I was making the point that section 15, which details the functions of a board of management, strikes a reasonable balance between the rights of school owners and parents, students, teachers and the community. Deputy O'Shea requested the relevant constitutional provisions because I said there were legal and constitutional reasons for the wording in the Bill. The relevant articles of the Constitution are 40.3.2º and 43.1.1º. Article 40.3.2º provides that the State shall, by its laws, protect as best it can from unjust attack the property rights of every citizen. Article 43.1.1º acknowledges the property rights of private individuals. They are factors in the wording of section 15.
Education (No. 2) Bill, 1997: Report Stage (Resumed).
I accept the Minister's clarification and withdraw my amendment.
I move amendment No. 110:
In page 18, to delete lines 14 to 22 and substitute the following:
"(b) support the characteristic spirit of the school as determined by the cultural, educational, moral, religious or social values and traditions which inform and underpin the objectives of the school,".
I find the language in the subsection I seek to amend rather strong. It is almost the language of a siege. It states that a board of management will uphold the characteristic spirit of a school and that it will be accountable to the patron for so upholding. Why is such strong language needed? It suggests a school under siege which the board of management must resist with an eye over its shoulder to the patron to whom it is accountable. It is particularly strong to state that the characteristic spirit of the school be upheld. Is it necessary to have such strong language? My wording, which states that the characteristic spirit of the school be supported, is more appropriate than that which states that the board of management be held accountable by the patron for upholding that characteristic spirit.
The subsection later requires that the board of management:
act in accordance with any Act of the Oireachtas or instrument made thereunder, deed, charter, articles of management or other such instrument relating to the establishment or operation of the school.
Why is it necessary to state that? Is it not taken for granted that a board of management charged with managing a school would act within the law and within the Acts of the Oireachtas? I find it an extraordinarily trenchant subsection which really should be the mission statement of a board of management. Why is all this confrontational language needed and why is it necessary to state the obvious?
I do not agree the language is confrontational. It is reflective of the balance which must be struck between the various stakeholders in the education system. It is a carefully structured balance of rights and interests. The patron owns the school and has generally been responsible for the characteristic ethos which marks and defines it. In terms of existing articles of management and charters, it is not possible for the House to ignore the fact that we are legislating not for a greenfield education system but for one which is generations old. We cannot dispense with agreements already entered into with a number of trustees.
Different partners at different levels sought this provision. For example, at primary level, the deeds of variation have been agreed between all partners in education, including teachers, parents' groups and patrons. It is important that be given legislative effect. In the case of the deeds of trust for community schools, which are long in existence in some cases, the partners involved were anxious that the Bill would not undermine those. I had no difficulty in accommodating that in the wording presented to the House, which ensures any agreements between the partners and any articles of association are not undermined by the Bill. Deputy O'Shea said strong language was used in the subsection but I am satisfied it is a reasonable balance.
The Minister mentioned deeds, charters, etc. If these areas need legal protection, I do not have a problem with that. However, it is superfluous to state that a board of management should act in accordance with Acts of the Oireachtas and instruments thereunder. That is implicit in any organisation or agency established by the State, unless such have been established which are not expected to act within the law. I am not aware of any having been established in my time as a Deputy.
Stating that someone should uphold something and that they be accountable for doing so is unnecessarily strong. The Minister does not share that view but the word "support" is sufficient. The subsection effectively states that the board of management is legally accountable for upholding the characteristic spirit of the school. We spoke this morning of people acting in good faith not being liable for things which go wrong in the management of schools. The language in the subsection is not the sort which should be used to describe a relationship which is, in effect, a partnership. It is the partners in education coming together to provide education for children. This subsection is trenchant and I do not accept that it is necessary or appropriate in this context.
There has not been a negative response to the wording included in the Bill. I would not be as trenchant as the Deputy, even though it could be argued that some of the amendments tabled by Opposition Members are also superfluous. To make the position clear, references to the need for boards to comply with Acts of the Oireachtas, etc., are included. It is important, however, that the Bill does not undermine existing agreements, that it respects the rights and responsibilities of the partners in education. It should not unilaterally alter or take precedence over those agreements. It would be foolhardy to do so.
Will there be freedom to change existing agreements?
Yes. This is a standard provision.
I have a problem with the words "uphold, and be accountable to the patron for so upholding". It is not the language of partnership which we all agree is the way forward. Is this the child of the parliamentary draftsman or some other person outside the House? It is an extraordinary formula.
I move amendment No. 110a:
In page 18, line 23, after "with" to insert "the patron".
This is a drafting amendment. The Bill states: "A board shall perform the functions conferred on it and on a school by this Act and in carrying out its functions the board shall. ..consult with and keep the patron informed of decisions and proposals of the board". This implies that a board will consult with decisions and keep the patron informed of decisions. I am, therefore, seeking to include the words "the patron" after the word "with".
I do not agree with the Deputy.
The legal advice is that the section does not need to be redrafted. It states that a board shall consult with and keep the patron informed of decisions. That is adequate.
Consult with whom?
It does not say that.
The Bill reads, "consult with and keep the patron informed of decisions and proposals of the board". That implies that a board will consult with decisions and keep the patron informed of decisions.
I do not agree. I would be inclined to say that I will consult with and keep the Deputy informed. The parliamentary draftsman has said that it is watertight and safe. It is a minor matter.
This is a drafting amendment. On any reasonable reading——
I will examine the matter again. If the section requires amendment, I will seek to do so in the Seanad. I have been told emphatically that it does not require amendment.
I beg to differ. The construction should be grammatically correct.
We now proceed to amendment No. 111. Amendment No. 112 is an alternative. Amendments Nos. 111 and 112 may be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 111:
In page 18, line 27, after "school" to insert "(including policies governing suspensions and exclusions)".
Amendment No. 112 in the name of the Minister meets my concerns. There should be clear policies on suspensions and expulsions. The Department has issued guidelines but in the case of secondary schools they do not have full force and the practice has been loose. I am certain that when the Minister introduces the school attendance Bill suspensions will have to be notified. Under the existing Act figures on non-attendance are supposed to be collated and maintained by the Department. The Garda Siochána are also supposed to be notified but this does not happen in practice.
I welcome the Minister's amendment and hope much more attention will be paid to policies in this area. The negative feelings which result in early school leaving stem from poor discipline policies. There is scope for policy innovation which I hope the Bill will encourage.
I agree with the Deputy and I am glad to be in a position to meet the concerns articulated on Committee Stage.
I move amendment No. 112:
In page 18, line 28 after "including" to insert "the policy of the school relating to the expulsion and suspension of students and".
I move amendment No. 113:
In page 18, line 39, after "languages" to insert "(in particular speaking and communicative ability in the Irish Language)".
I move amendment No. 114:
In page 18, to delete lines 46 to 48 and substitute the following:
(g) use the resources provided to the school from monies provided by the Oireachtas to make reasonable provision and accommodation for students with a disability or other special educational needs, including, where necessary, alteration of buildings and provision of appropriate equipment.".
Amendments Nos. 115, 116 and 117 cannot be moved as amendment No. 114 has been accepted.
I move amendment No. 118:
In page 18, between lines 48 and 49, to insert the following:
"(h) ensure that the rights of conscience of children from families who do not share the ethos of the school are respected in all school activities.".
I do not need to spell out the background to this amendment. It seeks to protect the right of conscience of children attending schools whose ethos they do not share. While the Minister may say this is understood or inferred it should be clearly stated in the legislation.
Amendment No. 119 proposes that children should not receive instruction in a religion which does not have the approval of their parents and ensures that children from families who do not share the ethos of the school are not discriminated against.
Amendment No. 162 refers to the section of the Bill which relates to curriculum. The amendment seeks to state clearly that religious instruction is included among the subjects in which a student should not be required to receive instruction if doing so would be contrary to the conscience of the parent of the student or of the student if he or she has reached 18 years.
The common theme of these amendments is that the right of conscience of individual students should be protected in all circumstances.
