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

Debate resumed on amendment No. 57:
In page 11, between lines 31 and 32, to insert the following:
"(c) shall appoint an Appeals Committee to investigate complaints of persons directly affected regarding the provision of education or support services, and report thereon to the Minister.".
—(Deputy R. Bruton).

Deputy Richard Bruton is in possession. He is replying to the debate on amendments Nos. 57 and 58 which were discussed together.

The Minister indicated that he was not willing to accept amendments Nos. 57 and 58 on the grounds that, while he recognised serious defects in provision particularly for children with special needs, recognised that the Department was taking statutory obligations in this area and saw the need perhaps further down the road for some mechanism for asserting the rights of parents, he seemed to indicate that he was not willing to include it in the Education (No. 2) Bill, 1997, the only major legislation which we will see dealing with education on a broad base for the rest of this decade. I would regard it as wholly unacceptable and certainly not in the spirit of partnership in education for the Minister to deny a right of appeal to parents in respect of crucial issues in relation to education provision. It is somewhat ironic to find that the Minister is willing to grant to parents a right of appeal in respect of the activities of a school but he is not willing to grant them the same right of appeal in respect of the activities of the Minister and other agencies of the Department. I would contend that the main problems of parents are not with the school in the first instance; they are essentially problems with the level of provision to the school to allow it to provide the adequate and appropriate education for children. To deny access to an appeals mechanism for parents and others in respect of crucial things, such as whether the Department is meeting its statutory obligation to provide appropriate education and whether it is meeting its constitutional obligation to provide free primary education, leaves a huge gap in this Bill.

There is an element of hypocrisy about the talk of partnership in education. It is like the story in "Animal Farm". When the pigs developed their taste for power they changed the slogan from "four legs good, two legs bad" to "four legs good, two legs better" and reinstated themselves as two legged rulers of the farm. The same is true of the attitude to parents in the education system. We talk of the importance of the role of parents but when it comes to granting them the normal rights that a citizen would expect from Government provisions, we deny them. By contrast, the ESB, FÁS, and the Eastern Health Board have complaints commissioners. Similarly, the Ombudsman operates for administrative issues, but in what goes to the heart of provision for well over one million children in our education system, the Minister will not allow an appeals mechanism over areas for which he has responsibility, such as the issue of adequate provision. He is, however, prepared to allow such a mechanism for complaints about teachers in the classroom.

I do not accept the Minister's argument, nor do I accept that while he sees merit in my proposals, he may at some stage provide an appeals mechanism that will look at the needs of children with special needs. We debated this matter on Committee Stage. These amendments are not a surprise to the Minister. It was well flagged that this was an issue of considerable concern to the House and that we wanted an appeal mechanism to go beyond the present school based provisions. It is unacceptable for the Minister to indicate at this stage that while he sees merit in our proposal he will not include it in the Bill.

This is our last chance to propose changes to this legislation. Its provisions will be set for a lengthy period. It is unacceptable for the Minister to attempt to palm us off with expressions of good will, no doubt sincerely meant. They will not have proper statutory effect until they are underpinned by legislation.

On Committee Stage the Minister suggested that the Ombudsman could play a role. We know the Ombudsman is not qualified to make an assessment on whether a child with a special education need is getting the appropriate level of service to which he ought to be entitled. That is not the task of the Ombudsman. He does not enter into policy issues. He deals with maladministration and can at times encroach on things that are grossly unfair. Indeed, he has brought to the attention of the Dáil extraordinary provisions and there have been changes as a consequence. I commend him for that. However, for the Minister to suggest that the need for a proper appeal mechanism for parents in respect of the education system can be dealt with through the Ombudsman's Office is to short change the House on this issue.

Amendment No. 57 is an important issue of principle. The Minister must think again. I understand he will introduce the Bill to the Seanad. He may need time to incorporate an amendment of this kind, which he could then introduce in the Seanad. However, I will not accept that we operate on the basis that the Minister will at some stage see fit to introduce something.

Is the amendment being pressed?

Two amendments have been taken together.

There is no provision for two speakers to reply to the debate. Deputy O'Shea and the Minister have already spoken and the Deputy who moved the amendment has now replied. Is the amendment being pressed?

The Minister has not signalled if he will do anything in the Seanad.

It is not open to the Minister to speak again.

Amendment put.
The Dáil divided: Tá, 46; Níl, 71.

  • Barnes, Monica.
  • Higgins, Michael.
  • Barrett, Seán.
  • Howlin, Brendan.
  • Bell, Michael.
  • McCormack, Pádraic.
  • Bradford, Paul.
  • McDowell, Derek.
  • Browne, John (Carlow-Kilkenny) .
  • McGahon, Brendan.
  • Bruton, John.
  • McGinley, Dinny.
  • Bruton, Richard.
  • McGrath, Paul.
  • Burke, Ulick.
  • Mitchell, Jim.
  • Carey, Donal.
  • Mitchell, Olivia.
  • Cosgrave, Michael.
  • Neville, Dan.
  • Crawford, Seymour.
  • Noonan, Michael.
  • Creed, Michael.
  • O'Shea, Brian.
  • Currie, Austin.
  • Penrose, William.
  • Deenihan, Jimmy.
  • Perry, John.
  • Dukes, Alan.
  • Quinn, Ruairí.
  • Durkan, Bernard.
  • Rabbitte, Pat.
  • Farrelly, John.
  • Sargent, Trevor.
  • Finucane, Michael.
  • Sheehan, Patrick.
  • Fitzgerald, Frances.
  • Shortall, Róisín.
  • Gilmore, Éamon.
  • Stagg, Emmet.
  • Hayes, Brian.
  • Stanton, David.
  • Higgins, Jim.
  • Timmins, Billy.
  • Higgins, Joe.
  • Upton, Pat.

