Deputy Conor Lenihan was in possession. I understand he has concluded. I call Deputy Perry. The Deputy has 20 minutes.
Education (Welfare) Bill, 1999 [ Seanad ] : Second Stage (Resumed).
It is unacceptable that one-third of Irish children live in poverty. Ireland has the second highest national rate of child poverty in the European Union. What is now required is the introduction of real measures to invest in children and to help to tackle poverty seriously. Tackling educational disadvantage is a crucial element in tackling poverty and social exclusion. Measures in this area should include expanding the early start pre-school programme.
A recent report on school funding criticised the way in which specific funds for educational disadvantage can be used for any requirement schools may wish. The funds can be used for any purpose and there should be more controls in this area. Whether a school is designated as disadvantaged depends on its principal's assessment of the status of the first pupils in terms of housing, parenting and financial status, literacy and numeracy. The availability of extra funding may lead some principals to over-estimate the numbers of disadvantaged pupils. Conversely, others may under-estimate the numbers because of the perceived stigma involved. The present system of providing funding to update schools rather than for designated disadvantaged pupils leads to inadequate funding in some areas, particularly for the disadvantaged in small towns in rural areas. The fact that a school can be designated as disadvantaged and receive funding provided does not necessarily mean the funding is going to the people who need it.
The Education (Welfare) Bill is a totally inadequate response to the problem of early school leaving. Early school leaving will be resolved only by providing support services to enable schools to offer a range of assistance to pupils at risk of early school leaving. Resources will also be needed for out-of-school activities in the community. The integration of communities in working closely with schools and community development, particularly play groups, is very important. These are under-resourced and in some instances depend on FÁS funding for their continuity. This Bill recognises the wider canvass in which early school leaving must be addressed, but fails to do anything about it.
There are a number of shortcomings in the Bill. It is strong on the compilation of detailed records of attendance but it is silent on the issue of what services will be available to support pupils who show signs of persistent non-attendance. The former School Attendance Act, 1926, was also strong on setting the obligations on schools to maintain records of attendance. However, the Department allowed the system to fall into disuse. What evidence is there that this Bill will be any different? The management of schools, caretakers and the amount of services available in schools is totally inadequate. This is why there are huge difficulties, particularly in the area of primary education.
There are more than 200,000 pupils in classes of 30 or more pupils. At present 80 per cent of principal teachers must combine their full-time teaching responsibilities with their administrative duties. More than 500 schools do not have access to a remedial teacher. Shared remedial teachers generally have so many schools to cater for that the service provided is often minimal. Given these shortcomings, the introduction of this Bill is of no advantage to schools when the facilities that should be in place are not.
The pupil-teacher ratios for special schools and special classes set out in the special education review committee report have not yet been fully implemented. Due to a major shortage of substitute teachers, each day thousands of pupils are in the care of unqualified and untrained personnel. Some 42 per cent of substitution hours were provided by untrained personnel in 1997. There are 8,000 children with special needs attending mainstream schools on an integrated basis without minimal support services. The most recent allocation of remedial teachers included 13 clusters comprising four schools, eight clusters comprising five schools, ten clusters comprising six schools and two clusters comprising seven schools. Half of the State's full-time students are at primary level but only a quarter of the funding goes to primary care.
Many of the most exciting initiatives dealing with poor attendance and early school leaving have come from area-based partnerships and community initiatives. Yet nowhere in the Bill is their role even mentioned, let alone given recognition and resources. This is a major oversight. This service cannot succeed if it does not recognise and harness the work of community groups. It is evident that within educational development the role of the community and the observation of the child in school are very important.
The insistence of the Minister on a national rather than a local structure has given rise to some extraordinary features in the Bill. It demands that every one of the 4,000 schools should submit a strategy on early school leaving to a centralised bureaucracy. This is a major shortcoming. It is similar to mission statements being displayed on the inside of a wall whereas most companies display them publicly. However, implementation of mission statements in certain businesses can leave a lot to be desired. It will be difficult for two teacher and one teacher schools in particular to deal with even more red tape.
The Bill seeks to impose co-operation across a range of services in a top down manner by establishing a liaison group of 49 different organisations. This will become a hopeless talking shop instead of a practical integration at local level where professionals could work in teams supporting a family and review individual needs in case conferences. Having 49 different organisations liaising seems totally unreal because while certain organisations work in tandem with schools, there is very little evidence of this being the case at the moment. If 4,000 schools are expected to submit a report to the Department, someone will have to assess the mission statements of principals in these schools. This might look well on the wall but will there be unannounced on-the-spot checks to see if this is being implemented?
In business there are hygiene audits – and these are important to ensure high standards. It is equally important in the education system that there should be unannounced audits carried out on schools in order to check quality. Schools should be given awards based on an internal audit. Upon inspection there should be a classification code on the core principles of facilities, caretaker facilities and so on. Given that there are tidy towns awards, there should also be school awards – they would be individually audited, depending on whether they are two teacher, three teacher or five teacher schools. This could involve students and the school could receive an award based on the attendance of children.
The Bill waits until a child has been expelled and links with the school have been irrevocably broken before it considers the sort of personal supports the child might need. This is a case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. It should be easy for school principals to identify problem children from different social backgrounds where there is a regular pattern of non-attendance. This is perhaps the most serious flaw in the Bill. Instead of an early warning system and timely intervention, the Bill offers intervention only when disaster has struck. We all know parents who ensure that their children have full attendance in school but it is easy to identify children who do not attend school and who drop out early because they believe school is a hindrance. This Minister must look again at the assessment of problem children. Children might be highly intelligent but they may not be given encouragement in their home environment. The welfare officer should identify and visit these homes and encourage parents to ensure their children attend school.
The problem would be much more difficult to solve with a welfare officer holding an inquiry into the matter. The Bill is strong in placing statutory obligations on schools and parents, but it is weak on the role and duties of the new educational welfare service. The Bill shows no appreciation of the necessary partnership that must be developed.
There is no clear role or function for welfare officers under the statutory obligations. Is this a pilot scheme? Will there be an integration of schools working on this matter? Will welfare officers just talk to principals or will they meet parents? As regards the role of management boards, I read in yesterday's newspapers that the Tories have given a commitment that, if re-elected to office in Britain parents will be given rights to block the re-appointment of management boards that do not function properly. I do not say that is the situation here but school man agement boards should be fully familiar with the difficulties concerning the integration of departmental regulations and the enactment of education legislation.
One can establish arrangements in legislation but it is important that such legislation operates effectively in each school. In addition to there being problem schools, some teachers are more dedicated than others and a number of teachers are suffering from burn-out. It is quite understandable when one considers the amount of responsibilities they have, from caretaking to secretarial roles. FÁS finds it difficult to replace school caretakers and secretaries and this puts considerable pressure on teachers who also have to teach.
The Bill is almost silent on the rights of the child. I was interested in what Deputy Michael Higgins said yesterday – that the rights of the child should be clearly outlined to parents and the children themselves. That is the most important aspect of all. The appointment of an ombudsman for children has been spoken about for some time and it could easily have been incorporated into the Bill. Children have no legal right to support services, nor is there any provision for an appeal for children or their parents who believe the State is not offering the necessary placement or support.
Yesterday'sIrish Independent reported the case of an autistic child whose parents were never told that the school bus would not take the child to school. The school was notified that the service would not be continued, yet the parents of that child were left waiting. That story demonstrates a lack of communication which should not happen. I saw a photograph of the parents with their son in the paper yesterday. They were left totally in the dark, waiting on a bus to bring him to school, yet the bus did not turn up. That should not happen in this day and age when we talk about welfare and awareness in the educational system. The system failed in that case.
The sections of the Bill dealing with unemployment have been approached from a very narrow perspective. The Bill offers a bureaucratic registration system for taking up employment by young people who have dropped out of school. However, it ignores the far greater problem of young people who are still in school but whose working hours totally disrupt their schooling. Many children at second level work part-time, including at weekends, but there must be some control of the level of hours they work.
The Bill develops the idea of a personal plan once a young person has dropped out of school, however, it is notable that the Bill confers no right to a suitable placement for such a young person. In addition, employers have no obligations concerning continued studies for such young employees. IBEC has stated that the new school attendance legislation does not place any obligation on employers for early school leavers in their employ to continue their education in some form. This is despite a suggestion last month by the Minister that the Bill would include a scheme under which all unqualified school leavers under 18 would have to maintain their links on a part-time basis with the education system. Possible constitutional problems, if the legislation were to impose obligations on employers which might conflict with the right to work or property rights, are understood to be the reason for the absence of such a scheme. However, departmental sources said the discussions were continuing with employers.
Little incentive is given to employers, particularly in the services sector, to encourage early school leavers to continue their education, whether through a VEC or other courses. That area should certainly be developed. The sections of the Bill dealing with employment contain shortcomings. The Minister is looking for a huge act of faith on the part of the public because agencies established by this Bill will do things which are not spelled out in the legislation. People might be willing to make this act of faith if the Department had a record of fulfilling its obligations in this area. However, the Department is deeply culpable for its failure to honour its obligations under the School Attendance Act, 1926. That legislation has been on the Statute Book for over 70 years but it has failed dismally. It is a little ambitious to think that the Bill will change matters dramatically.
