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

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Earlier I spoke about my overall view of the Bill. I welcomed the intent behind the Bill and much of the contents of the Bill are laudable, but there are a few provisions in the Bill and a few matters related to the broader education question which still need to be addressed.

I referred earlier to the fact that one sector of the education system, third level, has been funded to a substantial degree in recent years. This is a welcome development. The free fees initiative, which was put in place by the previous Government, is working well. We are now faced with a situation where almost every leaving certificate student who wishes to pursue some form of third level education is able to do so. However, we must look closely at the opposite end of the spectrum. Consideration must be given to the funding allocated to the primary sector and the lack of funding provided for those people who are most vulnerable as far as primary education is concerned.

We must note with concern the number of students who are leaving school early. We must also be concerned about the number of students at primary level for whom school appears to be little more than a baby-sitting service. Unfortunately, many of these pupils come from families where a premium is not placed on education. There is no great incentive for such families to ensure that their children pass through the full national and second level system of education. We must impress on them – a broad programme is required in this regard – that the best opportunity to provide economic choice and freedom to all sectors of society rests with the education system. We can put in place various social schemes, budgetary schemes and laudable policies dealing with social inclusion, but if we do not ensure that the most vulnerable children in society have full access to education, particularly at primary level, it will be difficult to make progress.

I am concerned by the statistics relating to the numbers of children leaving national school with basic difficulties in terms of their numeracy and literacy skills. It is wrong that children are able to pass through the primary sector and emerge with difficulties in this regard. This matter must be tackled in a thorough fashion by the Minister and his officials. I am sure many studies have been carried out to discover why this problem persists. It is difficult to accept that, in a country with a booming economy, such difficulties still exist. Those people who escape the primary net without having proper numeracy and literacy skills can be literally written off in terms of their future job and career prospects. That problem must be nipped in the bud.

The Minister can introduce any number of laudable policies and any amount of legislation but unless basic problems of this nature are tackled it will be difficult to make progress. When he is considering how to spend the huge additional budget available to him following the announcement of the National Development Plan, I hope the Minister will place at the heart of his policy and philosophy the need to invest sufficient and substantial resources in the primary sector so that no child will fail to complete national school or leave it without adequate numeracy and literacy skills.

I wish to address a number of other aspects of the Bill. First, the number of children who drop out of school at an early age. The Bill deals with truancy which continues to be a problem. Perhaps we have not done sufficient research to discover why so many people drop out of school at 14 or 15 years of age. I accept that we must consider the economic circumstances involved. As other Members stated, some children, because of the economic circumstances in which they are reared, are often encouraged to take up part-time employment. This often puts an end to their educational prospects.

My party's spokesperson on Education, Deputy Richard Bruton, has suggested on more that one occasion that children who leave school at 14 or 15 years of age because their families need the income they earn at work should receive some form of payment from the State to encourage them to remain in school. That suggestion has not been accepted by the Minister or his officials and from time to time it has been rubbished by the Minister and his colleagues. However, when we consider that people can draw unemployment benefit assistance when they reach 18 years of age and that third level students aged 18 or 19 receive grants, surely we could introduce a system whereby 16 and 17 year old children from economically deprived backgrounds could receive a payment. These people would be much better off remaining in education but due to economic circumstances they cannot do so. If we put in place a scheme to assist such students and their parents financially, it would result in many of them remaining in school rather than taking up employment. This would be very beneficial to their long-term job and career prospects. The Minister should reconsider Deputy Bruton's realistic and workable proposals.

If implemented in its current form, the Bill will place a serious responsibility on school principals and senior teachers to ensure that the relevant records are kept up to date. Any of the teachers to whom I have spoken about the legislation have no difficulty with the concept of the Bill. However, they are concerned about how it will affect their schools. They are worried about the records that will have to be kept, the extra work which will be required and the apparent lack of additional resources and financial grants to allow them to carry out such work. The task we intend to impose on school principals and other teachers is not small and we must ensure that schools have adequate resources to allow them to comply with the terms of the Bill.

If it works, the Bill will benefit the education system, society and those people who leave school early or have difficulty with learning. If it is to work, records must be kept. Given the level of resources available to them, schools will not be able to keep such records. I hope the Minister intends to put in place some mechanism to address this problem. There is a willingness among school principals and staff to make the legislation work. However, without adequate resources, they will not be able to carry out the duties imposed on them by the legislation.

If we consider the statistics relating to those children who leave school early, for whom the Bill is, in a sense, designed, it is apparent that the problem is not evenly spread throughout the country. It is not a case that between 5% and 10% of children in every area leave school early. In some schools, generally in the more urban areas, this problem is greater. Therefore, it is not a question of giving additional grants to every school; it is a question of identifying where the deepest problems lie and ensuring that the relevant schools receive the resources they require. That is the key. As already stated, I have no difficulty with the legislation and it will be great if it works. However, if schools are not provided with sufficient resources it will be difficult for the Bill to have a meaningful impact.

We must ensure that the level of remedial education provided is improved. It is difficult for us to accept the drop out rate among students of 13 or 14 years of age. It is easy to see why a pupil who has gone through national school and found it difficult, who has not picked up the basic skills, would leave school at the earliest opportunity. That is where remedial teaching should come in. There are regular debates on remedial education services. No one would say that it is sufficient or that it is cheap and can be done easily. It must, however, be done if we are to provide the broad educational service required by many disadvantaged and marginalised pupils in the State. They need the maximum encouragement possible to keep them in the education sector. When pupils suffer from learning disabilities, they need extra help which can only be provided through the remedial system.

We debate the appointment of extra remedial teachers often. Deputies from rural areas in particular continually table questions about remedial teachers. The best response we get is that three or four schools will share a remedial teacher. That may have been sufficient 15 years ago but it is now entirely inadequate. Some of these teachers spend as much time driving from school to school as they do in the classroom. That is a poor application of resources. The Minister should give an undertaking to put extra remedial teachers in place. Without them this Bill and other policies for the future of education cannot work.