Níl

  • Ahern, Bertie.
  • Keaveney, Cecilia.
  • Ahern, Dermot.
  • Kelleher, Billy.
  • Ahern, Michael.
  • Kenneally, Brendan.
  • Ahern, Noel.
  • Killeen, Tony.
  • Andrews, David.
  • Kirk, Séamus.
  • Ardagh, Seán.
  • Kitt, Michael.
  • Aylward, Liam.
  • Kitt, Tom.
  • Brady, Johnny.
  • Lenihan, Brian.
  • Brady, Martin.
  • Lenihan, Conor.
  • Brennan, Matt.
  • Martin, Micheál.
  • Brennan, Séamus.
  • McCreevy, Charlie.
  • Briscoe, Ben.
  • McDaid, Jim.
  • Browne, John (Wexford) .
  • McGennis, Marian.
  • Byrne, Hugh.
  • McGuinness, John.
  • Callely, Ivor.
  • Molloy, Robert.
  • Carey, Pat.
  • Moloney, John.
  • Collins, Michael.
  • Moynihan, Donal.
  • Cooper-Flynn, Beverley.
  • Moynihan, Michael.
  • Coughlan, Mary.
  • Ó Cuív, Éamon.
  • Cowen, Brian.
  • O'Dea, Willie.
  • Cullen, Martin.
  • O'Donoghue, John.
  • Daly, Brendan.
  • O'Flynn, Noel.
  • de Valera, Síle.
  • O'Hanlon, Rory.
  • Dempsey, Noel.
  • O'Keeffe, Ned.
  • Doherty, Seán.
  • O'Kennedy, Michael.
  • Ellis, John.
  • O'Malley, Desmond.
  • Fahey, Frank.
  • O'Rourke, Mary.
  • Fleming, Seán.
  • Power, Seán.
  • Flood, Chris.
  • Roche, Dick.
  • Fox, Mildred.
  • Ryan, Eoin.
  • Hanafin, Mary.
  • Wade, Eddie.
  • Harney, Mary.
  • Wallace, Dan.
  • Haughey, Seán.
  • Wallace, Mary.
  • Healy-Rae, Jackie.
  • Walsh, Joe.
  • Jacob, Joe.
  • Woods, Michael.
  • Wright, G. V.
Tellers: Tá, Deputies Barrett and Stagg; Níl, Deputies Brennan and Power.
Amendment declared lost.

I move amendment No. 58:

In page 11, between lines 31 and 32, to insert the following:

"(c) shall appoint an Appeals Committee to investigate any area where the needs of studentshave not been adequately addressed.".

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 59:

In page 11, between lines 31 and 32, to insert the following:

"(5) The Minister shall direct each local authority to establish and education welfare committee with such number of education welfare officers as may be prescribed, to co-ordinate the statutory and other agencies concerned with the welfare of children in their functional area.".

This amendment gives a further function to the Minister for Education and Science and strikes at the heart of the major fault of this Bill, which is the lack of local or regional structures in the administration of education. I have advanced the argument more than once during this debate that the Department remains a monolith in the face of the concept of subsidiarity which we voted for in the Maastricht and Amsterdam Treaties. The Minister is setting his face against any real development of partnership in the education system.

Last week I quoted from the report of the special review group on education and the following was of great interest to the House:

Following consultation with interested parties, the Government shall establish administrative structures throughout the country and they should have responsibility for co-ordination of services to students with disabilities and/or other education needs in this area.

The Minister has chosen to disregard that. This amendment seeks the introduction of an education welfare committee in each local authority area. Obviously the composition of these committees is important in terms of their effectiveness. One useful model was suggested by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform — that a senior official from the various statutory and non-statutory agencies which deal with dysfunctional children would be part of this committee.

However, the essence of the committee would be that parents can share responsibility for their children if they are failing in their parental duties, whether they are incompetent or neglectful, if their children are not benefiting from education and their social development and behaviour patterns are leading to a wasted life. The problem is that children behaving dysfunctionally in school are not benefiting from education and are minimising the potential benefit to other children.

There are various support agencies but no one has final or statutory responsibility. The education welfare officer could call other agencies to book and ask what has been done for a child and if a successful plan is being implemented. We are fooling ourselves if we do not do something of this nature. The Minister has not disputed that discipline is deteroriating in schools and the system is in denial. Schools will not broadcast their difficulties because it undermines confidence in them and they are often in competition with each other for pupils. The usual problems arise at the end of each school year in terms of retention numbers and the demographic dividend.

Society and the Department are not facing up to this problem. I have already presented my arguments as regards the appalling fact that there is an onus on the boards of management of schools to inform the Department when there is an expulsion. I made suggestions about this last week to which the Minister did not respond. This can be resolved without recourse to legislation. It is appropriate and necessary, and more importantly, is in the interest of children at risk, the better operation of schools and the good of society at large. Ministers do not lose anything by responding positively in this regard.

The Minister indicated that the school attendance legislation will resolve these problems. Is that an appropriate title for the legislation the Minister intends to introduce? Using the word "attendance" gives it a narrow focus. The problem with the children I wish to cater for by introducing this amendment is often what they do in school rather than absenteeism. The Minister has shown no inclination to look at local and regional structures. He referred to county fora which would effectively be for consultation purposes. However, in the context of this amendment and this debate, the Minister should give a solid commitment of his intentions to resolve these problems.

This is the most important legislation which has come before the House during my tenure. The Minister has a problem in that I repeat certain arguments. However, I will continue to repeat them because there is a fundamental flaw in this legislation which should be properly addressed, specifically in terms of this amendment. Many dysfunctional children can be identified before they start school or at an early stage at school. How can the principal, teachers or board of management of a school intervene when they become aware that a child is on the road to nowhere in circumstances where the parents are unable to cope? Health boards, local authorities and voluntary agencies provide support, including finance on a weekly basis, but they act independently of each other. As schools are not in the position to co-ordinate their activities, the officer concerned should have the power to act. The earlier children with special needs are identified, including those with an intellectual, physical or sensory disability, those suffering from educational disadvantage and those who are gifted, the more successful we will be.

The schemes in operation do not extend to a sufficient number of schools. Because of the lack of a proper schools psychological service parents are being forced to avail of the services of psychologists in the private sector to have conditions such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and attention deficit disorder diagnosed. This is alarming and wrong. A psychological assessment should be made at the time of entry to school and at two year intervals thereafter. This is not primarily a matter for the Department of Education and Science. I am aware of a 13 year old who has finally been diagnosed as dyslexic. That is an appalling commentary on the system. There are a number of centres to which parents can go to have their child assessed. In general, however, schools should have the capacity to make the required assessments to identify all the children who need special attention. Tomorrow I will meet distraught parents who contacted me earlier this week about the diagnosis which has finally been made in the case of their children. In some health boards the psychological assessment is made by a clinical psychologist as opposed to an educational psychologist. This means that it does not have the same value. If we continue as we are, the position will continue to worsen. It is appalling that, because of the lack of proper support services, the principal, teachers and board of management of a school do not know the underlying causes of a child's behavioural pattern.

Children who fail at school for social and environmental reasons are also being neglected. Because of the lack of co-ordination of State support services results are not as good as they should be. The Department of Education and Science should give a lead by adopting a holistic approach and providing the support families need. Parents should be taught how to handle various situations. On a radio programme on Monday a mother described her experiences with her child who was being bullied at school. She felt guilty because she had failed to recognise what was happening and did not react in the best way at various times. That is true of all parents. Parents who have not had the benefit of substantial education may have to deal with a child who requires very advanced parenting skills. This is the context in which I tabled my amendment.

