Deputy Foley, who is sharing time with Deputy Kitt, is in possession and 12 minutes remain.
Education (Welfare) Bill, 1999 [ Seanad ] : Second Stage (Resumed).
It must be remembered that home education takes place in the home, not in a public building. Any authorised officer calling to a home should respect the privacy of the family. It should also be remembered that parents are often not professional teachers and are not used to the scrutiny of an inspector. Parents believe strongly that any observation of the child receiving such instruction as part of the education provided would be unlikely to give a true insight into the education the child receives.
I am concerned that these measures are supposed to be implemented before the child is put on the register. Any assessment would, presum ably, assess the child's knowledge acquired at the school he or she previously attended or his or her development up to the age of five. As home education may have only just commenced, these measures should be taken later if for some reason there was concern about the standard of education provided. These measures need only be applied where there is such doubt and not as a routine procedure on application. Such assessments attract criticism. I feel that the overall mistake being made in section 15(4) is that it is too threatening. If the accent were put on providing help and advice to parents who wish to retain their responsibility to educate their children, the authorities would receive greater co-operation. The Bill seems to say "prove to us that you are providing a suitable standard of education" and does so in a very threatening and intrusive way. This attitude will lead to conflict and non-co-operation.
It is important that any minimum standard set should not just cover children educated outside the school system. It is also important that any social welfare payments would be made available to home educators. At present, home educators lose their children's allowance payment when the child reaches 16 years of age, regardless of whether the child is still receiving a full-time education. They are also unable to avail of the book grant scheme which is administered through the schools.
The general feeling among home educators is that the Bill has been written to deal with home education without any understanding of what home education involves. It attempts to treat home education in the same manner and according to the same rules as school education although the approach is totally different and should be treated accordingly.
The Bill provides a framework through which truancy and the risk of young people dropping out of society can be addressed. If we achieve this, we will succeed in reducing criminal activity. I welcome the Bill.
I thank Deputy Foley for sharing his time. I welcome the Bill and congratulate the Minister, Deputy Martin, and the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea, for introducing it. I particularly welcome the two broad aims of the Bill, the first of which relates to the 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. The Minister has achieved the right balance in this very sensitive and delicate area.
There is the question of how a "minimum education" should be defined. I hope the home-school parents will be consulted on that. The Bill provides a structure through which school attendance to leaving certificate level can be encouraged and promoted and through which students can be given a solid educational basis for later life. That commitment is a very important element of the Bill.
It is very important to recognise that parents have rights in regard to their children's education. The Bill protects these rights. It has been pointed out to me by the Coalition of Irish Home Schools that some parents will opt to have their children educated outside the recognised school system. This is particularly relevant in the light of the introduction of a new primary school curriculum. The Minister has clearly stated that the new primary school curriculum will be child-centred and feature an increase in practical work. The primary school curriculum of the 1970s was child-centred, as are systems such as Montessori and Froebel which involve a great deal of practical work. I have read the literature on the new curriculum, on which in-service training will be provided to teachers, and I believe it will be a very exciting programme for our schools.
I also welcome the National Education Welfare Board which will play a key role, particularly in regard to children receiving education outside the recognised school system. There has been a good deal of misunderstanding about home schooling which is one of the areas in question. Some people may envisage the isolation of students when they think of home schooling. They may recall the fairy tales of Rapunzel in her tower with her long hair or princes and princesses with their private tutors. That is not what is involved here. Many families are involved in home schooling. Children do socialise with other children and with members of their own families and extended families. Many practical benefits accrue from home schooling. For example, there is not the same disruption involved with rushing children out to schools in the morning and having to wake younger children in order to bring older children to school or to the pick-up point for school buses in rural areas. Another advantage of home schooling is that a greater degree of individual attention is available to children.
The issue of bullying, which is a very big issue in our schools, would not arise in home schooling. I am not referring merely to horseplay in playgrounds but also to the use of sarcasm and the running down of pupils by teachers or other students. It is a serious issue which must be tackled by the Department.
I am very glad that some of our smaller schools in particular encourage the idea of social skills or endeavour awards to improve students' self-esteem which, as we see from reports, is lacking. The Government has appointed a commission to examine the points system. I do not intend to condemn the points system because I do not know what the alternative is. However, I know that not all students will be able to achieve the increased points required for entry into third level. The system of awards to which I referred above is very beneficial for students.
Part of the teacher training programme which I and other teachers underwent involved the basic issue of roll book completion but we received very little information on school attendance officers. I was amazed when, in my first teaching position in Dublin, I met a school attendance officer almost every week because the school in which I taught was located in a so-called disadvantaged area. That situation has now been addressed by the Minister. In many housing estates, particularly in the inner city, students and families are sometimes transferred by local authorities thereby affecting the students' education.
I strongly support the Minister in regard to the Bill's second objective of encouraging school attendance. He referred to the fact that 10,000 teenagers leave education each year without obtaining any qualifications and are subsequently at a disadvantage in securing employment. That is very worrying. However, the Minister's views on school attendance are very positive. He has developed many schemes to assist children to stay at school. At third level, grants are available to mature students and others who return to education. In regard to the back to education scheme, I am somewhat disappointed that a person must be in receipt of social welfare for six months before he or she can avail of the scheme. The priority should be to encourage people back into the education system as quickly as possible, whether at second or third level. I hope the Minister and the Government will investigate ways of doing that.
The fact that the Bill makes specific provision for people between 16 and 18 years of age is very important. I would be very concerned about such students leaving education and moving into employment too soon, taking up low paid and low skill jobs which can keep young people in cycles of poverty and disadvantage.
There is great variety in the new curriculum. It certainly contrasts with some of the stories we have heard about systems in other countries. Perhaps the Leas-Cheann Comhairle is familiar with the song about an American system of education where a young student who wants to display his flair at art is told by the teacher "flowers are red, young man, and green leaves are green and you don't have to see flowers any other way than the way they always have been seen". I hope that all the colours of the rainbow will be available to students who will avail of the new curriculum. The new curriculum will be a major challenge for teachers who constantly compete with television, video, computer games and other aspects of the media and I welcome the provision of in-service training for them. We are also faced with the challenge of coping with the special needs which exist. The Minister has made remedial and resource teachers available for that purpose.
Now that the campaign by teachers' unions is well under way, I hope that the pupil-teacher ratio can be lowered at first and second levels. The ASTI, in particular, have made that case very strongly. I also hope that areas such as music, art and physical education will be highlighted in the new curriculum. As Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science, I welcome the production of a report on the role of music in education on which we have had some very interesting submissions. Physical education will be accorded a great deal of priority under the new curriculum.
In 1970, when the new curriculum was introduced at primary level – a curriculum which was supposed to be child-centred – only two booklets were available on it. There is a wide range of reading material for the 1999 curriculum. It will be a great challenge for our teachers but I hope it will be an exciting one. I hope students in first and second level schools will be able to avail of the great benefits of this curriculum and that it will be of benefit to our education system.
I wish to share my time with Deputy Gerry Reynolds.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill and on the broader education structures. The Bill provides for greater clarity, certainly as regards each child's right to a minimum education, the rights of parents to choose how that education is provided and the State's role in providing for an education for each child. The Bill also provides a structure to encourage and promote school attendance up to leaving certificate level or its equivalent and by so doing gives our students a solid educational base for later life. I accept the Minister is bringing forward the best laws he can, but if we do not have financial support and personnel backup, this Bill, like many others, may not achieve its aspirations.
We are all 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. There are some who would prove that wrong, but they are the exception rather than the rule. People with low educational qualifications have less chance of employment than people with higher educational qualifications. The ESRI, in its identification of the national investment priorities for 2000-06, also noted that research found that the absence of 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, people who leave the education system without qualifications will remain at a significant disadvantage in finding employment. It 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, and I agree with that. Each year more than 10,000 teenagers leave the education system without any qualifications.
There is a need for co-operation in this area, and every effort must be made to bring people together rather than face confrontation. Partnerships and community groups highlight what can be done and what is possible. In my community, a play group has been set up which will give a good start to the children involved when they reach primary school.
Many schools have sought remedial and resources teachers over the years. We, as politicians, are as guilty as anybody else when we announce with great gusto that a remedial teacher has been provided, especially in rural areas, to four or five schools. It is nothing short of a farce, not through any fault of the teachers but because they spend so much time on the road and so little with the children. They do not have the opportunity to build a relationship with the children which is necessary if they are to move forward.
I am worried about what will happen to the FÁS workers who have acted as school assistants in recent years. I know the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, has stepped back from the abyss but I am not sure of the full extent of this. The young people who have acted as school assistants have been very beneficial to schools in general but especially to those with handicaps and those in need of extra help.
I will briefly cover dyslexia, speech needs and autism. Families who can afford to travel or to move house often find a resolution to this problem but those who live in more isolated rural areas have great difficulty. I put on the record the experience of an individual in 1997, which has been dealt with only recently. In a letter to me she stated:
Dear Seymour, I wish to bring to your attention my dissatisfaction with the services available. I have for some considerable time now been most anxious about my son. These worries are as a result of my own experiences and concerns expressed in various meetings with the school remedial to discuss his lack of progress in his school work. The remedial teacher advised that she considered it necessary to have him assessed as it was her opinion that he was probably showing the signs of dyslexia. Assessment of his learning disability would be necessary in order to adapt teaching methods to his particular requirements. On 8 February 1996, I went to my own doctor to have him referred to an educational psychologist with regard to him being assessed for dyslexia. I was told that there was a waiting list and it would be approximately six to 12 months before he would be called. I waited patiently for almost 22 months and have received absolutely no contact in regard to my appointment. I contacted my doctor about three weeks ago to find out why he had not been called. After a lot of "I don't know" answers, eventually, on 20 October I was told to contact a person in Rooskey.