There is a good deal to be recommended in these amendments. It should be taken as read that the rights of children who do not share the majority ethos in a school should be respected. The school must respect their rights and equally, students and parents must respect the ethos of the school. Deputy O'Shea's amendments strike that balance and they add something of value to the Bill.
I do not disagree in principle with these amendments but the protection they seek is in the Bill already. Section 30 (2)(d) states, without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1), that the Minister shall not require any student to attend instruction in any subject which is contrary to the conscience of the parent of the student or in the case of a student who has reached the age of 18 years, the student. The Minister will be obliged to issue regulations to that effect which boards of management will implement. The Bill places an obligation on the Minister to ensure that students will not be required to attend instruction in any subject which is contrary to the conscience of the parent of the student.
With regard to amendment No. 118, section 15(2)(d) requires that a board of management shall have regard to the principles and requirements of a democratic society and have respect and promote respect for the diversity of values, beliefs, traditions, languages and ways of life in society.
The wording of that section could be strengthened when the Bill is debated in the Seanad. The words "have regard to" could be strengthened and perhaps replaced by "respect". I am satisfied the wording in the Bill meets the objective of protecting the rights of conscience of students.
If the Minister is prepared to reexamine these sections in the context of the Seanad debate I do not propose to press these amendments.
I move amendment No. 121:
In page 19, line 32, to delete "six" and substitute "three".
Section 16 deals with the dissolution of a board of management by a patron. Section 16(7) states that:
The patron shall provide, in accordance with section 14, for the re-establishment of a board dissolved under subsection (1) not later than six months following the dissolution or such longer period as the patron, with the consent of the Minister, considers appropriate and when the new board has been established the functions of the dissolved board shall be revested. .
Where a board has been dissolved it is essential that a new board is put in place as quickly as possible. My amendment does not interfere with the right of the Minister to agree to a longer period if the patron, with the consent of the Minister considers that appropriate. However, the initial time period should be three rather than six months.
The six months is only an upper limit. If a board can be re-established within the six months, that can be achieved under the Act. As regards the new boards of management which are being established at primary level, we have had some examples within the past six months of failures to elect the full boards based on the deed of variations. Many of these disagreements — I am aware of three cases — have centred on the difficulty in finding agreement on the two external representatives on the bodies. I do not want to be too judgmental but many of the difficulties have their roots in personality differences.
My strong advice is that six months is a reasonable time to allow those difficulties to subside and to try to rebuild confidences so that things are on an even keel again. In some cases that may involve the appointment of a facilitator by the Department to try to resolve the difficulties which exist between the various partners on the board. If we have a limit of three months, there is a danger that we might rush the process.
I accept the Deputy's concerns because it is not satisfactory for one person to organise everything for six months. However, where this happens, it is clear that there is a serious breakdown between the partners. In order to restore that, it is necessary to give reasonable breathing space to allow the situation to be retrieved and a new one to be developed.
This reflects the deed of variations at primary level which also had a six months clause if there was disagreement between the partners. The Minister can intervene only after six months. It is helpful that the Minister can intervene because he can act as a catalyst to sort out the situation. My experience to date is that six months are needed to work it out and to allow people to cool down and start again.
I bow to the Minister's experience in office as shown by the case he advanced. I will not press the amendment.
Amendments Nos. 121a and 122 are related and both may be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 121a:
In page 20, line 12, to delete "or" and substitute "and".
This is a simple amendment which relates to the keeping of accounts and records. Section 18(1) states:
Except in the case of a school established or maintained by a vocational education committee, a board shall keep all proper and usual accounts and records of all monies received by it or expenditure of such monies incurred by it and shall ensure that in each year all such accounts are properly audited or certified in accordance with best accounting practice.
The word "or" is incorrect. It should read: "accounts are properly audited and certified in accordance with best accounting practice".
Amendment No. 122 states:
In page 20, lines 15 to 17, to delete "in so far as those accounts relate to monies provided in accordance with section 12".
We debated this issue on Committee Stage. Funds, other than those paid by the Oireachtas, accrue to school management boards under section 12. Schools often have unhappy experiences in terms of funding. A distinction should not be made between moneys paid by the Oireachtas and other moneys properly paid into the accounts of the board of management. Once that money is in the account, it must be disbursed in a proper fashion by the board in the interests of the school.
We discussed this issue on Committee Stage. Amendment No. 121a would oblige schools to both certify and audit their accounts. I thought we had reached agreement on Committee Stage to insert the phrase "audit or certify" because we were anxious to reduce the burden on small schools in particular so that they would not have the cost of hiring auditors but they would be required to certify their accounts.
That is correct.
I made that concession on Committee Stage and I do not propose to include the word "and".
As regards amendment No. 122, we are strongly of the view that our function is to inspect accounts for all Exchequer moneys allocated to schools. That satisfies the public interest in ensuring that taxpayers' money is spent efficiently. It also respects the autonomy of schools. We talk a lot about the fact that boards of management should have certain freedoms and be in a position to manage their own affairs. Part of that process should be to trust the boards. If they raise money, they have a function to the wider school community to ensure that it is properly disbursed and that certified accounts are kept. Our legal advice is that school authorities have particular responsibility for showing good financial management, but it is not our function to become involved in moneys which are not discharged by the taxpayer. We do not have that right.
There are a number of aspects to this issue. A question could be tabled in the Dáil on the level of fund-raising done by particular schools so that the Department gets an overview of how money is collected in some areas and not in others. I spoke to the principal of one school earlier this year who told me that a parents council provides whatever money is required. I accept we should protect the taxpayers' money but why should a distinction be made between the inspection of Exchequer moneys and those given to a board of management by an outside body? If the Department does not give full autonomy to a school in terms of Exchequer moneys, why does it give it full autonomy for other moneys received?
It is in everyone's interest to have external checks on how moneys are disbursed in particular schools. What happens if money is donated by parents to a particular school but no proportion of it is used for special needs pupils? The Minister may say that is a policy decision for the school. It might not be a bad idea if an inspector examined the accounts and drew attention to how funds were disbursed. Human nature being what it is, funds are occasionally misappropriated. I am not saying this lightly as I have some experience of the matter. It is a mistake that there is not a full accounting procedure as regards moneys which are paid into school accounts.
As regards the auditing and certification of accounts, why does an audit cost so much? My understanding is that an auditor signs and certifies an audit. What is the difference between auditing and certifying?
I can see why the Department might not want the Minister to have full responsibility for school accounts as he would then have responsibility for the financial probity of operations for which he is not responsible to the Dáil. However, he would be a secondary party as he would be informed if circumstances went wrong and then asked what did he do about it? I can see how a Minister might not want that.
However, it is hard to reconcile that with the Minister's later refusal to agree that parents should be given an annual report by the school. Either he says this is a matter for the school, the board and the parents, in which case the parents have a right to an annual report, or he says, as Deputy O'Shea is requesting, this is a matter of which he should be informed and he will keep an eye on it. He cannot have it both ways. He either agrees that parents should be issued with an annual report which dealsinter alia with their finances and matters relating to the school or he takes some responsibility on his own shoulders, which is the implication of Deputy O'Shea's amendment. There is a case for going in either direction but the Minister is giving us the worst of both worlds.
Does the Minister have the right to inspect moneys?
He does not, but it is his obligation to ensure parents have the right to do so.
The Minister does not have the right to inspect moneys which he does not give to schools.
The corollary is that parents should have the right to do so.
Parents are represented on boards of management.
Two parents are represented on the board of management where one has been appointed.
In many instances parents associations raise money. It makes decisions as an association according to its constitution on what to do with that money and it is accountable for it. If it hands it over, nine times out of ten, it will be spent on whatever the parents want, in conjunction with the school authorities.
What about the one in ten cases where that does not happen?
That is what the board is for. The Bill places an obligation on the board to "keep all proper and usual accounts and records of all moneys received by it or expenditure of such moneys incurred by it and shall ensure that in each year all such accounts are properly audited or certified in accordance with best accounting practice." That covers the point made by the Deputy as regards letting the school community know about accounts.
