed to the sidelines, off centre stage. The Bill should have addressed these failings. The Minister has failed to do this and the Bill is a wasted opportunity.

The Bill is rooted in conservatism. It seeks to enshrine the system as it has evolved since the establishment of the Department in 1924 and it firmly places control of that system in the Minister's office in Marlborough Street. It ignores to a large extent the philosophy and language that had come to characterise the debate about education in recent years. Since the publication of the Green Paper the debate about the future of education has revolved around the concepts of transparency, accountability and partnership. However, the Bill pays lip service to these concepts.

The abolition of the proposed regional education boards will prove to be one of the most regressive steps in education and public administration that we have encountered in decades. The philosophy behind the education boards was to devolve real power to a transparent and accountable regional structure. It would have had real power over the delivery of educational services in its area and would have broken the stifling stranglehold the Department has over every decision made in the education system. It would have represented a new departure for education.

The Minister has decided to turn his back on these progressive proposals and keep control of our children's education firmly within a centralised, bureaucratic and, at times, unresponsive Department. Accountability for the delivery of education can come about only through devolution. Regional education boards as outlined in the previous Bill sought to establish this devolution. I refer to one example, that of producing an education plan for a regional board. Under the original Bill directors of education were charged with producing an education plan as soon as they were appointed and at such intervals as may be specified by the Minister. The plan would set out the objectives of the education board for the upcoming three year period, the priorities accorded to these objectives and the means by which they would be met by the board.

The original Bill also provided for extensive negotiation on the plan with the partners in education before it would be adopted by the board. It was then the responsibility of the education board to provide the public, parents, teachers and other partners in the education system with as wide as possible access to the agreed document. The director of education was also obliged to present an annual report on the implementation of the education plan. This would have led to real devolution in our education system and would have allowed for accountability. However, the Bill turns its back on those principles and pays lip service to the notion of devolution and accountability. It is a retrograde step that does not serve our system well. It fails students and parents in many other ways.

That the Bill does not impose a statutory duty on all schools to establish boards of management is an absolute disgrace. It is obvious the Minister is not prepared to tackle all the vested interests. The exclusion of parents and staff from the management of schools is an intolerable situation. It goes against the spirit of partnership in education and, as with so many other aspects of the Bill, enshrines in law the status quo when it should introduce a new dynamism and openness in the education system.

The Bill retreats significantly from the original Bill in its proposals regarding support services. The range of services which the Minister is expected to deliver to students and schools has been severely cut back. It is clear this administration does not believe that schools are in need of management, industrial relations, legal, library and media services.

How any Minister for Education can absolve himself of responsibilities to support library services in schools beggars belief. Even worse than the slashing of support services that the Minister is expected to provide is the other change introduced in section 7 of the Bill. In the original Bill, the Minister for Education was obliged to provide all the support services outlined. In this Bill not only is the number of support services slashed, there is no obligation on the Minister to ensure the remaining services are provided. Under the terms of this Bill the Minister is expected to provide "any or all of the following". This is a significant dilution of the Bill and renders the provision of support services an afterthought rather than an integral part of our developing education system.

The Bill fails to address the serious failings of the education system. There are many areas where our education system fails children, parents and the community at large. Given the buoyancy of our Exchequer revenues, we have never been in a better position to tackle the structural problems that have plagued our education system and failed many children. For the first time in the history of the State we have the resources available to make inroads to the failings of the education system, if the political will to invest this money exists. What we need, and what the Bill should have sought to establish, are coherent and workable structures through which those resources can best be channelled so that they make a real difference to people's lives. The Bill fails to do this.

The problem of disruptive children who are either expelled or suspended from a school is one the Bill seems to ignore. The issue was raised recently at the teacher conferences and by my colleague, Deputy Brian O'Shea, who has pressed the Minister on this matter and it is apparent there are no concrete proposals within the Department to address this issue. The Department cannot even provide us with information to judge the true extent of the problem. It must be widely accepted that the process of expulsion is the worst imaginable way to deal with disruptive children. This short-sighted policy often leads to a young person turning his or her back not only on education but on society in general and beginning a descent into crime and drug abuse. For that reason I would appreciate if the Minister would clarify the position in relation to the legality of expulsions.