We must look at students who suffer from physical disability. This Bill guarantees a minimum standard of education for every pupil in the State. Pupils who suffer from physical disability are currently unable to obtain that minimum level of education. Perhaps as a result of this legislation the Minister will force his Department and other Departments to provide for that minimum level. Last night we spoke about services for people with disabilities. In my contribution I mentioned a case I dealt with at my clinic, where a couple whose four year old child is deaf have to take that child 25 miles to and from school each day. The father in that family has, by choice, given up his job to take the child to school five days a week. The child now has to come to Dublin one day a week. That is a huge burden on that family. The only assistance made available by the State is a grant of £1,500 per annum. How does that miserable grant of £1,500 per annum equate with our desire to provide a minimum standard of education?

This aspect of education policy will have to be discussed if the aspirations in this Bill are to become a reality and if we are to ensure this certain level of education is provided. As I said at the start of my contribution, money spent on education is not a cost, it is an investment in the future of young people and the State. The pioneers of education expenditure in the 1960s and 1970s are now seeing the results of their work. Hopefully in 20 years we will see the fruits of the decision we are making now to spend more on education.

I wish to share my time with Deputy John Browne. I have listened to many speakers making contributions on this Bill. I have noticed a trend in those speeches; Deputies say we have the best education system in the world, our teachers are the most conscientious, motivated and best educated, but in the next breath we are told that too many children leave the school system illiterate, innumerate and lacking inter-personal skills. We must ask who is responsible for students, particularly primary school pupils, not being able to read, write or count.

Recently the INTO claimed that literacy prob lems in primary schools could be completely eliminated within ten years if every six, nine and eleven year old underwent classroom based assessment. Teachers at national school level are among the best there are. From my experience of dealing with them, and having spent a short period as a teacher, I know teachers are well aware of pupils who are at risk and of the problems facing them. The teachers at primary level are not at fault but they must receive provision for resources to help them cope with the increasing problems they face today. There is a need for more remedial and resource teachers. I compliment the present Minister for taking the steps he has taken in the last two years by appointing hundreds of resource and remedial teachers and special needs assistants. His philosophy is to continue in this vein to ensure that in the years ahead, the resources to deal with the problems will be made available.

Pupils with difficulties such as ADD, dyslexia and mild mental handicap are kept in mainstream primary education. This is a good idea but to ensure these pupils and their peers receive the level of attention they need for their development, there is a need for more resource and remedial teachers and school psychologists. The home-school liaison persons are also essential in helping to tackle many of the problems in our primary schools which result from problems outside of the school system. Help for parents is essential, especially those who do not have the ability to help their own children. Anyone who has been a teacher has seen the difference between the child who is helped at home and the child who is not. The establishment of family resource centres has wrought a transformation by helping children who need assistance with reading and writing and by providing study facilities. Local teachers will tell people that since the family resource centres have been established, there have been great changes in the children educationally and in terms of self esteem.

Thousands have left the education system without any qualifications. This reduces their chances of procuring good, satisfying, well paid jobs and progressing in employment.

Other welcome measures include the establishment of programmes, such as VTOS and Youthreach, and post leaving certificate courses. They have been of tremendous benefit to people who left school early without any qualifications. Their self-esteem has been enhanced and these courses have also allowed them to develop talents and skills which were lying dormant and which they could not develop in the normal school system. Many of them have obtained good jobs and returned to mainstream education.

The Minister and the Government aim to provide a comprehensive system to ensure that children of compulsory schoolgoing age attend school and, if they do not, that they at least receive a minimum education. This is laudable and it is especially important, given that the economy and society in general has become more complex, that children obtain the necessary education to progress in life. The minimum school leaving age will be raised from 15 to 16 years and that is crucial. I agree with Deputy Michael D. Higgins, who has vast experience in the education sphere, that people leave the education system at too young an age and he referred not just to secondary level education but to third level. Raising the minimum school leaving age represents the first step in addressing this problem and I welcome it.

The legislation addresses education outside the recognised school system. Undoubtedly, people educate their children to a high standard and are competent, but some are not capable of providing the minimum education that is required. Under Article 42.3.2º of the Constitution the State is required, as a guardian of the common good, to ensure that children receive a minimum education – morally, intellectually and socially. The State has a responsibility, along with parents who have primary responsibility, to ensure that children receive the necessary level of education. Some people involved in education at home are fearful that there will be too much State intervention under the legislation, but I do not agree. However, it is incumbent on the State to ensure that children attain a minimum level of education in order to prepare them for our complicated world.

The establishment of the National Educational Welfare Board is welcome. It will comprise people who have a special interest and expertise in matters relating to its functions. Board members will not be plucked from the air by the Minister for Education and Science. He must consult the Ministers for Health and Children, Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Tourism, Sport and Recreation. It is essential that there is a holistic approach to the foundation of the board. Section 10 outlines the functions of the board in detail and if they are followed through fully, the education system will be much better off.

Section 22 is vitally important as it aims to provide for children at risk. It is essential to get to such children when they are young because it will be more difficult to set them on the right path later; as a branch is twisted so it will grow. The best qualified people outside of parents to identify such children are teachers and I have great respect for them. Many of them have identified children who could have taken the wrong path and steered them in the right direction. As Deputy Bradford said, there are worries about implementing many of the Bill's provisions. I agree that where teachers do not have the necessary resources, such as secretaries, etc., it will be difficult, but when the resources are provided under the legislation, the education system and wider society will benefit.