Auditing is a much more expensive process than certifying. We are talking about two, three and four teacher schools and at the other end of the scale 1,000 pupil schools. We are covering the entire spectrum. There are different levels of fundraising as some schools operate greater funds than others. Vocational education colleges, which tend to be community colleges, must submit accounts to the VEC, or in the case of sports complexes, to the trustees who govern them. For example, if a community college has a sports hall, it must be accounted for.
They are excluded in this subsection.
I am making the point that it is not as if the various schools and bodies are not accountable. We do not have the right to inspect moneys which an organisation raises outside that. It is not directly relevant to this section, but one of the great crises in universities for many years was that if the State found out too much about any private moneys they raised it could cut back on State subventions. This acted as a disincentive to organisations to raise money. While it is desirable that we have some idea of what is happening in fundraising in schools, they would get worried if they thought the Department was prying too much into how much they were raising. This would have a subsequent impact on policy and resource allocation. If that is part of the agenda, a school may feel there is little point in raising money as the Department may withdraw resources from it if it seems to be doing well in fundraising.
I hope the Minister was not suggesting our third level institutions would conceal money to dupe the Department and extract more money from it.
No. I was making the opposite point that third level institutions felt there was a danger the State would pat them on the back for raising private moneys and take back State moneysin lieu, whereas what we should do is encourage institutions to collect as much money as they can while the State maintains its obligation to them.
Implied in that is that the moneys would be conceded and the State would make decisions in less than full knowledge of the funding of third level colleges. However, that is incidental as we are discussing first and second level schools. I am prepared to accept the Minister's explanation of the auditing and certifying of accounts. Some smaller schools will want to discharge their obligations in the cheapest yet most effective and efficient way possible. I will not press the amendment dealing with that.
As regards moneys which are lodged in the accounts of boards of management, there is not a sustainable case that where State moneys are combined with other moneys, the State should not know what is happening to them. One of the difficulties in this area is that some schools can obtain any financing they need from parents while other schools cannot. Global information on voluntary funding of schools is valuable. In terms of the integrity of the system, it helps efficiency and the effective use of all resources if there is an obligation to account for all moneys paid into boards of management accounts.
One can say that if a board of management gets money from a parents association to do X and it decides to do Y, it is a matter between the association and the board. However, it goes further than that. The Department cannot walk away from its responsibility for the management of schools.
I move amendment No. 123:
In page 20, line 44, to delete "may" and substitute "shall".
On Committee Stage we discussed the idea of issuing to parents annual reports on a school's activities. The previous incarnation of the Bill provided for such a report but the Minister dropped that requirement, making it merely an option. He expressed the view that annual reports were often a waste of money, citing the example of Cork Corporation, but I would beg to disagree — the discipline of producing an annual report is healthy. Many Departments fail to produce annual reports of their activities, which is lamentable.
Given that schools will be developing five year plans, it behoves them to report to parents each year about how the plans are progressing. That is particularly important in the case of schools which seek voluntary donations from parents, amounting to perhaps £25 million at primary level and a similar amount at secondary level. Parents have a substantial interest, both in terms of their children and the money they are giving to the school, in seeing a report of what is happening. The Minister suggested on Committee Stage that it would be much better to call a meeting but many parents would not attend for one reason or another and often there are no meaningful exchanges, whereas a report with significant information might become the subject of a meeting and would result in a much more meaningful exchange of views.
I ask the Minister to reconsider the matter, even at this late stage. We are not talking about one teacher schools bringing in consultants to draw up reports but where the school has drawn up a plan, as it must under the Bill, we are asking that it should examine how it will tackle out of school activities, improve reading abilities, etc. and should report each year on whether progress was made and, if not, why not. This would give the parents a more meaningful role than in an occasional meeting. Such events are not always the most meaningful exercises because there is an imbalance of information.
This is not a free ride — producing a report is a discipline but it is worthwhile because it requires one to reflect on what one has done over the year. During the summer break, schools can look back over the year, make a report on the previous year's activities and give an outlook for the coming year. That is a useful discipline for any school, whether it has one teacher or 25 teachers.
I support this amendment which appeals to me in the context of enunciating the principles in a school plan and in reporting how successful a school has been in putting such measures into place. As Deputy Bruton said, no matter what we are doing it is important that we reflect and report on it, because it is as good an exercise for the provider as for the receiver. I taught for 20 years in national schools, and at the end of each year one gave parents a report on their children. Different schools have different types of report sheets but by and large they are of a decent standard. It is important for parents to feel a sense of ownership of their school, to be fully aware of what is happening and the progress being made. I do not suggest that parents would become inspectors of a kind, I mean this in a positive way. If parents feel there are shortfalls in provision, they may be encouraged to approach the private sector for donations, etc. This is important in areas like information technology because our schools require many more computers and the Minister has indicated that he welcomes the input of private sector resources.
Good quality reporting is crucial. This may be a consequence of EU membership, but as Dáil Deputies we receive publications every day and if a pupil submitted to a teacher writing of the standard found in some of these reports they would be told to write it in fewer words rather than in excessive verbiage. I recently studied a report of a sub-committee of the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body, which contained many meaningless phrases that added nothing. People use these phrases all the time but they are of little value. Perhaps the Department could suggest a framework for presenting the information in a school report in a consumer friendly fashion, because the worst thing a school could do would be to send out a document full of educational jargon which is not readily understood by people outside the field. Only a small change is required by this amendment and it would not incur great expense on the State, other than the Department's inspectorate or press office providing advice to boards of management on doing the job efficiently and effectively.
One thing which strikes me in talking to parents is how little they know about what goes on. This morning I mentioned how little they know about the provision within the system for special needs, such as the establishment of a psychological service. We cannot communicate that information often enough because it raises morale and gives people hope and a better focus. Against a background of misinformation or a lack of information, people feel abandoned and that no one cares about the problems faced by their children. If we do not seek to communicate regularly at school level it is difficult to see how the Department can communicate effectively. Schools should produce a report on their activities. They should produce annually a clear statement of their objectives, the number of those objectives that have been achieved and the way in which school plans will be amended to cater for other special needs of pupils that may arise.
My views have not changed dramatically since we discussed this matter at some length on Committee Stage. This section obliges boards of management to establish procedures for informing the parents of children in schools of matters relating to the operation and performance of the school. Such procedures may include the publication and circulation to parents, teachers, other staff and the student council, where one is established, of a report on the operation and performance of the school in any school year.
The difference of opinion is whether we should compel schools to do this. In framing this Bill, I was anxious to remove the heavy hand of bureaucracy in terms of telling schools what to do on every issue. I identified the development of a school plan as essential and we made provision for that in the Bill as well as provision for regular updating of the plan, as agreed on Committee Stage.
For the reasons Deputy O'Shea outlined in respect of the verbiage in the many annual reports we currently receive, I retain a healthy scepticism of the value of forcing schools to produce annual reports against their will. Some schools prepare monthly reports on specific issues and we should not underestimate their capacity to develop better ways of communicating with parents than simply producing the annual report. There is an element of "we know best and we will tell them what to do" in this. That might deteriorate into a situation where a principal could tell a teacher to write a report because under the Act it has to be in by 30 June. I am not sure what type of discipline that is but the school plan is a better discipline and a much more comprehensive exercise than the mere compilation of an annual report.
Throughout my public life I have been deluged with annual reports from various bodies and, to be frank, they tend to be sanitised versions of what is happening in the organisation. They comment on the general headings but do not contain any new ideas. I wonder how many people read annual reports. Perhaps I am wrong but I have a certain amount of scepticism about them. The school plan is a better exercise because there is more active involvement on the part of the staff, parents and the school community in determining school policy and achieving objectives. That is a good dynamic in terms of developing a set of policy objectives and putting in place the mechanisms to deliver those objectives.
I am dubious about the value of the annual report mechanism. Deputy Bruton is negative about the meeting process; perhaps he has had bad experiences in that regard. Some meetings are very worthwhile. We are talking about the operational performance of schools and that should not be left to the annual report. It should be an ongoing process. It could relate to the introduction of a new syllabus or other matters and there may be a necessity for schools to keep parents informed on a more regular basis. That can be done by way of meetings, weekly or monthly bulletins, etc.
