Education (Welfare) Bill, 1999 [ Seanad ] : Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to have this opportunity to present the Education (Welfare) Bill for the attention of this House. The Bill has been drafted to address the needs of those most at risk of suffering educational disadvantage. It represents a radical but necessary departure from the traditional approach to the problem of non-attendance. In a major new initiative, it proposes to put in place a supportive infrastructure to help every element of the system to make its own contribution to tackling school attendance difficulties.

This Bill was initiated in the other House and has already been the subject of much constructive discussion there. A number of amendments have been made to the Bill on foot of that discussion. Since those discussions, the Minister and officials of the Department have continued an intensive process of consultation with the partners in education and, as recently as last week, the Minister attended a major consultative seminar on the Bill. The seminar brought together a wide range of individuals and groups concerned with school attendance and with the implementation of the Bill. All these consultations have proved immensely useful and have informed a number of amendments which we will be proposing on Committee Stage.

Bhfuil cóip den óráid atá á thabhairt ag an Aire le fáil ag na Teachtaí?

I understand the script will be circulated very shortly. I apologise to the House for the non-availability of the script, it should have been available by now.

I would like, for the benefit of the House, to explain why this is both timely and necessary legislation. I would then like to outline some of the key provisions of the Bill. The Bill has two broad aims. First, it provides for greater clarity and certainty as regards each child's right to a minimum education, the right of parents to choose how that education is to be provided and the State's role in providing for an education for each child. Second, the Bill provides a structure to encourage and promote school attendance, up to leaving certificate level or its equivalent, and by so doing to give our students a solid educational basis for later life. I would like to consider each of those objectives.

Our Constitution sets out a number of broad principles which underpin our education system. These principles strike a fine balance between the rights and duties of children, parents and the State. Deputies will appreciate that the Minister must work within this structure in framing legislation in this most important area. The legislation drafted must respect the balance between the rights of all the participants.

Many Deputies will be familiar with the detail of these constitutional provisions. Of particular relevance here are the provisions relating to the role of the family as "the primary and natural educator of the child", the State's guarantee "to respect the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide, according to their means, for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children"– Article 42.1 – and the right of parents "to provide this education in their homes or in private schools or in schools recognised or established by the State"– Article 42.2. These provisions recognise the right of parents to educate their children while, at the same time, requiring the State "as guardian of the common good, to require, in view of actual conditions, that the children receive a certain minimum education, moral, intellectual and social"– Article 42.3.2.

The Education (Welfare) Bill has been drafted to reflect and respect these rights in a balanced and proportionate way. The starting point when considering rights is the right of the child to an education. Parents, too, have rights to determine the education of their children and the Bill protects those rights. It explicitly recognises that some parents will opt to have their children educated outside the recognised school system.

The Bill must also take account of the Minister's duty to ensure that all children receive a minimum education. The Education Welfare Board, which I will discuss in more detail presently and which will be established in accordance with this Bill, will play a key role in this regard, in particular in so far as children receiving education outside the recognised school system are concerned. I accept that many dedicated parents provide a very high level of education to their children outside the school system. The Bill does not interfere with their rights in this regard. However, when parents cannot provide a minimum education the board may have to intervene to secure the child's right to a minimum education. In these cases the board may require the parents of the child to comply with certain conditions to ensure that the child does receive a minimum education for the future. Alternatively, if the case warrants it, the board may ultimately require the parent to enrol the child at a recognised school.

Let me be absolutely clear – the intention throughout is to respect the legitimate rights of parents in the education of their children. Deputies will appreciate that this is a delicate and sensitive area. Yet, it is also of fundamental importance that each child is given the educational opportunities to which he or she is entitled. I am firmly of the view that the legislation, as drafted, provides an appropriate and fair balance between the rights of all concerned, and respects each individual's constitutional rights.

The second objective of the Bill is to provide a structure to encourage and promote school attendance and, by so doing, to give our students a solid educational basis in later life. I know that Deputies will be aware of the strong evidence of a very close link between poor school attendance and social and economic disadvantage in later life. It has been shown that 90 per cent of households classified as poor are headed by an early school leaver and that people with low educational qualifications have less chances of employment than people with higher educational qualifications.

The ESRI, in its identification of the national investment priorities for 2000 to 2006, also noted that research has found that the absence of any educational qualifications among many school leavers leaves them seriously at risk of spending much of their lives unemployed. The ESRI also warned that despite our economic success, those people who leave the educational system without qualifications will remain at a significant disadvantage in finding employment. They highlighted interventions for children who are currently not making it through the system as the first priority for investment in education over the period of the next national development plan.

Over 10,000 teenagers each year leave the education system without any qualifications. We have said repeatedly that we must target interventions towards this group and in line with this the Government has launched a number of policy initiatives in this area over the last two years. These initiatives include the vital importance of linking families to schools, which has been recognised through the extension of the home school liaison service to every school classified as disadvantaged; special education needs, which have been targeted through the introduction of a needs-based system of supports and the extension of the remedial teaching service to every school in the country, and the establishment of a new national educational psychological service which is already well under way.

The Minister recently launched a £4.5 million stay in school initiative, aimed at keeping pupils in school to the end of the leaving certificate, through school-based plans, supported by generous financing.

I apologise to the Minister of State as it is not my intention to interrupt him. However, if his speech is to include statistical matter, it is important that we would have copies of it before we make our own contributions.

Unfortunately, I have no control over this matter. My understanding was that copies would have been circulated by now. I agree with Deputy Higgins and fully accept his point but, unfortunately, there is nothing I can do here and now to secure his wishes.

These new programmes are additional to a number of well established programmes which have the aim of retaining children and young people in the education system for sufficiently long to enable them to benefit to the maximum extent from the system. On the curriculum and programme side considerable progress has been made in curriculum developments at both first and second level. In the last month, the Minister launched the revised primary curriculum. We have also significantly expanded the resources allocated to the leaving certificate applied and leaving certificate vocational programme and the junior certificate schools programme.

These changes need to be underpinned by a strong, up-to-date legislative framework. The current legislative framework for the administration of school attendance is still provided largely by the School Attendance Act, 1926. This Act, which reflects the era and environment in which it was drafted and enacted, is of limited usefulness in tackling the complex problems which we currently face in relation to school attendance. The Act was, essentially, a relatively simplistic mechanism to deal with what, at that time, appeared to be a very simple problem. Moreover, the Act was framed negatively, rather than positively. It focused on punishing offenders, rather than assessing the causes of school non-attendance with a view to tackling them. Finally, the Act expected schools and principals to take on the full brunt of promoting school attendance without adequately providing for the duty of the State to support schools in these endeavours.

This Bill is framed to provide for a completely new and structured approach to school attendance issues. The Bill recognises the complexity of the issues surrounding and determining school non-attendance and early school leaving, takes a proactive rather than reactive approach to deal with these issues and, in particular, creates a radical new support mechanism for children. The Bill also seeks to promote positive attitudes to school attendance, rather than merely to sanction poor school attendance. In support of the changed focus, the Bill contains a number of specific positive elements, which combine to form an integrated and holistic approach to promoting school attendance. These include, for example, school attendance strategies which each school must prepare with the objective of promoting school attendance among pupils. Each school must also prepare a code of behaviour setting out the behaviour expected of pupils at that particular school.

The aim throughout is to encourage young people to remain in the education system so that they may benefit as much as possible from the system and lay a solid foundation for future successful participation in their social and economic development and that of their community.

The Bill must obviously contain provisions for tracking children through the education system, to stem the tide of children who simply disappear each year from the system. It must also contain provision for record keeping by schools and by others involved in the education system. I am aware that some groups have questioned the rationale for the record-keeping system proposed in place in the Bill. They have suggested that this will place too great an imposition on schools and unwarranted demands on their time, which will disrupt the normal operation of those schools. I want to take a moment to deal with that specific criticism. The existing framework for the administration of school attendance is contained in the School Attendance Act, 1926. This Act makes specific provision for a record-keeping system in each school. Each school principal must, according to section 15 of the Act:

supply on demand in the prescribed form to any enforcing authority, the respective ages as stated in the school registers of all or any of the children attending such school and the prescribed particulars of the attendance at and absences from such school of all or any of those children who are children to whom this Act applies.

With the exception of the limited school attendance service, no dedicated supports are currently provided to assist schools in tackling school non-attendance and promoting school attendance. I know that, today, most schools engage in effective recording of pupils' attendance and non-attendance, of monitoring individual absences and requiring consequent explanations, and of noting any longer-term patterns which indicate possible school attendance problems.

The new legislation reflects this and, at the same time, updates the existing requirements already set out in the 1926 Act. However, unlike the earlier legislation, the new Bill introduces a radical new structure in the form of the national educational welfare board to, for the first time ever, provide dedicated support to schools to combat the wider issues surrounding school non-attendance.