Primary school authorities are required by regulation to pay a local contribution before they receive their annual grant. This is not a requirement for post-primary or third level institutions, despite the fact that the Constitution guarantees free primary education for every child.Pro rata funding at primary school level – the most critical period of education – is inadequate. I know there are some very fine schools and the Minister has introduced some innovative ideas since taking office, but there are areas, such as computer technology, where the system has failed. In rural areas, schools may have only one or two teachers but no remedial teachers or speech therapists.
The Education (Welfare) Bill should upgrade the School Attendance Act, 1926, but early school leaving will only be resolved by providing support services. Adequate resources must be provided in that sector as well as in the pre-school sector. Crèche facilities are needed for parents who are returning to work as more jobs are created. They face huge financial difficulties due to the high cost of purchasing a house. Existing crèche facilities are totally inadequate and I am very concerned about them.
During the local election campaign, I was astonished to come across up to 35 children under the age of two in a bungalow where two people were running a crèche up to 5 o'clock in the evening when parents would rush to collect their children at the door. The television was on and only two people were minding 35 children. I hope the forthcoming budget will start at the bottom, so to speak, by providing funding to parents and children to allow them some comfort.
We have all heard about the Celtic tiger but there is a great amount of poverty. The Bill must provide parents with the financial resources to ensure that their children receive the best possible care. Tax breaks are important but they will benefit middle income earners. We must look at those who need the greatest support – those who have no tax benefits and who need £20 a week to ensure their children are in safe hands.
The Bill's provision for primary care is important but I would like a clearer opinion on how it will actually work. Will the welfare officer visit homes before the problem arises? It is too late when a child has already been expelled from school. In such circumstances it is unfair to classify a child of ten, 11 or 12 years in fifth or sixth class as being disruptive.
Ireland falls short of meeting the requirements of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, according to a report to the United Nations. The convention, which was ratified by Ireland in 1992, covers such areas as child protection, education, poverty and freedom of expression. The report, Enlightened Small Voices: Vital Rights, was written by the Children's Rights Alliance, which represents child welfare and parents' organisations. Launching the report, Mr. John Bennet, co-ordinator of children's rights said:
In accordance with the convention, children have the right to survival and development. The right to development is at times denied some Irish children.
That is an awful statement in the current economic climate. I appeal to the Minister, at a time when we have £5 billion to spend, to give the money to the people – those of the next generation – who will be our greatest asset in the new millennium. We must ensure that resources are put in place in order that they may embrace the future to the best of their abilities.
I welcome the Education (Welfare) Bill, 1999, because it sets itself a number of aims and, in doing so, a number of challenges. Stating that each child has a right to a minimum education is something we understand but it is also something which needs to be defined. That in itself will be a challenge for the Minister. The Bill also recognises the right of parents to choose the type of education they want for their child, a right which is recognised in the Constitution but which is now given a statutory basis. More than anything else, it clarifies the State's role in relation to education. When seen in conjunction with the Education Acts recently passed, the Bill will finally set our education system on a firm legislative footing. However, its main aim is to encourage school attendance and the full participation of children at all stages of our education system.
This Bill, when passed, will not only uphold the Constitution, it will work in conjunction with all other agencies, complement the initiatives recently passed by the Minister and ensure that everybody can benefit from it. However, it is important to focus for a moment on who exactly is targeted by the Bill. Is the target the juvenile offender? Is it one of the 15,005 people mentioned in the last Garda report, of whom 4,500 were referred for larceny and burglary, of whom 804 were charged with possession of articles of intent – which I take refers to kids hanging around the streets mostly carrying knives – or, even a sadder reflection on our society, the 115 who were begging on our streets, most of whom, I am sure, were begging on the streets of Dublin? Many of those children were under the age of 15 and they should have been in full-time education. More dangerously, is the Bill targeted at the 32 people who were charged and referred for offences dealing with the railway, those children who have nothing better to do except lie in front of an oncoming train and cry "chicken" before seeing who is the last one to leave the railway track? That is not to mention the 1,000 people who were referred for drink related offences at a young age.
Is this Bill focused at the young people referred to in the report of the National Crime Forum, which refers to young people with a low value on education who have difficulty coping with school, who develop a low self-esteem and see few signs of hope in the depressed environment in which they live? Is it the people who are more attracted by the immediate gain of money than a long-term job which they might obtain if they would only finish their school education? Is the Bill focused on children for whom school is not relevant, who see no point in studying history because they see no future for themselves? Is it aimed at the children who have very poor parental support, parents who themselves never had the opportunity and who, therefore, do not value education for their children? Is it aimed at those children I have met in Barnardo's in Loughlinstown who can be pointed out to me at the age of three or four as the people who will end up in our prisons? This Education (Welfare) Bill refers to each of those children and to many more.
Is the Deputy sharing her time?
No. This Bill takes a holistic approach to students, families, schools and State agencies working in conjunction with each other. It is long overdue because it is high time we updated the outdated legislation of 1926. In my years of teaching I never laid eyes on a school attendance officer. I did not know they existed or what were their duties. However, where they did exist the focus was on punishment, it was negative and was directed towards parents who knew no better.
It is frightening when one learns that each year 10,000 people leave school without qualifications. That figure really only represents two per school and two in any school generally go unnoticed. However, 10,000 people together represent a quota in a five seat constituency or the population of a good sized town in the middle of Ireland. If you put those 10,000 people into a stadium, into the Hogan or Cusack stands, and tell them, "All of you are in danger of not getting a job, of being the underprivileged people of society, of turning towards drink and drugs", there would be an outcry. These are the people to whom we must refer. Economic success has not reached these people but we can prevent that pattern continuing into the next generation if we focus properly at this stage. We can do that by bringing the partners in education together and encouraging them to work together for the good of the child.
Whereas one would automatically think we are focusing on disadvantaged areas and disadvantaged children, and of course we are, in effect we are talking about every school in Ireland because many children move outside their local areas to attend school. I ask the Minister, when allocating resources, not to look at the geographical location of a school but to consider its profile and its catchment area. Just because a school is situated in Blackrock does not mean the children who attend it are all privileged. With the availability of buses and the DART, children come from a wide variety of backgrounds and they need extra guidance, counselling and remedial care.
One of the main features of the Bill is to increase the school leaving age to 16, something of which I am totally in favour. However, school must be made encouraging for children. It must be more than merely the implementation of a law. It must start at pre-school level and track children from then on. One of the most beneficial systems in ensuring that children stay in school is the home-school liaison officer. Most of these people are very valuable in a local community. When I look at St. Kevin's in Sallynoggin, where the home-school officer, in two months, has invited in the parents and established a parents' room. Not only does this person deal with parents on a personal level. She even telephoned me last week to see if I could help in the transfer of a woman and her five children from her two bed accommodation to a house. That is the type of communication and system which will work for the benefit of these children.
As a secondary school teacher, I have always been concerned that these children get lost in the system when they leave primary school, particularly in an urban setting. In the average rural town, most people will go from the local national school to the local secondary school. The choice is so great in urban areas that children become lost between the different schools. I would put the onus, difficult though it may be, on primary schools to compile a list of where each of their sixth class students has gone. Each second level school should send back to the original primary school the list of students who have registered with them so that we know where they are. That would mean that the work of the welfare board at national level could be made more simple by bringing it down to local level.
The challenge in each school for first year students and first year parents is one which must be met and is the most valuable time for any student starting off at that level. The Bill refers to the code of discipline and the rules of conduct, etc., for the school. When I was transition year co-ordinator I asked parents, students and the school to sign a contract to the effect that we each understood our responsibilities in relation to the provision of the course for that child. All parents and children should do this before they enter the school so that we can ensure there is a link and that we are not contacting parents only when a child is in trouble.
I particularly welcome the provision which states that parents must notify the school of absences and the reason for them whether it be illness or something else. Too often we see notes from parents to the effect that a child is sick. The child might have a headache or some other sort of pain. I was always very happy to tell the child that it would probably recur for the rest of her life. However, when a student is 14 or 15 a pain seems to be a good enough reason to leave school. Parents need to take more responsibility for children who have not only missed a full school day but the last class of the day or the first class in the morning. This is the beginning of a trend towards absenteeism.
The school also has to create an environment which fosters an appreciation of learning. The appreciation of learning comes from the general school environment and not just from the academic work. We have to ensure that students enjoy what they are doing in school and participate in extra curricular activities. We need to encourage the people in our schools who are the focus of the Bill. We must encourage them and build up their self-esteem. It is much easier for a student not to try and to be criticised for not trying, than to fail and be humiliated for being a failure. The old saying "mol an óige" should be kept in mind when we are talking about the 10,000 children who leave school early without any qualifications.
The curriculum and subject choice is crucial to encouraging children to stay in school. I welcome the Minister's initiative in changing the primary school curriculum and the focus on many subjects at second level. Chaith mise na blianta ag múineadh Gaeilge. One of the short stories I taught for many years to a junior certificate class was about the radar powers of a bat, an sciathán lathair, which was a technical, scientific short story about radar as gaelige. I have never come across anything more irrelevant either to the Irish language or to the academic value for those students than that short story. It has since been dropped and replaced with stories which are equally inappropriate.
I read in the Education and Living supplement yesterday about the need for physics and chemis try teachers. A huge gap exists between the junior certificate and the leaving certificate. In many instances students at foundation level in the junior certificate course are not capable of taking even the pass level in the leaving certificate. This gap needs to be bridged if we are to ensure that children leave our schools with a qualification.