I prefer not to be overly prescriptive in determining how boards should do this but we must not lose sight of the fact that we are placing a strong obligation on them to establish procedures for informing the parents of children about the operation and performance of the school.
I differ fundamentally with the Minister on this issue. Many a plan has been a waste of effort because nobody ever bothered to ask if any of the objectives were achieved. Five year plans are notorious for setting out worthy objectives that nobody ever thinks about until the time comes for the next five year plan to be produced. The annual review is a critical element of making the school plan a meaningful process. The Minister likes the idea of school plans but he is not particularly interested that they be reviewed annually and reported on.
That is not true.
That is a contradiction. We should ensure that the operational performance of a school in any year is reported, and to leave that as a possibility rather than a requirement is foolish. The section as it now stands simply requires that they establish procedures. That could be a meeting with parents or a meeting to discuss school meals or traffic congestion at the school entrance. There is no requirement that it be a meaningful examination of whether the school plan is being implemented and the improvements that can be made. That is why the annual report is so valuable. It is a discipline on those involved in running the school in that they must report each year on their examination of these issues.
I ask the Minister to reconsider this matter. The notion of an annual plan will not be onerous but over time some schools will produce excellent annual reports highlighting ways of reporting to parents. Parents in other schools will want to be informed of the various issues the school down the road is reporting on. A more meaningful participation will evolve out of such annual reports.
I recently attended a meeting in a primary school during which there was an excellent presentation on information technology in the school. The meeting was well attended but that was only one aspect of what was happening in the school. There were no presentations on other subjects. Information technology seems to be the "in" subject of late, although I believe the three "Rs" still have their place. I have read documents circulated by schools which were of a high standard but those of us involved in education who are familiar with the jargon and the structures sometimes take it for granted that in certain fundamental areas there is not a great deal of knowledge among sections of the community and that information must be constantly distributed.
I accept different schools are better in certain matters but there should be an obligation on schools to communicate with parents in relation to the school plan. Plans are aspirational but achievement, or lack of it, is what the report would contain.
Another danger with reports is that many schools are in competition for pupils. I may want to present my annual report in a way that is most appealing to parents and I will see most of the pupils in the general catchment area when they enrol for the first time the following September. That is why the Department must have——
The Deputy's two minutes have concluded.
If we are going to proceed in the desired manner we must put in place a definite structure in terms of reporting. Some schools will do a great deal while others will do little and that is the nub of the problem. It is often parents, with whom we must communicate, who end up being the losers in this regard.
This returns to the point that some schools will do a great deal while others will do little. It would be wrong to believe that a fundamental difference will be bought about in terms of motivation and dynamics in schools by Marlborough St. stating in legislation that schools shall produce annual reports. Marlborough St. will never be able to do so.
I agree but this would be more achievable if a devolved structure was put in place.
It would be less achievable because the devolved structure proposed in the Education (No. 1) Bill advocated the recentralisation of an already centralised model. However, I do not intend to debate that matter now.
We are arguing about which is better, a school plan or an annual report. From experience I can state that the school plan is obviously far more important. Most teachers and parents have stated, in areas where school plans are being developed, that they are a worthwhile exercise. In my opinion the compilation of an annual report has much less value than the development and formulation of a school plan. There is no comparison between the impact of a school plan and that of an annual report. I have a healthy scepticism as regards annual reports.
Deputy O'Shea referred to his experience with the information technology seminar. I submit that this was probably a far better experience than reading a paragraph in an annual report on the school's information technology policy. It is far better to visit a school and discover what is happening by questioning a teacher or practitioner than it is to read two to three paragraphs in an annual report, which will never convey the excitement, enthusiasm or brilliance of the teacher concerned or the degree to which children interact with and use technology.
I would welcome the development of further initiatives of this kind because people will gain a real insight into what is happening in schools if such exchanges take place. That is why the Bill places an obligation on the boards to establish procedures to inform parents. However, we are allowing schools flexibility in terms of the types of procedures they will establish or the mechanisms by which they will inform parents. That is the nature of providing local autonomy. It is for this reason we want to establish boards of management with some reasonable degree of manoeuvre.
I was anxious that the Bill should not be as prescriptive as the Education (No. 1) Bill or as centrally directed in terms of our telling boards what action to take and expecting them to deal with a heavy bureaucratic workload and produce endless reports. The school plan is the central element on which I have concentrated, which is very important. School plans will not be reviewed by means of annual reports, they will include an in-built evaluation dimension. The Bill was amended on Committee Stage to ensure that school plans will be regularly reviewed and updated. In terms of whether the objectives of school plans are being achieved or realised, that is part and parcel of the school plan exercise itself.
The Minister has become carried away by the rhetoric which led him to make certain changes in the Bill. There is no doubt that a number of those changes are welcome. Many people believe the Minister displayed a lighter touch in terms of some of the things he has done while others believe he missed the opportunity to devolve power. However, we will not embark upon that debate now.
It is ludicrous for the Minister to suggest that it is too prescriptive to ask an organisation as important as a school to produce an annual report for parents, who are its shareholders and partners. Regardless of their size — some branches of political organisations contain only nine members — clubs of all kinds are obliged to provide annual reports to their membership regarding how they spent money, what activities they pursued and if they pursued prescribed activities such as the collection of money. Local branch organisations affiliated to political parties are obliged to report on whether they carried out the activities they are directed to carry out under the constitution of those parties.
The Minister's suggestion that it is too prescriptive to ask schools to produce annual reports shows that he has been carried away by a view he held in the past. We must deconstruct the logic of his argument. The Minister stated that school plans are crucial. However, I have witnessed and participated in the formulation of many plans only to see them promptly ignored. Such plans are merely forgotten when circumstances change. The discipline of an annual report in the context of school planning is that it provides a benchmark whereby school authorities can question whether their plans were unrealistic and, if not, they can ask why certain courses of action were not pursued.
We are not discussing local pigeon clubs, we are concerned with institutions which take charge of our community's most important asset. It is not asking much to request that schools should report to parents yearly on how they deal with the stewardship of their children. That is all that is at stake here. The Minister used the terms "heavy handedness", "excessively prescriptive" and "looking to specify every detail" but the debate has not centred on those points. I could understand it if schools were offended if the Minister required them, as many businesses are required under EU regulations, to complete an endless number of forms. We suggest that schools should develop their own reportage based on their school plan, which would be the main document, and that they and parents should choose the topics upon which they should report. Schools should be obliged to accede to a parent's request for it to report on a certain issue.
The Minister has gotten carried away with himself and he has missed the opportunity to do something which would have been seen to be meaningful in the long term. He is correct to state that the holder of his office cannot produce quality annual reports from Marlborough St. , but he could create a framework to provide a reasonable opportunity for their development. That is all that is suggested in the amendment.
Amendments Nos. 124, 126, 129, 131 and 134 are related and may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 124:
In page 20, line 48, after "of" to insert "equality of treatment and".
This seeks to amend the section we have been debating for some time in respect of whether annual reports should be provided. The section is entitled "Report and information" and it sets out to establish procedures for informing the parents of children in schools of matters relating to the operation and performance of the schools. The amendment seeks to change the text of the later part of the section to read "with particular reference to the achievement of equality of treatment and objectives as set out in the school plan provided for under section 22." Why is that important? It is important for a number of reasons. I refer to the definition of special needs. As I see it special needs relate to children with a disability, whether physical or sensory, intellectual disability, gifted children and those who are not performing because of social and environmental factors. A school plan, if it is to serve its fundamental purpose, must address the whole area of special needs, for example, how the school will adapt its environment to suit children with a physical disability, an intellectual disability or those who are presenting with dysfunctional behaviour. It is vital that in a planned and structured way the needs of individual children are diagnosed and assessed and that individual plans are part of the overall school plan.
In the mission statement, which would appear at the introduction of the school plan, there should be a definite commitment to equality of treatment. I firmly believe that unless we present these areas in the context of the legislation there will be a tendency in some instances to bypass the difficulties. It is absolutely essential that the first school plan produced in each school, following this legislation, should address itself to equality of treatment. Equality of treatment means that all children, irrespective of their particular need, will be given the same education route, that is, the wherewithal to develop to the fullness of their potential in the school.