(Wexford): I welcome the Bill, which gives us the opportunity to debate the early school leaving problem and school absenteeism. The Minister outlined his proposals and the people who will undertake to implement them. I welcome the establishment of the National Educational Welfare Board but it is important that it is comprised of people who work on a daily basis in the education system. Too often in the past political hacks with little knowledge of how the boards worked were appointed to boards. All Governments have engaged in this type of appointment. However, it is important that people with the necessary expertise should be appointed to the board. Members of the board will be drawn from broad range of Departments, such as Education and Science, Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Environment and Local Government and Social, Community and Family Affairs. Various sections in these Departments are very much involved with young people who drop out of school at an early age.

There is a great deal of commentary about young people leaving primary school and we have a major problem with them. Many are not able to read, write or count and find it difficult to make the transition from primary to second level education. The Minister, and his predecessors have devoted vast amounts of money to this problem and there is now a substantial number of remedial teachers throughout the country. However, in certain areas one remedial teacher services three or four schools and that is totally inadequate. The Minister should aspire to have one remedial teacher covering no more than two schools, especially as his Department and others are awash with money in the era of the Celtic tiger. In parts of County Wexford, one remedial teacher tries to cover four schools which means it is practically impossible to provide an adequate service to students in need of help. I am baffled by how many young people leave school and are unable to read, write or count. I might not be made popular by saying it, but the INTO cannot walk away from this problem.

We hear all the excuses about classes being too big and that teachers cannot give one-to-one teaching to a student who may be left behind or may be a little backward. Most primary and second level schools are out for the star pupil and are not greatly interested in the student left behind. In the local newspapers, following the junior and leaving certificates, the student who has succeeded in getting 6 As or 7 Bs, or a combination, appears in the photograph. One will never hear about the student who obtained 150 or 200 points and who, despite all the odds, will go on to third level in Carlow, Waterford or some other regional college around the country. That student may have come from a difficult or poor background. These are the people I always admire. I admire as well, those who obtain 6 As or 7 As but the spotlight is always on them.

There should be greater interaction between primary school teachers and the Department of Education and Science to deal with the problem of so many pupils leaving school unable to read, write or count. That is where the problem has to be tackled.

Recently the Wexford area partnership carried out an intensive survey of early school leavers, entitled, Responding to Early School Leaving in the Wexford Area, a copy of which I have sent to the Minister and the Department. Those who prepared the document will call on the Minister as soon as possible to discuss further action. It is a varied document dealing with the extent of school leaving, addressing early school leaving, recommendations, an action plan and all the reasons pupils leave school early. It has highlighted many of the reasons the Minister has stated in his speech such as literacy issues, negative experience of school leading to a sense of failure, low self-esteem among those with literacy problems and the difficulty in adjusting between primary and post primary schools. It also indicated the problems of truancy, mitching and absenteeism which were all regular features of the school career before finally leaving school.

Nobody is better equipped to tell the Department of Education and Science who will leave school early than the primary teacher. He or she is dealing with the student from the first day he enters the primary school. That teacher, or group of teachers, can say that 70% or 80% will leave before they are 15 years of age or shortly afterwards and will not complete the junior or leaving certificates. The Minister will have to visit the primary schools and discuss the matter with the teachers involved with a view to dealing with the problem at local level. We can pass all the measures and enact all the Bills we wish but unless there is a system to target the retention of potential early school leavers, at an early age, we will not deal with the problem.

Another area which the Wexford survey deals with is that of travellers. It states that of the traveller children entitled to attend primary school only 10% do so. Out of 34 traveller children eligible to attend post primary school in Wexford last year only five did so – four in junior and one in senior. It is a major problem and one that has to be tackled. The traveller problem cannot be dealt with adequately in any county unless travellers are involved in the education system. This would educate them in the ways of life which are necessary to remain in their own environment, if they wish, and to get them involved in rehousing as part of the community.

The Bill is an effort to deal with the problem. It is welcome but the Minister will have to look seriously at the recommendations in the Wexford survey, many of which are in line with his thinking: education network, primary-post primary forums to be set up, integrated approach, projects officer, prevention programme for potential early school leavers, a transition project, after school groups, special programme for potential early school leavers and the traveller initiative. I hope the Minister will meet the Wexford area partnership group as soon as possible to allow for an input in the overall conclusions which will be reached in this Bill. This is a worthwhile document and should be reflected in the further Stages of the Bill as it goes through the House.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on education afforded by this Bill being before the House. Having listened to the various contributions I note the wide variety of approaches to the difficulties in the education system. Bouquets have been given to various people and so on. I declare an interest as I was a national school teacher for 20 years but hope I do not have to return to the classroom again. However, that will be decided in the future.

It is important to look at where we are coming from and what is happening. There has been much criticism of education recently, particularly of those who gave the education system a start, namely, the religious orders. When education was unheard of in Ireland, a century ago, it was the religious orders who stepped into the breach. The nuns and the brothers set up schools in areas where people would not have had the opportunity of an education. By and large they did a fantastic job. Gradually the State has intervened and taken over from them. The money which was put into the various schools by the religious bodies over the years is not being put in by the Government. We must not lose sight of the fact that they gave a tremendous amount to the education system and set it on a firm footing. The introduction of free second level education has built on the good foundation and that must be recognised.

We must recognise also that we have a good teaching profession which has generally done a good job. Within the teaching profession I would be naive if I did not recognise there have been some difficulties with a small number of teachers. There have been those who did not live up to the responsibility placed on them and thankfully some of those have been brought to justice. There is still a small group of teachers who are not able to cope with the job. The contribution by the Labour Party spokesperson, Deputy Michael D. Higgins was very telling. He blamed the teachers fairly and squarely for the fact that some pupils go through the school system and do not come out competent at the end of it. To blame the teachers entirely is grossly unfair because they are not the only people involved in education. Education is about a partnership – a partnership between the Department, parents and the teachers. To lay the blame so heavily on them was a grave mistake. I was surprised that Deputy Michael D. Higgins, who is a very good university lecturer, professor and teacher, would point the finger so clearly at his colleagues.