The other way in which schools can help is by involving their students in student councils, giving them a role at that level in the management of their school but, more importantly, giving them an ownership of their school. In order to do this schools need administrative assistance and remedial services. They need not just a guidance counsellor but a career guidance teacher and a counsellor because the problems being faced by young people today are such that they need that extra support and advice.
I am particularly pleased the legislation on the ombudsman was not included in this Bill because that would have implied that all children's problems related to schools whereas in fact it is parents, families, homes and the outside school situation. I encourage the Minister to offer early retirement to those teachers who seek it because if a teacher wants to leave a school, the school wants that person to go for the good of the child.
The Bill recognises the role of parents in education, both inside and outside of the home, and guarantees the quality of education. It recognises their responsibilities also. I admire parents who have a low level of education but who appreciate the value of it and who make sacrifices for their children. I understand the parents who feel they need to allow their children to work but I do not understand the parents who have a good level of education, good jobs and who are not experiencing financial difficulties who take their children out of school to go on holiday in May and September because it is cheaper. Some regulations should be brought in to not only focus on parents but on the travel companies who go out of their way to target family holidays during the school term. The last and the first month in school are crucial but parents do not seem to realise the importance of that.
Parents do not seem to appreciate the detrimental effect on students who work during the school week. Section 25 focuses on young people working during the school day. I realise employers need employees but I blame the employers who enter into contract arrangements with students whereby they will not let them work the hours outside of school time but insist on them working Thursday, Friday and all day Saturday. Bar and lounge work is such that students come into school almost falling asleep because they have been up so late at night. The Bill states that all restrictions on working will apply during the school day but the Minister has not yet defined a school day. Those regulations need to be introduced and in this context the school day should be defined as any day on which there is school. It should not be a school day which ends at 3 o'clock or 4 o'clock. I do not want to see students leaving school at 3.30 p.m. to go straight into work so that homework cannot be done. More importantly, such students lose out on all of the extra curricular activities which make a school environment pleasant. I ask that the hours be restricted, and that we define a school day as being from Monday to until 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. on Friday to ensure that our school children are not being exploited.
We recognise the role of parents in the Bill. It is not sufficient just to talk about their role and their responsibility or about the role and responsibility of the teachers in relation to the board. I want to see the partners in education being members of the board. I realise the Bill states that people who have a particular interest and involvement in the education system will be on the board but we must ensure that the people who are directly involved get the recognition they deserve.
That 16 to 18 year olds will now be registered is also welcome. I know of a girl who left school happy to earn her money as a hairdresser but a year later she developed a skin allergy and can no longer engage in the type of work for which she had opted. She is lost to the education system. Nowadays we know more about the young girl who leaves school because she is pregnant and who believes she is not being encouraged to return, and we can make the link between the education system and her new life. The new focus on every child recognises that everybody under the age of 18 is entitled to an education and that is an important feature of the Bill.
There are major challenges in the Bill because the expectations of education have changed. I wish the Minister well in trying to define a minimum level of education. Expectations in the past were concerned with basic literacy. Expectations now deal with our requirements for careers and the fact that people may change careers a number of times during their lifetime. The Bill is challenged in ensuring that at a national level it can relate to the 3,700 schools throughout the country. It is a challenge to ensure that principals and schools do not become bogged down with paperwork but that the system can be allowed to flow freely. There is a challenge to ensure that it can work in conjunction with other agencies by giving them the proper resources. The results of this Bill, when taken with all the other initiatives, will ensure that we have literate young people and that we have an educated population, but more importantly, that the maturity they gain from being in education will ensure that down the road the juvenile offenders I referred to will be far fewer and that our society will be a happier place.
I wish to share my time with Deputy Boylan.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I am glad not many speakers referred to the wonderful education system we have, because that would not be true. It is a wonderful education system if you are two things – bright and rich. If you are bright and you are in a class of 36 or 37 pupils, you can pick up what is going on, but if you are not bright you will fall behind. I agree with Deputy Hanafin. The problem is that many children fall behind in school. Because of the education system there are 36 and 37 pupils in a class and the pressure teachers are under means they are unable to identify children's problems at an early stage. We lose pupils and they fall behind from first class until primary school is finished.
Whether we like it or not we have a major problem with literacy. Many people leave education without being able to read or write. That is why I do not agree with those who say we have a wonderful education system. If you are rich you can send your child to a boarding school. However, if you are not rich and your child falls behind, that child has no hope of being identified and given the special care he or she needs.
Society puts much pressure on parents. The first pressure is financial and forces both parents to work. There are also many lone parents, which is also a major problem. Many women without husbands must look after their families and there are men without wives or partners who must care for their children. That creates pressure because one parent must be both father and mother. These parents cannot always give the children the time and commitment they need when they come home and this in turn leads to further problems.
Many parents have raised the issue of curriculum with me; Deputy Hanafin mentioned it also. The curriculum has been changed over the years – at one time we learned Latin in school and at another we learned through Irish. We learned different things that had nothing to do with life in the wider world when one had to work. I refer to those who did not go to third level and who left school at an early age. They learned subjects that were of no benefit to them in the outside world. They found that Latin was not much good to them and that in some cases Irish was not much good either. You would have a teacher beating you with a stick if you could not multiply 100 by 100 by 100, but that was not a lot of good when you went out into the world. When students leave sixth class there should be a test to ensure that every child is checked for two simple things – that they can read and write. If they cannot, they should not be allowed into secondary school. It is very simple.
However, this cannot happen without resources. We talk about free education, but there is no such thing. Pressure is exerted on parents when children look for money almost every evening to assist the school. It is incorrect to say we have free education, though the Minister of State and his officials may disagree. Schools are crying out for money every day. My child's secondary school looked for £25 or £30 last week. There is nothing wrong with that. I can afford it and have no problem paying it, but what about a family with five or six children who need shoes, clothes and books? The parents may be unemployed and there may only be social welfare going into the house, yet the child cannot go to school and say they cannot give this £25. The parents will try to find it. This is happening in primary schools.
I am not picking on the Minister of State's constituency but I am using it as an example and do not want him to take it as an offence. I had a different attitude to education and law and order until I canvassed in by-elections in different parts of the country. We have rural problems and urban problems. In a recent by-election I canvassed in Southill where there are thousands of houses but no facilities for young people, such as community halls. There are 3,000 or 4,000 houses just shoved into one area and nothing there for them. In built up areas all over the country parents have problems with drugs or drink and their children are neglected. These parents are not interested in putting pressure on their children to go to school and those of us who are parents know that if you do not keep pressure on children to go to school they will try to avoid going at the first opportunity.
However, I now see children who enjoy going to school because they are being taught in a different way. They enjoy what they learn. I did not enjoy school because of some Christian Brothers. I am not being critical of the Christian Brothers because a fair percentage of them, and the nuns, did a wonderful job, but there were a few bad eggs in both organisations, particularly the brothers, where there were some awful savages. I was misfortunate in my school days to have met three savages, which is the only way I can describe them. They had the stick and it was the stick that ruled, not education. You were fine if you were upper class and there were plenty of them in my class. The brothers would put the arm around them and love them and they were very good to them, but if you were working class or from a housing estate, the stick was what you got. That was all they knew. That turned people against education and turned children from going to school. I remember people who were in my class that we were able to assist in later life, but some of them finished up badly simply because the education system failed them. It failed them because they were not identified as having problems when in school; there were 38 or 39 children in my class and those who fell behind were left behind. All they got from the Christian Brothers was stick, stick, stick. As Deputy Hanafin said, when these people went out into the world it is no wonder they ended up involved in crime, as they saw no future. I refer to Southill again – what is the difference between Mountjoy Jail and some of these housing estates? There is nothing there for people to enjoy or go home to and they can see no future. I blame all Governments, not any particular one, for creating these kinds of ghettoes and doing nothing about them.
One might ask what has that to do with this Bill; it has a lot do with it. The Bill deals with those who fall out of education and how we are to assist them, particularly those under school leaving age and who should still be at school. There are many problems to address, but I give the nuns in my area full credit for their work in this regard. There were problems in a housing estate where parents said they could not assist the children because they were not educated enough themselves and could not understand the curriculum. They were looking for help in assisting their children with their homework. The nuns went to some parents' houses and then they got a little building where nuns, parents and children did the homework every evening. The children and parents said they got better and better until the children began to enjoy school and the parents began to enjoy helping them. However, the nuns had problems. They could not get a building. They could not get assistance to provide a building. We will be talking about the major housing problem tonight, but in housing estates with more than 20 houses built in the future, a community building should be provided which could be used for this work and it should be assisted by the State. The necessary resources should be given to the primary sector.
In rural areas we have a different problem regarding children and the Minister knows this because I have written to him and put down parliamentary questions on school transport. Some children aged four have to walk a mile and a half to get a school bus. In fairness, it is not easy to give resources to everything but I thought the Bill might provide for this. In some rural areas children get up at 7 a.m. to be in school by 9.15 a.m. and do not get home until about 6 p.m. It is not right, young children should not have to get up that early or get home that late. They are so exhausted they cannot learn and cannot be expected to do another half hour or hour of work when they get home. Some of these children are only four, and the first thing they want when they get home is a good meal.
The problem of children having to get up early can be seen in rural and some urban areas. It is time to make resources available with the assistance of parents – if money is needed it should be given – to provide school dinners. To begin with, the State should make available as much money as possible but the parents should make a contribution. We could then be sure that children were getting at least one good meal a day.