I await the Minister's response to this fundamental and extremely important issue. I have said more than once there is a deteriorating situation which, to an extent, the system is denying, involving serious discipline problems. Schools are not always ready to make this public because parents can lose confidence in particular schools if they are upfront about the discipline difficulties being encountered. Other schools which encounter equal if not more exacting difficulties but who sing mum may be performing at a more effective level. This amendment seeks to insert "equality of treatment" as the area of particular reference and I hope the Minister will respond positively to it.
I wish to address my own amendment No. 129 which is in the same spirit as that articulated by Deputy O'Shea. I note the Minister is sponsoring amendment No. 126 which seeks to insert the following: "(2) The school plan shall state the objectives of the school relating to equality of access to and participation in the school. ." That is welcome. The only point I would make in defence of my amendment is that terms such as "equality of access" and "participation" are lofty and are not always clear. I believe equality of treatment involves discrimination in access in many cases. There are children with special needs who have to get discriminately additional support. It is not only a question of equality but of premium in some ways. That is the reason I favour the formulation that made explicit reference to tackling the needs of pupils likely to suffer an educational disadvantage, integrating pupils with special needs and building structures with parents to promote their active involvement in the education of their children. This element is missed in the Minister's amendment.
An essential ingredient of any policy seeking to help children who are educationally disadvantaged is the support of parents. Many of the policies developed recently, such as the home school liaison scheme, recognises the importance of parents' involvement in successfully tackling equality of participation.
I am concerned that the lofty rhetoric surrounding equality of participation needs to be distilled down to what it means. Deputy O'Shea said it means that appropriate access is provided to a school for a child with a special need. If that means he needs speech therapy or special equipment to participate they will be provided. That is why I favour in my amendment a more explicit reference to what we want specified.
In the development of directions the Minister can be explicit in relation to what we need. Will he distil down some practical elements he expects the school plan to address so that it can fulfil what is described in his amendment as "equality of access to and participation" but for practical purposes should be described in a more concrete way for schools when the directions are issued?
I am happy to accept the Minister's amendment as an alternative. When developing these directions which he may give from time to time will he make concrete what he means by equality of treatment? In other words, he expects objectives in relation to physical access if there are children with special needs, access to speech therapy or involvement with parents who may have had negative experiences in school themselves. These are matters that should be addressed in a plan which tries to meaningfully integrate children who may otherwise drop out of the school system before their time.
I accept the motivation of both Deputies. My amendment No. 126 was formulated to accommodate the broad thrust of amendments Nos. 129, 131 and 134. Amendment No. 126 is a statement relating to equality of access to and participation in the school and is all-embracing. We have to be careful not to write into the Bill the school plan or the paramaters which it should embrace. The Department and the Minister will issue clear directions and guidelines to schools on what should be included in drawing up a school plan. In some of the Breaking the Cycle schools a pilot scheme has been initiated and draft guidelines are being prepared for a school plan. I have some sympathy with Deputy O'Shea's amendment No. 134. It is not necessary to include amendment No. 124 because the principles of equality of rights and treatment underpin all aspects of the Bill. Therefore, it does not require specific mentioning.
Regarding amendment No. 134, we agreed at an earlier section that we wanted responsibility for the provision of children with special needs and proper planning in that area to rest with the Minister of the day. I have no difficulty incorporating the drawing up of an inclusive plan for students with special needs, but we must decide whether to make that a function of the board or of the principal and teachers. Deputy O'Shea's amendment proposes it should be the responsibility of the principal and the teachers.
That is correct.
That provision might fit better in section 21 which deals with the school plan and it could be included as a new subsection 4. It would read to the effect that, a board shall, as part of the school plan exercise, draw up an inclusive plan for students at the school with special educational needs.
I am very pleased with that. What about the consultation process?
It would also include the wording, "following consultation with all the partners." I will have to redraft the amendment to section 21. That responsibility could rest with the principal and teachers, but it would be better if it rested with the board because it is representative of the different partners. That would meet the Deputy's objective. I will draft such an amendment and table it when the Bill goes to the Seanad. It is understood that it is implied we should do that, but I accept the Deputy's point that we want to make sure there is a statutory obligation to do so.
We want to ensure there is a statutory responsibility to do so and that the consultation process is statutory. The Minister has come a long way towards meeting our aspirations although he claimed he was meeting them to an extent. I am pleased with how he will address this issue in the context of the Seanad debate and on that basis I will not pursue my amendment.
The Minister is working towards a better formulation in regard to the school plan than that contained in his amendment. I do not like the term "equality of access to and participation" because of its vagueness. I much prefer the terms he used when he talked about a level and quality of education that is appropriate to meet the needs and abilities of the person. That is a much clearer statement of what we are about. I will withdraw my amendment in favour of the one he will table when the Bill goes to the Seanad. It will have benefited from this discussion.
I move amendment No. 126:
In page 21, between lines 4 and 5, to insert the following:
"(2) The school plan shall state the objectives of the school relating to equality of access to and participation in the school and the measures which the school proposes to take to achieve those objectives.".
This amendment does not exclude what I intend to do in regard to Deputy O'Shea's amendment.
Why should we use that wording instead of the wording used in section 7?
We might still want to include wording about general equality of access to and participation in a school. I will also table an amendment to include the full content of Deputy O'Shea's amendment.
I move amendment No. 127:
In page 21, line 5, after "accordance" to insert "with procedures adopted by the board following consultations with the partners in the school and with the Inspectorate and".
This amendment refers to a board's consultation with parents and teachers in the framing of a school plan. I favour an explicit reference to consultation between the board and the partners and the inspectorate to facilitate the participation of parents, school partners and the inspectorate, where it has a valuable input to make to the school plan. Inspectors would have experience to bring to bear on the development of school plans. I favour a much more proactive advocate role for the inspectorate rather than the old role of examining what is happening. To ensure the inspectorate has a more proactive role, it should act as a support resource for the development of school plans.
Many schools would find great difficulty in producing good quality school plans without the involvement of the inspectorate and the resources of the Department. Parents who are very articulate and have access to the services of accountants and planners will not find it difficult to articulate a school plan, but those who do not have access to those resources will have to fall back on the Department as a resource to support the formulation of those plans. In its changing role, the inspectorate could play a useful role as a backup resource for schools. Otherwise, I fear that the best laid plans might fall because the pressure on a school principal and board in a deprived area in formulating school plans will be far greater than in other areas where principals and boards do not have the same degree of crisis management, discipline problems and pressures on the existing school resources. There will probably be a role for the Department, through its inspectorate, to help resource the thinking behind these plans.
It will have such a role. Section 21(2) sets out that a school plan will be prepared in accordance with various directions. Much detail will be required in the drawing up of a school plan. It is not appropriate that the Bill should spell out all that detail. There is a covering point that the Minister will issue directions in terms of the nature and quality of the interaction at local level and the consultation process that must be engaged in between the partners in drawing up a school plan. It is appropriate that we give national guidelines in this regard and directions in terms of the basic principles that should be involved as to how partners should be made part of the process. The inspectorate will have an important role in advising schools on this. I envisage the inspectorate as being central to the regulations that will follow the passing of the Bill and the directions that will issue relating to the school plan.
I will not press my amendment, but I am not clear about how the Minister perceives school plans will be developed in schools which by their nature will not have access to the same expertise that will be available to other schools. The Minister will need to do more than issue guidelines to schools. He will have to ensure inspectors act as advocates and work with the school to develop a credible school plan.
Yes. That is part of the school evaluation exercise. I would see the inspectorate playing a support role in assisting schools, particularly smaller schools, on the methodology of this and the best way to develop such plans. There may also be other supports we can give schools.
It is a board's responsibility to produce a school plan. The principal teacher and/or some other teachers will produce the plan.
There would probably be a lot of merit in using the teacher centres to discuss the formatting of these plans. Where there have been school plans in my area the inspector would have played an ongoing role in their development. The onus would be on the school to produce the plan, but adaptations or amendments would be made within the context of those discussions.