I have done so.

I have come across a number of cases in my constituency and in the Dublin area generally where a student has been involved in misbehaviour of varying degrees of seriousness and the school decides to suspend and expel that student. It is virtually impossible for that student to secure a place in another school after expulsion. An extremely tragic case was highlighted in the media in recent days, from which many questions arise. There are many other cases where children drop out and it is impossible to get a place in an alternative school. Are expulsions legal?

I have clarified all those points in response to questions tabled by Deputy O'Shea on the legal situation pertaining to suspensions and expulsions. For example, a child under 15 years of age cannot be expelled from school without the school management first ensuring there is alternative provision for that child. That is the legal position and I have made it clear in replies. There is no mystery about the existing regulations or guidelines concerning the matter.

In the event that alternative places are not available——

Will the Deputy address her remarks through the Chair?

I am interested to have clarification from the Minister on that question.

You have got your clarification. We cannot have Question Time on it now.

The Minister has confirmed it is illegal for a school to expel a child unless alternative accommodation is available.

Up to the age of 15 years.

That is helpful. There is an obvious gap in the system in relation to this issue. There is no alternative option available to many school principals who take the decision to remove a child. I have come across many cases where that decision has been taken and I have some sympathy with schools, especially in difficult areas, which are struggling to maintain standards, their good name and numbers. I have a certain sympathy with principals. My experience is that where children have been expelled from a school, parents visit all the schools in the area but it is virtually impossible to have them placed elsewhere. I would like to go back on a number of the cases I have dealt with in recent years, in light of the Minister's clarification on that point. Has that clarification been communicated to schools because the theory and the practice do not seem to concur?

We can no longer tolerate a system whereby disruptive children are essentially placed on the scrapheap and condemned as failures at a young age. We need to establish early intervention systems where teachers can identify children who are disruptive and, in consultation with the parents of that child, a temporary alternative to the main stream school system should be available. This alternative should have as its goal the early reintegration of the child in the mainstream school. Unless this issue is tackled with the necessary resources and imaginative proposals the problems of teenage delinquency, early school dropouts and juvenile crime will continue to increase. We must tackle these problems at the roots by means of early intervention. It is one of the major challenges facing our education system and, regrettably, one the Minister has chosen to ignore in the Bill.

I wish to refer to three areas in which the Bill is lacking. A great deal of lip service is being paid to the rights of children with disabilities. Those rights would seem to be contingent on resources being made available. That stipulation is mentioned on a number of occasions throughout the Bill. That is not good enough. The Bill purports to make education a right but that right is subject to resources, practicability, ministerial discretion and availability. No other right is subject to such restrictions. There is a view that this Bill could be unconstitutional.

I hope those who work with people with disabilities pursue that aspect of the Bill. It is a disgrace that parents will have to seek redress in the courts in relation to their educational rights. The Bill is seriously lacking in that regard.

As a former teacher of the deaf, I am concerned about the lack of recognition of sign language in the Bill. Those who do not work with the deaf or do not have deaf children or any contact with the deaf community sometimes find it hard to appreciate the importance of sign language. The thinking about this has changed enormously in the past few years. I remember when children were slapped if they used sign language. However, it is not good enough to leave the use of sign language to the discretion of individual teachers or school management. Sign language is an absolute right for deaf people and that right should be enshrined in this Bill. I urge the Minister to consult with the Irish Deaf Society and other interested groups with a view to amending it.

As someone who represents a consitutency which has 10 per cent of all disadvantaged schools — which is a good yardstick of the profile of Dublin north-west — I am disappointed at the lack of progress in extending the Breaking the Cycle scheme and the reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio.

There are still major problems as regards disadvantage and education is one of the key areas in tackling it. This needs to be done in a targeted way, which is not happening at the moment. Despite the progress in third level spending and the IT initiative, children still come to school hungry, to overcrowded classrooms. They do not have parental support and are slipping out of our system at an early stage. I ask the Minister to get serious about tackling that problem.