Let me be clear. The Government considers that this legislation is among the most important which will be introduced in the area of education.

The Bill goes to the heart of our commitments to enhance the life chances of all children through education. It does not seek to, nor do I believe does it, place a serious additional workload on schools in relation to this core educational objective. That is not to say that it does not have any resource implications. There are schools which experience significant levels of absenteeism and it is our intention that additional resources will be concentrated on them, through existing programmes and through future development of these and other programmes in the future.

More generally, the establishment of the National Educational Welfare Board will provide a supportive framework to assist schools and minimise the impact of compliance with the Bill's provisions. This is a very innovative development which I feel sure will be of considerable support to schools in the future.

It has also been suggested that the Bill will result in excessive reporting of trivial school attendance problems to the educational welfare officers. That is not the position. In the majority of instances, schools will deal with non-attendance at a local level. It is not the concern of this Bill, nor should it be, to deal with a child who misses three or four school days over the course of the school year. Such an event could quite conceivably occur in the case of many pupils. However, the Bill must make provision for the Minister to fulfil his duty to ensure that every child's right to a minimum education is vindicated. That is the sole aim of the record keeping and reporting proposals in the Bill.

As already stated, it is generally accepted, and supported by research, that there is a strong relationship between the amount of time a person spends in education and that person's ability to participate successfully in the economy and in society generally. The current school leaving age is 15; the legislation will raise this age to 16, with a capacity to change this in the future by order with the approval of the Houses of the Oireachtas if circumstances warrant it. It is clear, however, that it is not simply the period of time which is spent in the education system that determines future life chances. Some solid educational achievements must be gained if students are to be able to take their places in the economy and in society. Conscious of this, we have chosen to extend the duration of schooling in a constructive and innovative manner. Thus, the new requirement is not simply a blunt statement of a raised school leaving age; rather it is a statement that, in order to leave school, a student must both have reached the age of 16 and completed three years of post-primary education. A core element of supporting this extended period in school is the expansion of curriculum options which I mentioned earlier.

The Government's concern that young people should benefit to the maximum extent from the education system does not stop when they reach school leaving age. We have made no secret of the fact that we are concerned to ensure that young people should continue to benefit from the education system until the age of 18 and beyond. This is why the Bill makes specific provision for young people aged 16 to 18 years who have left the education system. In dealing with this issue we have, again, sought to take an even handed approach. I am aware that many young people will wish to leave school as soon as possible to take up employment. I am also aware that, in many cases, this can be a challenging and rewarding step with the potential for career progression and mobility within the labour force. Many of the young people involved may, in fact, continue their education at a later stage through the many opportunities for second chance and adult education supported by my Department. However, I am also aware that in too many instances this can be a move into low pay, low skills jobs, with little prospect of progression in the future. Too often this first step into the labour force can keep young people in cycles of poverty and disadvantage.

In an attempt to tackle this issue, the Bill will provide for a reinforcement of the provisions of the Young Persons (Employment) Act, 1996. The Bill will, however, go further. It will seek to ensure that young people who leave the mainstream education system will have an opportunity to continue their education while at the same time being in a position to take up paid employment. This is a radical and innovative concept which aims to provide a solution to the competing demands of short-term return against investment for longer-term success. The Bill, as drafted, makes certain provisions in this regard. However, it has been pointed out to me that the current draft, although its principles are widely supported, is deficient in some respects. The Minister has already indicated his intention to reconsider its provisions with a view addressing these matters. He proposes to introduce an amendment to this effect on Committee Stage.

One of the most innovative elements of this Bill will be the establishment of the National Educational Welfare Board. As I mentioned earlier, the board will play a key role in ensuring that each child receives a minimum education and will support and assist schools in promoting school attendance. This is a wholly new support mechanism for schools in an area where previously schools had, for the most part, been left to confront these issues alone.

Non-school attendance and early school leaving is not simply an educational problem; it is usually a symptom of more wide ranging difficulties in a variety of areas, which cannot be addressed through the education system alone. Rather, the problem of non-school attendance must be addressed in a multidisciplinary manner with the involvement of experts in a range of areas. This is reflected in the current draft of the Bill which makes provision for formal liaison between the board and a variety of agencies with expertise in the school attendance area.

The current draft of the Bill also makes provision for the membership of the board to be decided following consultation with the main Ministers with responsibility in this and related areas. Finally, to ensure that the views of all concerned are reflected in the work of the board, the Bill makes further provision for the establishment of a committee, representative of the partners in education, to advise the board in relation to its functions. Some groups have argued that the membership of the board should include representatives of those involved in tackling school attendance issues on the ground, that is, in schools. It is the Minister's intention that all members of the board should have a deep insight into and awareness of the education system. He is also concerned to ensure that the membership of the board should not be so large as to inhibit it in carrying out its functions. However, the Minister has listened to the views expressed and we are considering whether we can expand the proposed membership of the board without interfering with the core principles of its being small and expert.

The National Educational Welfare Board will carry out many of its functions through educational welfare officers. Our intention, in line with the changed focus since the 1926 Act, is that the educational welfare officers will act mainly in a positive, supportive role to children and schools. While the officers will obviously retain a role in relation to offences under the legislation, their focus, however, will be on assisting children, parents and schools to ensure that children receive their entitlement to a minimum education, whether inside or outside the formal school system.

Particular roles which the educational welfare officers will play, under the aegis of the board, include assessing the education provided to children educated outside the mainstream school system; assisting schools in tracking students who stop attending one school but fail to register at another; assisting schools in dealing with problems of poor school attendance on the part of individual children; assisting schools in developing school attendance strategies and codes of behaviour, in line with guidelines to be developed by the board; where it proves impossible to enrol a child in a school, making arrangements to ensure that the child receives a prescribed minimum education and supporting young people who have left the mainstream school system in continuing their education.

One of the main deficiencies in the present system is that school attendance officers are located only in a relatively small number of areas throughout the country. It is our intention, ultimately, to extend the system of educational wel fare officers nationwide. While I appreciate that this objective may take some time to achieve, departmental officials have already begun to plan for the development and expansion of the service. This planning process will include consideration of the resource needs of the new system, as well as the training and development needs of existing school attendance officers who will transfer to the new system, and of new recruits to the service. It is important to realise that the service will not and should not be the same in all areas. It will obviously vary in its coverage depending on the extent of the non-attendance problem evident in the area. There will be no "one size fits all" approach which would undermine the board's ability to effectively target its resources.

It has been suggested that the Bill sets out a somewhat adversarial role for the educational welfare officersvis-à-vis schools. Some schools would appear to be concerned that the new role envisaged for the officers might cause difficulties for them. This is not the intention. Rather, as I said earlier, it is intended that educational welfare officers will have as their main aim the support of children, their parents and the schools in ensuring that every child benefits to the maximum extent possible from the education system.

I believe this is an important Bill which represents a new departure for school attendance policies in this country. I look forward to the constructive debate which I know will take place in this House.

For his part the Minister has already said, and he asked me to repeat it here today, that he intends approaching discussions on Committee Stage in a positive and open-minded manner. I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the last statement of the Minister. I hope a constructive approach will be taken to the Bill because it has fallen dramatically far short of what we would have expected in the most serious educational issue facing the State. Early school leaving is a serious problem. As many as one in six leaves school early. That corresponds closely to the figures, of which the Minister is well aware, which indicate that among 16 to 25 year olds, one in six is leaving school at the most basic level of literacy where functionally he or she is not capable of reading the back of an aspirin package. We have a serious problem that affects at least one in six of our student population and the Minister of State's contribution was studded with phrases like "eventually we will do something although this will be a long time away" and "this is not to say that this Bill does not have resource implications".

If we are serious about this issue it must have very serious resource implications. There is no point in creating a structure of this nature if resources are not allocated to help schools and individual pupils who have attendance problems. We know from studies in many deprived parts of this city that as many as one in four pupils have serious problems that leave them absent from school for long periods. There is need for a much more radical approach to the needs of those schools and those pupils than is evident in the drafting of the Bill.

In many ways this Bill is a move forward from the School Attendance Act. It recognises the much wider canvas on which issues must be addressed but it does not deliver the type of change we expected. That is why on Committee Stage, and right through the passage of the Bill, we will seek firm legal commitments to children who, for one reason or another, are being failed by our education system. As the debate goes on, it will not be good enough just to talk about resources becoming available in the long-term because, as John Maynard Keynes said, in the long-term we are all dead. The danger we face is that the long-term will be too long for many of our young people.

We must remember the history of the Bill. It is the successor to the School Attendance Act of 1926 and the Department is culpable for its failure to deliver on that Act. That Act has fallen into total disuse. The Department has no idea of the level of absenteeism occurring in schools throughout the country. Despite its legal obligation under the 1926 Act to obtain that information from schools, it has consistently refused to do so. The Bill requires an enormous act of faith from pupils and those in the education system who are grappling with the issue of early school leaving, but history will record that such an act of faith is not worth making because when the Department previously produced legislation in this area, it manifestly failed to deliver on its obligations. There are issues about resourcing that we have to face up to and those issues were not addressed in the Minister of State's contribution.