The partners in education and what they wish to have in the school plan would play a role, but not everything can be included. Perhaps because I am a teacher I believe the teacher, especially the principal teacher, will have the main responsibility for developing the plan. This should cover Deputy Bruton's concerns. The Department needs to be proactive. The teacher centres would be a useful vehicle for developing this strategy.
I am happy with the position.
I move amendment No. 128:
In page 21, between lines 8 and 9, to insert the following:
"(3) The plan shall include an appraisal of the school's objectives, resources, and policies in relation to the functions of the school set out in this Act and shall set out strategies to achieve targeted improvements in the school.".
This was discussed on Committee Stage. Our discussions of amendments Nos. 124 and 126 dealt with one aspect of the matter. We have gone to considerable effort to set out the functions of the school and the objectives of the education system.
On Committee Stage I was concerned at the extent to which schools would look at these objectives and bear them in mind. I saw merit in asking schools in the preparation of their plans to look at the objectives and the functions of the school set out in the Bill. These articulate the detail we have been adding in the context of the discussion on the school plan and issues such as equality of treatment and others set out in section 6 and other sections. It may be a good idea if part of the information pack to be sent to schools as they frame their plans contain the objectives set out in the Bill, which they should look at because they are the touchstones set by the Oireachtas as to what the school system is about.
In this section I am trying to avoid going into too much detail about what the plan should contain. If we start on that there is danger that by the time the Bill is introduced to the Seanad a raft of amendments will be tabled as to what the school plan should contain. A school plan should take cognisance of the objectives contained in the Bill. I will give an undertaking to the Deputy that this will be included in the regulations on school plans to be issued following the passage of the Bill.
I am happy with the Minister's response. Section 9 sets out the kind of principles we want to see and it makes explicit reference to special education needs, etc. It has merit and should be brought to the attention of schools in the way the Minister suggests.
I move amendment No. 132:
In page 21, line 17, to delete ", generally,".
Section 22(1) states: "The Principal of a recognised school and the teachers in a recognised school, under the direction of the Principal, shall have responsibility, in accordance with this Act, for the instruction provided to students in the school and shall contribute, generally, to the education and personal development of students in that school." Is the word "generally" necessary here? Should the section not read: ". ..and shall contribute to the education and personal development of students in that school."? I am not sure if the word "generally" adds anything, indeed, it could have a diluting effect. I am not unduly concerned about this, but it struck me that it was not the most appropriate use of the word. My concern is more one of drafting than any basic flaw in the principles underlining the legislation.
The parliamentary draftsmen tend to use this kind of language. This is intended to convey that the role of the principal and teachers is not confined to instruction, but that they have a general role in terms of the instruction and personal development of children under their care. I am not unduly concerned about the matter, but I am advised that the parliamentary draftsman inserted the word and it tends to be the kind of language they use from time to time. The education and personal development of students is provided for.
I move amendment No. 135:
In page 21, line 38, after "determined" to insert "and so agreed".
Part V is concerned with the principal and teachers. Section 23 is concerned with the principal. Section 23(1) states: "A board shall, in accordance with procedures agreed from time to time between the Minister, the patron, recognised school management organisations and any recognised trade union or staff association representing teachers, appoint to the school in a whole-time capacity a person to be Principal of that school subject to such terms and conditions as may be determined from time to time by the Minister with the consent of the Minister for Finance." When the consultation process set out in the section is at an end the decision should be made by way of agreement, especially with the recognised trade union or staff organisation. This practise has generally been adhered to in the past in the area of industrial relations. I fear that if the agreement was not part of it, at a particular time some agreement could be reached that could prove divisive rather than constructive in terms of the system.
It will not be divisive in the sense that in the public interest the Minister for Education and Science and the Minister for Finance have responsibility to determine how public funds are utilised. The determination of terms and conditions of employment is a standard element of all similar legislation. Obviously this Bill is not the forum for this issue. The normal industrial relations machinery and agreements between Government and social partners hammered out in regular social partnerships will determine pay levels and allowances. That is why the clause will always be in the legislation, even though what happens in terms of the ongoing relationship between the social partners and Government in practice determines what happens to pay levels and allowances. This is a standard provision we are incorporating in the Bill.
Concerns have been expressed to me but if the Minister assures me the normal industrial relations machinery — that is the conciliation and arbitration machinery which exists between the teacher unions and his Department — is not affected by this, I withdraw the amendment.
I move amendment No. 136:
In page 21, between lines 39 and 40, to insert the following:
"(2) The Minister shall consult with national associations in relation to these procedures in a timely manner to ensure that due account is taken of the concern of parents in their design.".
This amendment relates to the consultation of parents in respect of the procedures for appointing school principals. It is noticeable that section 23 describes that procedures will be agreed with the patron, recognised school management organisations and recognised trade unions or staff associations representing teachers on the procedure of appointing a person to be a principal. The noticeable absentees from the list of partners in the school are parents. The Minister should consult national associations on these procedures in a timely manner to ensure that due account is taken of the concerns of parents in their design.
There is no doubt the appointment of the principal and the way in which such appointments are made, are of fundamental importance to the quality of the education provided in school. The parents, who under the Constitution are recognised as the primary educators of the child, must surely have some role in being consulted on the procedures for these appointments which are so important to the quality of education.
I can understand that issues of industrial relations and employment conditions are involved, where parents do not have a specific role, unlike a management organisation or a trade union. I would not suggest that parents should be included on the same footing as those who have traditionally negotiated collective agreements but some of these procedures are of significant importance to parents. What happens if a principal is hopeless and what procedures exist for dealing with such a problem? There are numerous broader issues that parents could have a legitimate input into and concern about. In framing legislation about the appointment of someone, whom we all recognise is the leader of the school and without whom all of this very worthy framework will not function, there is merit in recognising a consultative role for parents in respect of some elements of all the procedures of appointment and/or removal, if that became an issue. That is why I suggest the Minister should recognise that parents have a role in respect of other areas, while not recognising them as one would recognise a trade union in negotiations because some issues do not fall within their remit.
To a certain extent the Deputy has hit the nail on the head. Sensitive industrial relations issues are at stake. I do not want to change thestatus quo, unilaterally. The best way forward is for all the partners to agree to try to develop a consensus on the matter. At the moment, quite clearly, the appointment of a principal represents a contract between the person concerned and the school board of management. I point out again that parents are on boards of management and will clearly have an input into the appointment of the principal.
I am not talking about the individual appointment.
No, the Deputy is talking about the procedures and that there should be consultation with the National Parents Association on procedures.
If we were to do that unilaterally it would cause significant industrial difficulties, to be straight and honest with the Deputy. At this juncture I do not think it is appropriate to put that into legislation.
I have no doubt the Minister is right in saying it would cause some eyebrows to be raised.
More than eyebrows.
That is why I have formulated it in a very loose way. All I am asking is that the Minister should consult the national associations on the procedures, in a timely manner. I am not saying parents have a right of veto in these procedures, nor am I saying the Minister must act on their recommendations. At the very minimum, however, in passing legislation that is setting the framework not just for today but perhaps for 20 years hence — the Minister will probably feel he would not want to go through this process again for 100 years — we should not just be influenced by the current climate of industrial relations. If the climate of industrial relations is as the Minister describes it, it says more about a rather distorted view of the role of parents in the education system. These procedures will inevitably come under scrutiny in future and there will be more and more interest in the quality of education. There will be more and more focus on incompetence wherever it arises, and how it is dealt with. To say that parents would not have some role that is specified in legislation — it is not a prescriptive or vetoing role — speaks volumes about the nature of the problems we have in recognising partnership in education.