A major complaint about this Bill concerns the liaison officers. We must provide the resources, put these people in place and monitor the children. If we don't look after the children who will we look after, particularly at primary level? If children get a good primary education they will have a good start and society will not face as many problems if they get the start they need. Teachers with up to 37 children in a class cannot check on each child's progress, whether a particular child has a problem, is being interfered with, is not being washed or looked after, etc. The teacher should be able to tell someone there is a problem and ask that it be investigated.
Many children are not being looked after properly – I stand over that statement. The health boards do not have the resources and do not move in time when they get a complaint. Many children live in terrible circumstances and their only relief is when they go to school and get away from the home. It is sad that on the verge of the new millennium some children still go to school hungry and come home afraid, and that there is no one to do anything for them. We should not be afraid to say this is happening. Our primary aim must be to protect children and we should provide whatever resources are necessary to do so.
On the school day, children should not have to get up at 7 a.m. and should get home before 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. I ask the Minister to deal with that problem. Children are important, we only have them for a short time. I ask the Minister to consider controlling the media, particularly television. Children's programmes are shown at 7 a.m., geared towards them before they go to school and again when they come home at dinner time. We should not be afraid to take on the media and should introduce legislation to provide that children's programmes are broadcast between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. They should not be shown from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., to catch them before they go to school. Perhaps that cannot be done in this Bill but the Department should consider it. Toys for Christmas are already being advertised between 7 a.m. and 2 p.m., which is outrageous.
I thank Deputy Ring for sharing time and am glad of the opportunity to make a short contribution to this important debate. There is great interest in this attempt to bring our education system up to date. I pay tribute to the Minister and welcome his presence in the Chamber. His personal interest in handicapped children should be mentioned and does not go unnoticed.
We have a good education system, probably unequalled anywhere in the world, and this is shown in the way we have attracted new industries, such as the computer industry. Our third level system is of a high standard and the development of regional colleges was a major breakthrough. My own children have received a good education in Sligo, and there are other colleges in Galway, Waterford, Limerick and Dundalk. In Dublin, Kevin Street and Bolton Street are outstanding third level colleges. My home town has the Cavan College of Further Education, which has been upgraded to a regional technical college. A green-field site has been earmarked and progress has been made to put in place a proper campus – the college is currently spread around various buildings in Cavan town. It attracts students from Limerick, Cork and else where around the country and has a computer education facility.
The third level colleges have armed our young people to take up modern, technical jobs currently available. There never was a better time for young people in Ireland than the last five years. However, I must sound a note of warning – the multinational computer firms and technical industries regularly canvass our third level institutions for employees before the students have received their certificates, diplomas or degrees, because there is a scarcity of qualified young people for these jobs. We see job advertisements in the national newspapers on a weekly basis. One reputable company is using a "carrot and stick" advertisement for young people. Good wages are being offered and young people are attracted to money but they should stay in college until they get a certificate or diploma at least. It may be attractive to take a job now and it will save money for their parents but something could happen to the companies. By and large they have a lifespan of 20 years and many multinationals wind up and move on. What will happen those young people if they do not have a certificate of education because they were attracted by an industry which offered a good salary? They could be left high and dry five or six years later. I understand the industrialists' position but if they ask young people to work for them they should be given an opportunity to continue their education. The company should be responsible for bringing the young people to the centres of education, be it Kevin Street, Bolton Street or elsewhere. They should not have to drive into the city under their own steam, it should be done collectively. It is in the interests of both the industrialists and the young people to do this. I know this is happening and that young people are taking up these opportunities.
I have spoken about third level but we must begin at the beginning. Young people must be brought through the education system to leaving certificate standard so they can go to third level and take the course they wish to follow. In going to the beginning, we must look at society today which has changed tremendously over the years. In my day and until a quarter of a century ago, a family contained the traditional parents, husband and wife, and a number of children. This has changed and there are single parents in every town and village. Far be it from me to decry this, these things happen and we must face up to matters as they are. There are single parent households with mothers on their own. Society and the Government must face this problem to ensure those children have the same opportunities. It is not the fault of the children that they are born into that environment. The term "absentee father" annoys me – there is no such thing. A couple gather to conceive a child and both must be responsible. It is unacceptable for a man to leave an unfortunate girl with a child to rear – he must be made responsible and tracked down. If that man goes somewhere else and receives social welfare benefit or is in employment, there should be some means of deducting child support from his income. There is a little too much free living, for the want of a better word. The unfortunate girl is left with the child or perhaps two children and she needs support. We must face up to this problem. In the family unit as we understand it, by and large, children will get on. However, there are problems, even in rural areas, upon which we should not frown and we should support the people with these problems.
I would have been prepared to listen to the previous two speakers for longer. It is seldom we get an opportunity to hear some common sense and it was a privilege to listen to them.
I concur with the Minister that the Bill is among the most important legislation introduced by the Government. Every child should be given the opportunity to reach his or her full potential. That is what we hope for when we bring our children to school on their first day. It is more common now for them to go to pre-school but when one places them in the care of their junior infants teacher, one embarks on a journey for the most important part of their lives when one hopes they will, with the guidance and assistance of their teachers, reach their full potential, and I do not mean academically. As the previous two speakers said, education should not be viewed as the attainment of academic excellence – it involves a great deal more. The word education derives from "educo" which translates as "to draw out from within". It involves not only imparting information or knowledge to young people as in many instances there is an information overload. It involves parents and teachers drawing from within young people the potential which lies inside them. Often this means listening to them rather than talking at or to them.
The Bill has two main objectives, the first of which deals with an issue that does not occur often but is obviously important, the desire of parents to educate their children outside the recognised schools system. The constitutional right of parents as prime educators must also be recognised. Most of us are happy to pass on that task to teachers in recognised schools. The Bill addresses the issue of parents who do not want to send their children to recognised schools and may want to educate them themselves in their homes or undertake an alternative form of education. It sets down a standard of minimum education which should be observed by people who take that option. It is important but it is not an issue with which I have had to deal. The Department has been involved in court cases on a number of occasions because of the desire of parents to educate their children themselves.
The most important part of the Bill is its objective to put in place structures to encourage and promote school attendance. More importantly, it recognises this cannot be done in the way envisaged by the 1926 Act and the involvement of experts from a wide range of areas is necessary. The Minister and other speakers referred to the 1926 School Attendance Act which established the position of school attendance officer. I represented an area in County Dublin which does not have school attendance officers and the function was given to the Garda Síochána. I never came across a garda who carried out that function. I understand why that did not happen; it is not the way it should be done.
My only experience of school attendance officers was when I went to school as I do not remember having to deal with them when my children attended school. The focus of the school attendance officer was to punish and when the job was being done he or she did it extremely well. One does not have to look at documentaries to know this, but it is educational to see how we locked children in institutions because they were not going to school. A large number of those in industrial schools consisted of children who were "mitching" from school. We talk about non-attendance but "mitching" was the term used when I attended school. I clearly remember that one of the good jobs one could get when I attended school was to return the roll book to the principal who, in my case, was a nun. It was taken seriously and even more so in the generation before mine. Large numbers of children were taken from their families and placed in industrial schools and institutions. That is certainly not the focus of this Bill. Hopefully we are more enlightened now – fear was a great motivation in all areas of life in those days. It is not the way I would want us to go and I am glad we are going in the other direction.
Deputy Hanafin wished the Minister well in his efforts to define minimum education, if he decides to do so. I also wish him well in that task. I am not suggesting we introduce league tables which were brought in by the Conservative Government under Margaret Thatcher. I would not support that in any way, shape or form. However, the school assessment procedure which was introduced by the Minister on a pilot basis and the provisions of the Education Act could be extended to all schools. Deputy Ring rightly said young people are leaving school in the latter part of the 20th century without the ability to read, write and add in circumstances where the pupil-teacher ratio has been reduced considerably – enormously since I went to school. I do not know if the levels of illiteracy are higher now than they were 20 or 30 years ago but we must examine why people leave school, not having "mitched" or been absent for long periods, without the ability to read, write and add. This is excepting that people have difficulties such as dyslexia, attention deficit disorders and other recognised problems. However, there are young children who do not have those problems and are still leaving the education system with an inability to read, write and add. We need to address the reasons that is happening.
The provisions of this legislation are geared at those who may end up in difficulty, perhaps in Mountjoy, but certainly in situations of disadvantage. I had the privilege of attending the opening of the women's prison in Mountjoy last week. I had the opportunity to speak to some of "the community", which is how the Governor describes the women serving time there. I listened to women on a follow-up programme speak about what they were doing and how they were passing their time in jail. How does somebody who ends up in the most horrendous circumstances, in Mountjoy jail, probably with a huge drug habit – that was certainly true of some of the women to whom I spoke – embrace with the most unbelievable enthusiasm an opportunity to avail of education? What happens to people in those circumstances that was not happening to them when they were in the recognised school system?
We need to look at what is happening in schools. Parents have told me their children are being kept back or are skipping a year in primary school. That happens for good reasons in a number of cases. There is often a need for a child to spend more time in one year, or if the child is bored it is better to move them on so they are open to new learning experiences. However, in the majority of such cases children were being moved from one class to another to maintain numbers so that the school could keep a teacher. That is not what we call child centred education or what is expected from a school system that works well. The parents' council does not have the same clout as a teachers' union. Despite the advances in education, parents are not full partners, although the Minister is moving towards that.