I have some misgivings about the whole approach to the school attendance and early school leaving issue and about creating a special agency to deal with it. It is a dangerous precedent to create a legislative structure where school attendance issues are different from school development issues. It runs the risk of perpetuating the marginalisation of people who are being served by this agency. It sends the message to schools that to deal with poor attenders requires a separate strategy, that it is not the mainstream concern of the school. The school should be all about the needs of that one in six, not having the notion of a separate strategy that has to be pulled together and sent off to this new agency. Facing up to the needs of those potential early school leavers should be integral to a school.

I am concerned that in its new manifestation the whole concept of regional education boards is now gone from the Bill. In its previous manifestation school attendance issues were put at the heart of a regional education strategy. It was an holistic approach by the State interfacing with the school. Early school leaving and school attendance issues were part of the strategy of schools but this Bill creates its own agency with its own demands on schools. As the Minister said in his contribution, it will be the concern of some schools but not of others and that is a danger in the strategy behind the thinking in the Bill. Examining the issue of early school leaving should be central to a school plan. It is about the Department entering into a partnership with those schools to resource them to face those problems, not to tell them to fill out forms and send them off to some agency.

Much of this appears to come from the Minister's preoccupation with maintaining centralism in the Department, his rejection of regionalisation or any sort of local education boards. He has the notion that there will be turf boundaries where school attendance will be an issue in certain areas and that there will be some other curriculum in others. That is not the way the interface with schools should occur. This national structure is not particularly well attuned to deal with an intensively local and community based issue – the issue of why children do not attend or drop out of school early. Much of it is to do with the environment and the support available in those communities. There is something a bit bizarre about lengthy sections in the Bill being given over to creating a liaison structure between 49 different specified bodies. The concept of integrated delivery is a very firm concept at the level of a family but the Minister is trying to create some sort of top-down integration where 49 different bodies will liaise with people. God knows what sort of talking shop will emerge from all of that.

I wonder about the delivery to families. I am deeply sceptical about that and about the notion of 4,000 schools submitting their plans to an individual national agency. What will the agency do as these 4,000 plans come cascading into its offices by some due date? The attention given to them will be extremely suspect.

Most important of all, the Bill has not offered any place for those people in the area based partnerships and the different community initiatives who have been trying to create initiatives to support early school leavers. Where is their role in this new approach to school attendance issues? They are not mentioned in the Bill. They are not given any recognition. There is not any local structure of which they will be a part and how they interface with this new structure is not mentioned. This represents a major weakness in the Bill and it betrays a problem at the heart of the Department. It is thinking centrally. The Minister said it will not be a case of "one size fits all", but the Department always thinks in terms of central models and expects the local community to fit into them. That thinking is antiquated.

The biggest challenge facing the Bill is how to ensure a prescribed minimum education for every child. We all want to do that. We do not want early school leavers with literacy problems, but the Bill is remarkably silent on that issue. What is it going to do about it apart from the record-keeping? Section 10 admittedly spells out some interesting and worthwhile functions, but they are extremely remote from delivering to the individual, family or school facing problems. Section 10 refers to conducting research, assessing strategies and advising on curriculum and teacher training and these are all worthwhile, but I want to see a framework within which the education welfare officers can work in partnership with communities and deliver services to children who will otherwise fall out of the school system. That is not mentioned in the Bill – there is no section dealing with what the education welfare officer will do when he or she finds a child who is persistently failing to attend. This is a hopeless gap in the Bill and it is hard to conceive how the Bill got through drafting without someone asking "When we have the early warning bells and the red lights are flashing, what are we going to do about it?" What are the welfare officers going to do? The Bill does not say what they are going to do and we must spell that out in statute.

There is no point in making the act of faith we have made with the 1926 Act, because it did not happen, so to speak. There is no point saying that education welfare officers are great people. They are great people – they struggle without resources and they will continue to struggle without resources until we write into the Bill what is expected of them and the level of resources that will be necessary to deliver it.

The framework that has been developed is all about statutory duties that are almost exclusively put upon the schools and the parents. The school will have to inform the education welfare officer and the officer will have to serve notices on parents. These are the obligations involved, but where is the supportive action in the Bill? There is no indication of the support that will be available to help schools and children to deal with this. The craziest element of all is that the only point where the Bill starts to address what is to be done with children in this situation refers to when the child has been expelled – when the child has irrevocably severed all ties with the school system and is out on the street with nowhere to go. It is then that the Education (Welfare) Bill takes on a role. It will then look at finding an alternative to education for them and if they are over 15 it will look at personal education plans. That is far too late.

There is no point waiting until the latent problem has become a crisis or goes beyond crisis point and the child is alienated and out of the system. It will probably be very difficult to retrieve such a child back into education. It is far too late then and if we want to make an impact with this Bill, we must talk about the early warning system and the response that follows on from that. The statute deals with this as a problem for the schools and once there is an early warning system the schools must do something about it. The schools must have a strategy and must have it packed off in an envelope to the agency by the due date, but that will not do. We need a statutory framework stating what will be done to help the child who leaves school early, no matter what the reason. That is one amendment I will table.

We should have a framework of practical support for schools – personal plans, case conferences, referrals to appropriate agencies that can help and budgets for innovation within the school for particular initiatives. There should be budgets for out-of-school agencies to support the needs of early school leavers, which is happening in many communities. There should be programmes to deliver support for primary-secondary transition, which is where many attendance problems emerge. There should be practical funding of integrated initiatives across the agencies that the Minister is trying to bring together. The Bill shows no appreciation of the partnership approach at local level that is needed to do something about this issue and that is the fatal flaw in the Bill.

The approach to transition to employment also reveals a very narrow concept of the needs of the early school leaver. For someone who has dropped out of school, taking up work will involve registration and certification and the employer will have to verify, on pain of committing a criminal offence, that certificates are present. That may be an excessive superstructure to impose, but the main question is what happens to children who are in school and who may be working until 2 or 3 a.m.? They come to school the following day like zombies. They learn nothing and this Bill will do nothing about that. This is a real problem and the Minister of State will know as well as I do that there are two officials in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment charged with inspecting children's working hours, but they only work 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. There is no chance to deal with the problems of those whose work is interfering with their schooling. That is the concern – it is not about children who become alienated with the structure and look for work. We must support them in work.

The registration may be excessive but why is employment being allowed to interfere with their schooling? I am a strong supporter of paying children, if necessary, to stay on in school rather than doing late night nixers and I have said so in the past. I am impressed with the experiment in Clondalkin, where a contract is made with pupils who stay on, do their homework and attend their classes diligently. That is having an impact and it would be much more practical than many other developments.

I like the idea of a personal plan for young people who are out of school and searching for work, but again the statutory right to such a service is notably absent from the Bill. I would have thought a child centred Bill would have stated that a child out of school at 16 and looking for work had a right to certain services, such as a personal plan and support, but it is not there. The board may do these things, but there is no right provided to the child. Given that 12,000 young people drop out of school each year, one is talking about 30,000 people from the outset who will need to have these personal education plans developed for them and the acid test will be in seeing whether there are resources for that to happen. There will be some scepticism about it.

When publishing the Bill the Minister referred to new restrictions on employers. We do not want restrictions but we want to see amendments ensuring that employers are obliged to release people to train and to be involved in innovative partnerships between employers and educational training providers. We should not have further restrictions. We want to see further rights for the young people involved.

Home educators see themselves as being wrongly included in the same section of this Bill as truants. The Minister will know from their correspondence with him of their many grievances. He does not plan to consult them on what a minimum education comprises and there are provisions for emotional assessments of children without parental consent and the observation of parents teaching, which are very intrusive by any standards. We must be conscious of striking a constitutional balance between the right of the parent as the natural educator and the right of the State to ensure a minimum standard is met. The model being quoted here is not the correct one. A better model operates in the Czech Republic, in which home educators register in the first instance with designated schools which provide support and liaison. It is the educator's obligation to register with a school and to provide progress reports on a regular basis, at least twice a year. The reports should include portfolios of work, standardised tests, and interviews with a person appointed by the school. This would ensure a standard is met. It is a localised relationship, where the parent has confidence in the school and has a great deal of discretion in what he or she does in the home. Only if that relationship breaks down will the intrusion of inspection arise; in other words, where adequate services were not being developed. There is much to be said for that and for having much stronger guidelines in the Bill as to how these new powers are to be used.

There is a case for making amendments on Committee Stage to provide a more supportive environment for home education for those who choose it, while retaining the State's obligation not to allow a child's education opportunities fritter away if the home educator does not cut the mustard or has undertaken an obligation which he or she could not fulfil. We must tread carefully here but there is scope for a better drafting which would strike a fairer balance than the Bill does at present.