There is far too much protectiveness within the education system about throwing open the doors. Parents are not out on the ramparts trying to break down the system, they are trying to make it work. I would far prefer to see a bit more openness and generosity on all sides rather than have people sitting in tight positions saying, "This is my territory, don't dare come in on it". That is what the Minister is saying. Such territorial demarcations are set out and he does not want to shake the tree or rattle the cage. I am of the opposite view; that something like this could not be construed as being offensive. However, at the same time it would open up the doors so that at least parents can peep in and express a view to the Minister who is their representative. He is the people's representative in all this, which is a good thing. I respect the Minister's practical difficulties but, on reflection, I do not think this matter would be seen as offensive to modern trade union leaders or school managements. If it is, it would be disappointing.
We are talking about the pay and conditions of principal teachers. As the Minister pointed out, there has been a traditional method of dealing with those. The input of parents into the consultation process is not quite the same as parents being involved in an agreement process. Nobody, including teachers, would stand over incompetence or dereliction of duty on the part of a teacher. However, there is always the danger of malice, of individuals looking for a stick with which to beat somebody. Deputy Bruton was concerned about over-protectiveness in this area, but there is much wisdom in not exposing certain areas in a way that is not conducive to obtaining the best results. Incompetence and dereliction of duty can be dealt with effectively between the Department and the teacher unions. As a teacher I would not want to teach in a school where the principal was not functioning because in such circumstances there would be all sorts of spin-offs.
The consultation process includes people who traditionally have had responsibility for determining the pay and conditions of principals, and I would be loath to change that. On the other hand, I agree with Deputy Bruton that nobody would stand over incompetence or dereliction of duty on the part of a principal. The procedures for dealing with such situations should be addressed by the Department. One of the difficulties is that the qualification for national teaching does not qualify a person to do anything else. If somebody is not suited, for whatever reason, to the job of teaching, a solution might be reached by moving the person into some other employment within the State service. Much of the difficulty in dealing with incompetence is in finding an alternative occupation for somebody who has devoted part of his or her life to an education which focuses him or her in a particular direction. It is not an easy question, but it needs to be effectively addressed where it arises because, at the end of the day, the interests of children are paramount. Any other interest has to take second place in that regard.
The only example Deputy Bruton gave was the input national parents' organisations might have in this regard. The kinds of concerns Deputy Bruton has stated come in at other levels but, in the final analysis, this is essentially an industrial relations area where there are set practices and standards. It is difficult enough to bring about change in the education system and something like this could have the effect of delaying progress. The issue about which Deputy Bruton has expressed particular concern could and should be addressed in other ways.
I agree with Deputy O'Shea. We will bring forward a teaching council Bill in the new year. I established a steering committee and a working group some time ago which produced a comprehensive report on a teaching council which involves issues of professionalism and standards and deals with the full gamut of issues pertaining to teacher competence and so forth. Parents and all Departments have worked on the steering committee in particular and have been party to the preparation of a teaching council Bill which will be a significant achievement if we can pull it off. I am confident we will.
Deputy Bruton's amendment does not really deal with the issue of incompetence or the removal of teachers; it deals specifically with the procedures for the appointment of teachers and consultation with national parents' councils. It is my judgment that at this time it would be inappropriate to unilaterally put that into legislation. To do so would jeopardise the balance that exists and it would have a significant negative effect on industrial relations which is not warranted at this time. The best way to proceed is to try to develop agreement and consensus between the partners.
I still say the Minister is selling us short on this. I can understand Deputy O'Shea's reservations. These are difficult problems, but parents have a right to be heard, and not just on incompetence. Parents would probably articulate the view that in schools in areas where there is serious disadvantage a school principal or any staff member appointed should have experience in dealing with the problems of such schools, and we should not appoint people without the relevant experience.
There are many areas where parents might bring an insight that is not strictly reflected by national managements or national union associations. That is in the nature of things. One does not expect the representatives of trade unions or of management to necessarily articulate the views of another group. It would be inhuman to expect them to do that. That is why some move in this direction is worthwhile. The Minister may say there will be consultation only in relation to appointments, but if there is some consultation in relation to the appointment of teachers, the other side of that is the removal of a teacher. If parents are brought in they will have the chance to say something about the sort of criteria that should apply in the appointment of principals to different types of schools, whether they are happy with how appointment procedures are working and so on. Parents will bring a new perspective which will be valuable. The Minister is the only representative of the public in this. He is the people's champion and he should hear the views of parents, particularly where they are not going to be included under the statute. I am only asking that parents would at least have the ear of the Minister in relation to their concerns and have it statutorily. I do not propose to withdraw this amendment.
Carlow-Kilkenny): We now come to amendment No. 139 in the name of the Minister. Amendments Nos. 141 and 142 are related. Is it agreed that amendments Nos. 139 to 142, inclusive, will be taken together? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 139:
In page 23, line 40, after "school" to insert "and membership of that association shall be open to all parents of students of that school.".
My proposed amendments Nos. 139 and 142 deal with the issues raised by the Deputies in amendments Nos. 140 and 141. My approach puts somewhat more emphasis on the autonomy of parents' associations, which I consider desirable. My amendments provide that each parents' association would be open to all parents and would consult with members in making rules governing meetings and business and conduct of affairs. The amendments also provide that rules drawn up by an association affiliated to a national association would be in accordance with guidelines issued by that association with the concurrence of the Minister.
The Minister's changes are welcome. I was anxious that it be provided that parents' associations could not be accused of being cliques or not running their affairs in an open, fair and democratic manner. The Minister has gone a long way to meet those concerns and I thank him for the amendments he has tabled.
I will not press my amendments and will support the Minister's.
I move amendment No. 142:
In page 24, to delete lines 8 and 9 and substitute the following:
"(4) (a) A parents' association shall, following consultation with its members, make rules governing its meetings and the business and conduct of its affairs.
(b) Where a parents' association is affiliated to a national association of parents, the rules referred to in paragraph (a) shall be in accordance with guidelines issued by that national association of parents with the concurrence of the Minister.".
Amendments Nos. 144, 145 and amendment No. 1 to amendment No. 145 are related to amendment No. 143, so all may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 143:
In page 24, line 17, to delete "Without" and substitute "Students of a school may establish a student council and, without".
Amendments Nos. 143, 144 and 145 are aimed at addressing issues concerned with the establishment of student councils. This was discussed on Committee Stage and the amendments, which arise from the concerns expressed, place more emphasis on the autonomy of students in establishing councils and give the Minister a role in setting guidelines for the establishment, election and dissolution of councils.
Deputy O'Shea's amendment proposes to change the word "guidelines" to "regulations". I am not sure that is appropriate because schools are different in size and ethos. I do not believe they should be tied down by ministerial regulation on a matter such as this. Guidelines are more flexible, allow for some degree of local autonomy and are more appropriate. If the situation does not work out, under section 33 the Minister is not prevented from issuing regulations on this matter. If at some future date it is necessary to do so, the Minister is empowered under the Bill to issue regulations pertaining to student councils.
The Minister's changes are welcome. They recognise that the establishment of a student council is not at the beck and call of the board and that there is a recognisable right to do so. His amendment is welcome.
I welcome the essence of the Minister's amendments. I am always a little wary of guidelines and that is why I sought to amend his amendment by inserting the word "regulations". I accept to a degree his point that schools vary in size. It is essentially a judgment call and my judgment in tabling the amendment was that regulations would be firmer and would lead to less misunderstanding in the long-term. However, I am prepared to withdraw my amendment and support the Minister's.
I move amendment No. 144:
In page 24, line 23, after "school" to insert "and the involvement of students in the affairs of the school,".
I move amendment No. 145:
In page 24, line 26, after "board" to insert ", in accordance with such guidelines as may be issued by the Minister from time to time,".
Amendment No. 147 is an alternative to amendment No. 146 and both may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 146:
In page 24, line 31, to delete "with the agreement of" and substitute "following consultation with".
In response to concerns expressed on Committee Stage I propose that the Minister consult rather than agree with the education partners regarding the establishment of grievance procedures. Deputy Bruton's amendment is similar.
This is welcome. My difficulty with the previous formulation was that the grievance procedure would be conditional on the agreement of all education partners before it could be initiated. This alternative formulation means the Minister can initiate the grievance procedure having consulted with the partners. That is fairer and I welcome the amendment.
I move amendment No. 148:
In page 24, line 42, to delete "may" and substitute "shall".