The letter goes on but it was 12 months after that before the assessment was done. If we are serious about treating all children equally, this type of thing must stop. That is why I said at the outset that the Bill may be great but if the funding and personnel are not available to deliver on it, we have nothing.
I recall the introduction of a Bill in 1989 to deal with an issue in agriculture but personnel were not provided, and we all know the results of that. When BSE struck, we did not have the backup or the information. Although the Bill was in place, nothing was done. It is essential that the Minister states clearly that not only is he introducing a Bill, but that he will provide the finance and the personnel to follow it through.
Last May a couple who discussed their child's needs for special speech classes were assured that their child would be taken into a special class. Unfortunately, there was some misunderstanding and it did not happen. It is now October and there has been no satisfactory resolution to that matter. Autism is a major problem and unless one visits the homes of children with autism, especially when it is at a serious stage, it is difficult to understand. Recently, I visited a person whose two youngest sons are classified under that heading. They have gone to the US to find ways and means to have them treated. The family is now divided with the mother and two children living north of the Border to get help. While that may be an isolated case, all children should be treated equally. It is a very difficult situation but one to which more attention must be paid. The health board and the Department of Education and Science must co-operate more closely in this area to ensure that a family such as this does not suffer. They are talking of building an extension to their house and bringing a specialist teacher over from the US. That would involve an enormous cost but the family is committed to having an adequate service provided. If something is not done for these two young people the State will have to deal with the problem in a much more costly fashion in the years to come. I hope something can be done because if it is not we will face a real problem.
Those who complete primary, secondary and third level education have a good chance of finding employment. Ten thousand people leave school early every year and the Bill does not provide sufficient incentive to prevent young people doing so in the future. When I consider that the cost of keeping someone in jail is £40,000 a year I must agree with Deputy Richard Bruton's recent proposal that funding be made available to make sure that children from poor families should not be forced to leave school because of lack of finance. The Bill raises the minimum school leaving age to 16 years. This is welcome. However, many young people in difficult family circumstances are obliged to work at weekends or in the evenings and find it impossible to keep up with their school work.
I question those educationalists who try to encourage people to proceed to second level education when they may be able to work with their hands at building, carpentry or a similar trade. This area should be re-examined and apprenticeship schemes put in place so that someone who wants to leave school at 16 will find proper opportunities.
I welcome the Bill and I am delighted to have an opportunity to participate in this debate. I congratulate the Minister for trying to tackle the issue of educational welfare which has not been addressed in legislation since the 1920s. The Minister for Education and Science is very lucky because his predecessors could only have dreamed about the amount of funding now available for education. It is important, therefore, that legislation is properly enacted and I hope this Bill will solve many of the problems in our education system. Legislation cannot solve all problems but it is up to the Minister and to the Members of this House to ensure that the enactment of this Bill brings more people into the education system, stops truancy and gives people the chance to avail of education, which is the right of every citizen.
Our forefathers who established this democracy placed a high value on education and saw it as one of the major factors which would bring the country into a prominent position in the world. It has taken 70 years to do that but we are now reaping the benefit of our predecessors' foresight in establishing one of the best education systems in the western world. We can now be proud that most of our people who have had the opportunity to be educated find they have good employment prospects in Ireland and abroad. A sound education system is one of the foundations stones of a democracy.
Primary schooling is the foundation of education. If young people do not receive a proper primary education they have a slim chance of progressing through secondary and third level education. The Minister and politicians must seek ways to improve primary education. We must examine the question of class size. Classes in most primary schools are still too large and we must look for ways to reduce class sizes as much as we can over the next number of years. We must also examine the question of remedial teaching. Children who have been helped by remedial teaching have had their passage into second level made much easier. We have a shortage of remedial teachers. We must try to have a remedial teacher between every two schools but in my county remedial teachers are shared by four or five schools. If this ratio were reduced those who find it difficult to progress through the education system would be helped.
The question of substitute teachers is causing grave concern to parents and pupils and it has not been highlighted. A parent came to me last week to tell me that his son, who is in fifth class has had 11 teachers, eight of them substitute teachers. It is not acceptable that young children, who find it difficult to cope with change, should have two or three different teachers in one year. The Mini ster must address this matter and the INTO must work in conjunction with the Minister to alleviate the problem of the shortage of primary school teachers. The situation should not be allowed to continue and must be addressed as a matter of urgency.
Schools with fewer than 50 pupils – there are many in my county – are not entitled to a secretary or a caretaker. School principals' time is being wasted doing secretarial work. Bureaucracy has increased in every area and teachers are obliged to spend valuable time on paperwork when they could be teaching pupils or engaging in extra-curricular activities with them. We must examine the possibility of introducing a scheme to provide at least a part-time secretary for schools with fewer than 50 pupils.
I received a letter this week from a constituent on the question of home education. When the Minister for Education and Science deals with this issue on Committee Stage, I would like him to take into consideration what this constituent wrote to me. The letter states: "as a parent who has chosen to educate our youngest son without sending him to the State school until an age to start at secondary school, my wife and I would like to know that our wishes and rights and those of other families like ourselves would be fully considered under the Education (Welfare) Bill". The letter also states: "without entering into the whole debate of education, it is, as I am sure you are aware, provided for under the Constitution and it is this provision that seems to be under threat by this Bill .. in particular, it does not seem appropriate to us that choosing to take responsibility for our children's early education should necessarily mean that we are encouraging truancy and, therefore, we feel very strongly that we should not be treated the same as parents who do not take the same care over their children's upbringing. In failing to take account of home education as a valid means of education, it would appear that the Department has not conducted sufficient research in this area". The letter asks specifically, what home education experts were consulted? That issue must be dealt with. I ask the Minister to deal with on Committee Stage.
I welcome the Bill and this opportunity to debate it as it gives Deputies on all sides of the House an opportunity to discuss education in general. That the legislation on which we have been depending dates from 1926 gives us an indication of the areas of education that have been neglected for years by the State, particularly education during young people's formative years. While great strides have been made in recent years to encourage certain sections of our society to continue their education and move forward to third level, a major draft of people have been left very much behind. That, at least, is something this Bill recognises and, I hope its provisions, when implemented, will be backed up by the necessary resources to make sure it succeeds.
The most important parameter of this Bill was to ensure that it does not conflict with the Constitution. I am sure some people will argue that it will infringe on the rights of parents to educate their children at home. While parents have rights, they also have responsibilities. This Bill is trying to deal effectively with that and it is sensitive and balanced.
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. This legislation respects the balance between the rights of all the participants and a broad consultative debate took place prior to the publication of this legislation. Of particular relevance are the provisions relating to the role of the family as the primary and natural educator of the child. Article 42.1 of the Constitution states "The State . guarantees 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 42.2 states "Parents shall be free to provide this education in their homes or in private schools or in schools recognised or established by the State." Article 42.3.2º. states that 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, require in view of actual conditions that the children receive a certain minimum education, moral, intellectual and social." The Bill had to take account of those articles of the Constitution. I am confident that if there is a challenge in the Supreme Court as to the constitutionality of the Bill and having regard to the wide consultation that took place prior to its publication, it will stand up.
On the broader context of the Bill, we are always amazed at various statistical data published on a fairly regular basis. We can draw corollaries between unemployment, low self-esteem, adult illiteracy, the problem of early school leavers and truancy. Every Deputy in this House, particularly Deputies who represent large urban areas, is aware that there is a good deal of social disadvantage and State neglect and that for years the State has ignored the plight of many disadvantaged people. We are all aware that the problem of early school leavers has been with us for some time. Many people who were born in the 1920s or 1930s finished their primary education and were able to find some form of work to sustain themselves and their families, but in recent years the need to have a qualification has increased. A person with a good leaving certificate in the 1970s could walk down a financial street in Cork or Dublin and many of the financial institutions or other big companies would have been more than willing to offer employment, but nowadays one must have a degree or a master's before one is considered for this type of work. The education qualifications system has continually moved on, yet the system has failed to take account of the large proportion of people who, because of social disadvantage, a history of adult illiteracy in the family or continuous unemployment within the family, have been forgotten. At last this Bill recognises that. It is most important that the necessary resources are put in place to ensure that when the Bill is implemented, those people can be detected in time.
Another issue that must be addressed is a tracking system for early school leavers. With the benefit of modern technology and the availability of computers in schools and through the Department of Education and Science, if a child were to leave one school and not enrol in another within a certain period of time, we should be able detect that he or she is not in formal education. It is beyond belief that one can walk the streets of Dublin and parts of Cork and see children, eight, nine and ten years of age, on a Tuesday morning at 11 o'clock begging on the streets. It is a damning indictment of society and of the education system, which cannot seem to tackle that problem. When schools are contacted about this problem, it is often found that a pupil has moved from one school but has not enrolled in another. If the Department of Education and Science is serious about tracking young people who have dropped out of school, it will set up a computerised system to detect where a pupil leaves a school with or without notice, and does not enrol in another, so that an educational officer will be able to investigate the problem. Children in this category are to be found on our streets every day of the week. Such a measure would be one very positive administrative step towards ensuring that this legislation will be successful.
In recent years we have heard that the Exchequer is overflowing with money. We have an opportunity now to ensure that social disadvantage is tackled right across the board. We must also ensure that we have a proper statistical database whereby regular surveys could be conducted in schools to detect truancy problems or indicate where pupils come from a background that is not conducive to learning. There is no point in us being polite about this. There are many families who are not fulfilling their roles as guardians of their children in encouraging them to stay on in school to further their education. The rights of the child are one aspect of the matter, but the responsibilities of parents must be seriously examined. Statistically, it is proven that the problems of early school leaving and truancy will lead probably to long-term unemployment at a later stage and, by extension, could lead to criminal activity. If we are serious about tackling these problems, we must accept that parents have rights and responsibilities and, if they are not fulfilling their responsibilities in regard to their children, it is up to educational officers to ensure those parents who are irresponsible are dealt with in the appropriate manner.