We must consider developments in education in the context of available resources. Teachers can cope only with the resources allocated to them. While the general situation is not too bad, matters can be improved. It would also be naive to suggest that things are rosy. Every year approximately 10,000 students leave the system without any qualifications. More tellingly and alarming, every year approximately 1,000 students who complete their primary education do not proceed to second level education. It is odd to have such a huge drop-out rate between primary and second level in this day and age, when children like going to school – they do not fear and detest it, as we did. There is also an enormous drop-out at second level.

Deputy Browne indicated that there is a huge drop-out rate among members of the travelling community between those who attend primary school and who perhaps start second level but do not spend much time at it. This problem cannot simply be addressed by legislation. It will take much more innovation and effort to get them to return to the school system. They would benefit from it. I taught in a school which contained a number of traveller students. Every year they would be withdrawn from the school around the beginning of May when the weather began to improve. They would spend May, June and probably the rest of the summer on their "holidays" and perhaps return to school some time in October. It is very difficult for teachers to motivate such children and to reintegrate them into the school to enable them make progress.

The children themselves are not entirely to blame for these long breaks. It is part of their heritage and culture to travel from their home base for the summer, visit relations and participate in events throughout the country. It is what they are used to. Do we cut across that and compel them to attend school or should we offer them a system more suited to their needs?

Many pupils are at risk. There may be problems in the family. Their parents could be drug addicts or alcoholics. How do we deal with these children and how can we support them within the school environment so that they will continue to not only attend school but be able to take an interest and do the tasks set to them?

I have seen children attend school hungry. Is there a system to provide breakfast or lunch for them? I have also seen children attend school following a night of disruption. Perhaps their parents returned home having taken drink and fought all night. Have we the facilities to cope with problems like these and is the home-school liaison service adequate? It is not. Tremendous resources are needed to tip the balance for those students to enable them get a fair chance to learn in school.

Much emphasis has been placed on the approach to truancy in the Bill. In my 20 years as a teacher instances of truancy were relatively small. When I attended school as a student the local gardaí checked the attendance roles on a regular basis at a time when, again, instances of truancy were small. More recently, those gardaí given the task of school attendance officers have not had time to deal with their responsibilities. Perhaps they do not know how. Very little work has been done on this aspect.

The fact that gardaí may not have been looking after school attendance reflects more on the question of what to do with a pupil who plays truant. How is the school made attractive to encourage the pupil to return to the school system? From speaking to some teachers I know they look on troublesome students who act the truant for two or three days as a bonus for the other students because of the difficulties of coping with somebody who is very disruptive. How much time will be spent by the teacher dealing with such students rather than attending to the needs of the other students?

The School Attendance Act, 1926, was negative in its approach in that it specified penalties to be applied to parents if they did not send their children to school. Article 42 of the Constitution, passed by the people 11 years later, contains strong provisions on the rights of parents to teach their children at home. It stipulates that parents are the primary educators of their children. It is interesting that these provisions were laid down so soon after the 1926 Act. It might be useful for a student engaged in research in this area to look at the ethos surrounding those decisions and the discussions that took place on the constitutional provisions and the 1926 Act. Perhaps there was a specific reason for giving parents such responsibility.

The inclusion in the Bill of sanctions against parents on the question of truancy has annoyed many people in that it also deals with families who have chosen, for their own reasons, to educate their children at home. I have received letters from many families who are of the strong view that this should not be included in a Bill on truancy. I understand that approximately 200 families have chosen, for their own reasons and in different ways, to educate their children. They are entitled to do so under the Constitution. It is very difficult to specify how an education may be imparted. How is it possible to define what is meant by a basic education or to define what is important for a family to instil in their children to enable them become good citizens? At a teacher's conference I attended, a debate was held on the basic items any education system should impart to enable people to live. A geography teacher held strong views on this and said that any basic education system must have a strong understanding of the weather and how it works. Since that is tied into what happens in the polar regions, it could be argued that anyone who did not have knowledge of the polar regions could not survive. The debate progressed with various people adding their tuppence worth until one man said his wife knew nothing of the polar regions or how the weather works but that she was a good wife who served and cared for him and his family extremely well and that she was a tremendous person. It stopped the debate because it became clear that what might be important to one person may not have the same relevance to someone else and that our views can be biased by what we know of ourselves.

The Bill allows for inspectors to investigate the welfare of children being educated in the home. How can an inspector do that without full knowledge of the curriculum, the long-term intention of parents for children and the things family members feel are important to them? It would be difficult to form a view on what might be a suitable home education system so we must tread carefully. Nonetheless, I understand why there are concerns and why it would be included in legislation such as this.

The legislation will also place a huge burden on school principals who will have to record attendances and such matters. Principals in many primary schools of seven teachers or less, most of which are rural, must teach full time as well as carry out a principal's duties, so this will be an additional burden. Schools with eight or more teachers can have what is called a "walking" principal, but those with fewer teachers will have this additional responsibility. This highlights the tremendous role for part-time teachers in primary schools. In the case of the three to seven teacher school, if the principal had a part-time teacher taking classes for two or three half-days each week, it would relieve the principal to carry out their additional administrative duties and would have a tremendous effect on morale in such schools. Not only would it release the principal to do the additional duties, it would also give pupils an additional face in the school. The part-time teacher might also be someone with an expertise in art or music.