The purpose of amendment No. 148 is to ensure there remains no room for doubt that grievances heard by school boards of management under the terms of section 28 must be heard in accordance with the procedures agreed between the Minister and the education partners.
I welcome the change.
Amendment No. 151 is related to amendment No. 148a and amendment No. 150a is an alternative to amendment No. 151 so all may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 148a:
In page 25, between lines 3 and 4, to insert the following:
"29. -(1) Where a board makes a decision which materially affects the education of a student and a dispute arises in relation thereto and internal procedures are exhausted, either party to the dispute may apply to the Secretary General who may appoint an independent person to attempt conciliation and to afford a hearing to both sides.".
I tabled this amendment arising from discussions on Committee Stage. A further course of redress beyond the grievance procedures within schools is the appeals procedure to the Secretary General of the Department of Education and Science. I suggest that, where all grievance procedures within a school have been exhausted and before the formal appeals procedure is resorted to, conciliation should be attempted as another option. The amendment provides that either party may apply to the Secretary General who may appoint an independent person to attempt conciliation and to afford a hearing to both sides.
Where a certain difficulty arises which causes pain for a student, their family and possibly the school, it is important that a person without affiliation with the school or the education system be appointed to listen to both sides and seek to arrive at an agreed solution rather than allowing the matter of dispute, such as a suspension, an expulsion or a decision not to admit a child on grounds other than lack of accommodation, go through the appeals procedure. The formal and more remote appeals procedure, which by its nature is arbitrary, can be more intimidating for those who are not used to presenting themselves in a formal setting. If they could go down the other avenue, they would have an opportunity to reflect on the position in which they find themselves with a neutral third party who would seek to reach a fair conclusion. The Minister should give this proposal some consideration.
When the new appeals procedure is introduced it is inevitable that a large number of appeals will be lodged but the numbers will probably level off in time. We would do all involved in the education system a service by ensuring solutions are found locally.
This is a worthwhile amendment. Conciliation is always preferable to a semilegal procedure where barristers are appointed. In other spheres of activity rights commissioners have been successful without needing to hold formal hearings.
Conciliation is provided for in amendment No. 157 which reads:
In page 25, between lines 40 and 41, to insert the following:
"(a) the parties to the appeal are assisted to reach agreement on the matters the subject of the appeal where the appeals committee is of the opinion that reaching such agreement is practicable in the circumstances,".
I do not propose to accept amendments Nos. 148a and 151. The Bill provides for a comprehensive appeals procedure which involves appeals to the Secretary General of the Department and the establishment of an appeals committee. This matter was thrashed out at some length on Second and Committee Stages and I am satisfied the correct balance has been struck. Flexibility has also been provided for. Following consultation with the partners in education, the Minister will have the power to develop the process further.
It is not clear who will initiate the process. Each party to a dispute should have the right to trigger a conciliation process. On amendment No. 157 in the name of the Minister, the mechanics are not clear.
In analysing an appeal lodged by parents against the decision of a board of management concerning their children the appeals committee may decide to ask both parties to agree to a conciliation procedure. It is best that this be promoted by a third party.
The amendment does not make it clear that that is what is envisaged. In cases where a solution has not been found it should be indicated to both parties that either of them can apply to the Secretary General of the Department to have a conciliation procedure initiated. The decision on whether such a procedure would be effective should rest with the Secretary General. Parents are not used to presenting themselves at various fora and they may feel the system is not responsive to their needs and that they are being excluded. Where they have a grievance it is important that there is quick access to conciliation. I have been involved in the conciliation process and it is important to listen to both sides who should be allowed to talk at length. While the Minister is moving in the right direction, I am not sure the mechanics are user friendly.
If necessary, amendment No. 157 can be strengthened. It is advisable, however, that the appeals committee should initiate the conciliation procedure, not the Secretary General. It is the appeals committee that will decide appeals.
I want to achieve a simplified, user friendly appeals process. On the basis that the Minister is also committed to that, and will examine the possibility of putting it in place, I will not pursue my amendment.
I move amendment No. 149:
In page 25, line 4, after "board" to insert "or a person acting on behalf of the board".
The purpose of amendment No. 149 is to broaden the scope of appeals by allowing the decision of a person acting on behalf of a board as well as the decision of the board itself to be appealed.
It is important that the decision of a person acting on behalf of a board can be appealed, but the amendment recognises that persons acting on behalf of the board must be able to act. The original formulation suggested that they would not be able to take certain actions. If a school principal, for example, could not take certain actions his or her position would be undermined. From both points of view this is an important amendment.
I move amendment No. 150:
In page 25, line 13, after "teachers", to insert ", organisations representing people with disabilities,".
I move amendment No. 150a:
In page 25, lines 13 to 19, to delete all words from and including "determine" in line 13, down to and including "decision", in line 19 and substituting the following:
"determine may be appealed in accordance with this section, the parent of the student or, in the case of a student who has reached the age of 18 years, the student, may, within a reasonable time from the date that the parent or student was informed of the decision".
I move amendment No. 152:
In page 25, line 19, after "and" to insert "in the case of a decision under subsection 1 (d)".
This amendment deals with the question of whether an internal process of investigation would have to be gone through before an appeal could be made. As the legislation is framed, permanent exclusion and suspension would have to go through a process of internal appeal before it could be brought to the attention of the appeals service of the Department. In the case of exclusion from the school, which is a dramatic change in a pupil's status, some form of fast track appeals procedure should be available. To require a student who has been permanently excluded from school to await the deliberations of an internal process of indeterminate length does not seem fair. In view of the gravity of the decision to exclude or suspend there should be direct access to the appeals procedure. My amendment would ensure only the new class (d) of complaints and grievances would go through the internal school appeals procedure.
Does the amendment specify class (d)?
There are four categories of complaint. Classes (a), (b) and (c) deal with exclusions and suspensions. If a child is excluded from school following a decision in one of those three categories the child's appeal should go directly to the Department's appeals procedure rather than wait an indeterminate length while the school considers it.
That is not what the Deputy's amendment states. Category (d) refers to decisions of a class which the Minister, following consultation with patrons, national associations of parents, recognised school management organisations, recognised trade unions and staff associations representing teachers, may from time to time determine may be appealed in accordance with this section. Category (a) refers to students permanently excluded from school.
The Deputy wishes to ensure that if a pupil is expelled it should be possible to make a direct appeal to the Secretary General of the Department. His amendment does not do this.
The thrust of my amendment is that in a case where a child has been excluded, he or she should not be expected to wait for an internal investigation of indeterminate length. This could take too long.
The Minister will lay down procedural regulations when the Bill has become law. An appeal to the Secretary General could take even longer than an internal appeal. I would be concerned about delays if the Secretary General received hundreds of such appeals. Ideally, we would like to resolve as many problems as possible locally. I do not propose to accept this amendment although the Deputy's point is valid. The regulations issued by the Minister will take cognisance of the fact that students cannot be kept waiting for three months while excluded from school. It would be my intention that departmental regulations would deal with that situation. A timeframe for such appeals and for decisions on those appeals would be laid down.
I have not seen the Minister's proposed timeframes. My amendment No. 154 attempts to include a timeframe for such appeals in the Bill. If the Minister can assure me that those timeframes will be such that no student will be kept out of school for a lengthy period I would be satisfied, but as the legislation is now framed a school could prolong that process for an indeterminate length of time. On that basis I withdraw amendment No. 152.
Amendments Nos. 153 and 154 are related and may be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 153:
In page 25, line 20, after "patron" to insert ", in accordance with section 28,".
This amendment clarifies that the local procedures mentioned in section 29 in the context of appeals are those defined in section 28. As I commented earlier it is my view that the regulations which follow the passage of the Bill will lay out the appeals procedures in detail.
Amendment No. 1 to amendment No. 155 and amendment No. 156 are related and may be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 155:
In page 25, lines 27 and 28, to delete ", a practising barrister or solicitor of not less than seven years standing".
My aim is to address the concern expressed on Committee Stage and at the same time increase the flexibility in the composition of appeals committees.