Because of unemployment, adult illiteracy and the fact that society has failed in certain areas to tackle this problem in time, there are homes where, through no fault of the parents, children are leaving school early and indulging in truancy. Nor is it the fault of parents that children leave school early and partake in truancy. We face a dilemma in dealing with this problem. If we are serious about tackling it proper use must be made of the home-school liaison officer, a beneficial person on the ground who can investigate problems and decide on the responsibility, or otherwise, of parents. If they are not being responsible is it because they have experienced the same problems as their children with regard to literacy, unemployment, low self-esteem, lack of availability of part-time work and social services? If so, we must address them in a broader context and we must also have a statistical data base to assist in this regard.
Teachers will often say they can spot at a very early age if a child has a difficulty, is slipping towards truancy and crime or is being neglected by their guardians. However, the resources are sometimes not available to enable them address these problems. We must ensure that if a child is spotted at an early age the services of the home-school liaison officer and remedial teachers are used. This includes the compilation of psychological assessments. There are not enough of them on the ground, although huge strides have been made in this regard. The present time of plenty presents a golden opportunity to tackle this serious social problem and only the State can tackle it by providing the necessary resources.
We must look at how students are adjudicated. This is a difficult area. How are classes to be assessed and how are we to ascertain if there are children with difficulties, including the inability to stay in mainstream education? We must devise some kind of assessment within the classroom to pinpoint at an early stage children with difficulties, whether they be problems with literacy, social or psychological problems or problems at home.
Many single mothers face great difficulties because of early or unplanned pregnancies and they are not provided with the necessary supports. Social welfare payments only enable them to live hand to mouth. In the area I represent this problem is on a big and growing scale. Many such girls probably come from a background of educational disadvantage. They find themselves pregnant at an early age and are unable to cope with their responsibilities as a parent. We must acknowledge that it is not good enough merely to provide them with social welfare payments without providing proper back-up services to enable them continue their education with the minimum of difficulty if that is their wish. This may entail the provision of extra resources from the State.
Expulsion from school for behaviour unbecoming is a problem that is growing at an alarming rate. I recently encountered a serious case where two students were expelled at the age of 13 years for drug dealing on their school premises. It was a big problem to return them to formal education because of their track record. I do not blame schools for refusing to enrol pupils of this kind, but the State surely has a constitutional obligation to provide them with proper educational facilities, not 15 or 20 miles from where they live but within their community, to see if they can be rehabilitated and kept away from a life of crime. Whatever the statistics say I know as a public representative that children who are expelled from school at an early age and cannot find any other formal education will almost certainly end up in a life of crime. It is possible they have come from an area of social disadvantage, but that is not always the case. This problem must be addressed urgently.
Speaking to teachers it is clear that their hearts go out to the parents of these children. They point out they must protect their school and the other pupils. For a long time the State has refused to meet its obligations in this area and in consequence these children are often left on the social scrap heap and end up back in the State's care, but unfortunately in Mountjoy Prison or at Rathmore Road in Cork. This area must also be looked at seriously.
We must go beyond the statistical data. If an area or a school shows up problems of truancy we must be able to pinpoint it quickly, analyse the problems and immediately direct the necessary resources. A school which is functioning well without major problems of truancy or otherwise can, in a very short space of time, change for the worse in response to changes in the community it serves. The benefits of the Celtic tiger have not yet been reflected at all levels in society. In view of this an early warning system must be put in place to enable the specific targeting of resources.
There is no doubt that many of the children on the streets of our cities are being exploited. What have the authorities being doing to tackle the problem? People pass these children on the streets, throw them a few pennies and move on. I know the Minister, the Department and others share my concern. Legislation has been enacted to address this problem, yet neither the children nor their parents have been dealt with, nor has the problem been investigated properly. That is beyond me. We are failing seriously in our duties here. I hope this legislation, with the appropriate resources to back it up, will make a positive contribution to this problem.
Schools are often looked on as buildings which provide education for children. However, they should become the focal point of communities, especially in urban areas where there is social disadvantage. They should be open from morning until evening and through the summer and winter holidays. Parents with difficulties should be allowed use them to attend adult literacy classes and computer courses. They should be made a focal point of learning, including helping parents returning to the education system with the development of their skills and abilities. Such par ents, who probably have children with similar problems, could attend the same school and identify with it. They could use the library facilities and help each other. This is something to which we must give serious consideration. There are huge resources in communities which very often are not being used. Adult literacy courses are being held throughout the city. I cannot understand why these cannot be held in the local schools. In areas of social disadvantage people are crying out for help and if these schools were made available and their doors opened up to society in general, they would be availed of. Most schools have computers and there is no reason computer courses cannot be held in the evenings during the summer. The Minister recently made grants available whereby schools can purchase books and make library facilities available. This is all very positive but there is a greater body of people out there who would avail of and benefit from these facilities.
I compliment all those involved in bringing forward this legislation. I also compliment the Minister who has a deep insight and knowledge of this issue. I do not wish to sound parochial coming from Cork, but the Minister has the knowledge. He has professional expertise from his teaching days and is genuinely committed to addressing the issues. However, social disadvantage will be with us as long as we deprive people of the right to a reasonable education. Those who fall behind will never be able to afford grinds like those who have already achieved a high level of education. If we are serious, these issues must be addressed immediately and the resources to back up this progressive and positive legislation must be put in place. The rights of parents is one side of the coin but the responsibility of parents is the other. We must ensure that parents live up to their responsibility to protect their children and ensure that they receive a proper education.
(Carlow-Kilkenny): I wish to share my time with Deputy Michael Creed.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Bille fé mar a rinne go leor cainteoirí eile romham. Níl sé céad faoin gcéad i gceart ach glacaim leis go nglacfar le leasaithe ar an mBille sula mbeidh deireadh leis sa Dáil . Is maith an rud é, áfach, go bhfuil Bille nua againn ón chéad Bhille a tháinig isteach anseo i 1926. Tháinig an-chuid athraithe ar an domhan ón uair sin i leith. Nuair a thosaigh mé féin ag múineadh sna caogadaí tháinig Gárda amach ar a rothar agus chuir sé eagla an domhain ar na páistí a bhí sa seomra. Ní mar sin atá an scéal faoi láthair. Ní bhíonn eagla ar na páistí óga roimh na Gárdaí ach ar an láimh eile an mbíonn meas acu ar na Gárdaí fé mar a bhíodh fadó? Bhí eagla orthu ach bhí meas acu agus ag na tuismitheoirí ar na Gárdaí. Ní raibh aon bhrú ar an nGárda teacht isteach, féachaint ar an leabhar rolla agus na daoine a bhí as láthair a chur go dtí na háiteanna uafásacha sin a chualamar fúthu le déanaí.
The Minister in his speech spoke about the difficulties teachers might have in co-operating with the school attendance officer or the welfare officer. I do not understand what difficulties there might be if roll books are maintained. It would take just a quick glance to determine who is missing.
Deputy Richard Bruton made a valid point when he said, "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." I agree with that statement. It would be dangerous to hand over truancy matters to some big board. Part of the school's responsibility should be to deal with pupils and the difficulties they face. Some schools have become too large. Schools with 1,000 pupils have lost the concept of what school should be about, that is, communication and a connection between teachers, pupils and parents. If schools do not communicate with parents they are whistling against the wind, so to speak. It is only where there is co-operation between teachers and parents that the schools function properly. I would not like someone to say in ten year's time that a board is appointed to schools to take responsibility for absenteeism or that the chief executive officer should be responsible for the problem. That would not be advisable.
Teachers should know what is happening in homes. It is important to know what is going on in the home and the reason pupils are not anxious to attend school in this day and age when school has changed so much for the better. Is it because of fear in the schoolyard, fear of teachers if the pupil has difficulty learning, or is it that parents have their own difficulties and are not available to help their children? One cannot replace a school and staff with an interest in the pupils.
There has been a great deal of talk about class sizes. This is a major problem. The smaller the class the more weaker children can be helped. However, there has never been a debate on the size of schools. Some schools have become too large. Secondary schools with more than 500 pupils are becoming like sausage factories. While staff may be appointed to look after different class years and so on and do a great job, I think they lose touch. Rural schools, particularly primary schools, have the advantage of smaller groups and smaller numbers. The staff know exactly what is happening in their area.
The National Educational Welfare Board with responsibility for monitoring truancy will employ educational welfare officers. I could not find a definition as to what qualifications they will require. I remind the Minister that, unlike traffic wardens, I would not like these educational welfare officers to have a clamping mentality where they would go out to clamp either the missing child or the parent without being able to deal in a kind way with these people. Kindness should be one of the qualifications required in order to discuss and solve the problem. There is no point talking about bringing someone before the courts, fining them £500 or sentencing them to a month in jail. That will just add to the difficulties that already exist. That should be an option only when the person defies all the options put to them. We must understand that there is a reason why someone does not attend school. Under the provisions in the Bill, funds will be provided but we do not know what anything will cost. The number of staff on the board will be "as it may from time to time determine themselves". There is no limit to the number of staff appointed. Will the cost of the board exceed that of appointing extra advisers or psychologists to deal with the problems that may arise throughout the country? Are we setting up a type of police force to deal with problems which, if prevented, might cost less money?
A section in the Bill talks about rewarding pupils with good school attendance. I know the carrot and stick is important but there is always the danger that in rewarding someone who has a very good school attendance, one might be wronging someone who does not have as good a school attendance. This might be due to factors outside of his or her control such as bad health or lack of transport. While I would accept that it is important to use people's good attendance as an example, I would not like to go overboard by giving awards and national certificates. It is a different matter altogether when somebody has gone through primary school for all these years without any days being missed. One would want to be careful, however, because sometimes children attend school under very adverse conditions, in terms of their home life and other matters, and they should be encouraged. Since I left teaching I regularly repeat the fact that teachers do not encourage students enough. I never had less than 36 pupils in a class and I often had 40 in sixth class. A teacher is trying to get material across and wants to improve all the children to make sure they can hold their place in second level education. The teacher does not have time to encourage pupils and is inclined to criticise what is wrong. It is part and parcel of the job and I do not blame teachers for doing so, but if they were under less stress they might have more time to sit down with children to encourage and praise them. Mol an óige is still true and is very important.