I was also interested in the provision that where a child is expelled from school the education board will, for the first time, have a statu tory obligation to provide a suitable alternative. Again, it is far too late to provide suitable alternatives after the child has left the school. There is much greater need for a safe retreat within the school, supported by the education welfare service, which might keep young people in the education system. That being said, it is right that the education welfare board should look to the alternatives when all else has failed and it is valuable that the board should have a statutory obligation to deliver such alternatives. What is surprising, however, is that these alternatives are not specified. This contrasts sharply with the provision for home educators, which mentions minimum standards. In this case the board, which is responsible for the minimum standards, becomes a provider in its own right and there is not any specification as to what the alternatives will be or a system for recognition of these alternatives.

I presume the Minister has Youthreach in mind in this case. I do not see why Youthreach cannot be given statutory recognition as an integral part of the services available to meet the needs of children who require education. Those who are in Youthreach would like their role to be recognised explicitly. They have always been the poor relation of education providers although in many ways they are dealing with the most challenging section of the education population. The schools have not been recognised as yet and do not have a clear remit or mandate, and this Bill is the ideal way to provide it. At some point we must deal with the conflict of interest between the obligation on the board to be a provider and also the invigilator of standards. It finds itself in the unusual position of having a legal obligation to provide education while also having to inspect and ensure a quality standard is being achieved.

I do not wish to detain the House, because it is on Committee Stage that we will deal with the substance of the Bill. It was drafted with the best of intentions in the Department but it has not sufficiently shaken off the shackles of the school attendance legislation. It is predominantly concerned with filling and collecting registers rather than delivering service to children at risk. That is the shift which must be made between now and the end of Committee Stage. The Bill needs a clear statement of commitment to serve the children affected, outlining what will happen when the early warning lights flash, what the board will do to help the schools in concrete terms, and what programmes we can expect to emerge from this. We do not need the legislation to spell out the chapter and verse, and it cannot do so, but it should contain the legal framework for developing those services. We have had the hard experience in that the Schools Attendance Act did not deliver – nothing came of it, albeit that it was in a narrow framework. We now have a structure which serves only a tiny proportion of our population, probably only one in six students has any education welfare service available to him or her. That is not going to change suddenly, it will be a long haul, according to the Minister.

He also spoke of minimum resource implications as a result of this Bill, but that will not do. We want this Bill to be genuinely child centred. If the State is to outline its obligations and commitments to children who leave early, why not give those young people and their parents a right of appeal, if they feel they are not getting appropriate placement or service? That seems to be foreign to the Minister and his drafters. He rejected it in the Education Act and does not provide for such mechanism here. I strongly support appointing an education ombudsman to whom people could apply if they felt they were not getting fair access to psychological assessment or other services. That idea is not supported in the Bill.

My mark for the Bill would be ‘five out of ten, more work needed'. However, I welcome the Minister's commitment, as his record shows, to see whether we can devise amendments on Committee Stage to broaden the Bill and meet the needs I have mentioned.

I welcome those aspects of the Bill which seem to offer an opportunity to those I regard as lost children, those who are without an expectation of care and are vulnerable. However, it is curious that we should revise school attendance legislation 70 years after the introduction of a basic Act. Having said that, I will outline my attitude to the absent times in the preparatory stage of the legislation. There is a confusion in the Bill's assumptions concerning the nature of schooling and the distinction which must be made, if we are to take seriously legislation in this area, between schooling and education. Creativity is important to both, and central to the right of the child – referred to but indirectly in the Minister's speech – to develop his or her full personality in a creative way. This is not simply idealistic. It is important. Were I Minister for Education, I would have taken radical steps to advance such creativity, steps which some would have found difficult to accept. For example, beginning the school day in an atmosphere of tension, having had endless seminars about the problem of discipline, is much less useful than beginning it with music. If people begin the day in a state of relaxation, particularly younger children, the day can continue with information being imparted with greater success and unimpeded by stress. Everything should be derived from a fundamental and stated belief that creativity is defined socially rather than individually. This presumes one's need to manipulate symbols which are shared with others and are crucial to one's personal development. This should be a central aim of education.

Unfortunately, I have not heard the word "creativity" in any speech given by the Minister for Education and Science since he took office. Yes, I have great respect for his energy and the quantity and volume of it. There is, however, an enormous gap in its quality. There is an absence of the "vision thing", a cliché used by middle management and obviously, therefore, not a higher use of language. As regards this missing creativity, there seems to be an emphasis in the legislation on the delivery of children to school. The ones who have not been "vacuumed up" must be regulated to a point at which necessary distinctions are lost. I am moved by any Minister who makes proposals to include in the net of minimum education, a lost child on the street whose parents, relatives or those who have responsibility for the child do not have the capacity to look after him or her or whose own diminished capacity is being repeated inter-generationally. However, if one does that it is out of a duty of care. The points made by Deputy Bruton on linking other services to the wider reach of child provision are very important in this regard. In the 1926 Act, as is featured in a great deal of the literature, it was almost as if one was rounding up children – the attendance officers were at the corner and people ran and hid. There are many quasi-humorous accounts of that which are anything but humorous for the children in recollection.

I am not so sure that thinking has been abandoned in this Bill. For example, if that was the case, supposing I was entirely wrong and that a new and radical departure, as the Minister of State described it, was indeed being made, surely it would not have been beyond human intelligence to define minimum education. If one defined minimum education on the basis of the needs of the child, expressed creatively or whatever, this would lead to the automatic granting of recognition to forms of education which would not bring the Minister into collision with those who have the great opportunity – in some respects I envy them – of making provision for their children in what they feel are alternative spaces and forms to those which are available in a highly regulated and narrow setting.

In Ireland in 1999 it may seem like heresy to say something else, the context of which I hope people will understand. As a spokesperson on education, I do not find it incumbent upon me to speak for ten minutes on how we have the finest education system in the world, followed by half an hour saying why we have the finest teachers in the world. I much prefer to get on with it. Our education system has some massive flaws. The huge number of people who leave school illiterate or innumerate is a reflection on the system. There is no other way of saying it. When people founder trying to make sense of this, they apparently blame everyone except the place where the alleged education is taking place and its personnel. This is a level of evasion which is absolutely intolerable. Frankly, we have some of the most wonderful teachers in the world and we also have some very seriously deficient teachers, for personal or other reasons.

I do not like how in the education debate we can never get as far as what is happening in the school day. What happens in the school day? If I mention, for example, what is being taught in one class period or another, I am referred to the curriculum review board and the group that is sitting on the teaching of this, that or the other. Then, when one is worn down with reading all the tomes there are still incredible problems with what is happening during the school day and in the school setting. Consultation with the partners in education is taking place in a glib manner – I know of many major exclusions. There are people who are interested in education whose opinions are never asked. There are many settings in education where the very last thing people want is a parent's opinion. Some outrageous decisions are taken as regards expulsion. Recently in my clinics I have been dealing with a range of children who have no options – for example, having made a mess of the leaving certificate they wish to repeat but are not accepted in their former school because they have a history of so-called disruption. I also know settings where a child with a bad name for disruption in year one must carry the burden of staff room prejudice through his or her schooling. There are no genuine appeal mechanisms as regards what a parent or child might say. There are no school councils which exist in so many European countries that would offer the student's opinion.

Let me not be condemned as belonging to that band that rolls in behind the brass and reed saying "the finest education system in the world – thump, thump, thump". There are many deficiencies in it. This raises the question of those who say they are asked to accept a regime in which people arrive at their door, seek entry and in circumstances that are not defined, not to speak of standards of minimum education which are not defined, they administer a test. They come back and ask to what scrutiny is the State subjected. I support the Minister of State, who has my whole-hearted support in his work on continuing education which includes some radical measures. I compliment him on that, but in mainstream education there are radical pro-child and pro-parent measures which are crying out to be implemented. We should not be asked to choose the advancement of the rights of the lost children, the children of the streets and those from incapable families at the cost of something else that is not causing a problem.

For example, all the literature we have received on section 14 of the Bill could have been dispensed with, if an attempt was made to structure the Bill as an Education Bill by defining forms of education, the philosophy that lies behind it, its creative component and the various settings in which it may be attained. That would have meant that one would not be discussing, for example, the circumstances of those home educators who have taken the trouble to write to Deputies about truancy, which is an extraordinary concept anyway and pre-Roddy Doyle in its usage. It is an interesting word which is late Victorian in origin and has probably not been used among ordinary people in Ireland since the 1920s. One would say one was "mitching" from school or whatever but one would have had a very rarefied existence to say "I am a truant". People would wonder as to whether one was not already highly educated and on one's way to the races at the Curragh. I urge the Minister of State to look carefully at the way language is used in the Bill. The word "truancy" occurs in the title and in at least one dozen sections. Why was such a word chosen rather than the word "non-attendance"? I will come back to this point on Committee Stage.