I ask the Minister not to close his mind to the idea of partnership at a local level. Sometimes parents are seen as a necessary evil but the Minister is one of those who know this is not the case. Parents are a great resource and they must be involved in the education system at a more fundamental level than the Bill allows. Mechanisms can be found for the establishment of education welfare committees although this may require an extensive election process. The base from which parents are drawn for membership of committees is sometimes too narrow but partnership is fundamental to the system I propose. It would involve people of competence, ability and commitment from the various sectors deciding on necessary supportive actions, dealing with individual cases through the education welfare officers and putting support programmes in place. Some of these programmes could continue for a number of years and not all cases will be successfully resolved but unless we take a holistic approach to solving difficulties this problem — the worst one we face in the education system — will not be solved.

This amendment seeks to establish an education welfare committee in each local authority area to co-ordinate the statutory and other agencies in dealing with the welfare of children within that area. It is a welcome amendment and deserves serious consideration. Our education welfare service is administered under the old School Attendance Act some of whose provisions are antiquated. The penalty imposed by the Act, for example, is a £5 fine and there are many serious weakness in its legislative development. Most significantly, for five out of six pupils in the country there is neither a school attendance nor an education welfare service. This amendment seeks to fill that gap by establishing in every county an education welfare committee and officers charged with responsibility for school attendance and with the wider issues surroundiing non-attendance. The amendment is desirable and worthwhile because it underlines this huge gap in education welfare services for people who run the risk of dropping out of school and who need more than a school with conventional services can offer.

The amendment also seeks to co-ordinate various bodies. Many attempts to address school attendance issues are bedevilled by the lack of structures to bring together Garda juvenile liaison officers, health board officers, school attendance officers and so on. Added value can be achieved without additional resources by co-ordinating the work of these bodies. The amendment seeks to do that at county level. It is not essential that this be done at county level. In some cases, for example in County Dublin, the sub-county level might be more appropriate. The idea of establishing co-operation across bodies who, although they have a bearing on school performance, currently operate independently is very clear. I am encouraged to see the development of loose coalitions of such groups, often centred around individual schools, but this development is on anad hoc basis and is not underpinned by any legislative provision.

I have no doubt the Minister will say his education welfare Bill is a major priority in the Department. However, it has slid repeatedly in the ranks of priority published in the House and we wonder when the Bill will see the light of day. The Taoiseach has, on several occasions, drawn our attention to magnificent new research and developments of concepts and provisions being undertaken in the Department and we await those provisions with interest. However, I hazard a guess that the Bill, for which heads were drawn up by the previous Government, will not make a dramatic improvement. The main change will be a response to the Minister's decision not to establish regional education boards which were at the heart of the previous Government's approach.

The amendment raises important issues and I hope it commends itself to the Minister in some form.

I do not propose to accept the amendment which would not achieve the progress which Deputy O'Shea and Deputy Bruton suggest. It states that the Minister shall direct each local authority to establish an education welfare committee. The Minister does not have the authority to direct local authorities to establish such committees. I am not convinced that an education welfare committee established under the auspices of a local authority is the best vehicle to deal with the issues highlighted by the Deputies. I am equally concerned about those issues and equally committed to advancing solutions to them but the mechanism proposed in the amendment is flawed. The mere establishment of such committees will not solve these problems. Further-more, local authorities are undergoing considerable change in terms of their committee structures and of their liaison with community groups and the amendment does not dovetail with the developments in local government reform.

My strategy for dealing with school absences, under-performance and educational disadvantage is to bring a number of inputs together. On coming to office I commissioned a steering committee on the establishment of a national educational psychological service which I believe will be critical in dealing with the issues I have mentioned. The steering committee produced a concise report with clear recommendations in terms of establishing a national educational psychological service board, which would be at one remove from the Department and which would have as its sole function the provision of educational psychological services to schools as well as advising schools on developing policies. It also recommended that another 131 psychologists would be required over the next five years to meet the needs of the system and give a meaningful response to the needs of students both at primary and secondary level.

The home-school liaison service is particularly important in terms of early school leaving and the involvement of parents with schools, particularly in areas where there is significant educational disadvantage. For some reason that escapes me, the previous Government did not pursue on a consistent basis the home-school liaison service. The service was established in 1991 by the then Minister, Deputy O'Rourke, and where it has existed it has been a success. My aim is to ensure that by next September every disadvantaged primary school will have a home-school liaison teacher. It is regrettable that we are not in the position today in which every school has a home-school liaison teacher because that is important in terms of linking parents to the issues that surround early school leaving, poor retention figures in certain areas and difficulties children may be experiencing with the school system.

We intend to publish an education (school attendance) and welfare service Bill. Many of the issues Deputy O'Shea outlined in terms of early school leaving, children experiencing difficulty or the co-ordination of agencies — that there would have to be a person or a board to co-ordinate the various agencies in the interests of the child's educational welfare — will be addressed in the Bill we intend to publish. The Cabinet has approved the heads of the Bill and it is now with the draftsman's office. We are pursuing that matter with speed. Issues such as the obligation on schools to keep records of suspensions and expulsions and identify children experiencing difficulty at an early age will be covered by the Bill.

We do not envisage that the school attendance and welfare service will be located in local authorities; it is better that it be developed in an educational context and that welfare officers would be both the catalysts for the co-ordination of the service but also the protagonists on behalf of the child. They will assist the child to remain in school. It is not just about a punitive approach to children who do not attend school but identifying the underlying problems that have led to poor attendance. We must try to intervene effectively with new programmes to assist the child to remain in school.

I am committed to partnership in education at local level. One of the best innovations I have witnessed recently is the area partnerships throughout the country. The education subcommittees of those area partnerships provide a good model of area partnership, not just between parents and educational interests but between the wider community and educational interests. The concept of the area partnerships is driven by economic and employment regeneration of an area and it is interesting that almost all the partners in these area partnerships identify education as a critical factor in terms of the social and economic regeneration of an area. That is a model I am anxious to promote because some area partnerships have done much good work for education and for schools.

We had a long debate on Second and Committee Stages on the merits or demerits of the regional boards system. As Deputies know, I am against the establishment of regional boards and I said that during the general election campaign before I came to office. I am not disposed to reintroducing the concept of regional education boards in legislation because in many ways that concept put a stop to a great deal of progress. We spent two or three years debating these boards and in the meantime an educational psychological service or school attendance service was not put in place. Many other issues were pushed into the background while this panacea for all our ills, namely, regional education boards was to come via legislation. The stock reply I received to numerous parliamentary questions on the matter was that this service would be introduced once the regional education boards were established. I want more direct intervention. I am moving forward in terms of a psychological and school attendance service and other areas such as home-school liaison and remedial teachers which will have a real impact on a child in difficulty.