One item regarding the recording of absence of pupils from schools concerns me. Parents are being asked to send a report to the principal if a pupil is absent, something that has been standard practice. When I was teaching, if a child was absent for a day or two, they always arrived back with a note from their parents indicating why they were absent. That is understandable and acceptable. However, the Bill states that, if the child is absent because of illness, the parents must report it to the school principal and that they must report the nature of the illness. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle in his profession as a doctor would be aware that the certificate he gives a patient out sick from work states how long they will be absent from work but it does not state what is wrong with them because that is part of the confidentiality between doctor and patient. It is a bit much to build into law a requirement on parents to indicate to principals the nature of their children's illnesses. That should not be required in law as it is too strong and it is not required for the workplace in any event. I would like to see that item deleted from the Bill and I ask the Minister of State and his officials to convey that to the Minister.

Another item built into the Bill is rewards for good attendance. That is something which should be taken on board. In our school we had, and probably still have, a system whereby, at the end of the school year, a special presentation was made at assembly time to any child who attended for the full year without missing a day. I had a system in my class whereby any child who did not miss a day during the school year received a special presentation of a Parker pen, and this lasted for years. I remember on one occasion being caught with a remarkable number of six students with full attendance and it nearly broke me on the teacher's salary at the time. Nonetheless, I managed to survive.

I welcome the thrust of the Bill. It has given us a good opportunity to discuss education issues.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss education matters. Like Deputy McGrath, I also was a secondary school teacher. It must be more than 25 years since I practised, so I am retired from that sphere now. Unlike many Members, I cannot wait for the day this Dáil will wind up so that I can retire from politics in general.

There is nothing more touching to see than a well turned out child, boy or girl, going to school. Most parents take great pride in ensuring their children are presented in an excellent manner and they deserve great tributes for that. That applies to the majority of parents. Nothing is more touching to see than an older child bringing his younger brother or sister with him to school. These are some of the more beautiful things in life. It is great to see people progress. People work hard to see their children are educated and get on well in life. It is the high point in their lives to see their children succeed but sometimes it does not work out like that. Some of the best prepared and best brought up children go off the rails but, by and large, most of them succeed.

Life by its nature means not all people do what is in their best interest. However, we must strive to help them in every possible way. I often think that our society is geared in a one-track manner towards financial gain and personal success. We often lose sight of the fact that many people in society are not sufficiently well off or cared for to be able to achieve their full potential. It is an unfortunate subject to have to address but it is a fact of life. I do not know to what degree it has been discussed in the debate. I am aware of a school in Dungarvan in which teachers are more involved in containing students than in educating them. That school does not have disadvantaged status and the teachers do not receive any extra assistance.

It is an unfortunate fact that a significant number of parents abuse alcohol and drugs. We are also faced with the social ills which arise from the fact that there is a significant number of lone parent families in our society. Children who live in those circumstances often have an in-born disadvantage and that disadvantage is not sufficiently addressed. We are selfishly inclined to think of ourselves. It worries me that teachers in urban areas are more preoccupied with containment than education. The problem is not as pronounced in rural areas because it is usually possible to easily identify and solve problems in rural areas. In urban areas, people must contend with the difficulties which arise from substance abuse, lone parent families and broken marriages. It is the children who suffer and they, in turn, make life very stressful for their teachers. Teachers tell me it is impossible to teach the children because they run wild as a result of not being disciplined at home. If the parents are illiterate, they are unable to help their children with their homework and we cannot expect teachers to solve the problem by themselves.

Over the years, education has been provided in straitjacketed circumstances with certain rules, regulations and procedures having to be followed. The dire circumstances I have outlined cannot be dealt with and class disruption has become a fact of life. I would like to think that this Bill will address that problem. We must look at the spirit of education rather than introducing new legislation and rules. The extension of the school leaving age will not solve any problems. The significant minority of illiterate people is increasing all the time and we will see more and more problems as a result.

I listened to the Marian Finucane radio programme during the week. One of the topics related to the activities which occur on the streets when the pubs and night clubs close with young people from the age of 14 years upwards misbehaving in a gross manner. Some graphic instances were outlined, particularly about the town of Clonmel and other towns throughout the country. One is forced to wonder whether the education system is failing. We will not solve this problem unless we first admit that a problem exists. We can then set about remedying it.

The lewd and anti-social behaviour in evidence on the streets is simply unacceptable. A girl or woman cannot walk down the street without being subjected to lewd and horrible remarks by groups of young men. That is an unfortunate aspect of our society. I do not see that happening in Europe or other parts of the world, even in countries which are much less affluent than we are. One will not witness that type of behaviour in China which has a population of 1.2 billion people. The people there are courteous, polite and well behaved. A significant number of our young people display a raucous mentality which is a real black mark against our society. I hope someone in a position of power will attempt to do something about this. It would require three or four Ministers, in addition to the Minister for Education and Science, to do that. Education is fundamental to solving this problem.

I applaud people who give of their time to educate adolescents and adults in reading and writing skills. The number of illiterate adolescents and adults is much higher than we are prepared to admit. I know some wonderful people who volunteer their time and energy to redress that problem. However, that only happens on a hit and miss basis. One will find good people in some areas but not in others.

People who are not literate are virtually unemployable. If people do not have their junior or leaving certificates, they will not be employed in even the most mundane jobs. If they cannot read labels and instructions, employers will not be interested in employing them. It is an absolute priority that people be educated. Perhaps the Minister will inform us of the percentage of children, adolescents and adults who are not literate.

On a note of selfish concern, I know illiterate people who do not vote because they do not want to go into a polling booth and expose their illiteracy. There are probably thousands of such people throughout the country. I know many decent young men and women who cannot secure factory employment because they do not know the basics of reading and writing. I am sure the Minister of State is also aware of such cases. The problem of illiteracy must be accurately identified and addressed.

When I left teaching more than 20 years ago, I was delighted to see civics being introduced as a compulsory subject in schools. I hoped it would stamp out the bulk of anti-social behaviour. However, that did not happen and the situation is far worse now than it was then. The number of broken homes and the incidence of substance abuse has increased in the intervening period. Affluence creates its own problems. We have many great characteristics but we do not seem to be able to control the affluence we have enjoyed. A significant number of people tend to abuse it, which is unfortunate.