Deputy Hanafin referred to the need to let teachers take early retirement if they so wish. If they do not want to teach, they will probably not be of any great benefit to the pupils they are trying to educate. I am a member of a board of management and at a board meeting we discussed the issue of teachers taking extended leave of absence to pursue other interests. In some cases teachers are seconded to the Department and they will use the experience they gain to improve the school when they return. Some teachers go as volunteers with APSO to assist people in other countries. Such experience will enhance their work when they go back to school. However, in some cases teachers go away for two or three years and then come back for a year before reapplying for another year's leave of absence. I question whether such teachers are committed to teaching.
There are many reasons children decide not to go to school or to finish their education, but the main one in the majority of cases is difficult family circumstances. A percentage of children are also wild and out of control and even their parents have difficulty getting them to stay in school. Sometimes we need to listen to children. If a child repeatedly says over a one or two year period, not just on a Monday morning because they do not want to go to school, that their teacher hates them, we must take it seriously. If six, seven or ten second level pupils, who are more confident than primary school pupils, say that a teacher of a particular subject is useless, we should listen to them and do something about it.
I know a young man who was not unruly or out of control but who fell out of the education system because he came from a horrendous family background. It was surprising how well-rounded he was given the circumstances. He was expelled from a community school in a disadvantaged area which had the supports the Minister and his predecessors recognised as necessary in such areas. Teachers in disadvantaged areas are usually the best because when they start teaching they are young and want to make a difference. I listened to a teacher on the radio recently who was bubbling with enthusiasm and believed he could make a change. I know it is not easy and that they burn out quickly.
The principal in the community school expelled the young man because of poor attendance. He was told he would not make it academically, that he had no chance of getting a junior or leaving certificate and that he was wasting his time. He was moved to another school but that did not work as it was away from his home. I approached the principal of a community school a quarter of a mile from the first school and asked him to interview the young man. He took him into the school and gave him the type of additional attention he needed. He was given a uniform, which he did not have because his parents did not help him, and books were provided from a school fund. He was also given as much pastoral care as possible without making it look like he had a problem. As a result, he got an applied leaving certificate and he went to his "debs" ball.
The first school was wrong and was responsible for the young man falling out of the school system. The second school was what the Minister and parents believe should be the model of a good school and management system and an extremely good principal. The principal outlined the contract between the boy and the school, that unless he worked and showed commitment he would have to leave.
The Minister stated that the Bill deals not only with raising the school leaving age from 15 to 16. Our education system is not about numbers or about telling pupils they are guilty of a crime if they leave school to work before they are 16 years of age. It is not about keeping children sitting in seats in school but about turning out well-rounded young people and giving them the skills to solve problems and deal with the pressures we did not have to deal with in school, such as taking drugs and drinking at 15 and 16 years of age. That is the norm in most schools, not only in disadvantaged areas.
Sections 23 to 27 are the core of the Bill as they deal with keeping children in school. Section 23 provides for a code of behaviour, which is welcome. Some schools, including the one to which I referred, have a written code of practice which is published in the pupils' year book so parents know what is expected, but it is not the norm. I welcome the fact it is being laid down in law and that it will be drawn up with the consent of all parties. I am glad parents are included in that process.
I am concerned that parents will be required before registering a child as a student at a school, in accordance with section 20, to sign a contract between themselves and the school. Parents will sign almost anything to get a child into a particular school. I am not sure that parents will have read it or know what is binding if they do that.
Section 24 gladdens and lightens my heart. I have discussed this matter at Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meetings and with the Minister. The position was that children were being suspended and expelled from schools and that was it. I understand why a school might feel it was at the end of its tether and was forced to expel a child. However, there are instances where children were expelled from school for little or no reason. I remember a girl with whom I palled around in primary school who was told by the principal of her primary school that she would not be allowed to sit her primary certificate examination. I do not know if there was a league table then but the school was obviously concerned that she would affect the school's overall results. The girl was told straight out that she would not be allowed to sit for her primary certificate.
The Minister has enshrined in the Bill that a child must receive an education and if he or she is expelled from a school, the welfare officer must find an alternative place for him or her. If that cannot be done, measures must be put in place to ensure that the child receives an education. The Bill is worth its weight in gold if it achieves that objective and I very much welcome it. Some people, including many in the teaching profession, said it could never be done. However, the Minister is doing it, and I am proud to be part of a Government that is doing it.
I am pleased to participate in the debate and I am also pleased that the Minister is present to listen to Members' contributions. A measure of the Bill's importance is that the last school attendance legislation was introduced in the early 1920s. Various reports were produced in the 1990s which probably created the seed corn for this Bill in terms of all the presentations which were made. However, it is recognised internationally that Ireland has a very good education system and this point has been acknowledged by successive speakers.
Ireland is enjoying significant industrial benefits as a result of companies coming to this country. This is due in the main to people who made sacrifices in the past to ensure children got a good education. This is paying off now in terms of overseas industries coming to Ireland. However, these industries are probably exposing certain deficiencies in the system which will need to be addressed urgently in terms of our attitude to continental languages and the emphasis placed in the education system on that area. Many companies are experiencing difficulties in that regard.
In the main the Bill deals with truancy and school attendance and the direction in which the Minister intends to progress. Many people felt that in modern times monitoring school truancy should not be part of the duties of the Garda Síochána in rural Ireland. It is recognised that there is more temptation for pupils to drop out of the education system than heretofore because of the buoyancy of the Celtic economy. In many cases this is probably due to financial necessity at home. Often young people aged 14 or 15 years see their parents caught in poverty traps or dependent on social welfare and they seize the opportunity of a job instead of remaining in the education system. Although in many cases these jobs may have limited progression possibilities or may lead to an employment cul de sac in the future, there is a temptation to take them now. The important point is how to ensure these young people remain in the school system.
The objective of trying to ensure pupils remain in school until the age of 16 years or at least spend three years in the junior cycle is desirable. Statistics prove that up to 90 per cent of people stay in the education system up to that age. However, there is still a problem regarding pupils from homes where there is residual unemployment who drop out of the education system. The issue is how to ensure they remain in the system.
There is much emphasis in the Bill on the disciplinary codes of schools and ensuring it is known to pupils in advance. This is desirable but there is already a deficiency in the current system which I am not sure will be rectified by the Bill. In many cases, pupils are disciplined within the school system and suspended or expelled. However, most others schools in the area will not take on such pupils. I am aware of cases where that happened and families were traumatised by it. Pupils have prematurely dropped out of the education system due to an aberration for which they were disciplined under the school code. They were probably victimised by the education system as it stood. Will the Bill address such cases?
I am aware of families who were traumatised because children were suspended or expelled from school. Under the current system, other schools in the area cannot be compelled to take on such pupils. Most schools are conscious of their disciplinary codes and values and they are afraid that their school will be stigmatised by parents if they take on a pupil who was suspended or expelled by another school. The schools want to maintain their ideals. This issue needs to be addressed and it would be worthwhile if the Department of Education and Science researched and studied second level educational establishments from which pupils were suspended or expelled. Often suspensions can last for considerable periods and the pupil's education is disrupted. There are approximately 700 secondary schools and it would be interesting to find out the total number of people who found themselves in that situation. Suspensions may have been imposed as a result of an escapade following a disco outside the school setting or for many other reasons. However, it would be worth finding out how many people ended up outside the education system because of incidents which took place for which they were suspended or expelled. The Minister probably would be surprised by the number involved.
Last December the Minister received the maximum possible accolades because he addressed the difficulty which Deputies raised in the House on many occasions regarding the lack of remedial teachers for groups of schools. The position was reached last December where all schools have access to a remedial teacher. I am sure the Minister is not totally happy because a remedial teacher who is responsible for at least five different schools may spend more time in his or her car than in the schools undertaking remedial teaching. As a result, it is questionable whether the system is working. However, it is a step in the right direction because there were many complaints in the past that there were not enough remedial teachers for schools.
If the Minister considered the people who are likely to fall within the remit of the Bill and become involved in truancy in the future, he would probably find that in many cases intervention should take place before the child goes to Montessori school. Many people who work with children will testify that the crucial formative years are after the public health nurse's intervention ceases and before the child goes to pre-school or Montessori school, if they can afford to go. There appears to be no intervention on the part of the State during this vital period. The child's character has usually been formed by the time they start primary school and we know what can happen within the education system. I could never master geometry, for example, although that did not create problems for me later. However, if I could not have mastered reading or writing, I would have been in serious difficulty.
I accept that we are addressing the problem of illiteracy but we are not moving fast enough. Look at the number of people who are involved in community youth employment projects throughout the country. One will find that there are illiterate people among that cohort of 39,000. In our obsession with getting people off the live register and into worthwhile occupations – an aim I agree with – we often do not quantify the number of illiterate people on that register. If we find the opportunity for FÁS employment within the community we are happy to at least have them doing desirable work.
However, I often wonder if it would not be a worthwhile exercise to suggest to those people, who might be 35, 40 or 50 years of age that we will put them through a programme in which they will spend at least a year on a week on, week off basis in FÁS employment, that we will give them at least six months to master their illiteracy and that we will pay them the same amount as they would be paid on the FÁS scheme. I believe it would be worthwhile. If these people mastered their illiteracy, it would give them the confidence and ability to progress to another type of job. People participate in community employment projects for up to four years because they feel confidence in what they are doing. In many cases, however, a number of them are illiterate and would like to master that difficulty. The problem is that they fall between two stools and that issue should be examined.