I call Deputy O'Shea to reply to the debate.

I understand I have two minutes to reply now and I can then sum up following the intervention of other speakers who also have two minutes to reply. I asked the Ceann Comhairle about this earlier because there was some confusion about the matter.

Acting Chairman

That is correct, Deputy, but I do not believe other speakers want to come in again. As we have a large number of amendments to be discussed, perhaps the Deputy might conclude the debate now.

A point made by the Minister in his reply concerning the Minister directing a local authority brings us back to the lack of a permanent education structure either at local or regional level. There are precedents in the local authority system, for instance, the school attendance committees and the vocational education committees set up by the local authorities. The concept, therefore, is not an alien one. I drafted the amendment in its current form because there was no other local structure I could dovetail into in terms of advancing the concept.

Some of the points the Minister made on the provisions he envisages are welcome but when we talk about area partnerships, Leader projects, etc., we must remember that they involve a whole plethora of organisations. I am seeking a clear focus on education welfare. Did I understand the Minister correctly that the school attendance Bill will have a longer title?

Yes. That is the working title. I take the Deputy's point on that. There will be a longer title.

That is to be welcomed but is there not a case for regionalising that structure? If we do not have representation from the local area, we will not address the problems in the holistic way that is necessary. There are various aspects involved in that. Plans can be developed but the implementation of those plans is another matter when we are talking about bringing various support services into play. For example, the parental background may require urgent and ongoing attention.

I welcome the fact that the Minister is going part of the way towards what I am seeking but no argument he has presented convinces me in any way that the deficit can be overcome because there are no local or regional structures. The Minister said this had been going on for three years but it has been going on since the 1980s when the then Minister, Mrs. Hussey presented her proposals for the LEC system. I recall that Ministers in the Fianna Fáil Party were not quite as strong as the present Minister in their opposition to regional or local structures. I suspect in some cases the line he is following may not be the line others might have followed. That is speculation, however, not fact.

The sub-committees of the area partnerships in education can do good work but they are like the curate's egg to an extent — some are good and some not so good.

As regards the employment of a home-school liaison teacher in all the schools which are designated disadvantaged, we all know there are many schools not designated disadvantaged which are more disadvantaged than schools with that designation. Various Ministers have applied different criteria in an attempt to address that problem but have not been successful. To employ home-school liaison teachers in all of those schools is welcome but it is not comprehensive enough.

It is a first step.

The structure to continue does not come from that. In a school it can be only a few students who require attention. There will not be a home-school liaison teacher in every school and the same problems will arise as have arisen with remedial teachers in smaller schools; there can be problems in smaller schools. I am looking for a comprehensive structure which addresses the difficulties I have described.

These committees would also have a useful role in special education because there are many factors in terms of support for parents which could be improved when a child is identified as having an intellectual disability. In some cases that disability is visible from birth but not in all cases.

In general terms I welcome the Minister's proposals as progressive but I believe that they do not go nearly far enough and regretfully I will have to press the amendment.

Amendment put.
The Dáil divided: Tá, 50; Níl, 70.

  • Barnes, Monica.
  • Currie, Austin.
  • Barrett, Seán.
  • De Rossa, Proinsias.
  • Bell, Michael.
  • Deenihan, Jimmy.
  • Bradford, Paul.
  • Dukes, Alan.
  • Browne, John (Carlow-Kilkenny).
  • Durkan, Bernard.
  • Bruton, John.
  • Farrelly, John.
  • Bruton, Richard.
  • Finucane, Michael.
  • Burke, Ulick.
  • Fitzgerald, Frances.
  • Carey, Donal.
  • Gilmore, Éamon.
  • Cosgrave, Michael.
  • Gormley, John.
  • Crawford, Seymour.
  • Hayes, Brian.
  • Creed, Michael.
  • Higgins, Jim.
  • Higgins, Joe.
  • Neville, Dan.
  • Higgins, Michael.
  • Noonan, Michael.
  • Howlin, Brendan.
  • O'Shea, Brian.
  • Kenny, Enda.
  • Penrose, William.
  • McCormack, Pádraic.
  • Perry, John.
  • McDowell, Derek.
  • Quinn, Ruairí.
  • McGahon, Brendan.
  • Rabbitte, Pat.
  • McGinley, Dinny.
  • Sargent, Trevor.
  • McGrath, Paul.
  • Sheehan, Patrick.
  • McManus, Liz.
  • Stagg, Emmet.
  • Mitchell, Jim.
  • Stanton, David.
  • Mitchell, Olivia.
  • Timmins, Billy.
  • Naughten, Denis.
  • Upton, Pat.

Níl

  • Ahern, Bertie.
  • Keaveney, Cecilia.
  • Ahern, Dermot.
  • Kelleher, Billy.
  • Ahern, Michael.
  • Kenneally, Brendan.
  • Ahern, Noel.
  • Killeen, Tony.
  • Andrews, David.
  • Kirk, Séamus.
  • Ardagh, Seán.
  • Kitt, Michael.
  • Aylward, Liam.
  • Kitt, Tom.
  • Brady, Johnny.
  • Lenihan, Brian.
  • Brady, Martin.
  • Lenihan, Conor.
  • Brennan, Matt.
  • Martin, Micheál.
  • Brennan, Séamus.
  • McCreevy, Charlie.
  • Briscoe, Ben.
  • McGennis, Marian.
  • Browne, John (Wexford).
  • McGuinness, John.
  • Byrne, Hugh.
  • Molloy, Robert.
  • Callely, Ivor.
  • Moloney, John.
  • Carey, Pat.
  • Moynihan, Donal.
  • Collins, Michael.
  • Moynihan, Michael.
  • Cooper-Flynn, Beverley.
  • Ó Cuív, Éamon.
  • Coughlan, Mary.
  • O'Dea, Willie.
  • Cowen, Brian.
  • O'Donoghue, John.
  • Cullen, Martin.
  • O'Flynn, Noel.
  • Daly, Brendan.
  • O'Hanlon, Rory.
  • de Valera, Síle.
  • O'Keeffe, Ned.
  • Dempsey, Noel.
  • O'Kennedy, Michael.
  • Doherty, Seán.
  • O'Malley, Desmond.
  • Ellis, John.
  • O'Rourke, Mary.
  • Fahey, Frank.
  • Power, Seán.
  • Fleming, Seán.
  • Roche, Dick.
  • Flood, Chris.
  • Ryan, Eoin.
  • Fox, Mildred.
  • Wade, Eddie.
  • Hanafin, Mary.
  • Wallace, Dan.
  • Harney, Mary.
  • Wallace, Mary.
  • Haughey, Seán.
  • Walsh, Joe.
  • Healy-Rae, Jackie.
  • Woods, Michael.
  • Jacob, Joe.
  • Wright, G. V.
Tellers: Tá, Deputies Stagg and O'Shea; Níl, Deputies S.Brennan and Power.
Amendment declared lost.