I refer to the problems in schools which we all come across. Some children have handicaps when it comes to learning and expressing themselves. Children who suffer from dyslexia have been mentioned. That is a considerable problem and I do not know if we have the resources to deal with it. The type of remedial teaching being done at the moment is not sufficient to help people with difficulties and handicaps. We are only skimming the surface and are not getting to grips with the problem. I am not criticising the Government or the Minister; we are all to blame. The problem has not been a priority as far as politicians are concerned.

Remedial teaching is not sufficient. Primary schools may have a remedial teacher for one day or a couple of hours a week. If ten, 15 or 20 children are in need of remedial teaching, they are barely dealt with in the course of that one day. It is a real problem and we are not devoting enough resources to it – we never have, and that includes this and previous Governments. If we are to use our new found wealth or affluence, it should go to those areas in which the underprivileged need to be cared for.

I have no time for wasters, people who are badly off because of their refusal to work or to contribute to society, but I have great sympathy for those who are disadvantaged or underprivileged through no fault of their own. We should all be concerned about that group in our society. People with these physical disadvantages, particularly children, should be looked after.

There is a child in secondary school in my home town who suffers from cerebral palsy. I find it virtually impossible to get assistance from the Department for that child to conduct his education and allow him to take part in examinations. He cannot write like you and me; he does not have that capability. Such problems will have to be addressed.

I have repeatedly asked questions about the need for speech therapists in County Waterford. It is hard to believe but the average waiting time for speech therapy for a child in County Waterford is three years. We are really failing people with disadvantages. A national school in Portlaw has a child with cerebral palsy, a child with Down's Syndrome, children with dyslexia and many children in need of remedial teaching. It gets a minimal amount of assistance which does not deal with the problems. People may say the problem is being addressed but it is not. Those are the matters about which we should be concerned.

We do not have an educational psychologist in County Waterford. If children are unfortunately born with a defect, the means are not there to assist them. There is not an educational psychologist and there is a three year waiting list for speech therapy. God knows how long a child with cerebral palsy must wait. Children might be highly intelligent but they cannot express themselves in writing. How are they to perform in an examination in those circumstances? The considerable problem of dyslexia is one of many which should be dealt with.

I could reel off many problems in respect of schools in my constituency which need to be addressed, including extensions and new schools, but I wish to highlight the fact there are many children with major disadvantages who are not being attended to in a proper and comprehensive manner. That causes me considerable concern and should cause everybody in the House considerable concern. Will the Minister of State, Deputy Dan Wallace, convey my views to the Minister? As Deputies, we all encounter many of the same problems. I hope we can further debate these issues, whether in the corridors, in offices or elsewhere. We are not tackling the problems as we should. I hope the legislation is of some assistance but I have seen reams of legislation pass through this House and much of it makes no difference.

I am not an educationalist nor do I profess any expertise in education, however I am anxious to make a few brief points. The updating of the 1926 Act is overdue. The proposals which will ensure that all will receive at least three years post primary education must be welcomed. The importance of ensuring that all receive an exposure to education is clear. The capacity of those who have remained for appropriate periods in education to secure long-term employment is undisputed.

The intention to enhance and expand the system of educational welfare officers nationwide is sensible. The current position where school attendance officers are located in so few areas does not reflect the need for this support throughout the country. The process of home liaison officers based in all schools would be a most constructive step forward to ensure not only attendance at school but attendance with positive participation. Schemes which operate involving parents as part of that liaison not only make a valuable impact on the educational welfare of the schoolchildren but have the capacity to open the door to second chance education to the parents of the children most at risk.

While the Bill proposes positive action to address aspects of the problem, core issues as to the effective direction of resources to maximise every child's opportunity to be engaged by the educational process is still missing. There are areas of Dublin where, on testing the first year pupil intake, it was found that 7% only read at their chronological age while more than 50% read at either two or three years behind their level. Some 17% of four, five or six year olds read below their chronological age. Is it any wonder that serious problems of attendance occur in the post primary sector when students are so poorly equipped to benefit from class work and when, in turn, the family, due to the inadequacy of education which the parents received, is unable to help the children understand the concepts presented to them?

The Minister's proposal of a minimum three years of post primary education means nothing unless adequate resources are supplied, including teachers at a ratio which can make an effective impact in schools with facilities adequate to allow supportive teaching and family support. There are many employment opportunities, but unfortunately one section of the adult population is not equipped to take up these opportunities due to poor education or because they have never held jobs. Although they are in their late 30s or early 40s, these people, the parents of the students this Bill is designed to serve, find they cannot get jobs, even though their children can. Young people are being encouraged by parents to leave school and take up jobs to join in the nation's growing prosperity and to bring money into the family home. Others, though remaining in school, may work long hours at part-time jobs and this has a negative impact on a young person's ability to study and to benefit fully from education. There must be a special focus on working with employers to develop ongoing education for their employees. Employers should work with local vocational education committees and other interest groups to devise educational steps to success, with certifiable course modules and skills that may ultimately be converted to a national diploma. This would in turn allow access to further education.

This Bill is just one step towards effecting the provision of real education in the Ireland of tomorrow. There is a marvellous parent-teacher innovation in my constituency. The local Sisters of Charity have turned a space in their convent into a resource centre to cater for parents and children, the opening of which was attended by the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs. The nuns, some of whom are retired, and parents attend the centre daily to help children through their exercises. This is a wonderful innovation and should be supported. The Minister gave some support to this at the opening, but those behind the innovation explained forcefully to me that they need funding to enable the resource to progress. I refer to the Baldoyle resource centre, which is doing a wonderful job. I ask the Minister of State to provide the proper funding for this centre, as it helps the children of families that are not well off and that need support. I ask the Minister of State to bring these kinds of innovations to the attention of the Minister so that adequate funding can be provided for them, and for the Baldoyle resource centre in particular.