I am aware of the contributions made on this Bill and that most people think they are experts in some area of education. As Deputy Kenny said, the Minister for Education and Science is the political guardian of the future of our children and therefore our nation. This is a huge responsibility which demands a great commitment. There needs to be an integration of services in the Department of Education and Science because of the different levels of education, the rural-urban divide and the advantaged-disadvantaged divide referred to by Deputy Shortall.

I support the various demands for an increase in the budget allocated by the Department of Finance. There should also be greater integration in community grants to disadvantaged areas, through the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. These grants are relevant to education, both at early and adult level. Budgetary support should be given to an integrated programme for this continuous learning cycle.

We cannot overemphasise the importance of pre-school education. Our school starting age of four years is early when compared with other European countries. There is a huge gap between the early stimulation given to children in advantaged and disadvantaged areas. We must act affirmatively at that level. Some children are on an uneven playing field when compared with those whose parents can afford to send them to Montessori schools and stimulating cre ches and playschools.

It is now understood that the first five years of a child's life is absolutely crucial, both educationally and psychologically. I have heard the startling statistic that we learn two thirds of what we know between zero and five years of age, and perhaps pre-birth. This should galvanise us into making it a priority that all children get the opportunity to build on their spongelike ability to learn. All children should be treated equally and this should continue throughout their schooling.

The first Commission on the Status of Women report was published in 1973. This made an enlightened recommendation which was never followed through by any Government. It suggested that developers of housing estates of above 48 or 50 houses — whether private or local authority — should not be granted planning permission unless they provided a building for use by the community or the Department of Education. This recommendation had a great deal going for it, although it is probably the responsibility of the Department of Environment and Local Government. The cost of such a centre could be spread across a number of community groups and parents at home and those working part-time could help to run it, while continuing their education.

Will the Minister look at the issue of classrooms which are available because of the fall in the birth rate? There are many community groups in areas such as Kilbarrack and Coolock who have utilised empty classrooms to set up adult education classes along with cre ches. This has been hugely successful. One cre che is run by trained staff and trainees. Some people have done their leaving certificate and others have gone on to third level. A study was done of the Kilbarrack project which highlighted how successful such a scheme can be. It is a matter of integrating facilities which already exist.

Valuable classroom space is also lost after school hours. No one expects teachers who have run the gamut for hours to continue working. However, in Italy, classrooms remain open and other staff supervise study by children who might normally be wandering the streets, at home alone or who may be unable to study at home. One of the problems is that in cramped conditions with background noise from a television or video, children find it difficult to study. This places them at a huge disadvantage. In Italy supervised study time forms part of teacher training to give trainee teachers hands-on experience of dealing with children while still in training college prior to their entry into the classroom. This allows children to study in a structured way and to enter the examination room with confidence.

When I explored this issue previously I was informed that there would be problems with insurance. In this context a State insurance policy could be considered. We are all aware of the demands on the Minister and the Education budget. This debate presents an opportunity for lateral thinking to ensure the available facilities are used to best advantage.

The findings of research into the development of rural areas commissioned by the Joint Committee on Women's Rights with particular reference to the effects of isolation indicate the need for an integrated transport system. It has been suggested that school buses should also be used to transport the elderly in rural areas to the post office or library. This is a wonderful idea. Although there may be problems with insurance, it would help older people to stay in touch. This recommendation is worthy of consideration.

We have a responsibility to the disabled and children with emotional and behavioural problems. The Minister has initiated a pilot programme under which special care assistants will be appointed to support teachers in bringing children with special needs into mainstream education. This is a wonderful initiative. The policy now is to treat all children equally. This places special demands on teaching staff. The capitation grant payable in respect of pupils in special schools is much higher than that payable in respect of pupils in normal primary schools. This runs counter to the policy of integration. Will the Minister look at this issue?

Consequent on the Anglo-Irish Agreement the Minister should consider making available special grants or investing in teacher training courses on conflict resolution. On leaving college newly qualified teachers are expected without the necessary skills to cope with aggressive behaviour in difficult circumstances. This places extraordinary demands on them. With the appropriate skills they can be extraordinarily effective, particularly in group sessions, and thus help prevent bullying and expulsions and preserve and protect the authority of the teacher in the classroom.