If there is a partnership, which seems to be much vaunted in our education system but whose better points I continually miss, then why not have a regime such as exists not just in the Czech Republic but also in Tasmania and many of the states of the United States where people could voluntarily register their alternative highly regulated options? One could then agree on a code of practice for the child. I am not defending that valuable kind of educational option at the cost of the children who are left with no option. I am horrified that in 1999 children are leaving school without qualifications or competencies in literacy and numeracy. I do not regret that because of the loss of economic benefit to themselves or their contribution to the economy but because of the loss to their personal development. I have met many young people who have been made to feel hopeless by a system that does not reach out to them or include them. I am sure many Deputies have met their parents at their clinics.

A radical Minister for Education and Science might decide, for example, that every child born as a citizen is entitled to a body of rights or credits in education which they could combine and cash in at any time during their life from two to 82 years of age and that the purpose of educational provision, whether it is State, semi-State or private, is to enable them to combine their educational aspirations throughout their life. It is patently absurd that a person of 18 years of age may have lost their chance in formal education in relation to managing the transition from second to third level. I was a university teacher for 23 years and I was always of the opinion that people were too young going to third level education. I was familiar with and taught in systems where they went to third level education at an older age and in a better position to exercise intellectual choices. Why not make the system flexible? I support the Minister in addressing the issue of what he perceives to be the most vulnerable people who are lost to the system. My difficulty is he is not making critical the system to which he wants them restored.

Many of the 10,000 children who leave school without qualifications have difficulties which have not been recognised. As regards the Department's history of recognising the needs of the dyslexic child or of those with other disorders, we, as spokespersons on education, have difficulty getting the Department to define what it regards as an educational disability. Many people have been lost and brutalised by the system they have been through. The system must be looked at because everything is not rosy in this garden.

In many cases a child whose parents are frequently told is disruptive, whose name is mentioned in the school staff room and who will be blackened for the rest of their life at the school is reacting to things which have nothing to do with pedagogical deficiency but to sarcasm and an inability to deal with the child's needs. I want to speak for these children whom I have met in my clinics. As a writer, I remember discussing with people reconstructions of their school days and the corrosive effect cynicism had on them and how it damaged their self-esteem. This must be critically reviewed within such a setting. There is no doubt that children in education today are probably influenced by the peer group rather than the family. The peer group is frequently violent, intolerant and rigid and has not taken its cultural forms from anything it learned in a gentle way from different generations but from the media. There are hidden cruelties within the system, both institutional and casual, which are important in the child's experience of life. I will deal with the other points made to me during representations on Committee Stage.

The Bill should have begun with a recognition of all educational options. It should have tested those educational options with the rights of the child regarding creativity as one of its central points. When I was Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht I visited the Royal Hospital Kilmainham to view a display of children's work. When I asked a group of women from the north side of Dublin how often they got a letter from the school stating that their child might not be performing well academically but that he or she was a beautiful child in terms of their social skills and ability to laugh with others, they said they had not received one. In some parts of my constituency, where unemployment is 70 and 80 per cent, mothers have told me they get notes about every negative aspect of their child. Rearing children, sending them to school or deciding to educate them at home means making a significant sacrifice but it is an option which is available to few people. The hundreds of families who do so are making an incredible gesture towards the liberation and free activity of their children. However, we must also look after the thousands of children on the streets.

I agree with the Minister and Minister of State that the School Attendance Act, 1926, cannot handle the people who drop out of the system and who do not have the supports I described. It is important to begin by not saying that the school, uncriticised, is that to which we must relate. One will not get away without testing the school in terms of the quality of its experience throughout the day. When one has done that, one will be able to say what the child is missing. At the end of a leaving certificate year, after the big debate about whether people should drink Fanta or alcohol and where they should go when the results are announced, dozens of children in every town and city who have not performed well slink back to their homes. One might say that VTOS and post-leaving certificate courses are available for these children. However, they are all totally under resourced and if the Bill works properly, none of those children should be lost. No child who performs badly in the leaving certificate should be abandoned, where the story they must tell at home is that they did not do well and they have disappointed their parents. Such children are often from homes where the parents are disappointed with their own expectations and have made a huge investment in their children. It is at this most vulnerable point that such a child cannot be regarded as an ex-pupil of the school. The successful ones will all be back, but such children will be around the place, standing outside bars, playing video machines or standing smoking cigarettes wondering what they should do with their lives. These are the circumstances where there is no connection between all the advice services available for the welfare of the child and guidance facilities within the school.

The capital "P" should be removed from the word "partnership" and partnership made to work. There is a real need to listen to what parents are saying and to those who no longer have children in school but who remember their experiences. Perhaps one of the reasons I may never be the Minister for Education and Science and I have disqualified myself, is that I believe the changes which are needed are so radical, not only in terms of quantity and the reach of education, but in its content, quality and absence of flexibility. I do not suggest people are not doing wonderful things. I read about the changed way of teaching geography where people are brought to discover the origin of a river and to look at all the industrial history associated with the water. I applaud such changes but there is a real need to develop these creative innovations.

Deputy Bruton referred to the specific representations we received from those who provide an educational option for their children at home. Their point is fair. Their option is not another version of truancy. It is sad that they are driven to assert their constitutional rights to exercise an option which is legitimate in relation to the teaching of the child. They are also right to seek definitions where definitions are in danger of being used arbitrarily and without consultation in relation to the minima of education. The testing of a child who is receiving an alternative option in terms of intellectual, emotional or physical development cannot be handled in the way suggested in the Bill. I remember well, from a medical point of view, the terror with which the inspectors were regarded in the 1950s. The inspectors arrived to inspect the hygiene of children and it was a good threat to a child that he or she would be taken behind the board to be almost physically examined there and then.

I wish I could say that fear was gone from the educational system. Sadly, it is not gone and it has never been boldly and bravely rejected as a principle and something which defeats every principle of pedagogy and genuine education. It is as if this institution was obtained somewhere or another from the 19th century through many collusions with power interests, particularly those who ran the managerial system and who undemocratically called themselves patrons. However, they still have no constitutional or legal right to call themselves patrons except on the basis of what was once termed by the former Minister for Education, Mr. Cooney, as the principle of continuity. In other words, they had got away with it for ages and they should continue to get away with it. The whole point is that if one wanted to do something radical and make the educational system democratic, one would start challenging that situation.

I wish the welfare officers well and the gift of co-operation with others who are operating the services. However, it will not work until school is made an exciting place. The Minister's proposals in the Bill will have my support if he intends to address the needs of those who are lost through deficiency in legislation or the provision of welfare officers at present. However, as a spokesperson on education, I cannot say that there is a garden of excellence to which those who have not appreciated its finer points are being returned. In addition, its administration is not flexible in terms of what is required.

I must deal with the real world, which is that children are expelled. The Bill states that one must be offered an option, but it should be put on the record that the current procedures are arbitrary and uncertain and they offend natural justice. The child is often humiliated in front of the parent and the teacher. It is said that either the teacher is a liar or the child is a liar and his or her parents are backing up him or her. The rigmarole goes on and on and this is supposed to be justice within education. It is not justice and if people favour the rights of the child as established in the charter, they should be displayed in every classroom. There should be in-service courses on the rights of the child and parents and the relationship between education and communities. There should be no speeches for a year about education being useful to the economy and speeches instead about education being a component of citizenship and a value for people who want to live responsibly with each other. Then one would be radical and there would be no need to say that one got another wad of money from the Minister for Finance. Good luck to any Minister who does so, but it is not the whole story because the debate about the content, purpose and ethics of education, how to change it, make it exciting and give recognition to all its forms, options and different places in terms of whether it is in the highly regulated State sector or home or other settings is neglected and missing.

I pay tribute to the Minister in relation to second chance education and I ask him to consider my proposal on a number of credits accruing to each citizen as of right. The people who had such credits should be able to go to any educational institution and ask to be served. We should speak about education in terms of it being ultimately aimed at how we can ethically and creatively deal with each other with respect. If we pass these 10,000 children standing around, smoking cigarettes outside places because they got a bad leaving certificate and have nowhere else to go, at the same time as Ireland and Finland are regarded as the model for the world in relation to the economy, we will have seriously failed not only our children but our version of a republic.

I listened with great interest to the analysis of Deputy Higgins. I do not disagree with much of what he said but I do not pretend that I can treat the House to the same insights the Deputy gave. Before I deal with the Bill, I wish to mention a couple of points which struck me. There are two interesting items in today's edition ofThe Irish Times, one of which is the outcome of the Foróige Challenge 2000 survey where a significant number of young people were asked for their views. As other speakers noted, it is significant that many of them suffer from poor self-esteem and a lack of self-confidence. They do not feel able to face the world despite the fact that Ireland appears to have the best education system in western Europe.