Deputy Michael Higgins referred to the term "truancy" which is being used instead of absenteeism. I also share a dread of that word because long ago an inspector, having heard me recite "and every truant knew" from "The Deserted Village", asked me what a truant was. The teacher never thought it was worth his while to tell me what a truant was and I did not have a clue. Therefore, that word has always stayed in my mind. In fairness to Goldsmith, however, if he had used a simple term like a mitcher, or something else, I would have known it, but he was too clever by half, obviously.
That is the British terminology, Deputy.
(Carlow-Kilkenny): I suppose so. The legislation includes penalties for parents who do not send children to school. Today, I discovered a situation in Carlow, the details of which I have given to the Minister. It concerns a child who started his first year in second level education in Carlow and then transferred to another county for serious family reasons. He came back to Carlow having completed a year in Kilrush, County Clare, but cannot get back into the school in which he started his secondary education. In fact, he cannot get into any school in Carlow. His father, who is doing his best to get him in, contacted me. This Bill will clobber parents who will not send their children to school, yet this case involves an under age child who should be in school and cannot get in. The principal has explained to me that the second year classes are at their maximum capacity of 30. That figure is important I suppose, although many primary schools would be laughing if they could finish up with 30 in a class. They have their own reasons for it and I do not wish to criticise that, but it has come to the stage where a child has the right to an education yet cannot get it. We must have a better system. I know the Minister will deal with it and I hope he will come up with a suitable solution. I can see the difficulty the principal is in; the teachers' unions have agreed a certain number of pupils and all the classes seem to have reached that number. However, this is a child who deserves education and cannot get into school.
We need extra teaching staff in schools and there are appointments available all over the country. It reminds me of when, in 1957, I looked up the advertisements in the newspaper for teachers. At that time there used to be four columns of teachings jobs and one had to decide which school to honour by applying for a post. Later, for many years there were no jobs. When my daughter was trained back in the 1980s, many of her classmates went to England because there were no jobs here, and they never came back. Maybe that is why we have a scarcity of teachers now because so many disappeared then. Nowadays jobs are available and one sees three or four columns of newspaper advertisements for teachers, yet we do not have them. One can make appointments and offer all kinds of resources teachers, but if there is no one there it will not do. Schools should be careful of because it would never do if some of the graduates who will be coming out after Christmas, with no teaching experience, are appointed to these jobs. Teachers with experience are required to help either as remedial or resource staff and the people who are teaching need experienced teachers to help in such specific areas.
One cannot have high enough standards when it comes to providing teachers. Now that I have left the teaching profession, I realise more and more the influence teachers have for good or evil, in a classroom on any given day. The good teacher is taken for granted, while the bad teacher is able to get away with it probably because it is the one profession from which it is very hard to be fired, unless one is on one's own and it is obvious that one is the guilty person. If one is in with a group of teachers, however, the people before and after can cover.
The art of teaching is something I would like to mention. When my obituary is written, the people who write the great articles in the Sunday papers will only find time, if they do, to say "A former Fine Gael Deputy died at last". That is probably all they will be able to put down. However, maybe Senator O'Toole would remind his colleagues inTuarascáil that I stood up for the art of teaching. Qualifications are often seen as a sine qua non, but some people with qualifications could not teach diamonds. I wonder if Einstein could have got across one piece of information to a normal child? After a certain number of years teachers should sit down and listen to bad lecturers because some people with high qualifications cannot teach. The art of teaching should be drummed into student teachers.
I attended teacher training college and, later on, I sat the H.Dip for secondary education, but had I depended on the H.Dip to teach me the art of teaching I would have achieved nothing. The skills of teaching are very important, yet they are often taken for granted. Some people who are awarded a degree in history and economics think they are able to lecture in those subjects. Lecturing is fine if one has university students with the savvy to do their own research, but at first and second level – and particularly second level because there is a major change in the system – it is important that teachers can teach.
I have slight worries about the idea of people being so skilled in teaching at home. I do not wish to offend them but it is very difficult to educate children at home and give them a broad education that will stand to them in this day and age. I hope that everything goes well for those who are receiving their education at home but discipline is a serious problem. There should be a group to look after those who cannot fit into the normal stream of teaching. A disruptive pupil is a nuisance in a class, while at the same time such a pupil needs to be given an opportunity to learn. It is hard to balance the one against the other. There are many more issues I would like to discuss but I realise that my colleague has much to say in a short space of time.
On previous occasions I have made the point that I believe the Department of Education and Science is one of the most excessively centralised Departments of the 15 Departments. While the principles behind the Bill are worthy in themselves, I fear that we may be in danger of adding a layer of bureaucracy to an already creaking system, one that sees every educational establishment – primary, secondary and tertiary level, with the exception of the VEC sector – on a constant merry-go-round or treadmill, dealing with the Department at a centralised level. That is the case whether it concerns the repair of a pane of glass or a roof slate, through to the appointment of teaching staff, including remedial or resource teachers, and school building extensions. All of these matters could be dealt with more effectively by a regional administrative structure.
While the objectives behind the Bill are to ensure that the maximum number of students attend educational institutions at primary, secondary and tertiary level for the maximum possible period, perhaps some of the structures could be better administered at regional and local level through the established VEC offices, rather than adding another layer of centralised bureaucracy to what is an already overloaded system.
The Minister attended the debate earlier, as did his colleague the Minister of State. I regret, but understand, their inability to be in the House now because I wanted to raise a specific matter with both of them. In June I raised a matter on the Adjournment about the continuing educational disadvantage being perpetrated on Gaeltacht primary schools as opposed to their colleagues in gaelscoileanna. In a reply to me on 23 June, the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy O'Dea, indicated that "He can expect some developments in this area because I am informed that the Minister will be making a general policy statement on this matter in the very near future". I am still awaiting that statement and I know that, with regard to the pupil-teacher ratio – the subject matter I raised – certain schools have since lost teachers. That matter was expected to be resolved before the commencement of the current academic year. I do not want to accuse the Minister of deliberately misleading the Dáil but unless an announcement is made shortly I can draw no other conclusion. I corresponded with the Minister on 1 September in respect of this matter and I ask him to make that announcement and address the anomaly to which I refer.
I note from the Minister of State's contribution that the purpose of the Bill is to provide a structure to encourage and promote school attendance up to leaving certificate level. No reference was made to third level but the point needs to be made. I have in my possession correspondence from the Minister for Education and Science, signed by Deputy Martin and dated 30 September. It refers to a student in my constituency who is confined to a wheelchair and attends a post-leaving certificate course and of whom the Department of Education and Science has washed its hands in respect of providing some form of transport to enable the child in question to attend post-primary education. I find the words spoken by the Minister and the Minister of State about improving access and attendance very hol low, given that the Minister put his name to a letter which states:
While being sympathetic to the needs of [I will not name the pupil to which the letter refers] my Department have to consider the operation of the school transport scheme as a whole and a requirement not to breach guidelines.
Guidelines are no use to that child if she cannot attend third level education and advance herself to a point where she can obtain employment.
I regret that the time available is limited but I wanted to make those two brief points. I also wanted to make points about excessive centralisation and the appointment of resource teachers, secretarial staff and caretakers, who assist in the administration of the education system, but I will not impinge further on Deputy McGuinness's time. The words of the Minister and Minister of State ring hollow when I can instance examples in my constituency which make them so.
I welcome the Bill and I compliment the Minister on the task he has undertaken in the Department of Education and Science since his appointment. A number of the issues he has taken on and resolved had been lingering in the Department for some time. I consider that the Bill before us deals with another of those outstanding problems.
In his contribution to the Seanad the Minister stated that he would continue the process of consultation during the passage of the Bill and beyond. He also indicated that further consultations were already taking place. That is to be welcomed because there is no Bill that can deal with this complex problem in one fell swoop without the need for it to be revisited again and again. This issue will continue to change and there will be a constant need to introduce new legislation and take new action in order to ensure the success of the Bill before us.
An audit of the success of the Bill and the points raised in it should form part of how we monitor legislation, particularly legislation of this nature because it can affect, in such a fundamental way, the well being of any child or family. Where the State is directly involved, as it is in education, it is absolutely essential that a Bill of this kind be policed and audited in respect of its success and changed accordingly and quickly, where necessary. In dealing with an issue of this sort, the solutions are not necessarily the normal conventional ones; they are not dictated or laid down by the Department. Some of the language used in the Bill in respect of truancy is the language of the past and it is a language which must change.
Because the problems are complex and the solutions many, all contributors on the Bill will have something to say about what they consider the solution to a specific problem that is outlined at various stages in the legislation. However, something different is happening in our communities, part of which is driven by the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs which has set about funding family resource centres. Officials in that Department have set about empowering local communities to make decisions for themselves and the direction they will take in the future. That process of empowerment has led many of the participants to become involved in the area of education because the people involved at community level are mainly those who are marginalised, families who have, for one reason or another, found themselves on the edge of every activity, particularly education. The parents may have left school early and, as a result, the children may find it difficult to attend school or perhaps there is a leniency in the household which lets them off the hook in respect of a 100 per cent attendance or a good performance in mainstream education. However, these people have returned to the education system by way of the family resource centres and are participating again. They are assisting in the education not only of their children but of the general community.
The process to which I refer has to be acknowledged because inherent in it is a true partnership between those responsible for providing the education structure – the Government and the State – the students and the parents who must make it happen. That partnership is proving to be a huge success for the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, and his Department in relation to other issues. I believe it can also prove to be a success in respect of the Department of Education and Science.