In the context of the forthcoming referenda, a civics course should be provided at primary level to give pupils an appreciation of how politics works.

I thank all the Deputies who contributed so constructively to the debate on this important Bill. I congratulate in particular Deputy Barnes who in a constructive contribution expressed some bright ideas on issues about which I am sympathetic, particularly early education. About three weeks ago there was a major forum on early education at which for the first time every provider was brought together under the one roof. It was a remarkable week during which there was intensive research, a presentation of papers and an exchange of views between the different groups involved. It was chaired by Professor Houlihan who will produce a report, I hope, within six weeks which will provide a road map for the future. I also hope to produce a White Paper on early education by the end of the year. I agree with the Deputy that we learn more in the first three years of life than in the rest of our lives. Positive stimulation of children in the early years is critical to their subsequent performance.

The basic legal structure which provides for our schools raises many fundamental issues about the education system. What is it that gives the system its inequalities? In the face of many changes, how can we protect its core strengths? We need to recognise and tackle the many challenges which face us now and in the future.

This Bill was produced following a process of consultation, the most intensive ever undertaken by the Department. This is reflected by the fact that it has received a welcome from most groups.

Deputies have addressed a wide range of issues. In the time available, I am not in a position to deal with most of the detailed points. I look forward to discussing them fully on Committee Stage. I will respond to a number of the key themes running through the contributions of Deputies, particularly Opposition Deputies. These include the basic role which should be played by the legislation and the issues of bureaucracy and State control.

We should be clear on the purpose of the Bill, what it will do and, almost as important, what it will not do. Like similar legislation, the Bill will provide a framework for the continued development of the education system. It will provide a structure within which the most successful elements of the system will be captured and within which the system can continue to develop successfully.

This is enabling legislation. It will enable us to develop the education system for the continuing benefit of all the people. The other side of this is that it is simply absurd to expect legislation to define executional minutiae. The idea that we should give direct and explicit statutory recognition, powers and resources to every element of the system is not credible. This would make the system almost unworkable in practice and would directly undermine the flexibility which has enabled so many innovations in the past. As I have demonstrated by, for example, including the National Curriculum and Assessment Council and examinations in this Bill, I have no problem with making statutory provision for the key pillars of Irish education, but this must be done within reason.

I repeat the point I made at the start of this debate that legislation cannot solve all our problems. Resources are, and will continue to be, central to resolving many of the key education issues. The distinction between the proper roles of legislation and other public policy initiatives is crucial, and I hope that Deputies will pay particular attention to this as we embark on more detailed discussions of the Bill's provisions.

Without a sound statutory basis, we will continue to experience a lack of clarity of roles in the education system, transparency and accountability will be ever more difficult to assure and the system, which has stood us in good stead in the past, will risk foundering in the future in the context of the increasingly complex circumstances in which it will operate.

Let me summarise again what I hope will be gained from this Bill. The Bill will give statutory backing to the education system and will provide an enabling framework on which the system can organically build while protecting key strengths. By subjecting the system to scrutiny by the Oireachtas, it will make it transparent and accountable. The Bill will ensure that all the partners in education will know clearly their respective rights, roles and responsibilities and those of the other partners. It will make the rules governing our system accessible and intelligible to all and it will give the system legal certainty and administrative clarity.

While many Deputies approached the Bill in a constructive manner, this was, unfortunately, not the case with some contributors, in particular Deputies O'Shea, Broughan and Shortall. They accused me of taking a minimalist approach, underpinned by cuteness as distinct from the flair, incisiveness and decisiveness which they ascribed to the defeated proposals of their own party. Much of their approach revolved around the idea that the abandoned and discredited regional education boards would have provided for some major advance in education.

It would be worthwhile to examine these claims properly. The proposed boards were, as I said at the start of this debate, fundamentally flawed, both educationally and financially. I still find it curious that a model based on countries with many times our population should have been proposed. It was claimed that I have moved to strengthen the existing model of control, described by Deputy Broughan as the centralised monster of Marlborough Street. In making these statements the Deputies chose to ignore the fact that this Bill specifically creates a more transparent and inclusive system, without requiring a massive bureaucratic imposition. The proposals which they are still wedded to would have actually extended and deepened ministerial control in all elements of the education system. In this, it would have pursued a discredited agenda being steadily rejected throughout the world.