Amendments Nos. 60, 66, 77 and 78 are related and may be discussed together by agreement.

I move amendment No. 60:

In page 11, between lines 31 and 32, to insert the following:

"8. -The parents of a child who has been referred by a school, a medical doctor or other specified person for an assessment of special education needs shall be entitled——

(a) to receive an assessment of the child's educational needs by a suitable person designated by the Minister, who shall arrange that the parents and other relevant persons shall be consulted throughout the assessment and that the parents shall receive information to guide their educational choices,

(b) to receive a copy of a statement containing a description of any special educational needs identified, of the special education provision and support services which are necessary for the child and a proposed education plan for the child, drawn up in consultation with the parents concerned, and

(c) to have that statement entered on to a national database of educational needs, maintained by the Minister to assist in the proper planning and provision of such services in accordance withsection 7.”.

I tabled an amendment on Committee Stage which sought to set out the rights and entitlements of parents and students in regard to the education system. While it did not commend itself to the Minister, I will not reopen the argument. At the time I considered it added to the Bill. The Minister argued that if one looked through the Bill it contained statements which constituted a similar bill of rights.

In this amendment I want to focus on children who have special education needs. I am seeking to provide that the parent of a child who has been referred by a school, doctor or other specified person for an assessment of special education needs shall be entitled to receive such an assessment, a copy of a statement containing a description of any special educational needs identified in the assessment and of the special education provision identified as being necessary for the child and that the statement of needs be provided to the Minister of Education to form a national database of needs in relation to children with special needs.

The background to this matter is the special education committee review. I do not have the longevity in education that others may have but that review appears to have been the last serious look at this area. The number of assessments carried out was extraordinarily low, given the number of pupils referred for assessment. Sometimes there were long waiting lists and on other occasions there was a refusal to participate. As many as one in four children with special education needs in an eight year cycle had not been assessed — no detail was given of waiting times but the implication was that they were extremely long. The Minister may say this has improved since the appointment of the additional psychologists but we do not know that. If I tabled a parliamentary question to ask for the number of children awaiting assessment, he would reply that such information is not kept because waiting lists are not maintained by the psychological service, that it attends according to need. In other words, his response would be similar to that given by the Minister for Health about hospital waiting lists until a few years ago.

The current Minister is seeking and getting plaudits for recognising that waiting lists are a serious matter and need to be properly analysed. However, the same is not yet true as regards children with special educational needs and it is important that the penny should drop. People should have this as of right, not as a result of a faceless person deciding that a case is urgent, with no waiting lists being maintained.

It was extraordinary that it took a review group in 1993 to establish what Ministers over many years had said was a major priority. Similar information is not updated on a year to year basis so we do not know the numbers — every response to questions about the number of children in the primary sector with special educational needs refers to the 1993 survey and no new information is coming on stream. Information is power; things change because it is continually highlighted that there is a long wait for assessment, and identified and documented special needs are not being met. That sort of information is the driving force of change and in the case of special educational needs the legislation should provide that parents have a right to this assessment to have their specific needs spelt out, and that there is an obligation on the Minister to maintain in the Department a database on special needs. If he wants to plan provision for special educational needs he must have that information — to plan on the basis of a five year old survey is like driving a car while looking through the back window and the consequences will be disastrous.

There is consensus in the Oireachtas that this area needs attention. The Minister shares that belief and has indicated he hopes to move in this direction — he thinks we should adopt personalised education plans. The Joint Committee on Education and Science recently held hearings on special education at which practitioners in the field demanded that we should move to such plans, in which the facts are stated and there is a commitment to honour stated needs. It is interesting that in the UK, special education provision was introduced by a Government which one might have thought would not pay attention to such matters. The UK legislation goes far beyond what I seek in my amendment; it is extremely strongly worded and underpins the rights of children with special educational needs.

This is an important issue and I do not move this amendment frivolously. I stripped away features of the previous amendment with which the Minister found fault, perhaps rightly. I boiled the amendment down to one issue which I hope does not divide the House because going by what the Minister says he is committed to moving in this direction. It is important because we are not collecting this information systematically so we cannot get information from the Department about the number of children with special educational needs and the services they receive.

It was a shock to find that in 1993 half the children with special educational needs were receiving no services other than an ordinary teacher — no remedial or resource teacher service, nor any special service for visually impaired children. This happened because the parents of those children had enough trouble simply keeping them on the rails and sending them to school every day, and they did not have the clout to bring their cases to public attention in the way that well-organised groups can. There is, therefore, an obligation on us as legislators to include something explicit in the Bill.

The Minister may respond that he has accepted an obligation to provide appropriate education and support services, including assessments, but a broad obligation on the Minister to provide assessments under the legislation is different from parents having an explicit right to have these assessments when they are referred for them. The other route will be extremely tendentious and difficult for parents to exercise, and has been made even more difficult by the Minister's recent refusal to grant an appeal mechanism to parents who felt they did not get the education or the assessment to which their child was entitled. The Minister said he may introduce the mechanism but it will only be through his good will and not on a statutory basis.

Judging by Deputy O'Shea's earlier contributions, he will agree that this legislation should include a stronger statement on children with special needs. I have repeatedly commended the Minister for changing his initial position, which was that the obligation to provide for children with special needs should rest solely on the school — he now recognises that responsibility cannot be shunted down the line. An amendment like this would be a significant benchmark. Over time it will provide a basis not only for parents to exercise their rights more freely but also for proper planning within the Department. In other words, children diagnosed as having special educational needs by public health nurses at the developmental stage, aged one year or younger, would be logged and identified, and the Minister would know, three years before they reach the primary education system, what educational services they would be likely to need and could prioritise pre-school services towards children at these developmental stages.

This would start a positive planning process within the Department. Legislation is the vehicle for changes of direction and we all recognise the need for change here. It does not cure things overnight but it sets us on a different route. I hope this amendment commends itself to the Minister because it would set us on a better road as regards special education need.