I support the home school liaison officer system in disadvantaged areas. It works extremely well. I read a press release issued by the Minister on 5 November 1998 in which he said that the issue of providing special needs assistants had to be addressed. On that occasion, he announced the provision of 65 places. The Minister will be aware that in rural areas it is most important, if possible, for a child who has a disability to be absorbed within the primary school system, to be integrated in the community and to grow up in that community. In many small rural primary schools – local people tend to be very proud of their primary school – that has worked very effectively and the children, whether they are confined to a wheelchair or are otherwise disabled, have been absorbed and integrated fully into the school. This has been possible due to minor adaptations being made within the school, for example, making the school wheelchair compatible.
The Minister will acknowledge that there is pressure on the Department to create many more special needs assistants. I recently received a letter and documentation in this regard from a principal in Ballyagran national school in Limerick. A child has been identified as requiring a special needs assistant. A school such as that might find it impossible to cope without such an assistant. When the Department gets a cry from the heart from the principal of a school and when the psychological assessment is available to verify that the person is in need of such an assistant, it should respond positively. If it does not, the primary school will be unable to give the necessary commitment and time to the person who requires a special needs assistant. This matter should be analysed and given an appropriate response. As I said earlier, I have seen situations where such people have been integrated into the local school and they have been very happy in that environment.
It would be remiss of me not to use this opportunity to make a plea for something close to my heart and, indeed, to the Minister's heart. A gael scoil was established in Newcastle West in 1985 with 17 pupils. It now has 350 pupils between the naonrá, the gaelscoil and the gaelcholáiste. The Minister is aware of the gaelscoil, Gaelscoil O'Doghair. I put down a parliamentary question on the resumption of the Dáil asking the Department to be more active in ensuring that the school is built. Sanction for its construction was given in 1995 but due to various frustrations, the management of the school purchased the land itself to ensure that the land would be available.
I understand discussions are currently taking place with the Department. I urge the Minister to respond quickly and positively so the gaelscoil can get going. The principal is Daithí Ó Murchú and the school's achievements have been lauded. I hope something positive will happen in the near future because the school does an excellent job in the local community.
Newcastle West has a population of less than 5,000 and was selected recently for urban renewal. The population criterion is much higher but the town was regarded as suitable for urban renewal because it is the county capital and there is a huge expansion in population. This was encouraged by the Department of the Environment and Local Government which was anxious that the population expansion should not take place totally within Limerick city and suburbs but in the county towns. Parallel with the population expansion is the need to provide for schoolchildren. That is why it is most important that the gaelscoil is given approval.
I will now turn to the truancy issue. The Minister intends to establish a national education welfare board. The board will have access to records for 3,000 primary schools and 700 secondary schools. It will also have access to the disciplinary codes of conduct in the schools. The Minister was critical of the provisions of the Bill introduced by the former Minister, Niamh Breathnach, providing for regional education boards. I do not intend to discuss the merits or demerits of that Bill. However, can the Minister reconcile the situation that will arise with regard to the education welfare board? The body will meet in Dublin and will have access to these records. The members of the board will be drawn from different Departments and there will be no representative from the parents, teachers or management associations.
How can the Minister reassure us that the board will provide an effective service for all 3,700 schools? Will he give such an assurance on the basis of there being an advisory body which will provide certain information to the board and that the body will comprise members of the teachers, parents and management organisations? Is the Minister satisfied that the advisory body will have the power to influence this board? The board's membership will be drawn from Departments and will be based in Dublin, not in Portlaoise or in any other part of the country which might be more central. Does the Minister believe the board will achieve its objective? Bearing in mind the debate that took place about regional education boards, would it not have been more feasible to provide for a regional board of that nature to cover a certain area? After all, there are only so many regions in the country and a large number of regional bodies already exist. This issue will be teased out on Committee Stage when the Minister can outline his views in that regard.
I wish the Minister well with this Bill which contains many good ideas. Truancy and non-attendance at school must be analysed to a greater extent. In pitching the figure higher than 90 per cent, we have a major challenge on our hands. Given our current economic buoyancy, there is a temptation for people to go to work.
For problems in reading and writing or problems arising from being left behind within the education system, there may be a need to establish an interventionist system. The children of families, which may be vulnerable to the type of problems the Minister is attempting to allay on a long-term basis because of unemployment, poverty and so on should be monitored from the age of six months to four or five years so that they will be able to avail of some type of support. The Department of Health and Children is probably the ideal body to administer such a system. That support is not available at present and many children start out with educational disadvantages at four or five years of age. Once they lose out at the start, it is very difficult for them to recapture that lost time.
Rather than tabling a matter on the Adjournment on the urgent necessity for a special needs assistant for Ballyagran primary school can I ask the Minister—
There should not be any difficulty with that, pending assessment and verification of the assessment. That child would have an automatic entitlement under the decision of November of last year. I will follow the matter up with the Deputy.
Perhaps I could pass on the documentation relating to this matter, which was sent to me by the school principal, to the Minister's officials. It fully explains the situation. I know the Minister will ensure that the Gaelscoil will be built in Newcastle West prior to the next election. That would be a positive development.
I wish to share time with Deputy Haughey.
Carlow-Kilkenny): Is that agreed? Agreed.
I compliment the Minister on introducing this Bill. The relationship between educational disadvantage and performance in the labour market or the workforce has been demonstrated in numerous studies carried out both in Ireland and abroad. I compliment the current Minister on taking a number of initiatives to assist those at risk of dropping out of education at an early stage. I refer to the £57 million disadvantage package, the £6.5 million for school libraries, the national educational psychological service, increased intake to colleges, an offer to purchase all school sites and the abolition of exam fees for students who hold medical cards or whose parents or guardians are medical card holders.
One of the greatest divides in society today is doubtless between those who complete senior cycle education and those who leave school early. Some 63 per cent of unemployed people do not hold a leaving certificate and three quarters of poor households are headed by a person without any educational qualifications.
The school curriculum can be an important element in assisting children to stay in school. Significant additional funding has been put in place to ensure the development of the curriculum diversity necessary to provide the most appropriate programmes for individual students. It is also important to provide second chance interventions for those who leave school early.
Arising out of the importance placed on this area, one of this Government's first decisions was to expand the Youthreach programme. This initiative is aimed at tackling those who leave school early, students who drop out at 13 or 14 years of age or younger. The programme offers an opportunity to bring these students back into the education system and to provide them with basic skills. It also gives them the confidence to establish a routine. It is evident that people who drop out of school for whatever reason lose routine and become involved in activities which do not result in a normal or reasonable standard of living.
The newly established National Education Welfare Board will have overall responsibility for the operation of the Bill. The board's functions include prescribing minimum education for all children, assisting in the formulation and implementation of Government policy and objectives concerning the education of children and promoting and fostering in society an appreciation of the benefits which can be derived from education.
Previous speakers have asked what constitutes a minimum education. Some may believe it is the attainment of a degree or a diploma while others would consider that a decent junior or leaving certificate represents a minimum education. At the end of the day, it is desirable that all children leaving school at 16 years of age would have the ability to read and write and have good numeracy skills.
As politicians at the coal face, we witness people attending clinics from rural areas, towns and villages, who are unable to fill out various forms. That is a shocking reflection on our education system. These people have simply fallen by the wayside. I hope this Bill will ensure that is stamped out. The Education (Welfare) Bill clearly sets out the role of the education board. The board will ensure that the education system is further enhanced and developed and that those who are socially and economically disadvantaged will receive a better formal education than has previously been the case.
The reality of the current economic boom is that children can be employed while still attending school. This can have serious repercussions on their education. If a child comes from a disadvantaged family where money is scarce and an employer is willing to take him or her on during school hours thereby providing them with resources, it is likely that he or she will opt for work. The Bill provides additional safeguards for these children by making it an offence for an employer to employ children during school hours. Perhaps it would be possible to extend that to ensure that students will also have time to attend to their homework.
The reality of the current education system is that many young people leave school with qualifications which are inadequate to guarantee their entry into the workforce. This Bill provides a framework which will ensure that all young people who have left school under 18 years of age will be identified. Once identified, the National Education Welfare Board will assist them in accessing continued education and training. Employers will have a role to play in the identification of young people by only employing young people who have a certificate to show they are registered with the board and by informing the board when they employ a young person. It is vital that any system is monitored and assessed in order to ensure it operates to the maximum benefit. The National Education Welfare Board provides for an ongoing assessment of educational provisions outside the recognised school system. It is vital that the board be accountable. Accounts shall be submitted to the Comptroller and Auditor General for audit and shall be placed before the Houses of the Oireachtas by the Minister.
The Education (Welfare) Bill is a further necessary step in the continuation of this Government's progress in dealing with educational disadvantage and in tackling the root problem of poor school attendance.
I compliment the Minister on the manner in which he has tackled the special needs issue. When I attended national school, weak students with special needs barely scraped through the system. Such students have had a difficult time until now, but they are being assessed and retrained by FÁS and provisions have been made for the weaker sectors of society. Such sectors were ignored by the State and I welcome all the initiatives that have been taken by the Government to tackle social exclusion within the education system.