The great myth of these regional boards is that they involved some sort of decentralising of power. Even a cursory glance at the proposal shows how they would have provided the mechanism for strengthening central control. The composition of each board would have been decided by the Minister; the policies followed by each board would have been decided by the Minister; the resources allocated to each board would have been decided by the Minister; and decisions made by each board could have been appealed to the Minister. In turn, the boards were to have extended control over schools and the power to oblige them to undertake a range of administrative procedures, the execution of which, while helpful in theory, would have imposed a significant burden on individual schools.

In attacking my proposals and my approach to legislation, the Labour Party has variously lauded its proposals as establishing real partnership, expanding choice, promoting decentralisation and supporting diversity. It would also solve all problems in the areas of school accommodation, special needs, attendance and disadvantage. In all, its proposals were to be an incomparable panacea. I suggest that they actually represented a patent elixir of the type which used to be hawked around the American South. In each of the areas for which it lauds its proposals, the substance of the proposals is fatally compromised.

There is more than a little hint of Alice in Wonderland in the claims made on behalf of the regional boards. Their promoters have, in the face of overwhelming arguments, stuck to Humpty Dumpty's approach when he said, "Words mean exactly what I choose them to mean, no more and no less".

One of the most remarkable claims is the idea that they would have promoted partnership. This simply cannot be reconciled with a proposal founded on extending ministerial powers. Even today I have been attacked for failing to introduce ministerial compulsion in the area of boards of management. I point out to the House again that I successfully concluded an agreement between all the partners in education for the establishment and election of inclusive boards of management at primary level.

I have no doubt that this approach will lead to the same result at second level. However, I cannot understand how compulsion in this area, or the aggressive policy advocated during this debate by some contributors, can be reconciled with partnership. We cannot have it both ways. If we believe in the concept of partnership then there can be no imposition of a uniform conformist model.

This form of compulsion is an enemy of the diversity which some Deputies have been paying lip service to and would, in all likelihood, have failed a constitutional challenge. In fairness to Deputy McGrath, he made a telling contribution yesterday when he supported the dropping of that section which would have involved compulsion in relation to school boards of management.

It is a pity that the Labour Party is still wedded to a failed model rejected overwhelmingly by the partners in education and that it has failed to develop its thinking in the same sort of way that, as Deputy Bruton rightly pointed out, the British Labour Party has. Its agenda, which may be flawed in certain executional ways, is to move towards a model closer to ours.

The approach of the Deputies is a very conformist one which seems to be advocating change as an end in itself rather than as a means to an end. This is in many ways reminiscent of the old politician's syllogism, "Something must be done; this is something, therefore, we must do this".

I would suggest that real radicalism is to have the confidence to get involved in constructive partnership. On the issue of diversity in school choice, I would suggest to Deputies in the Labour Party that they ask the multi-denominational schools movement for their opinion of the radicalism of the last ten months versus that of the previous four and a half years in relation to that issue.

Some people like to adopt the policy that if you keep repeating something often enough people might start to believe you. This is the case in relation to the inflated claims made for the regional education boards in the areas of special needs and helping the disadvantaged. The boards would have made no substantive contribution on either issue. The allocation of up to £40 million to the administrative cost of establishing these boards would have undermined the ability of the system to provide the resources so badly needed in these areas. The bottom line in terms of disability and disadvantage is resources.

I would like to reiterate a couple of points on special needs education arising from comments made during the debate. Nothing in this Bill seeks to, or could even attempt to seek to, undermine constitutional rights in relation to access to education. It has been suggested that the inclusion of specific references to resources undermines this position. This is absolutely not the case. These references are typical to all types of legislation and the exact same phrases in relation to resources were in the Education (No. 1) Bill advanced by my predecessor, Niamh Bhreathnach. The proposals of Opposition Deputies conformed completely to this approach. The constitutional right is sacrosanct and is a given in terms of the formulation and presentation of legislation to the House. In no way can this legislation undermine the fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution of access to education for all.