I support Deputy Bruton's amendment. Two amendments in my name and one in the Minister's name are being discussed also, and all four have the common theme of planning for special educational needs. I have been told by a Dublin teacher that many children in special classes in mainstream primary education fall out of the education system because there is no comparable provision in second level schools in their areas. The concept in Deputy Bruton's amendment of setting up a database and information about children being input from an early stage is fundamental and welcome. The whole process of tracking is vital.

The amendment alludes to special education needs. We had a debate about what that term encompasses. I am debating on the basis of the definition of the review group on special education which is that, as well as children who have an intellectual disability, a disability and gifted children, children whose lack of progress in the education system is due to social and environmental factors should also be included. A database is vital in the context of these children. There is no doubt, and nobody has sought to contradict it, that some of these children fall out of the system in advance of their fifteenth birthday and, while there is an obligation on children to attend school until they reach the age of 15, there is not the same emphasis on the responsibility of schools to take these children, particularly at second level. Children are being abandoned against a background of there being no obligation on schools to inform the Department whether they have stopped going to school because of expulsion or by choice. There is a school attendance service in some urban areas and the Garda Síochána look after rural areas, but the concept of tracking is fundamental to an effective and efficient education system. It is mind boggling to think that many children who have special needs, whose chance to attain their full potential, to have a reasonable quality of life and to operate as good and upright citizens is at risk, are not known to the Department of Education and Science. In many cases the information is within the system but there is no way of pulling it together.

There is some difficulty with the definition of special needs. The Minister's definition is that it includes disability and giftedness, but nothing in between. In his amendment No. 77, the Minister is going part of the way in this respect, but it is beyond belief that a particular education need can be identified and there is no statutory onus on the Department to produce a plan to address it.

The current situation is random. Special needs children are falling through the net. They include the children to whom I referred earlier who have to be diagnosed in the private sector because the public sector does not provide the proper level of assessment to identify them. This is not something that can be put off indefinitely, and fundamental to it are issues of information, the setting up of a comprehensive database and tracking children at risk.

I do not wish to be unduly critical. I acknowledge the measures introduced by the Minister in various areas related to this, but the issues of inclusiveness and empowerment are fundamental. I do not intend to go over again the points made by Deputy Bruton in that regard. However, as Dáil Deputies, as teachers or just as citizens we know there are people with special needs children who feel abandoned, who feel the system is alien to them and, as close spectators in a situation where there is not adequate provision for their special needs children, they are quite distraught. The most heartrending situation is when years go by before a problem is identified. I am not making these comments to get at the Minister or the Department. I am merely saying there is a need for change. The ball rests with us in this Chamber because it is the job of the Oireachtas to introduce legislation. If the difficulties people encounter are legislated for, other agencies outside this House can implement what is required by the legislation.

I support the idea of individual plans. Early diagnosis and early intervention is vital. The growth of the schools psychological service is more than welcome, but comprehensive screening of children at all stages of their development is also essential so that difficulties are picked up. It is appalling that children with special needs are identified so late that they have lived a good deal of their lives with no proper provision for the difficulties they were encountering. There is much sadness and much anguish because of that. We need to send clear signals that this Oireachtas wants to promote inclusiveness and empowerment, and inclusiveness and empowerment are part of the implementation of subsidiarity. Parents have a right to know the problems and to be provided with support services and advice so they can cope at their end. Special needs do not arise only in the context of education and school, but also in the context of the home and the environment. There is a need for inclusiveness and for what I would term a warm support for parents.

I will give one example. My fourth daughter has Down's syndrome. When she was born there was a network of support through the Down's Syndrome Association which was very important and very helpful in the context of our family and how we developed to provide the best possible care for our daughter. Subsequently, I found that in the case of an autistic child one does not have the same sort of networking because there are not as many autistic children born. Autistic children tend to be scattered widely, as a result of which their parents can be very isolated. I know this does not concern educationper se, but at the time the child attains school-going age there is a need for inclusiveness. It should be clearly demonstrated to such parents that the State is in sympathy with the difficulties they encounter and wants to provide every possible support.

I will not make silly statements about everything being achieved overnight. However, in the context of this legislation, we need to send a clear message to parents of children with special needs — I am talking about the wider definition of that term — that the State cares about them. In many cases the school is the focus from which that spirit of inclusiveness and invitation to empowerment can best come.

The Minister's amendment No. 77 seems to meet what I propose in amendment No. 78, which deals with the functions of inspectors. Therefore, I will not pursue amendment No. 78.

Amendment No. 66 relates to the functions of schools. In tabling that amendment I am trying to emphasise that when an assessment and diagnosis is carried out and a plan is put in place, part of the functions of the various partners in education should be to monitor that plan and see that it is implemented. In the context of the spirit of what Deputy Bruton has proposed, parents must be involved and kept informed at all stages. Many problems arise because information is not given. An attitude of mind can sometimes prevail whereby people feel they cannot cope or understand what they are being told. They may not understand it but there is an onus on the State to make sure they will do so, over time.

I have seen cases where there is a diagnosis of intellectual disability and one or other of the partners may be in denial. Thus, one partner has to cope with the problem over a period as well as coping with the other partner's denial. Many human factors are involved in coming to terms with having a special needs child.

As Deputy Bruton said earlier in the debate, the spirit of this House is in line with what I am saying. My problem is that it is not sufficiently reflected in this legislation.

I thank both Deputies for their contributions. I acknowledge the bona fides of their commitment to the issue of special needs. This Bill is far superior to the Education (No. 1) Bill in providing for special needs children. It is even superior to the original draft of the Education (No. 2) Bill. We have made progress in provision for special needs, particularly in terms of the rights of special needs children to an education.

On a number of occasions I have outlined to the House my plan to establish a database for primary education in its entirety and specifically for children with special needs. It is a source of regret, to say the least, that historically, to date, such a database has not been developed at primary level. Information is the key to developing intervention strategies and proper policy actions. One cannot really formulate policy actions in a vacuum where one does not have the requisite information.

The key issue in special needs at the moment is resources. The CIRC report outlined the needs as the special education review committee saw them. It is interesting that members of the committee now acknowledge that, for some reason, they did not officially identify autism as a category requiring special education intervention, so the needs of autistic children were not listed. I aim to change that quickly to ensure the right of children with autism to an education. We have much catching up to do in terms of the provision of resources for special needs children.

To be frank, particularly with regard to Deputy Bruton's amendment No. 60, I am not sure the system is ready for the statutory provision in relation to statementing or individual plans. We have to measure what we can achieve in the short term.