I welcome this important Bill, which is long overdue. It demonstrates the Government's ongoing commitment to social inclusion. It seeks to tackle the problems of those who have the potential to become socially excluded at an early age, such as children who drop out of the school system and early school leavers generally. As a result, these children ruin their chances of full participation in all aspects of society and, in many instances, they have a poor quality of living and diminished employment prospects.
I am happy the Bill strikes the correct balance between the rights and duties of children, parents and the State and, in particular, it recognises the legitimate right of parents in the education of their children. However, there is no doubt that in areas of disadvantage the State must get more involved and play a greater role. These children are entitled to the same opportunities as everyone else. The State must adopt a hands-on approach and back it up with adequate resources.
School attendance is, obviously, a major problem in disadvantaged areas. I congratulate the Minister on his policies to deal with the problem of early school leaving. Such initiatives include the pilot project to address the needs of children between the ages of eight and 15 who are at risk of dropping out of the education system and it is in place in a number of target areas. The home-school liaison service has also been extended to every school classified as disadvantaged. The remedial teaching service has also been extended to every school. The national education psychological service has been established and recently the Minister launched a £4.5 million stay in school initiative, aimed at keeping pupils in school to complete the leaving certificate through school-based plans supported by generous financing. All these measures are welcome.
A serious problem on the ground in terms of school attendance is the position of children who have been expelled or suspended from school and this was also referred to by Deputy Finucane. Very often such expulsions or suspensions are for non-attendance or disruptive behaviour generally and school principals do not want to know about these problems. The children involved often find it impossible to get into another school. School attendance officers and, in particular, the Department seem completely helpless and powerless in dealing with the problem.
The child has been expelled or suspended for disruptive behaviour, etc., has probably been given a number of chances and is then told that he cannot return to the school. As a public representative, I have been called on to intervene in such cases. One contacts several schools in the locality and for one reason or another it is impossible to get the child into an alternative school. The situation is hopeless. I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister on this matter on 16 October 1997 and he stated:
I am aware that there may be difficulties involved in securing a school placement for pupils who have left or been excluded from a second level school. The selection and enrolment of pupils in second level schools is the responsibility of individual school managerial authorities. The managerial authorities are also responsible for devising and applying a code of discipline in their schools.
My Department has issued guidelines to schools to assist them in discharging their role in this area. These guidelines stress both the need for proportionality of response to incidents of misbehaviour and the use of expulsion only as a last resort. A disciplinary ruling involving either exclusion or suspension may be appealed in the first instance to the appropriate management authority of the school concerned, normally the manager, board of management or vocational education committee. If matters are not resolved at that level it is open to parents to raise the matter with my Department, which will liaise with the school and assist in securing an alternative school placement where necessary.
That is all very well in theory, but it does not happen in practice and I hope, therefore, the Bill will deal with such issues in a more comprehensive and practical manner.
The national education psychological service has an important role in this regard. Last night the Minster of State said that it was well under way. I wish to know more about it because many of the children to whom I referred have problems and I hope this service can play a crucial role in their progress.
Children not attending local schools is another practical issue which creates increased difficulty. It is more of a problem in the Dublin area where a range of schools is available within easy access for pupils. I do not suggest that children should be compelled to attend their local schools, but it causes problems even from the point of view of traffic and public transport when children are driven from one side of the city to another to attend a different school. Where enrolments decline in a school, the Department must get involved and investigate why that is the case. I am aware of children who will not attend the school in their local parish but will attend every other school on the north side of Dublin. We need to ask why because it is a serious issue which the Department should investigate and examine. School attendance is not just a matter for the Department of Education and Science as other issues are involved, such as drug and alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancies and dysfunctional families where no value is placed on education. It is a complex issue and there are many reasons it is a problem, and as a result many other Departments are involved.
The Minister outlined the role of the national educational welfare board and educational welfare officers, who have a comprehensive list of functions. It is an ideal list of functions, but the difficulties in dealing with issues on the ground should not be underestimated. There are many practical difficulties and it will take committed educational welfare officers with power and resources to deal with children with special needs.
I welcome the extension of the school attendance service nationwide. Previously, this was confined to local authorities in Cork, Dublin, Waterford and Dún Laoghaire and the Garda elsewhere. In many cases, local authorities were unable to deal with large new sprawling local authority housing estates under this particular brief so, therefore, the idea to extend this nationwide in a comprehensive way is good. The School Attendance Act, 1926, was introduced in much simpler times and the emphasis was on penalties rather than assistance. I welcome, therefore, the change in emphasis outlined in this Bill. I cannot stress enough the importance of ensuring that schools have adequate resources to deal with these problems and to implement this Bill, and I know other Deputies mentioned that as well.
Perhaps the Minister will, at some stage, report on school meals. It seems to be a very limited service available in a few disadvantaged areas. I would like to know the position in other EU states because that would be an important service to revamp. I know the Minister is very concerned about bullying in schools, and it must be a factor in dealing with non-attendance. I welcome the Minister's initiatives in that regard, which are taking effect in the schools. Young children in national schools are being informed of this phenomenon. They are told to report incidents in the yard or they are watched to see if the yard is a pleasant experience for children, and I welcome those measures. It is an important issue as regards school attendance. All in all, this is a welcome Bill. I congratulate the Minister on bringing it forward and wish him well in implementing it.
May I share my time with Deputy Enright?
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome this legislation but the first point I would like to make, which is reflected in the contributions of previous speakers, is that the setting up of this board, the national educational welfare board, must be used as an opportunity to do much more than establish a policing system for truancy and home education. I am sure the Minister will ensure that happens. Certainly, from listening to the various contributions, it is important that it would happen.
A number of serious issues have been raised, which Deputy Haughey and many other speakers illustrated. There are many difficulties for young people who do not fit into the system in the same way as those who sail through third level. Those who are well adapted to the system can cope. The Bill must address those problems. I welcome the fact that there will be school attendance procedures throughout the country. There have been loopholes in the past and it is important that they are closed off. There was a very sad case recently of a child who was taken out of school by her family and was not registered in another one. I am not sure how much has been proved, but she may have been subject to abuse in the home. There was no system of tracking and when she was taken out of one school her parents' word was accepted that she had been registered in another but that never happened. That is the most serious aspect of this issue. There is another aspect – it is essential that there is a system whereby children are enrolled in schools and do not fall through the net.
There must be an onus on the schools as well as on the parents and children. That point has been well illustrated in the examples given. Sections 19 and 27, in particular, are welcome in so far as section 27 states that there is an obligation on the national educational welfare board to make reasonable efforts to ensure that children who are permanently excluded from a school or whom a school refuses to enrol receive a minimum education. There must be a greater obligation on schools to ensure that children are not in position to drop out or be expelled from a school. Section 19 provides that the board of management of recognised schools shall not refuse to admit as a student in such schools a child in respect of whom an application to be so admitted has been made, except where such refusal is in accordance with the policy of the recognised school concerned. It is important that schools publish their policies as regards admission. It should be a function of the board that schools must take their fair share of children who may have difficulties adapting to the education system and must also recognise their obligations to children whom they have taken into their schools.
There should be an early intervention system, and I would like the officers of this board to have a role in early intervention where there is a problem with a child. If a school detects problems with a child, it should have an obligation to report that to the officers of this board so that intervention can happen early and a child will not be suspended from a school without any warning or attempt to pre-empt that.
Yesterday, my colleague, Deputy Michael Higgins, described many children who have dropped out of the system or who have been expelled from schools and who, as Deputy Haughey said, find it almost impossible to enrol in another school. It is not enough to say the board has an obligation to ensure these children receive a minimum education. It should have that obligation, but schools should also have an obligation to ensure it happens.
The point about schools not always taking a cross section of children is important. There are many excellent schools which have a mix of input and which do a fine job, but there are many other schools which are quite selective in the type of children they take in. I suppose that is more true in urban schools where there is more choice. In many cases, schools have come together in rural areas where there are fine community and comprehensive schools which take children from all backgrounds. In urban areas, there is a danger of schools becoming more selective. Recently, private colleges charging fees seem to be making more of an inroad. It is important the national educational welfare board is given a function which ensures schools uphold their obligation to equality and ensures that they open their doors to children in their area no matter what their background. It is also important that where there is a pattern of low educational achievement in terms of the input into a primary school, there is an obligation to ensure these children have access to second level schools and that they are given the support they need to ensure they can proceed through the system. Early intervention is extremely important.
It is necessary to ensure that schools which cater for children who have difficulty in the regular system are properly funded. We have one in Limerick, St. Augustine's, with which the Minister of State will be very familiar, which does excellent work. There are other such schools around the country but they tend to be underfunded. It is important that any school which caters for children with difficulties is properly funded.
The first function, as described in section 10, is that the board must ensure the provision of a prescribed minimum education to each child. Will the Minister respond in relation to children with special needs, such as children with intellectual disabilities, dyslexia, ADD, ADHD, autism, Asperger's syndrome and other such problems? Parents of such children have had great difficulty accessing appropriate education for their children and, in some cases, have had to take the State to court – for instance, the O'Donoghue case and others which have followed on from that. Do I detect from this Bill that these parents now have a way in which they can ensure that their child has access to a school appropriate to their needs?
If this is the case it is a great step forward but I would like to have the matter clarified. I hope funding will follow and that children are not obliged to wait until appropriate classes are funded. This Bill provides an opportunity to ensure that the constitutional rights of children with special needs are upheld. The national educational welfare board has the potential to have that brief and it should have it. We must not miss the opportunity which the passage of this Bill affords us. The necessary funding must follow automatically. A child who fits into an ordinary national school automatically has access to that school. A child with special needs should also have automatic access to education and should not have to wait for funding. I hope this issue will also be addressed in the Bill.