This Bill represents an attempt by the Department of Education and Science to address truancy and the problems of early school leavers in a more comprehensive way than before. No Member opposes the Bill in principle, although they may have genuine concerns about some of its sections. This is just one of several recent Bills and initiatives in education such as the Education Act, 1998, the Green Paper on Adult Education and the Qualifications (Education and Training) Bill, 1999. It is very important that we have had these debates, as we cannot afford to ignore education. Neither can we afford to become blasé or complacent; education must be kept to the forefront, as our present economic success is mainly due to our well educated, literate workforce. This probably dates back to the introduction of free education, but this country has always had a love for, and appreciation of, education.

However, we are dealing here with those unfortunates who are marginalised or who have dropped out of school. These are people who are not motivated to go to school or who do not want to go to school, though that may be through no fault of their own – they may be misdirected or badly influenced. The Bill seeks to address the problem of truancy and non-attendance at school by setting up structures to deal with those issues, which is welcome. This is the first attempt to deal with this problem since 1996 and for that reason I thank the Minister for bringing the Bill forward. The Bill also deals with the issue of a minimum level of education.

I welcome the Minister's attempt to address this long-neglected issue, but in an effort to resolve the complex problems of truancy and early school leavers, the Bill imposes statutory duties and responsibilities on school principals, boards of management and teachers and expects that this in itself will resolve the issue. Speakers on all sides have pointed out that there is no commitment to extra resources to ease the increased administrative and personal burdens being imposed. As Deputy Deasy said, introducing legislation is fine, but unless it has financial backup it just gathers dust. Given the huge commitment in human resources which has been made in the Bill without a corresponding financial commitment, the Bill may not be as effective as it is hoped.

Unlike the recent Education Act, there was very little consultation before publication of the Bill, which has given rise to major criticism from the teachers' unions. The Minister said that since the Bill passed through the Seanad – where no doubt there was much criticism about consultation – he and his officials have consulted the education partners. There has also been a major consultative seminar on the Bill. I am confused as to why this did not take place before the Bill was published. Some of the Bill's provisions could have been reviewed and corrected before publication if that consultation had taken place.

Many of the responsibilities outlined are part of the normal work of many schools, but putting them on a statutory basis, thus obliging the institutions and persons to keep records, to engage in necessary liaison with other institutions and to participate in a range of consultative processes without the necessary supports, does not augur well for the Bill's success. The composition of the proposed board involves different State institutions such as health boards and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. These bodies are all very busy already and the Bill places more obligations on them. Unless they have the numbers, they will not have the time. I recently returned to local government and I was amazed by the number of committees councillors are asked to sit on; being a county councillor is now almost a full-time job. The various obligations of this board will mean its members – given that they will have other commitments – will be rendered less effective if they are stretched in fulfilling their duties. The only way the National Education Welfare Board will be effective is if it has sufficient human resources to enable its members to devote time to it.

The school leaving age has been increased to 16 years, or older if the child has not completed three years of post-primary education. Simply obliging parents to return their children to school will not work in itself. The reasons children drop out of school in the first place are many and complex and often originate more in society and the family than in school. To their credit, teachers have already introduced a range of new programmes independently of the Department's direction.

They are making the effort, which is not fully appreciated by the Department and those critical of the teaching profession and its unions. They do not appreciate that teachers are trying to prepare programmes on their own initiative which will meet the needs of children who are staying away from school because they are not motivated. This must be recognised. Teachers are designing courses to attract and retain the less academically inclined students. Many of these have been effected at considerable cost to the teachers and administrators involved, as the necessary supports are not in place. As has been repeatedad nauseam, if this Bill is to succeed, substantial resources must be allocated to meet the needs of early school leavers, to facilitate a drastic reduction in the size of learning support classes, more individual tuition, a team approach, the setting up of units with appropriate specialised equipment for particularly disruptive students, constant retraining programmes for teachers and the allocation of time for co-ordination and planning by the teachers' teams involved. We must review our approach in schools, using the teachers and expertise available to solve the problem. I have experience of how the team approach can be effective. The Minister's officials should note that this approach must be promoted more. This will obviously take extra resources and will also put more pressure on teachers.

Many constituents have conveyed their concerns about the Bill to me, as I am sure is the case with other Deputies. These concerns have already been conveyed to the Minister but I will quote from a letter to the Minister as follows:

As a teacher of seven years and now as a person who works within the field of physical disability, I appeal to your good nature to consider my opinions regarding the Bill. I believe the tone of the Bill raises grave concern and indeed goes some way towards contradicting the good initiatives for children with disabilities put in place by the Education Act. Constitutionally, it is the right of every citizen to the best education possible. How is "minimum education" to be defined? Will it lead to discrimination? The Education Act promotes the rights of parents to choose a school for their child. Indeed, will this wording actively lead to the discrimination of those who wish to attend a third level institution? The Education (Welfare) Bill makes it very easy for a school to refuse a child's admission. It makes it unreasonable, therefore, that a school may publish a good and fair policy on the admission of children with disabilities.

Minister, I have worked with children who have endured great difficulties academically because of a learning disability. Remembering those faces and the satisfaction in working with them towards achieving their own different potentials, I can only appeal to you and your Government colleagues and your Department to remember those who are unable to write to you, those people whose lives will be affected by this Education (Welfare) Bill.