Marginalised communities are not the only ones affected by poor education or large numbers of those dropping out of the education process. During my political career and in lobbying the different Departments since my election to the Dáil, I have heard how well off is my constituency. I am informed that the economy in my area is growing and that there is a certain wealth and affluence there. However, in a report entitled "Hear My Voice", written by Scott Bolt in 1997, there is an interesting statistic which to this day is quite true. It refers to the percentage of early school leavers in a study sample taken nationally. The results were as follows: inner city Dublin, 41 per cent; Kilkenny came second in the national league at 27 per cent; Dublin north, 14 per cent; Dundalk, 12 per cent and Edenderry, 6 per cent.
The Deputy's county is getting used to coming second.
That is mean.
We will not revisit that now; it was a temporary setback. I find it astonishing that in a county such as Kilkenny, with its agricultural background, industry base, etc., 27 per cent of students are leaving school or dropping out early.
I want to refer briefly to two studies which have been undertaken. We all bring to this debate our experiences from our own constituencies. Some people do not like referring back to their own constituency, or to the parish pump, but we all learn from our own ways in life and we can make an input at national level that may be important to this Bill in particular and to the policy on education. A study was carried out in 1997 and presented recently to the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Deputy Ahern, on his recent visit to the city. It relates to the Loughboy area of the city where 45 per cent of the population of Kilkenny live. The study has identified early school leaving as a major problem. The percentage drop-out in four schools was 11 per cent, and of that 11 per cent, 18 per cent were from this particular area of Kilkenny city. That 1997 study made four points: first, early school leavers are more at risk of long-term unemployment, and ultimately poverty, than those who remain on at school; second, early school leavers who have difficulty with literacy and numeracy or who exhibit low self-esteem tend to be much less likely to obtain employment; third, male early school leavers are more successful at obtaining employment; and, fourth, early school leavers who are unemployed and not involved in a training programme are more likely to be involved in crime or the use of illegal drugs.
When a local community like Loughboy in Kilkenny city carries out a local needs analysis, identifies many problems and underlines the problem of early school leavers, it is incumbent on all Departments, not just the Department of Education and Science, to ensure that all the agencies begin to work in partnership with organisations like LARK in Kilkenny. I ask the Minister to examine that model, where a local community identified a need and asked the various Departments of State to come in because they realise, with the growth in house building over the next ten years, their problems will intensify and that the structures currently in place will begin to crumble, which will affect the very fabric of society in that area. We must be proactive in our approach to this problem, otherwise we will fail miserably in the coming ten to 20 years.
Another successful model which I asked the Minister to examine – again it is in Kilkenny city – is the Father McGrath Centre which I understand he will visit shortly. That centre is located in an area where there was a high level of unemployment. The local communities came together and are now working in that complex which was declared a derelict building by the local authority. The local community refused to take "no" for an answer. They now have a major resource centre and are attracting parents from five marginalised communities to re-educate them so that in turn they can help with the homework studies of their children when they return home from school. In addition, they are working with 25 children on a one to one basis to improve their prospects in mainstream education. They have achieved this largely by voluntary contributions from retired nuns and other volunteers with little or no educational qualifications but who realise the importance of education and by FÁS workers.
These volunteers help out in the afternoons and late into the evenings and with funding from the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs and some from the Department of Education and Science they have put together a package that is assisting in a positive way the young people of those marginalised communities. They have set themselves a target that by the year 2000 most, if not all, of the community will have an e-mail address – this is an unemployment blackspot in the city – the children of the estate, if not the parents, will be information technology literate and they will contribute in a positive way to expanding that model to other marginalised communities in Kilkenny city. They intend to run a programme called From Three to University because with the help of NUI Maynooth, a third level outreach facility has been established.
I make these comments so that the Minister can note that this model is not so much driven by the Department of Education and Science but by the want in a local community to be educated and to participate fully in the advantages of the economy by way of education and acknowledging the value of education, even by those who have gone through the system and are not fully educated, for their young children. That is a significant development and it is one that is poorly acknowledged by every Department. The Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs is leading the way in this regard and I ask the Minister to acknowledge those models – I have just mentioned a few in my constituency, I am sure there are others in other counties – as being worthy of funds and to have an all-inclusive educational community. In doing that we will break the cycle that has plagued the marginalised for many years. Funding is the only tangible acknowledgement that can be put in place by the different Departments. They should examine the model on the ground, ensure it is transparent and provide the necessary funds to ensure that model continues to serve what will be a greater community in numbers. Given this debate, it is obvious that throughout the country a building programme is ongoing, regardless of what is being said, and it will definitely impact in a negative way on some of these marginalised communities and on the structures and agencies of the State if we do not take a proactive role in improving it.
I want to give a statistic from the recently published needs analysis of Callan, a small town in Kilkenny. In response to the question, do you think it would be helpful to have classes for parents to make it easier for them to help children with their homework, 38 per cent of those surveyed said "yes". I see this in my own home where one would almost need classes to ensure that one's children do not fall behind in school because of the advances taking place in an education system that is driven by technology. There is enormous demand but there is an answer also for the Minister. As is happening in many other Departments, we should adopt a truly partnership approach to this problem.
I would like to see the many people involved in LARK, which is not funded properly by the various Departments, the Father McGrath Centre and the other centres that are cropping up in our cities and towns funded to a point where they can audit their own success and be encouraged by that success to move forward. If that happens the Minister will be faced shortly with the problem of dealing with university outreach centres because a natural progression is that the people who will educate themselves by way of the self-help ethos in these communities will want to further their education and will encourage their parents, brothers and sisters who have lost education to return to it. The natural progression is that they would want to access some form of outreach facility provided by a recognised university in their city or town. I commend NUI Maynooth on their activities in partnership with the local community in Kilkenny and St. Kieran's College. That is a success story and a community based model of partnership. The organisers did not ask for money and did not come to Dublin with a begging bowl but raised money locally through the local authority and commercial interests and made this happen in St. Kieran's College. If the Minister reached out to that partnership and offered it the same assistance, even if he ringfenced it and decided to take it as a pilot project, it would be worth considering.
The benefit to those who have taken up courses there can be seen. The proof is in the people who have been given certificates and who have succeeded in the different courses. At the end of those courses they have lent their new found knowledge not just to commercial use but to community use. I know many who have taken those courses have come back to serve their local communities and one went on to become a county councillor. A travelling man from Wexford with little education went through a similar model in Wexford and worked through to the point where he was being considered by Wexford County Council as a full-time employee. He had no background in education but was simply encouraged by those who felt he had something to offer. He was rewarded by a full-time course that led to full-time employment. He said publicly that he was delighted such a model existed and was driven by the local community and that it delivered a sense of place and purpose to him. If we do nothing with these models but give our children aspiration we will show them there is a place, that they can aspire to be something else and to participate fully in their own communities. It will take the Minister and the Government to acknowledge what is happening and to work in partnership with communities. I commend the Bill as a first step and I ask the Minister to acknowledge what is going on.
I acknowledge what Deputy Michael D. Higgins said about creativity. That is an essential part of this area.
Tá áthas orm seans a fháil labhairt ar an mBille Oideachais (Leas), 1999, agus tríd is tríd, is fiú go mór an Bille. Ach beidh roinnt mhaith den mhaitheas atá i gceist ann ag brath ar na hachmhainní, mar is gnáth, a bheidh ar fáil ón Státchiste. Ba mhaith liom tagairt a dhéanamh do roinnt mhaith de na fadhbanna a bhaineann leis an mBille chomh maith, cé go bhfuil an-chuid maitheasa ann.
Tá cuid den Bhille mí-Bhunreachtúil agus ba cheart é sin a athrú sula mbeidh sé ina Acht. Beimid ag obair chuige sin, le cúnamh Dé, ar gach taobh den Tigh. Tá trí phointe a sheasann amach gur gá leasuithe a dhéanamh ar an mBille fúthu.
Ar dtús báire, tá ceist sa Bhille a árdaitear de bharr tagairt don bhunchaighdeán oideachais agus an cheist atá ann ná cad is bunchaighdeán oideachais agus cad é an sainmhíniú atá ann faoi sin. Níl aon sainmhíniú sa Bhille agus is dócha go bhfuilimid ag brath ar na cigirí nó ar an Roinn ó am go chéile é sin a chur i gcrích. Ach, níos tábhachtaí ná sin, fiú, an féidir leis an Aire nó leis an Rialtas caighdeán bunoideachais a chur i bhfeidhm ó thaobh na Bunreachta de, de bharr go bhfuil chéad áit tugtha don tuismitheoir mar mhúinteoir don leanbh? Níl fhios agamsa an feidir, ó thaobh na Bunreachta de, é sin a chur i gcrích dá bharr.
Ar an dara dul síos, tá ceist achmhainní airgeadais, mar a luaigh mé ar dtús. Cé mhéid airgid a bheidh ar fáil chun an "truancy" a sheachaint agus tacaíocht a thabhairt do na scoileanna agus do na teaghlaigh atá ag fulaingt agus do na leanaí atá istigh ann, dar ndoigh?
Ní dóigh liomsa, agus ní féidir liom é a thuiscint, cén fáth a bhfuil sé sa Bhille go mbeidh cead ag an Stát teacht isteach i dtithe daoine eile chun féachaint cá bhfuil na leanaí agus cén cineál oideachais atá ar fáil sa teach, mar shampla? Tá an cheist seo ag cur isteach ar a lán daoine, roinnt mhaith daoine a bhí ag caint le Teachtaí eile. Chuala mé an Teachta Michael Kitt ag déanamh tagairt do na daoine atá ag tabhairt oideachais dá leanaí sa bhaile, agus roinnt Teachtaí eile sa bhFreasúra chomh maith. Faoi láthair, chomh fada agus is eol dom, tá an cheist seo os chomhair cúirte cheana féin. Tá sé ráite ag an mbreitheamh a bhí ag éisteacht leis an gcás go bhfuil sé ró-luath a rá an bhfuil sé seo le dul os comhair cúirte i ndáiríre mar níl sé ina Acht fós. Mar sin, tá na cúirteanna ag féachaint ar an diospóireacht seo agus fanfaidh siad go dtí go mbeidh obair na Dála curtha i gcrích ach níor mhaith liomsa a bheith os comhair cúirte mar Bhall den Dáil de bharr go bhfuil mé tar eis rud éigin mí-Bhunreachtúil a dhéanamh. Le cúnamh Dé beidh leasú ar an Acht chun go mbeidh sé Bunreachtúil.