We need a wider debate on statementing and plans. In dealing with the special needs area, I have noticed that there can often be conflict between the assessment views of professionals and those of parents in respect of their children. It is not that simple when a professional produces an assessment and states that, in his or her opinion, the child should progress in accordance with this plan. Very often parents will differ strongly with a professional's advice about what is best for their child. We need to tease out a bit more this concept of statementing and individual planning. To a certain degree, a significant amount of assessment is taking place too slowly. We need more personnel in the field, not just in education but in the health boards also, to ensure that assessments are made more swiftly. I have often seen conflict where our inspector's analysis differs from that of a parent's. For example, parents will say their children should not have to attend a special school. They may want their child to attend a mainstream school, but the professionals may disagree.

While the concept is a good one, I am not sure that we have teased it out fully. It would be interesting to look at what impact the measure has had in the United Kingdom and what the fall-out is there.

One of the problems with special needs is that we have had too many court cases. That so many parents have had recourse to the courts is both a reflection upon and an indictment of the State and successive Governments in terms of how they have handled special needs children. I aim to deal with that matter and make sure that the courts become a place of last resort as opposed to one almost of first resort. Over the years we have had too many High Court cases involving parents. We had the O'Donoghue case and others. Parents have sent their children abroad in the belief that they will receive an education superior to anything that could be provided here. We would not necessarily agree with that. It is a complicated issue.

We are committed to the compilation of an information database and that matter is currently in hand. There will be further improvement of the provision of special needs.

Amendment No. 77 comes some distance towards meeting Deputy O'Shea's amendment No. 78 in terms of inspectors assessing and evaluating individual school plans that have been drawn up to provide for certain special needs children.

The purpose of the legislation is to set out the direction we want to go. I appreciate the Minister's honesty in saying we are not yet at a point where we can develop education plans immediately. I would be happy if the Minister inserted a clause that each year progress will be monitored, defects identified and the process for eliminating them put in place. He could make it a rolling programme so that we cannot say the Department can do something tomorrow morning when the Minister said it was not able to do it today.

It is extremely important to put a legislative sign post in place which shows the direction in which we are heading so that it is not decided on a whim each day in the Department. I recognise the Minister's difficulty but I am not willing to forget this issue on that basis. The Minister should make this a rolling vehicle rather than changing it every morning.

I amad idem with Deputy Richard Bruton. The Minister's frankness added to the debate in that it brought us closer to where we want to go. We must make progress by implementing our aspirations on a phased basis. It is important to send the right signal to parents. They, like ourselves, do not believe everything can be delivered overnight. We should introduce an annual review mechanism to deal with glaring discrepancies in terms of provision.

If we do not take this opportunity to convey the concept of inclusiveness, empowerment and support, people will continue to feel alienated from the system. We should commit ourselves to making people feel they are part of the system. If the Minister accepts the amendment proposed by Deputy Richard Bruton, he will not expose himself but he will ensure there is a measure of good will in the legislation and a vehicle for incremental progress.

Is the aim to introduce the concept of statements and individual planning on a statutory basis for each child?

The Minister's aim must be to make provision for that and to review the situation within three years of the enactment of the Bill with a view to subsequent amendment. We should see how it works out initially rather than imposing an obligation that it must be done tomorrow or next week. I could arrange for an amendment to that effect on Committee Stage in the Seanad.

I would warmly welcome that.

The issue arises as to what will flow from this if obligations are imposed immediately.

I took care when drafting this amendment not to include a commitment that the education plan would be fully resourced. I recognise there is a gap between identifying and filling needs. This amendment is a vehicle for identifying needs. It creates an expectation that over time these needs will be met but it does not make it obligatory to meet them. Instead, it ensures that this information is systematically collected and maintained by the Department and that it becomes a vehicle for planning provision.

The Minister is correct that parents and professionals disagree. Under the Constitution parents have recognised rights. We are not seeking to encroach on those but to give parents the information on which they can make informed choices. That is built into paragraph (a) of the amendment. I welcome the Minister's statement that he will consider an amendment along these lines with some modifications. We hope he will achieve the objective of a built in review over time. That would be a significant step forward.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment No. 61 cannot be moved as Deputy Sargent is not in the House.

Amendment No. 61 not moved.

I move amendment No. 62:

In page 12, line 24, to delete ", as far as resources permit" and substitute "use its available resources to".

Amendment agreed to.
Amendment No. 63 not moved.

I move amendment No. 64:

In page 12, line 26, after "with" to insert "a disability or other".

Amendment agreed to.
Amendments Nos. 65 and 66 not moved.

Acting Chairman

Amendment No. 68 is an alternative to amendment No. 67. Amendments Nos. 67 and 68 may be discussed together.

I move amendment No. 67:

In page 12, to delete lines 35 to 37, and substitute the following:

"(d) to provide social, personal and health education for students and to promote their moral development in consultation with parents,".

I want to delete section 9(d). As stated on Committee Stage, it is extraordinary that all references to health have been removed from this section. However, amendment No. 68 in the name of the Minister reinserts the term "health education".

There are a number of points I wish to make. The term "to promote the moral, spiritual, social and personal development of students" is nebulous whereas the phrase "to provide social, personal and health education for students" is more definitive and places an onus on schools — this section deals with their functions — to provide education. The wording used in the Bill gives rise to a number of questions. For example, are morals taught or are they inculcated? I believe the wording proposed in the amendment is more accurate and realistic than the formulation proposed by the Minister.

I welcome the fact that the Minister tabled amendment No. 68 following the Committee Stage debate. However, the formulation proposed in amendment No. 67 where the onus is placed on schools "to provide social, personal and health education for students and to promote their moral development in consultation with their parents" is more apt. The phrase "in consultation with their parents" is important. I have tabled a number of later amendments which deal with the ethos of schools and the fact that children attending a school with a particular religious ethos should not feel alienated in any way. However, that is a separate issue.

My main point is that education can be provided in respect of social, personal and health matters but I do not believe it can be provided in respect of morals. Education can be provided but it must be aligned to the moral standards which have been inculcated in the home, through religious practice or through religious education in schools. It is a contradiction in terms, however, to state that we can teach morals.

I must admit that parts of the debate are over my head. However, I do not agree with Deputy O'Shea on one issue because I believe morals can be taught. Having tried to study moral philosophy for one year and attempted to contend with concepts such as Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative, I believe one can learn about morals and that there are principles which one can learn to guide one in making choices that are moral according to one's beliefs. I would not agree with Deputy O'Shea in that regard, but I do not believe that was his central point.

The formulation put forward by the Minister in amendment No. 68 is probably reasonably balanced and I will support it. With regard to the phrase "to promote their moral development in consultation with their parents" used in amendment No. 67, regard must be had to the characteristic spirit of a school. For example, parents who knowingly send their children to a school of one denominational sort accept that a certain moral code will be taught there and they cannot state that the characteristic spirit of the school is not recognised.