We must not use this Bill as a minimalist set of principles. We must ensure that it embraces the various issues raised by Members and we must address these issues if we are to prevent the development of a two tier education system which works very well for a certain sector of the population but fails another sector.
I thank Deputy O'Sullivan for allowing me to share her time. I welcome the Bill which introduces very important measures, including the registration of children receiving education in places other than recognised schools. The main feature of the Bill, of course, is the setting up of the national educational welfare board, An Bord Náisiúnta Leasa Oideachais. The board will co-ordinate activities connected with school attendance, identify the causes of truancy in children and adopt certain measures to help prevent truancy. These measures are very important and I welcome them. Our education system is failing to recognise and identify potential problems in children at an early age. Some teachers say they can tell at an early age how a child will turn out. If a young boy or girl is seen to have problems at the age of four, those problems must be addressed to prevent them getting worse as the child grows older. Some of these problems may be emotional or psychiatric or some may arise from difficulties in the home. Small children may sometimes be aggressive or violent or may suffer from a lack of educational support in homes where there are no newspapers, where no one listens to the radio and where violent and unsuitable programmes are watched on television. If such children could be identified at a young age and encouraged to take an interest in education, many of them could be helped. We are not quick enough in spotting the difficulties experienced by small children.
I welcome the establishment of the national educational welfare board and I hope, when it is set up, it will be based outside Dublin. I recommend that it be based in Tullamore which is centrally placed and already has an involvement in education.
Sections 23 and 24 deal with codes of behaviour and the expulsion of children from recognised schools. I must speak bluntly. Some young children, particularly young boys, behave very aggressively in schools which are unable to cope with them. I recently spoke to a number of teachers who are having great problems with boys in their school. These boys have struck other boys and girls and have created many difficulties for the school. The boys concerned have many emotional and family problems but their behaviour in class affects other pupils who are trying to study. It is unfair that young boys and girls should be afraid to go to school. While the problems of troublesome pupils must be dealt with sympathetically, one must recognise the needs of other pupils who wish to get on with the business of learning. Such troublesome pupils cannot be transferred unless they can be accommodated in another school. However, very few teachers are willing to accept an aggressive or violent pupil from another school.
I cannot come up with a satisfactory solution to this problem but it is one which must be tackled. I suggest that such pupils be dealt with on a one to one basis by an adult who is equipped to assist the pupil concerned. If the pupil comes from an outlying rural area he or she might need to be accommodated in a town. Even this may not prevent the pupil behaving aggressively, but it is essential that such problems are dealt with individually. Some schools find it impossible to enforce rules or regulations on very disruptive pupils. If a pupil is disruptive at the age of seven, eight or ten, we can guess how he will turn out later in life. The problem is not simply an educational one. It has a wider aspect and its solution will involve the interaction of social workers with schools.
The Bill deals with primary schools, but I am sorry it does not go further and amend the legislation dealing with the employment of young persons. We must also examine the question of pupils who drop out of second level schools with no formal qualification. They are the boys and girls who are hanging around chip shops and corners late at night, they are into drinking and probably drugs and have social problems, they pose problems for their parents and for society and many of them drop out of education at an early age. A greater effort must be made to encourage them to remain in education.
Another point is that schools do not place sufficient emphasis on sport, music and art. Also, when students in third level colleges fail their courses for one reason or another – perhaps because they did not study – and want to return to college, say, two years later when they have matured, they may do so but the Department of Education and Science will refuse to give them education grants. That matter needs to be addressed. If a student has matured and wishes to return to college, he or she should be given a grant.
I raised the issue of untrained teachers here at 6.40 p.m. on 26 May and asked the Minister of State to examine the case of persons who did not qualify as teachers but who have devoted 15 to 20 years of their lives to education. The Minister of State promised he would bring my remarks to the attention of the Minister and return to me on the matter. I have been in contact with him, but he has not come back to me. This matter arises under the qualifications and training education Bill and I am anxious that it be addressed.
The pupil-teacher ratio in primary schools is still too high and must be lowered. The secret of success in education is to ensure there is effective communication between teachers and pupils during young people's formative years. That is important. Also, in addition to academic subjects, schools should place more emphasis on sport, music and art.
I wish to share my time with Deputy Michael Kitt.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute on this important Bill, which is long overdue. The Bill sets out to chart a comprehensive national system to ensure that children in the compulsory age group attend school or, if not, to receive a basic accessible minimum level of education. It also seeks to ascertain the causes of truancy and to identify at the earliest possible time any difficulties, personal or environmental, which might militate against a child's education interest in the short, medium or long-term.
Binding the Bill together is the imposition of statutory obligations on schools to take a more pro-active role in understanding, assessing, intervening and determining outcome and working in full consultation with parents and all agencies which have an impact on the quality of life of pupils. I welcome the fact that the minimum school leaving age is being raised from 15 to 16 years or on the completion of three years post-primary education, whichever comes later.
I also welcome the establishment of the national educational welfare board, which will have overall responsibility for the implementation and operation of the Bill when enacted. The board's functions, which combine advisory and research functions and direct involvement in enforcing school attendance, will be given sufficient and appropriate resources, both financial and personal, and that will have a profound bearing on two of the most worrying aspects of the school system – the proper assessment of pupils and the high drop-out rate of students from certain communities, especially inner city communities. This is also applicable in many parts of rural Ireland. One of the blots on an otherwise praiseworthy and excellent education system is that we have for too long neglected to introduce proper psychological assessment in schools. I compliment the Minister, Deputy Martin, on adhering to his pre-election promise to set about providing this essential service.
The proposed national educational welfare board has a wide range of functions prescribed to it. It must draw up a prescribed minimum education for each child, whether in the education system or outside it. It has wider authority to assist in the formation and implementation of Government policies and objectives concerning the education of each child, the public education role of promoting, through understanding, an appreciation of education as well as a specific role of working with schools to draw up programmes of activity. It will also assist in designing programmes, monitoring and assessing their effects, helping schools and parents in a practical way and advising the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and the Minister.
The national educational welfare board has a tremendous work programme. It is interesting to note that the board is expected to liaise with the relevant bodies, Departments, health boards, the Garda, vocational education committees and the national youth work committee. How can all this work be undertaken unless there is a clear indica tion from where the personnel and the necessary finance will come to provide for the large number of positions required? I agree with the proposal for registration and the various suggestions regarding home liaison and the important code of behaviour. Overall, the high profile the Bill gives to the rights of parents and their obligations is long overdue.
As a parent and a public representative I believe it is a mistake that the Bill omits one of the four partners, namely, teachers. While we are blessed with teachers of high standard, there are many occasions where management, parents and pupils have been discommoded by the absence of a teacher from a classroom. We must be open and transparent about this real issue. It appears the Bill will be incomplete if it does not address this key issue within the classroom. The presence of a teacher and what happens when the teacher is missing, for whatever reason, needs to be addressed.
There is no reason or excuse for a child leaving school illiterate. A total of 3,000 students leave school without attaining the junior certificate and 8,000 children leave school without having completed their leaving certificate. It is up to all of us, the Government, the education authorities, parents and teachers, to stop this human haemorrhage. It is an outflow of national talent and a terrible waste of potential. The Bill begins to tackle that task in a meaningful way but there is a long way to go and probably not a moment to lose.
In regard to registration and recognising the wishes of those who do not want to attend recognised schools, the Minister suggests that they should have the opportunity of being educated outside the school. I do not know how that will work in practice. It is important that the school attendance officer liaise with guidance counsellors and school principals on a regular basis but this does not happen at present. The proposed integrated approach is a new model with a linked person in each VEC and health board. It should help young people and every area will be working closely together. Some young people are lured from the school by the prospect of a job without having the basic education attainments. Section 29 provides a framework which will ensure that employers of such young people will register them with the national educational welfare board and assist them to access part-time education.
The current school curriculum is too driven by the points system to allow for the education of all children. In some cases schools are in competition for pupils and cannot afford to risk being labelled as a school which is not producing enough points. Alternative curriculum models, such as the NCVA and the leaving certificate applied programme, are excellent but are difficult to implement because of restricted staffing resources and because young people who choose this route become labelled. It is unfortunate that such labelling occurs. There is need for a funda mental change in education to overcome these difficulties.
The Department of Education and Science invests millions of pounds in many education side shows which are more or less effective. It is time to assess the productivity of the system. In spite of great effort, literacy skills are low and schools lack resources. It is time for the Department to examine and identify good practices outside the mainstream education system and find ways to combine the two. Rather than imposing penalties on parents who have already been penalised by the education system, perhaps the board should impose penalties on schools which ignore their responsibility to educate all children when they have been given the resources to do so.
I received correspondence from a family in my constituency who intend to home educate their children. I would like to put on record some points they suggested to me. Regarding the application procedures to register a child, in specifying the times and place of education, the place, in most circumstances, would be the home address, the times, however, could be harder to pin down. Some well documented research carried out recently in Britain and Australia shows that home educated children learn a good deal informally through everyday living. It also shows that formal learning can be more flexible – the lessons being as long or as short as is essential. In practice it would be very hard to keep track of how long a child spends learning. School records indicate how many hours children are at school, not whether they are learning.