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.