The balance in the Minister's formulation is correct because schools are concerned that it will become more difficult to maintain their characteristic as parents increasingly shy away from religious practice or adherence to codes of any sort. Schools which offer education from a denominational perspective would like this recognition to be enshrined in legislation. The balance the Minister is striking in this instance seems reasonable.

As I understand it, the language used in section 9(d) is clear and I agree with Deputy Bruton that morals can be taught. There is a lacuna in section 9(d), namely, the absence of a reference to "health education", a term which amendment No. 68 will insert. I have no doubt the amendment was inspired by this matter being raised by Deputy O'Shea and others on Committee Stage. The lacuna in the paragraph will be corrected. Therefore, I ask Deputy O'Shea to withdraw his amendment and accept amendment No. 68.

I do not intend to become involved in a philosophical debate at this stage.

Moral principles can be taught but morals are an expression of what we are as people. It is the impact of a school's ethos on a person which develops a moral person. There is a difference between academic and actual morals. I have reservations about the use of the term "spiritual" in the section. I raised this issue on Committee Stage and I am reasonably satisfied with the Minister's proposals in amendment No. 68. On that basis, I will withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Acting Chairman

Amendment No. 68 in the name of the Minister arises out of Committee proceedings and it has already been discussed with amendment No. 67. Will the Minister formally move the amendment?

I move amendment No. 68:

In page 12, line 36, after "students" to insert "and provide health education for them,".

Amendment agreed to.

I move amendment No. 68a:

In page 12, line 38, to delete "to".

This is a drafting amendment. As the text stands section 9(e) states that "A recognised school shall provide education to students which is appropriate to their abilities and needs and, without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing, it shall, as far as resources permit.to promote". The word "to" should be deleted and the text should read "it shall, as far as resources permit.promote equality of opportunity for both male and female students and staff of the school". The word "to" is not only superfluous but it is also inappropriate.

I thank Deputy O'Shea for tabling this amendment. His expertise has helped us produce a better Bill and I am glad to accept the amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Acting Chairman

Amendment No. 69 in the name of Deputy Richard Bruton arises out of committee proceedings and it has already been discussed with amendment No. 30.

Amendment No. 69 not moved.

I move amendment No. 69a:

In page 12, line 50, after "Minister" to insert "under section 33".

Section 33 is long and deals with regulations which can be introduced by the Minister.

Section 9(i) states that a school shall conduct its activities in compliance with any regulations made from time to time by the Minister. Section 33 lays out at some length the areas in which the Minister can make regulations. To tidy up the legislation, this amendment would be appropriate.

Once again our thanks are due to Deputy O'Shea, whose ingenuity knows no bounds. I am delighted to accept that amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

I move amendment No. 70:

In page 13, line 12, after "policy" to insert "which does not involve entrance examinations and".

This relates to the functions of schools and to section 9, paragraph (m). Entrance examinations can be the cause of friction and concern to many people. There should be equality in the process of enrolment to a school. Schools should not be allowed to cream off the best applicants. There is another argument which can be advanced which relates to assessing children in terms of their abilities when they come to a school but these should be used only in the context of the educational plans which would be put in place for those children when they enter the school.

The Labour Party and I are totally opposed to the idea of examinations being used to exclude children from schools. That is a reprehensible practice. In the past some schools have had the benefit of essentially recruiting from a group in society which was well tuned in to the potential of the education system. Nowadays schools are being called upon to cater for pupils of an ability level and social functional level which they were not asked to cater for in the past.

Each school subsidised by the Exchequer should accept all students. The Minister has included in the Bill, in the context of the appeals procedure to the Secretary General, that there would be a right to appeal by parents, or the student if he or she is over 18, if the reason a person was not admitted to a school was other than accommodation. What I propose is in line with the spirit of what the Minister has included in the Bill.

It could arise at the time of transition from first to second level that a student would benefit from special education and that should be provided but schools subsidised by the State should receive all the pupils presented to them without any process of exclusion. It is fundamental to what I was talking about earlier. If on the basis of an academic examination there is no place for the child of a dysfunctional family or for a child with special educational needs, that can have an appalling effect not only on the student but on the parents. If we are to achieve subsidiarity, inclusiveness and empowerment, the use of any academic tool to exclude children from a school is something against which we should all set our faces.

I agree with Deputy O'Shea on this issue.

It is frustrating to learn that while we are here debating the education Bill and issues such as school attendance the Minister is at a press conference announcing details of changes he is proposing to make in relation to issues we debated here earlier. It shows scant enough courtesy to the House. The Minister should be in the House debating issues. It is unusual and it makes a non-sense of what we are trying to do on Report Stage to find that the Minister absents himself to make announcements which are germane to what we are doing here. It does not set a good precedent. Maybe the reports I am hearing of what has been announced are inaccurate and the Minister of State——

Acting Chairman

The Deputy has made his point and he should address the amendment.

That is the point. The issues I am addressing here are central to this Bill. Far from being here to deal with them, the Minister is at some press conference making announcements outside of the House in relation to issues which are properly within the remit of what we are discussing here. Deputy O'Shea tabled amendments which relate to school attendance and I gather the Minister is making announcements which were not conveyed to the House during the course of that debate. It should not go without being noted by the Houses of the Oireachtas that this is not what we would regard as acceptable practice.

I want to clarify for Deputy Bruton that the press launch to which he is referring will take place at 2.30 p.m. The Minister is not there at present.

It is on the 1 o'clock news.

I do not know the subject of the Minister's interview on the 1 o'clock news. We must wait and see, but the press conference to which the Deputy referred specifically will be at 2.30 p.m. when this debate is long concluded.

After my initial good relationship with Deputy O'Shea, unfortunately I must part company with him at this point. However, I have a certain sympathy for some of the sentiments he expressed having had first hand experience of admissions difficulties which occur in Limerick schools from time to time. Nevertheless it must be said that for the first time in the history of the State schools are now legislatively obliged to publish and maintain an admissions policy. It is not just that they must publish the admissions policy but that the policy must provide for "maximum accessibility to the school".

I cannot accept the amendment in connection with entrance examinations. This amendment is not necessary as the details of admissions policies are not matters which should be appropriate to the legislation. We set out the broad principle. We should not get into the details of what schools should or should not include in their admissions policy. The statutory obligation on each school to publish its admissions policy which must respect the principles of equality and the right of parents to send their children to schools of their choice should be sufficient to ensure that such policies are reasonable and safeguard the rights of each child to attend the school of his or her choice. Accordingly, I cannot accept the amendment.

I agree with what Deputy Bruton said about the Minister's press conference.

Debate adjourned.
Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.