Deputies Broughan and Shortall said that I have undertaken no initiative in the area of disadvantage. To that I would say that both Deputies simply have not been paying attention. One of my first actions last summer was to provide an extra 1,000 places for some of the most disadvantaged through the Youthreach programme and traveller training schemes. I have abolished examination fees for medical card holders. I have extended maintenance grants to post leaving certificate students as and from next September. I have secured tax relief for donations to disadvantaged schools and I have doubled the funding for adult literacy programmes from £2 million to £4 million. I have significantly increased funding for primary books schemes and I have launched a scheme directed at 8-15 year olds in danger of leaving school early.

The new institute of technology at Blanchardstown will have the unique mission of reaching out to one of the most disadvantaged communities in the country. I have also outlined policy priorities in driving forward educational opportunity at all levels of the system. These are concrete actions which will make a more significant contribution than the creation of a series of £40 million ministerial quangos.

My intention and that of the Government is to focus on people's needs and parental choice rather than on bureaucratic or administrative structures. I intend to channel such resources as are available for education directly into schools and other education institutions. In the debate, many speakers pointed out how sorely these funds are needed in the classroom. That is where I intend to see them applied.

I aim to encourage the growth of local partnerships and co-operation in education, which already exist, and to enable them to develop in an organic way as the needs of communities require. This does not need prescriptive statutory provisions which could in practice restrict development or involve the expenditure of scarce resources on bureaucratic talking shops. Instead, these local partnerships will allow for communities to have a say in how the local education system will be run.

I would like to make a few comments concerning the position of parents in the Bill's provisions. I must do this in view of the unwarranted comments that the Bill does not recognise sufficiently the rights of parents. Parents play a uniquely important role in the education system, both at national and individual school level. The vitally important role of parents is fully recognised in the Bill, which contains a number of specific provisions to protect and promote parents' rights in the education system and to ensure their continued participation in their children's education.

Parental choice in education is an important issue. One of the express objects of the Bill is the promotion of the right of parents to send their children to a school of their choice, having regard to patrons' rights and the effective and efficient use of resources. At national level, the national parents' councils will be given statutory recognition and a statutory role. Together with the other education partners, the councils will be consulted on matters of national education policy. At individual school level, the Bill gives parents a statutory right to establish parents' associations in schools. Boards of management must actively promote the formation of parents' associations and the inspectorate will have a statutory duty to advise parents' associations.

The Bill also provides that parents will have the right of access to records relating to their children's educational progress, that they must be consulted when the school is drawing up the school plan and that a copy of the plan must be made available to all parents. Schools must establish mechanisms to inform parents of matters relating to the operation and performance of the school. Parents may appeal to the Minister against decisions of teachers and boards of management which relate to a number of serious matters, particularly expulsions, suspensions and refusals to enrol, other than for reasons of lack of accommodation in schools.

The involvement of parents is an important element of the partnership approach to education which I fully endorse. This Bill reflects the important role of parents in education and gives statutory recognition to that role.

A number of speakers mentioned that the Bill does not contain provisions on further education. That is not the case. One of the objects of the Bill is to ensure that, having regard to available resources, all people should have available a level and quality of education appropriate to their needs. This includes those who wish to take part in further education. Furthermore, the definition of centres for education includes institutions which provide further education. One of the Minister's specific functions under the Bill is to plan and co-ordinate the provision of education in centres for education and to provide funding to these centres.

Pressure of time means I cannot discuss all the details and issues raised during this debate. We are concerned about increasing resources for children with special needs and, more importantly, to help to integrate them into mainstream education. That is and will be a significant demand on resources in the future, but it is something we must facilitate. I have had consultations with many of the groups representing people with disabilities prior to and since the publication of this Bill with a view to tabling amendments on Committee Stage. We will table amendments on Committee Stage dealing with the disability area and the other areas highlighted during this debate and by the various groups and partners who have consulted us since the publication of the Bill. These amendments will help to fine tune and strengthen it from their perspectives.

I thank all Deputies for their contributions and I look forward to the continuation of the debate in a constructive and comprehensive way on Committee Stage. I hope to be able to respond to the various amendments and issues the Deputies will raise.

Question put and agreed to.