Tá roinnt mhaith litreacha faighte agamsa faoin mBille seo agus ag daoine eile, is dócha. Is mian liom ceann amháin a léamh chun a léiriú cad tá i gceist ag daoine. Níor tháining an litir seo ón dáilcheantar agamsa, dála an scéal. Deireann sé:
With regard to the draft Education (Welfare) Bill, 1999, in circulation in the Dail, we, as the parents of Rory [sa chas seo] recently have had to endure 16 court appearances before our constitutional rights as the primary educator of our child were recognised. We would like to make the following points in relation to any attempt to assess children or parents and label them.
Any parents we have spoken to who have had their children assessed, it has been a disadvantage to them as parents and their children in any court case, as the assessment had been carried out in a one-sided manner. The only one the assessment will benefit is someone who wants to control other people's children and label them to cover up failures in the school system. This Bill being prepared is an attempt to get away from the real problems which are in the school system. Having a Bill set up to deal with child abuse would be more worthwhile. Don't let the Governemnt waste time on parents who care for their children and home educate them.
We trust you will put our points forward and give parents and children a voice.
Sin tuairim amháin, agus, dar ndóigh, tá an duine seo an-chrosta faoi cad a tharla dóibh siúd, an duine a scríobh an litir sin, an tuismitheoir. Ceist atá agamsa ná an féidir leis an Aire a thuiscint go bhfuil daoine sa tír seo ina gcónaí i bhfad ó scoileanna, agus is ceart a aithint go mbeidh oideachas níos fearr ag na daltaí sin más féidir leis na tuismitheoirí cabhrú leo sa bhaile. Bheadh níos mó ama i mbun foghlaime ag na leanaí sin dá bharr. Tá fhios againn go bhfuil fadhb ag na busanna scoile ó thaobh spáis de agus bheadh níos mó spás ar na busanna scoile dá mbeadh leanaí ag fáil oideachais sa bhaile. Tá ganntanas múinteoirí cáilithe ann faoi láthair agus is cabhair é má tá tuismitheoirí sásta cabhrú leis na leanaí atá acu féin. Tá sé do-chreidte go bhfuil Gárda Síochána in ann an dlí a chur ar thuismitheoirí agus iad a thógaint os comhair cúirte gan cigire a fháil ón Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta agus ligint don bhreitheamh a rá an gá cigire a fháil. Cheana féin tá an duine seo sa chúirt i measc daoine atá tar éis rudaí a ghoid agus rudaí eile a dhéanamh. Níl an tuismitheoir mar an gcéanna leis na daoine eile sin. Tá seisean ag déanamh a dhícheall dá leanbh agus tá sé anois os comhair cúirte dá bharr. Ní féidir glacadh leis sin.
Tá difríocht sa Bhunreacht idir an Béarla agus an Ghaeilge. Sa Bhéarla deirtear "The State acknowledges that the primary and natural educator of the child is the Family and guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty" agus mar sin de. Sa Ghaeilge: "Admhaíonn an Stát gurb é an Teaghlach is múinteoir príomha dúchasach don leanbh." Mar sin, tá "múinteoir", "teacher" sa Ghaeilge ach tá "natural educator" sa Bhéarla. Tá rogha mar sin ag tuismitheoiirí agus ba cheart dúinn é sin a aithint – sé sin oideachas a thabhairt do leanbh sa bhaile.
I Meiriceá bhí an "National Home Education Week" ag tús mhí Meán Fomhair. Ní féidir liom an fógra go léir a léamh mar níl an t-am agam, ach deir sé:
"Whereas dozens of of contemporary studies continue to confirm that children who are educated at home score exceptionally well on nationally normed achievement tests." agus mar sin de.
"Now, therefore, be it resolved that the week begining on September 19, 1999, and ending on September 25, 1999, is designated as National Home Education Week. The President is authorised and requested to issue a proclamation recognising the contribution that home schooling families have made to the Nation".
Ní ceart go mbeadh tuismitheoirí atá ag déanamh a ndícheall dá leanaí sa bhaile sa Bhille seo. Seo Bille atá ag iarraidh an dlí a chur ar dhaoine agus atá ag iarraidh daoine atá ag fulaingt a thabhairt isteach sa chóras agus mar sin de. Níl na daoine seo ag fulaingt. Tá siad go breá sásta oideachas a thabhairt de réir mar atá ceart acu sa Bhunreacht ach de réir an Bhille seo caithfidh siad clárú chun sin a dhéanamh. Tá sé sin míbhunreachtúil.
Tá sé ráite sa Bhille gur féidir le cigire nó "the board may, with the consent of the parent and child, arrange for a child to be examined as to his intellectual, emotional and physical development". An bhfuil an bord cáilithe chun mothúchán agus sláinte fisiciúil agus eile a mheas? Bheadh siad in ann cúrsaí intleachtúla agus mar sin de a mheas, ach b'fhéidir go bhfuil sin ag dul thar fóir.
I gCuid a Trí tá caint mar gheall ar a register. B'fhéidir gur féidir rogha a thabhairt do thuismitheoir a bheith ar an gclár ach ní dóigh liom gur féidir brú nó iachall a chur air a bheith ann. Arís, is ceist bhunreachtúil í sin, chomh maith. Freisin i gCuid a Trí den Bhille tá cearta linbh i scoileanna aitheanta i gceist. Cad faoi na scoileanna nach bhfuil aitheantas acu, roinnt mhaith de na gaelscoileanna agus eile? Ba cheart dúinn a bheith níos cuimsitheach chun na scoileanna eile a aithint, nach bhfuil aitheantas acu go fóill. Tá sin tábhachtach.
Dúirt an tAire Stáit, an Teachta O'Dea, nuair a chuir sé an Bille ós ár gcomhair: "The establishment of the National Education Welfare Board will be a significant support to schools in the future." D'fhág sé ar lár na daoine atá ag tabhairt oideachais sa bhaile. Tá súil agam gur timpist a bhí ansin agus nárbh d'aonghnó a rinne sé é, mar níl sé ag tabhairt aitheantas cuí do na daoine sa bhaile atá ag déanamh a ndícheall chomh maith.
Dúirt sé freisin: "There is a strong relationship between the time pupils spend in the education system and the ability to partake in the economy". Is radharc an-chúng é sin ar chúrsaí oideachais. Labharamar mar gheall ar chúrsaí cruthaíochta agus creativity agus ní dóigh liom go bhfuil sé sin mar chuid den aisling ag an Aire anseo. It is quantity, not quality, mar a deirtear, atá i gceist aige agus ba cheart go mbeadh sé níos feárr.
Dúirt sé freisin: "The National Education Welfare Board is to be small and expert". An mbeidh ionadaíocht ar an mbord seo ag an home school network agus ag daoine atá ag plé le scolaíocht taobh amuigh de scoileanna?
Dúirt an t-urlabhraí ó Fhine Gael, an Teachta Richard Bruton "One in six pupils leaves school early and illiterate". Is chun leas na ndaoine is boichte atá ar scoil dul chun cinn an córas oideachais sa bhaile. Fágann sé sin níos mó acmhainní ag na daoine is boichte má thugaimid tacaíocht do na daoine atá ag fáil oideachais sa bhaile. Ní ceart oideachas sa bhaile a bheith sa Bhille seo. Ba cheart go mbeadh sé i mBille Oideachais ann féin chun é a chur chun cinn, chun tacaíocht a thabhairt dó agus chun a thaispeáint gur féidir, ó thaobh na Bunreachta de agus go praiticiúil, oideachas a thabhairt do leanaí ar scoil nó sa bhaile.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute on this Bill. When the Minister launched it yesterday I thought it was aspirational and many items he mentioned were impractical in the context of what is happening today. It is a pity that he has lost this golden opportunity to provide a workable Bill. Unless it is radically modified it will gather dust like so many other measures and the practicalities which are intended will never be implemented. It introduces a further layer of bureaucracy on schools which are already overtaxed by the need for registering and reporting, both within schools, because of the necessity for change in the education system, and to outside bodies. We see again a provision for a local board to report to a centralised Government agency, but the report will gather dust and will never be implemented. Further, there is no indication of what finance the Minister will make available, and therein lies a huge problem.
In today's newspapers we read that a section of the teaching fraternity, the ASTI, is pleading with the Minister to reduce class sizes so they can deliver good education to the pupils in their care. This is not just for selfish personal reasons but because they realise that in current conditions they cannot deliver the standard of education necessary for students to advance their lives. There is great pressure on the teaching fraternity to do that. We are adding further bureaucracy to an already overloaded system.
Prior to 1968 most people left school at an early age. Since 1968 there has been little recognition of early school leavers. We should have made resources available to children with problems who were identified by various Departments and services. There was no financial assistance to deal with their inadequacies and the problems in society and the system. The result is that many of our prisons are filled with the very people who needed intervention at an early stage when resources were inadequate. I do not know if it is possible to survey those who are in prison but I think the results of a survey would clearly indicate that many of them are early school leavers.