Another thought struck me yesterday when the Tánaiste spoke at the launch of the national youth parliament, at which President McAleese was also present. I wondered why so many young people feel turned away from systems generally and, for example, are not attracted to voting. We are concerned about low turnouts at elections. It strikes me – perhaps it is also the case with this Bill because sometimes we are the worst offenders – that at times we do not listen to young people as much as we ought to. Sometimes what they say is abrasive, disruptive and annoying, but we must learn to listen to them.

I was at a meeting this morning of the Ballymun drugs task force, which is currently preparing an action plan for the next couple of years. Many things have been done in Ballymun and in other drugs task force areas but many of the projects are fire brigade type activities. The debate this morning included professionals from across the board – the probation and welfare service, the health board, local authority officials and local representatives – and much of what was said could as easily have been part of this debate. It addressed the need for a greater inter-agency approach to dealing with problems.

I was a teacher for over 30 years. I started teaching large classes of boys in the early 1960s. The school attendance officer called each week. I will not mention his name but he was a lovable guy. I believe he was a retired garda and he called to each classroom for the names of the most reg ular absentees. Invariably, one realised at the end of the first term that the list was always composed of the same families. I would give my right arm to be able to introduce this Bill. I have some minor reservations but it is a good Bill. Provided the necessary resources are committed, it will address many of the issues regarding early school leaving, absenteeism and the provision of a minimum education. One could say that the Bill is being introduced for people who live in working class areas. There is a connection between high unemployment levels and poor quality housing and early school leaving and disenchantment with education. I can identify the relevant areas in this city, and other Deputies would have no difficulty in identifying their counterparts in rural areas and other cities.

The Bill is a good attempt to identify the problems, focus resources on them and move forward. The Minister is taking the right approach in targeting the underlying causes of non-attendance rather than opting for sanctions for truancy. For my sins, I once served on a school attendance committee in Dublin. When I was elected in 1985, I was enthusiastic to become a member of the committee, although I do not think the committees meet any longer. After a few meetings, I discovered it was largely a waste of time. We invited parents to come before the committee, the ultimate sanction available under the 1926 School Attendance Act. The committee brought poor, unfortunate mothers before it – I cannot remember a father ever attending. The mothers usually had to drag four or five children with them, a couple of them in buggies, and did their level best to explain why they could not cope with the five, six or 12 year old who was unable to fit into the school system.

The School Attendance Act did not work and we know why. However, I am the first to give great credit to the school attendance officers, particularly those who were recently appointed. They have done a good job in Dublin and have done some of the inter-agency work envisaged in the Bill. If the health board, the local authority and the education services do not network together, we can throw our hats at this issue because the current figure of 10,000 early school leavers will increase incrementally.

I do not agree with the concept of sanctions and I compliment the Minister for departing from it. According to a submission on early school leaving made by the Secretary General of the Department to an Oireachtas committee some months ago, those who leave school early are most likely to swell the ranks of the unemployed. We are, unfortunately, well aware of that. Addressing the reasons for early school leaving is paramount. This Bill goes a long way towards achieving that. It tries, fairly faithfully, to address the needs of children who are on the margins and for whom the mainstream approaches simply do not work and have not worked. Most of the Members present are involved in the teaching profession in some shape or form and we know the type of family, child or student who are simply unable to benefit, regardless of whether they are in third class, junior certificate or a postleaving certificate class. We all know them.

The drop-out level is unacceptable – the Minister of State mentioned a figure of 10,000. How did we manage to accumulate such a substantial figure? One of the reasons is that there is no structured arrangement whereby children can transfer easily from primary to post-primary school, certainly in Dublin. In my constituency, a substantial number of children fall through the net. They clock out of sixth class in primary school on 30 June – many probably leave at the beginning of the last term – and do not seem to turn up in the post-primary school.

A woman came to my clinic yesterday to see if I could get her son into one of the local post-primary schools. She was not aware that she was supposed to make some attempt to get him into a post-primary school. I have been dealing with various members of this family for many years. I will not be able to get the woman's son into a post-primary school. I will try, as other Members would, but I do not believe it will be possible. There is a cadre of students who simply drop out.

There is provision in the Bill to try to track students between primary and post-primary school. Senator Ormonde mentioned this problem when she spoke on the Bill in the Seanad. It is particularly prevalent in Dublin's inner city and I assume it is prevalent elsewhere also. In that regard, the Bill is taking the right direction.

The School Attendance Act, 1926, has been put on the back burner and has not been enforced to a great extent. The energies of the officials in the Department are now taken up with trying to find places for excluded students, an issue I will return to later. The general aim of the Bill is to provide a minimum standard of education. I do not pretend to know what a minimum standard of education ought to be. One would like to think it was a reasonable competence in reading, writing and arithmetic, but given our poor literacy levels, I sometimes wonder. This was brought to my attention by the correspondence we received from people who are educating their children at home. I must declare a certain level of prejudice. Coming from a teaching background, one has an almost inbuilt feeling that nobody else can provide education as well as teachers.

I respect the notion that many parents can provide a good quality education. I also acknowledge that some teachers do not provide a good quality education. Much of that is due to the fact that until now, there was little in-service training available for teachers. I received one day's in-service training in my first 12 years of teaching and that was on how to run a school library. That was the level of in-service training so I do not blame teachers. However, I acknowledge that there are teachers who, with the best will in the world, simply are no longer up to the task.

I am not sure what difference raising the school leaving age to 16 will make. It might encourage some students to remain in the system. If, however, initiatives such as Youthreach and community training workshops are not networked in this area, it will make no difference what is the school leaving age. Many initiatives, such as the early school leaving programme and Youthreach, have been extremely good and worthwhile, as has been the experience in Ballymun. I hope FÁS does not become too greedy by taking away the autonomy of community training workshops, but that is another argument.

I have never been able to understand why the Department has not approved further youth encounter projects. It approved four in the early 1970s but has reduced that number to two. Such projects were probably the best interventions in providing an option for youngsters who were not able to settle into the normal school system. They were funded much more generously than other educational initiatives at a time when money was scarce and were underpinned by the Van Leer Foundation, Holland. It was an enlightened intervention, but when Van Leer pulled out the Department's enthusiasm waned. Regrettably, it has almost run down youth encounter projects but perhaps the eight to 15 year old initiative might replace them.

If there is not effective co-ordination of all the services directed at children with truancy and poor school attendance records and their families, we are wasting our time – I have first hand experience of this. If one tries to undertake a psychological assessment of a ten year old child, it is difficult to get the family doctor involved, even though the situation is better than it was. The local health centre, public health nurse and other agencies are supposed to get involved but they need to be pooled. It is proposed to appoint welfare officers who will bring all those agencies together and I am happy with that because they would assist the schools in early identification of poor school attendance. If the problem is not identified early it will never be dealt with properly. A wide range of measures and early interventions are needed and I compliment the Minister and Minister of State for their work in this area.

Over the past two or three years some of these initiatives have been linked to the youth services and facilities fund by the Minister of State at the Department of Tourism, Trade and Recreation, Deputy Flood, and the adult education budget by the Minister of State. However, a criticism is that they probably are project-led and we should try to mainstream them. There are many initiatives in disadvantaged areas, but a similar range of initiatives is not available in non-disadvantaged areas.

A long-term phenomenon in Dublin is that children from non-disadvantaged areas tend to attend schools outside their locality where they do not have the same positive supports that they would have in their own areas. I compliment the early start programme and the home-school liai son service which does remarkable work in many areas. Increased remedial services, which were introduced earlier this year will make a difference, but not overnight. When I worked in Trinity College, sociologists said that it would take seven years for an effective intervention to have a real impact. I do not know whether it would take longer than that.

The next Government will benefit.

Not at all.

This is the next Government.

The Minister of State is short-sighted.

Many schools are extremely proactive in terms of early school leaving by adopting a positive approach to building up children's self-confidence, including rewarding them for good attendance. The school in which I worked always operated on the basis that if one provided an incentive at the end of the school year, such as a weekend away, it was possible using the carrot on a stick approach to encourage even the most reluctant school attendee and he or she benefited reasonably from the system.

I compliment schools which adopt such an approach but I do not know why other schools seem to find it easy to exclude pupils at a young age. It isad hoc, arbitrary and unjust and I agree with Deputy Higgins that a huge amount of time is taken up with the Minister's staff traipsing from one school to another trying to find a place for students who are excluded. The time wasted in litigation etc. involving such students is simply inexcusable and I have a difficulty with schools that seem to have too ready an approach to excluding them. However, there are times when schools have no option but to exclude such a student and one must balance the right of the rest of his or her class to receive a good quality education in a positive atmosphere without disruption against the rights of the student, no matter how dysfunctional he or she is, to an education.