Having been a member of the County Galway Vocational Educational Committee for 20 years, I compliment vocational education committees who were the first to intervene in any way. Their initiatives include Youthreach and other back-to-school projects. It is a pity their influence has been diminished. Will the Minister investigate, as a matter of urgency, the education of traveller children? He spoke about an integrated education service for this group. This has not worked and will not unless there a greater effort to identify their culture as it is separate from the settled community. There should be early intervention and then they can be moved into the education system. I ask the Minister to respond to this great need because they are a most vulnerable and neglected section of the community. It is only through concerned people, such as sisters, brothers and priests in the past and now lay people, taking the initiative that travellers are being introduced to formal education.
Apart from Deputy Ulick Burke, who threw cold water on it, the Bill has received a positive response. It is seen as innovative legislation which is welcome and a milestone in education. The concern shown by Deputy Burke may have some merit. However, surely one should at least acknowledge the Bill has potential. I accept the jigsaw is not quite complete but that is not uncommon when a Bill of this nature comes before the House. This Bill is well intentioned and has tremendous potential. I look forward to progress being made, especially as regards the two broad aims of the Bill which are the right to a minimum standard of education and the promotion and encouragement of school attendance up to the leaving certificate or its equivalent.
The encouragement of young people to achieve a decent standard of education is vital. The evidence shows that standard of education is the great divide between opportunity and exclusion. Sadly, the most common feature of households living in poor circumstances is a lack of qualifications. The rapidly changing employment environment, with a great emphasis on skills and qualifications, provides more reasons for the Department and the Oireachtas to be proactive as regards desired standards. The tremendous success of our economy is solidly based on our highly educated and well-motivated young people, whom I congratulate. Our rising educational achievement has given Ireland the critical edge in supplying qualified people to knowledge-based industries. As Chairman of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Enterprise and Small Business, I and the members of the committee have undertaken to visit knowledge-based industries in Ireland. Our success in attracting multinational and other industries to Ireland is due to the fact that we have such highly educated and well-motivated people available for employment. Ireland faces a future where knowledge and adaptable skills will continue to become increasingly important. Our education system faces a great challenge in meeting labour market demands in the years ahead.
I have tremendous admiration for the children of the 1980s and 1990s because of their enthusiastic approach, standard of education, life skills and results. I pay tribute to educational practitioners who help them achieve these standards and results. Regrettably, people slip through many State systems. However, those who slip through the education system create lifelong problems and complications for themselves. It is right that we concentrate our efforts on the needs of those most at risk of suffering educational disadvantage.
Questions must be asked as to why over 10,000 teenagers leave the education system every year without any qualifications. This flow of unqualified school leavers to the labour force must be stopped. It is unacceptable that this number of teenagers leave full-time education without completing the senior cycle. Any measures we can put in place to encourage a higher proportion of young people to stay at school until they leave with a qualification are clearly desirable. There can be no valid excuse for a young person leaving school without appropriate qualifications and life skills. It is up to the Oireachtas, the Department of Education and Science, education practitioners, teachers, parents and pupils to work in partnership to properly harness the tremendous potential which exists among young people who, unfortunately, fail to complete the school cycle. It is in the best interests of society that young people complete the senior school cycle because of the otherwise inevitable consequences.
I have one concern about the Bill. Will the Minister review and reconsider his definition of a child in Part I (2) of the Bill? Why are we attempting to make radical changes yet reverting to the old benchmarks of definition? Why is this definition based on age qualification? As a public representative, I have witnessed certain schools using unacceptable leverage on parents to take a troublesome pupil out of the education system. In most cases the pupil is usually past the compulsory school leaving age of 15 years. A number of Deputies made this point during the debate. It is difficult for schools to keep troublesome children, who do not want to be there, in the system. One can understand why a school may be anxious to accommodate a request by a troublesome pupil to leave, regardless of how that request was sought. However, we must strike the right balance, create the right environment and encourage pupils to remain in the system without turning our schools into prisons.
As the second aim of the Bill is to promote and encourage school attendance up to leaving certificate standard or its equivalent, why can this not be redefined in the Bill? The Minister is attempting to ensure our education system is all-inclusive. I would, therefore, welcome it if the Minister deleted section 2(1)(a)(i) and (ii). I recognise the need to put in place appropriate structures. The earlier such structures and accommodation are in place the better. Many people are surprised at what young children can learn. The Minister of State said the well established programmes 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". He also said the "Bill provides a structure to encourage and promote school attendance, up to leaving certificate level or its equivalent". I have only seen age qualifications being used by certain schools, which is in contrast to such aims. Is it not a contradiction to include three years of post-primary education? Surely that is not in line with our desire to have a leaving certificate standard or equivalent? Why are we excluding people over 18 years of age if we wish to be inclusive?
I welcome the establishment of the national educational welfare board to examine school attendance and the underlying causes of truancy. Early identification and intervention and an appropriate support framework will be of considerable benefit. While I acknowledge the likely benefits of such a board, I hold strong views on the interpretation in section 2, particularly if we want to reflect the principal aims of the Bill. Every year I deal with cases where schools boldly use the current compulsory school leaving age to put parents and guardians of pupils under pressure to take them out of the system or face the possible consequences of expulsion. Other Members have also come across this issue which warrants special attention.
Section 2(1)(a) refers to "whichever occurs later, but shall not include a person who has reached the age of 18 years". I am interested in the support structures for pupils with special needs and I have tabled a number of parliamentary questions in this regard. Recently, it was brought to my attention that a pupil who is a few months older than 18 years of age was denied a place in a special school to complete the senior cycle because of the 18 year rule. The special school needed appropriate funding from the Department to ensure accommodation for the pupil, otherwise he would not be included. That is why the age qualification should be removed, particularly in the area of special needs. The Central Remedial Clinic, which is in my constituency, was involved in this case. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the clinic for the great work it does and the broad range of disabled pupils for whom it caters. There are many people with disabilities, some of whom must attend hospital regularly for operations. This has a great impact on their education and a lot of time and effort is needed to catch up on their studies. I ask the Minister to reconsider this age qualification.
I recently attended a meeting at a secondary school where I was considering sending my son next year. A large crowd was there and the principal gave a good speech about school activities. However, I was offended by something he said, although I was in the minority. A question was asked about discipline. The principal explained that when he recently brought a group of 15 and 16 year old children to a rugby match, one of them was caught carrying an illegal drug so he was immediately asked to leave the school. Parents who were considering placing their children in the school were delighted to hear the type of discipline meted out by the school. However, what type of pressure was put on the parents or guardians of that pupil to take him out of the school? Many unfair cases have been brought to my attention in my constituency but as far as the vast majority of parents or guardians are concerned the matter is addressed when the bold boy leaves the school.
I dealt with an interesting case recently where the son of a garda was used by an individual to take property out of the school because he was the person least likely to be questioned. He had just turned 15 years of age. His mother was called and advised that if she withdrew her son from the school's enrolment, he would not be expelled and she might be able to place him in a nearby school. They said they would see what they could do to help, but if her son was not withdrawn from the school's enrolment, he would be expelled and it would leave him and his parents in a very difficult position. I am sure the Minister and the Department are aware of abuses in this regard by certain schools which want to be seen as acting in the interests of the pupils, parents and guardians. Any benchmark of this nature contradicts the aims set out in the Bill regarding the minimum standard and the promotion and encouragement of attendance up to the leaving certificate or equivalent. I appreciate a definition may have to be included but I ask that it reflect the principle contained in the Bill.
The last speaker mentioned a further layer of bureaucracy and cumbersome reporting procedures. I note with interest the following comments which were made during the debate on the Bill in the Upper House that up to now the system has been fragmented. The speaker said that there have been many case studies involving teachers, guidance counsellors, educational psychologists, school attendance officers, the local health board and JLOs, who were good and worthy people in their own right, each dealing with a particular problem at any given time, but in isolation. This resulted in duplication of pro grammes which never got off the ground. If the proposed system is to work, there needs to be an integrated plan and well researched plans in place. These comments were made by a practitioner in education. In terms of Deputy Ulick Burke's comments, I understand that the Bill will address what has been a fragmented system up to now for dealing with truancy and its fall out. Hopefully, the Bill will also deal with the issue of the welfare board, which will be a positive support structure.
As the chairman of the Eastern Health Board, I am particularly concerned about the number of young homeless people who are sleeping rough on our streets. I mentioned earlier that people slip through the system and this problem involves a relatively small group. It would require very little effort to appropriately address their needs.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate and I welcome the Bill. My party's spokesperson, Deputy Richard Bruton, gave the Bill five marks out of ten. Hopefully, improvements can be made during Committee and Report Stages because that is the role of the Legislature.
The Bill is welcome and overdue. It deals with concerns of which we have been aware for some time. As other speakers said, we must recognise that the key to our success is our education system. One does not achieve overnight success through education; the system must be developed. It is recognised that there is a high number of marginalised people who do not have educational opportunities or who do not consider education an opportunity. This is one of the areas which must be examined, researched and addressed because it affects a section of society. Most Members would be considered as having middle class values about education but this group does not consider that the syllabus in schools is appropriate for them and they do not respond to it. We must examine why they do not respond to it or consider it as a way to improve their lifestyle or life opportunities.
All Members are aware of areas in their cities and towns where less than 1 or 2 per cent of the population is likely to reach third level. However, it can be said of other groups that 70 to 80 per cent will aspire to and obtain some form of third level education. There is a gap in terms of why it is possible to predict at an early stage that certain groups of people, who are easily identifiable with regard to the area in which they live or their family background or structure, will not have the opportunity, or consider it an opportunity, to obtain a third level education. The school system must be examined to ensure that this issue is tackled as quickly as possible. I appreciate this would be a vast project but it is very necessary.
I will deal with issues relating to the travelling community later. As the Minister is aware, I represent Rathkeale on Limerick County Council. About 45 per cent of the population of Rathkeale is made up by the travelling community and there are excellent relationships between the travellers and the settled community. It has one of the lowest rates of crime in any town in County Limerick. I remember asking young travellers what they considered would be a proper education for them. They said that their education was getting a driver's licence because that was how they intended to make a living. This is not enough and we must examine ways to develop this area for people who do not consider education as a route to success in life. They should be given opportunities. This problem is illustrated by the fact that one in six leave school early. The education system is failing these people and we must examine why. The subjects being taught in schools are not of interest to them or their parents and we must ask what would interest them.
I remember reading about and being impressed by an experiment which was carried out in Jobstown, Dublin, involving people who were identified as having a high level of truancy, prone to dropping out early from school and likely to get involved in crime. The Minister is probably aware of this experiment in which these people were taught a level of literacy and numeracy. They were also taught how to deal with horses, horse riding, sports, including soccer, and other activities which might create opportunities for them. The people involved could not wait to attend the course because they could relate to it. They saw themselves playing soccer professionally or working with horses or in other spheres. They could relate to these areas and saw life opportunities in them because they were interested in them. The current curriculum may not be acceptable because certain people do not respond when they are told what they should know and what route they should take under the current education system. This area must be examined.
Resources must be invested in ensuring that children with attendance problems are taken care of and their difficulties dealt with. An attendance problem is more complex than simply missing school. It may relate to a family situation that does not encourage school attendance and the fact that the person does not see the curriculum and what they experience at school as relevant to their future. Many resources are needed to deal individually with each case to ensure that the best opportunity is given to children with attendance problems, to understand why they have that problem and the background to their difficulties and to see how the problem can be handled. It is a painstaking, individual approach but it is the only way to deal with it.
I note from previous debates in the House that the Department does not have a national database on absence levels in schools. Why is that, given the ease of communications in this day and age? The data is available and needs only to be collected. We should know the absence levels in different regions and counties to analyse why it is happening. If one does not have the facts, how can one determine the extent of the problem and the solution to it? I remember reading some years ago that every day in Dublin one out of ten children is absent from school. There is no information on the up to date position unless the Minister has it. Perhaps he would give the House details of absence levels if such information is available.
The Bill creates a special agency for dealing with absentees. I agree with some of the comments made in this regard. Is it intended to select absentees and to deal with them individually? Most agencies take on a life of their own and tend to deal with an issue in isolation from general developments. Is it wise to have an approach outside the mainstream of the school by having an agency deal specifically with this matter? I question the approach, although I have an open mind on the issue. Perhaps the Minister would elaborate on the reason this special agency, independent of other bodies, is to deal with truancy.
I mentioned earlier the education of travellers. This issue must be examined carefully because it is obviously a problem. Again, it is a problem with the parents in that they do not recognise the importance of education, although there is increasing understanding of its importance. Taking the child's point of view, we must ensure that the children of the traveller community have the opportunity to be educated. It is not good enough to claim that the community has a different culture and that their culture does not permit, in certain cases because of their travelling, a basic education. It is a difficult issue. It is also unacceptable that travellers have a high mortality rate and that their life expectancy is less than that of the settled community.
It should not be possible to tell a traveller child that, because he or she is a traveller, they will not have basic numeracy and literacy skills. I often admire the skills of the travellers in other areas, for example, antiques and their ability to recognise the value of antiques. Their skills are unbelievable in that regard. Traveller children, however, should not be deprived of basic skills because of their cultural background. The issue must be handled with care and the traveller community must be involved in dealing with it.
A high number of traveller children attend school in Rathkeale. There are specific problems in Rathkeale that should be dealt with. The mainstream approach which works in other schools, for example, through remedial teaching and so forth, is not good enough to apply in a town such as Rathkeale which is unique because of the number of travellers there. We are trying to encourage the basic education of that community without changing its culture. Education can be accommodated without interfering with their culture and the community is beginning to recognise that. However, the school requires a different type of assistance and special attention. I plead with the Minister to have his Department examine this matter. Departments are inclined to paint everything with the same brush and what they apply in Newcastle West, Castleconnell or Kil mallock must also apply to Rathkeale. However, Rathkeale is different. There must be special consideration given to education in the traveller community there.
The Bill provides for the appointment of education officers. Perhaps the Minister would elaborate on this. It is an important matter for early school leavers and in ensuring that there is follow up contact with them, whether that is through the development of Youthreach or through another intervention. This is an important issue.
We have learned in the past two years that the level of suicide is higher among early school leavers than among those who remain at school. For a number of years we heard talk of the pressure of examinations and so forth at second level. That has proven not to be as severe a factor as was previously thought. There is no evidence that there is an increase in the incidence of suicide either when examinations are being taken or when their results are released. However, there is definite evidence that there is a higher level of suicide among people who leave school early. The issue is a great deal more complex than simply making that statement. Perhaps the reasons for leaving school early in the first place are also the reasons people get into such despair that they take their own lives. No research has been done in that regard. Nevertheless, research by the late Michael Kelleher in Cork shows that people who leave school early have a higher incidence of suicide than those who stay in school.
I was working on a paper today for the conference to be held this weekend by the Irish Association of Suicidology. We must examine the difficulties being experienced by young people in school, in college and by those who have left school. The pace of change in our culture has never been faster. The life expectancy of most jobs in Ireland is five years. That puts special pressures on young people. Skills quickly become redundant and people are expected to be more adaptable than they would have been previously when jobs tended to be for life and there was a level of job security which is now almost totally absent. This can be seen as an opportunity for some but for others, both boys and girls, it is a threat and a difficulty. Modern day stresses affect both young men and women, but young men seem to be affected more because they are less adaptable to change. Education which seems to protect both against suicide and attempted suicide must be broadened, particularly for boys, to encompass the varying modern social and domestic conditions.
Whereas the physical health of young people today may be better than in the past, the same cannot be said of the social and psychological pressures to which young people are exposed. A part of this relates to the increasing instability of family life as changing sets of personal and family relationships occur. Such stresses must be carefully examined. We do not understand why young people feel so alienated from society, suffer from depression and feel utter despair. I appreciate this is not the Minister's primary responsibility and it should be that of the Minister for Health and Children but there is also an educational dimension to this. There should be a serious examination of the reasons young people despair, are more depressed and attempt or commit suicide.
I refer to the concerns of ASTI, which communicated with all Members regarding class sizes. The survey it conducted in spring 1999 demonstrated that overcrowding in classrooms and a restrictive choice of subjects were a result of a direct refusal by the Department of Education and Science to implement changes to the appointment ratio. The survey showed that 60 per cent of second level schools offer general subjects to classes with more than the recommended maximum of 30 students, 30 per cent of schools have difficulty because of inadequate staffing in providing access to a full range of science subjects and 42 per cent have difficulty because of inadequate staffing in providing access to the full range of technical subjects. This is an important issue which can be discussed on another day.
I welcome this measure, which provides for a substantial modernisation of the school attendance legislation. I am sure Members on all sides welcome the raising of the minimum school leaving age from 15 to 16 years and the establishment of a national educational welfare board, which will have responsibility for research, formulating policy in this area and implementing and operating the legislation. Members will welcome the establishment of an educational welfare service, with educational welfare officers, which will have a national basis. Up to now substantial areas, not only in rural Ireland, but in cities, which are part of existing counties but are not comprised in administrative counties, did not have the benefit of the school attendance officer system. It is desirable, as the explanatory memorandum points out, that this service should be extended nationwide and I welcome both features of this legislation.
The Bill must be considered carefully as it addresses the social evil identified by the ESRI and referred to by the Minister in his contribution. Its research found that the absence of any educational qualifications among many school leavers leaves them seriously at risk of spending much of their lives unemployed. Of course, a legal underpinning is not just required to address this problem or the establishment of a board and a bureaucratic network, but practical initiatives are required which ensure that at primary level the basics of minimum literacy and numeracy are instilled in pupils prior to departure. It is extraordinary when one considers the investment in the education system that we have not yet been able to achieve this. Of course, I do not in any sense blame the teaching profession for this as it works in a particular social context, of which I am well aware in my constituency.
However, it is important that as well as this legal measure, which is essentially a lawyer's Bill, we have the underpinning that is required in terms of practical measures to address this problem. We must target the needs of a particular sub-group, the losers in our education system. I welcome a number of initiatives which have been taken by the Minister, but it would be remiss of me not to make a plea for the suburban losers outside the large concentrations of population in the State because, of course, over the past 20 to 30 years there have been huge developments on the outskirts of major urban areas. Many of the losers in the education system are located in those areas. There is a need for specific initiatives to ensure at a practical level that those basics are instilled into students prior to their departure from the education system because legal provisions raising the minimum school leaving age or imposing statutory duties on parents or educational welfare boards conducting research do not address that practical problem on the ground, although I accept, of course, that they are welcome and necessary.
The Minister outlined a difficult matter regarding the relationship of the Bill with the wider constitutional provisions relating to education and the family. Our Constitution has always protected the right of a parent to educate a child at home and that has been respected in the legislation, but a system of certification and assessment is proposed by the authorities where parents choose to exercise this option, which is permitted under the Constitution. It was made clear by the Supreme Court in the School Attendance Bill, 1942, case that the State is entitled to define what a certain minimum education means and it indicated a minimum standard of elementary education of general application.
The Bill is in accordance with the Constitution but when it is enacted by the Houses and signed, promulgated and brought into the force by the Minister, it will have to interpreted and applied in accordance with those constitutional provision and certification and assessment of parents by the board will take place under the legislation. Great sensitivity will have to be shown by the authorities because the constitutional requirement is only a minimum standard of elementary education of general application and, of course, the Constitution was carefully worded at the time of its enactment to exclude both religious and physical education from that guarantee.
Religious education had to be excluded because that is a matter peculiarly within the preferences of a parent. The reason physical education was excluded in 1937 was because many of the totalitarian states in the Europe in the 1930s used it as a form of political indoctrination and our liberal enactor of the Constitution ensured that there would be no question of our Constitution or education system being abused in the manner that totalitarian states had abused the use of sport in schools for the promotion of their own political importance. The constitutional guaran tees were drafted with great care and the Bill must be construed, interpreted and applied in accordance with them.