Sections 19 and 20 relate to admissions policy and some of those difficulties may be overcome. Very often students and their parents do not know what is the ethos of a school or what are its expectations and this is more relevant to post-primary schools. Sometimes students enter a school and an objective outsider could say that they patently will not fit in with the ethos of the school because it does not have an active outdoor pursuits programme or varied curriculum and there is no point in them attending the school. An admissions policy agreed with parents and students in advance is important.

I referred to exclusion and expulsions and we are going some way down the right road in that regard. I refer to the issue of early school leavers in the context of a booming economy. I was amazed when I visited supermarkets and other retail outlets in my constituency at the beginning of the school year to find children working in them. A large number of young people must be choosing to take up low paid jobs and I worry about that. In the 1970s significant numbers of young men in my school opted to work as van helpers for the local bakery and dairy, which soaked up many of those who wanted to opt out of school early. The Bill includes a provision whereby employers must register with the welfare board to ensure that a further education option is available to those who opt out of school early and this might be a safety net. I welcome the Minister's initiative and look forward to implementation of the Bill.

I welcome the Minister to the House for this debate on a long overdue Bill. The foundations of the Bill are the outdated school attendance Acts of 1926 and 1963. The real emphasis of the Bill is to ensure that young people receive an adequate education in order that they will not find themselves alienated in an ever-changing workforce, an aim which is commendable.

This legislation is set against the background of recent reports which reveal that 25 per cent of the adult population display serious literacy problems. Many of these people are unable to read or comprehend the information on the back of a box of paracetamol. With an estimated 5,000 students dropping out of school prior to completing their junior certificate and with up to 10,000 people dropping out prior to completion of their leaving certificate, these alarming statistics are limiting the overall economic and social progress of this country.

The link between educational attainment and personal and national economic benefit is well established. One need only have listened to Marian Finucane's programme on Radio One this morning, in which she interviewed young women in the new women's prison at Mountjoy, to realise the clear link between low levels of educational attainment and criminal activity. Many of these women are retraining and up-skilling in the hope of entering the workforce and leaving their pasts behind them.

I welcome the increased accountability of schools in regard to children who are at risk of becoming early school leavers. This measure will hopefully enable the Department of Education and Science to track children and their progress through the system and to ensure they receive a minimum standard of education. However, to date, the Department has failed to investigate the extent of truancy or compile statistics on it.

The only way to break the cycle of poverty and tackle disadvantage is through the provision of adequate funding to ensure all students have equal access to all levels of education. The Bill imposes statutory duties on schools to adopt a more proactive approach to the issue of truancy and to provide a mechanism for co-ordinating the activities of various publicly funded agencies in regard to matters relating to school attendance. This is a very welcome move.

The evidence heard by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science reveals that many young people are currently falling through the net in the transfer from primary to secondary school due to the lack of any follow-up procedures between school principals. The reporting system set out in the previous Acts were haphazard for a number of reasons. Some schools did not have sufficient time to report the figures and quite often did not bother reporting them as they wished to keep attendance records high for a variety of reasons. I am not suggesting that this applied in every case but it was not unheard of.

Truancy eventually leads to early school leaving. The two go hand in hand. Research carried out by Bolton in 1994 suggests that issues such as poor study facilities at home, inadequate and poor housing and health issues are included in the decision of a young person as to whether he or she will remain in school. While the Minister speaks about the co-ordination of the activities of various publicly funded agencies, I do not believe we will see this in practice. For example, the Department of Education and Science has failed over many years to co-ordinate the speech therapy service with the Department of Health and Children. How will it ensure co-ordination on a multi-agency level when it cannot ensure it with another Government Department?

While it is difficult to assess the extent of truancy here, a recent survey carried out in County Roscommon, which questioned school principals on pupils who were absent from school for 40 days or more in the preceding 12 month period, revealed that the reasons for absenteeism include illness, family problems and emotional problems. However, respondents stated that the reason for absenteeism in 41 per cent of pupils absent for 40 days or more was unknown. The survey revealed that one pupil was continually absent as the child had "a long distance to travel with no reliable means of transport". That is an unbelievable situation in this day and age. In two other cases, absenteeism was blamed on a lack of interest and/or discipline on the part of parents. These were just two specific cases which the principals were able to note. The survey was a useful one and I would urge the Minister to have a look at it. Although the survey does not go into great detail, it gives some idea of the level of absenteeism. The absenteeism in this instance was calculated on a 40-day standard. The levels in this survey were quite low but they would certainly be magnified dramatically in many urban areas.

Up to 12 per cent of children leaving primary school have little or no literacy or numeracy skills. All schools now have access to a remedial service. However, the service is a token one in many schools at present and the Minister is only paying lip service to the provision of remedial teachers throughout the country. The survey carried out in County Roscommon reveals that a remedial teacher is available to an average school for approximately five days per month. Some 58 per cent of schools share a remedial teacher with at least five other schools. A proper remedial service at primary school level can reap major benefits for children who receive that extra tuition and attention and can ensure they are not alienated from our education system. The Minister must provide funding for a real service and ensure funds are available for the provision of a proper classroom environment for remedial teachers, rather than forcing them into cloakrooms, as is the case at present. Unless a proper service is provided and teachers are taken out of the broom cupboards, this service will fail to meet the needs of the children who require it most.

The schools' psychological service is another area of neglect. I recently became aware of a case in which parents were obliged to pay £200 for an educational and psychological assessment of their child which would enable the child to qualify for certain essential educational services. The psychological service provided by the Department of Education and Science was unable to cope with the demand for it. While there have been improvements recently, psychologists can still only spend a limited amount of time in schools which are fortunate enough to have a psychological service. Many counties, including County Roscommon, are still without any psychological service. It is unacceptable that parents should have to pay £200 for a psychological assessment which is essential for their child's educational needs.

The Minister speaks about ensuring that young people under 18 years of age who leave school early are identified. Once identified, the National Education Welfare Board will assist them in accessing continued education and training. The current school curriculum is too driven by the points system to allow education for all our children. Alternative curriculum models such as the NCVA and the leaving certificate applied problems, though excellent, are difficult to implement because of restricted staffing resources and because young people who choose this route become labelled. It is unfortunate that this labelling occurs but it is a fact of life. New approaches to these models are required if we are to overcome this kind of stigmatism and ensure that resources are put in place to allow all schools to provide these courses.

The Minister has also highlighted the need for employers to become involved in the education system to ensure that early school leavers continue to participate in education, a commendable ideal. As a result of the Protection of Young Persons (Employment) Act, 1996, it is to be welcomed that young people of school-going age can no longer wander from the school to the workplace without an authorised certificate.

The Minister speaks about placing the onus on the employer to provide a young person with ongoing education and training. This is a noble objective but the legislation does not impose obligations on the employer to either provide the training or ensure the release of employees to access this training.

The lack of a concrete commitment to expand Youthreach, post-leaving certificate courses and VTOS on a part-time basis or to develop support services such as child care and guidance illustrates the lack of commitment to ensure lifelong learning. When 97 per cent of small firms are experiencing serious recruitment difficulties, employers must take a new approach to the continuing education of their workforce. Two thirds of companies state that the lack of basic skills such as literacy, numeracy and interpersonal skills is the main reason they cannot fill vacancies in the workforce. This problem is not limited to employers. Both FÁS and Teagasc are finding increasing literacy problems among apprentices and must run basic literacy education along with their mainstream courses. Without basic literacy skills unemployed people can neither get jobs nor access FÁS or CERT training programmes.

There is complacency in Government and economic circles about the enormous issue of poverty and literacy, a specific problem requiring urgent attention. Statistics show that young people who leave school without the necessary qualifications will spend their lives on the poverty threshold. ESRI research has shown that 94 per cent of households in poverty are headed by an early school leaver. Of these, 75 per cent have no qualification whatsoever and 19 per cent have only a junior certificate. Failure to adequately tackle the problem in the coming decade will not only constitute a serious injustice but will place a large burden on the future economic growth of the country. The Minister must ensure that anyone who has not stayed at school after junior certificate level should be offered a chance to participate in adult education free of charge. VTOS and back to education schemes should be extended to certain part-time courses to facilitate participation by those with family commitments. We should also encourage employers and trade union bodies to develop workplace training partnerships, with emphasis on workers with literacy problems, and appoint full-time education co-ordinators to promote adult education in disadvantaged areas. Deputy Carey referred to the question of disadvantage. He is lucky resources are being provided in his and other urban constituencies. Five schools in County Roscommon have been designated disadvantaged while 21 primary schools in the county do not have hot running water.

This legislation will place an added burden of paperwork on principals, particularly teaching principals. One wonders where teaching principals will find the time to deal with the paperwork connected with this legislation as well as the enormous amount required for other departmental grant applications. I have had to encourage school principals to make applications for funding for various initiatives but they simply do not have the time to make submissions to the Department. In County Roscommon 98 per cent of all primary schools have teaching principals. Are these teachers to do this paperwork after school hours or should they leave their pupils unsupervised while they do so during the school day? It will defeat the purpose of the legislation if a teacher must leave a class to work, or perhaps not work, on its own while he completes a report on truancy. The question of providing the resources needed to make this legislation succeed must be examined closely but, sadly, the Minister said this evening that the legislation has no resource implications. We must provide a proper remedial service for primary schools. Some 12 per cent of young people leaving primary school cannot read, write or add properly. This unacceptable situation leads directly to truancy.

The Minister referred to the strong emphasis in the Bill on the importance of obtaining the written agreement of parents of children before action is taken. Sadly, many such parents are the products of a system which has failed them and will be incapable of reading any notice they may receive in the post. Some 25 per cent of the adult population do not have basic literacy skills. How will they know the contents of a letter. They will be unable to ask their son or daughter for help because they will not have been in school. The Minister has provided resources for a home-school liaison scheme but he must provide more because the scheme is an invaluable resource. If we are to co-ordinate State bodies, as the Minister hopes, people must be appointed to liaise with the various services. If this is not done, many young people will slip through the net and will not be helped. Unless we are prepared to provide resources to implement this legislation properly we are wasting our time discussing it.

I am sure all Deputies have received correspondence from parents who teach their children at home. I know the members of the Joint Committee on Education and Science have received large amounts of correspondence from these parents. Concerns have been raised regarding this legislation and amendments have been suggested. I hope we can discuss these matters in detail on Committee Stage and come to a solution which is acceptable to all. We must ensure that our young people do not drop out of school at the age of 14 or 15. We see from statistics that 5,000 leave school even before the junior certificate. I commend the Minister for increasing the minimum school leaving age to 16 years. If I had my way I would increase it further to 18 years or until pupils have completed the junior certificate, whichever is sooner. Many young people who have reached the age of 16 have not received an education and there is no point keeping them in the education system if we do not provide the resources necessary to teach them to read and write and to give them the basic skills necessary to gain employment or take advantage of training opportunities which will enable them to progress to further employment in the future. The ques tion of resources is the most important one to be raised as we discuss this legislation.

I commend the Minster on bringing this Bill before the House. This is indicative of his concern about this issue and the Bill is timely but long overdue. I speak for a number of Dublin Deputies when I say this is an area that has been neglected over the years, particularly in the more disadvantaged communities in my constituency in Tallaght. There is a pressing need for this legislation and my constituents have pressed for the early introduction of this initiative. Large disadvantaged communities are not sharing in the enormous wealth that has been created by our successful economy.

I am glad the Minister is determined to address the issue of school attendance. We have a Minister who listens. Deputy Naughten will appreciate the Minister's indication in his speech to the Seanad on this Bill that he is prepared to consider changes on foot of suggestions put forward by the other side of the House which are helpful and positive and would enhance and improve the Bill. I am sure such suggestions will be forthcoming and the Minister, Deputy Martin, will seriously entertain those suggestions.

The link between education and societal and economic opportunity and achievement is well documented. It should not fall to me tonight to point up the evidence which is obvious and well documented at this stage, of the link between educational attainment and job opportunities and success in life. Let us not be afraid to describe those who opt into the world of work and decide to make the best of things for themselves and their families as successful people. These are the people we want to encourage. Unfortunately, our economy has produced a certain class of people who have not shared in the benefits of education. It is one of the hallmarks of our successful economy that a strategic decision was taken 25 to 30 years ago to invest in education right through from the 1960s onwards. It is the hallmark of all parties in this House, Labour, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil – all the different parties who participated in Government – that they have invested in education and in the teaching profession.

During the 1980s I worked with the inner London education authority during which time Mrs. Thatcher began a campaign for the abolition of that authority. It is no exaggeration to say that during the 1980s in London major damage was done to the fabric of British society because of her initiation – based on her faith and ideology – of a full frontal attack on teachers who she viewed as some sort of left wing commissars. It was wholly wrong and unjustified and led to a decline in the standards of education available to the ordinary British citizen and to the many immigrants who flocked to that country because of its colonial past. We should be mindful of that as society presses ahead. We must always renew our faith in education, our commitment to the teaching profession and to those educationalists who are fighting a good case, particularly in disadvantages areas, to try to get the necessary resources, extra teachers and the attention of society to focus on education and educational issues.

This is a welcome Bill. I hope the new board will establish its credibility fast and focus on disadvantaged areas. There is an ongoing debate in ministerial and educational circles on whether the benefits should be shared across all schools or should be focused more on disadvantaged schools. I consider myself part of the lobby group that would say we should focus a good deal more of our energies and resources on disadvantaged schools. It is wrong to suggest that this or any other Bill introduced by the Minister during the next four years will produce an immediate short-term response or reaction in terms of improvements in attainment levels in certain disadvantaged areas. That will not be attainable. It will be perhaps eight years, before we get to grips with the problem of adult illiteracy and dysfunctional family set ups which lead to low educational achievement. It will be a long hard road, but addressing these problems demands of this and other Governments that the necessary resources be ploughed into disadvantaged schools. I know this causes problems in schools that are serving more affluent areas which do not have disadvantaged status. The Minister is reviewing the allocation of resources in respect of schools with disadvantaged status. A phenomenon in my constituency and, I suspect, in many other urban areas is the flight of children from an area because their parents opt to send them to other schools that have the perception of being more advantaged. That causes problems down the line because those schools do not have the resources to deal the intake of students from disadvantaged areas, yet the schools in disadvantaged areas that have the resources and the full complement of teachers cannot attract enough parents in the area to send their children to school there.

I was struck by Deputy Naughten's reference to Marian Finucane's show this morning during which a number of female prisoners in the new women's prison in Mountjoy made the point that they hoped to get the chance of an education through the prison system. It is appalling that it takes that level of indictment and referral to prison before people discover fully the benefits of education. Many of the women prisoners suggested that if they had adequate access to education earlier, perhaps they would not have turned out the way they did. It is popular to blame parents, but some of those women were most anxious to point out that their being in prison was not their parent's fault and that they were the only persons in their families who had gone down the wrong route. It is impossible to design a system to prevent everyone from sliding into criminality and wrongdoing, but this Bill will go some way towards achieving that.

Deputy Carey made a good point about rewards. In regard to all of these early and pre-school interventions that we are making, there must be a reward system built in for the pupils. They must feel it is a good thing to go to school. It is not enough to proselytise on this point, there needs to be a system of rewards for pupils and for parents who send their children to school so that we can encourage compliance in this area.

Another issue prominent in this matter is that the Bill talks about tracking pupils. I hope the board in which the Minister is investing so much attention will have the necessary resources to intervene effectively to encourage pupils to go to school. When I visit schools in my constituency I am struck, as I sure is Deputy Hayes, by the extent to which the schools that enjoy disadvantaged status are improving all the time precisely because they involve parents. A key point that must be rammed home to the Minister and to everybody involved in education is that if a school gets disadvantaged status and engages itself in a genuine partnership with the parents involving them in adult education programmes which may lead some parents to return to school to do their leaving certificate or to take up another training course, that has a huge effect.

I remember visiting a school in Tymon in my constituency and I was very struck that 20 women there who, perhaps, did not have the opportunity of an education and were beginning to feel the lack of it in terms of their advancement in the booming economy and their access to job opportunities felt strongly that they had missed out and they did not want that to happen to their children. To avoid that they became involved not only in the life of the school and its management but in learning and they had taken up courses. That is why I want to come to the issue the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea addresses in his Green Paper, which will soon become a White Paper that will deal with the issue of adult education and literacy. Deputy Naughten made the point about the three key indicators being literacy, numeracy and interpersonal skills. Despite our major advances, the so-called fabled – and I call it that deliberately – information revolution has not led to a corresponding increase in literacy, numeracy and the development of interpersonal skills among children in schools. That is the case across the board, not just in disadvantaged areas. This is a vital issue to consider not only in the context of adult education but in the schools. It is not enough for children go to school. There are basic levels of attainment that must be achieved, particularly in relation to literacy, numeracy and scientific and technology type issues.

I note that IBEC is developing a policy on business links in education. This is very important in disadvantaged areas. One must understand that we are talking, in some cases, of an intergenerational lack of achievement in education and lack of opportunity or access to a job. In these areas it is vital that we see, what I might term, "the com mercial interest" engaging with the school in a meaningful way so that there is link set up between employment and education to ensure people at an early age see the benefit of that and see the workplace not as a place where their parents and grandparents never went, but as a place in which they too can take part. That is very important. This is often a very much neglected area in our education system. Some school children never see the real world of work. I do not intend to criticise the teaching profession, but teachers suffer from a deficit in this regard in that they do not realise the pressing, commercial reality of society.

That concludes my contribution.

Debate adjourned.