I would like the officials to bring that concern to the attention of the Minister. It is a genuinely held concern and I would like some response to it. Other constituents are involved in home education and are concerned about aspects of this Bill, particularly sections 15 and 16. They ask questions, to which the Minister will perhaps reply. They ask for instance:

What experts were consulted in regard to home education? What are the financial implications involved in the assessment procedures outlined in section 15 (4)? In the event of a mother being imprisoned, who would care for the family and what would be the objective of this procedure – the welfare of the children or the common good? Why is the overall ethos of this section intrusive and threatening? Surely it would be more constructive if it were more supportive and encouraging – co-operation instead of confrontation.

These are two concerns of parents which I would like the Minister to address – the issues of home education and education for people with disabilities.

As regards sections 9 to 13, it is not proposed that the National Education Welfare Board will have any teacher, parent or management representation. Perhaps the Minister has made a statement in this regard or I am not reading it properly. The Minister may appoint other people but there is not any reference to a member of the teaching profession being appointed to the board, by right. There is a reference to "such other persons as may be prescribed by the Minister". However, unless he gave a commitment on Second Stage or in his reply in the Seanad, it does not appear that a member of the teaching profession may be appointed to the board. This has given rise to a great deal of concern among the teaching profession because it will impinge on them in various ways.

The proposed board has extremely wide-ranging powers and education welfare officers will enforce its provisions. The power given under section 10(1)(g) to monitor and assess the effectiveness of strategies and programmes aimed at preventing truancy in recognised schools, seems to give the National Educational Welfare Board an evaluative function which would place schools under what has been described as yet another strata of evaluation. Similarly, in section 10(1)(i), the board is given the authority to assess the adequacy of training and guidance provided to teachers relating to matters of school attendance and good discipline on the part of students and to make recommendations to the Minister thereto. This also gives an evaluative function to the board on the matter of the in-career development of teachers. It is possible to read this section as meaning that it is the training programmes,per se, which will be assessed rather than their successful implementation. It seems extremely difficult to separate the adequacy of a programme from its implementation.

Section 13, which requires the board to comply with policy decisions made by the Minister, clearly curtails the independence of the board. The absence of the teacher representatives from the National Educational Welfare Board is difficult to understand and given the intrusive nature of many of the board's proposed duties, industrial relations problems seem inevitable. Perhaps the Minister will respond to the issue of the further duties and functions the board will impose on teachers and administrators. He should provide resources for them and address the issue of consultation to allow for their input, which is not in the Bill. Will this lead to possible industrial relations problems when the Minister and the Department implement the provisions of the Bill?

The reason young people leave school at primary and second level is that they are not interested. Their needs and interests are not being met. As a former physical education teacher, my experience is that children who are less academically inclined come to school specifically for the physical education programme. I am convinced that more young people would go to school if there were properly funded PE and sports programmes in many of the inner city schools and schools in disadvantaged areas to which other speakers referred and proper facilities that could be used at night by the communities, which do not have facilities at present.

Most young people in urban areas are fanatical about soccer and other sports and more of them would attend school if there were better sports programmes. If they attend for a sports programme, they will come in contact with other subjects. I am aware the Minister is trying to put in place a marking system and make physical education a leaving certificate programme. However, it is more important to ensure that all young people, and not only elite groups which will study it for the leaving certificate, participate in physical education. I welcome the provision in this area but it is not the solution.

Will the Minister address this issue because the facilities in schools are totally inadequate? One of the main functions of the board is to promote and foster in society, and in particular in families, an appreciation of the benefits to be derived from education and particularly as regards the physical, intellectual, emotional, social and moral development of the child. The physical aspect is the first one mentioned but the State is failing to meet that obligation to our children which is included in the Constitution. The last facilities provided in schools are those for physical education. There would be less truancy and less dropping out at primary and second levels if there were better sports and other facilities which would be of an educational nature but also of interest to children. Educators and policies are to blame for turning children off education.

It is heartening to hear 20 year old people saying that they are going back to study for the leav ing certificate. It is some time since I taught but I meet people who left school then and who are now returning to education. This is most important. It shows that people will be interested in education if they are properly stimulated.

I welcome the Department's intention to resolve the problem of truancy and early school leaving, but I regret that the Bill does not make a commitment to extra financial and administrative resources to help schools design and implement effective strategies to that end. It is a pity more time is not available for this debate.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. The Minister issued a press release on 28 April regarding the introduction of the Bill which lists eight objectives. I understand they are to raise the school leaving age; to establish a minimum education; to regularise school attendance; to establish an educational welfare board and officers; to set up an appeals mechanism in disciplinary cases; to provide for the exchange of data; to try to address issues of young people entering employment at too young an age; and, by keeping them at school, to break the cycle of poverty. These are laudable objectives which nobody could dispute.

Children go to school at the age of four or five. At that age, they are full of enthusiasm and they love school. We must ask why, after only a few years, a small number of children become disaffected. I welcome the provision in the Bill that part of the function of the national education board which will be established will be to conduct and commission research into the reasons for truancy among students and to develop strategies and programmes designed to prevent it. It is amazing that this information was not available before the legislation was formulated.

I understand figures suggest there is a 90% to 94% attendance rate at primary schools. In Cork and Waterford, where there are attendance officers, the attendance rate at second level schools is 93% and 94% respectively. What level of attendance is the Bill seeking to achieve? Are we seeking a 100% or 96% rate? What is the aim? I worked as a home-school liaison teacher before I was elected to the House and I know from experience that young people employ all means possible to skip classes when they are disaffected. The amount of ingenuity they employ is staggering. They skip full days and half days from school, but they also contrive to miss individual classes.

This is related to the issue of training for teachers and I welcome the provisions in the Bill in that most important area. The problem of truancy may be over exaggerated, but the small level which exists involves in the main, students who are disaffected. Often teachers are unable to deal with disaffected students and the training system does not provide sufficient time to train them on how to deal with such students in the classroom when they act up, the psychology involved and how to put measures into practice. To where does a teacher go for help if he or she has to deal with a disaffected student in the classroom?

Principals are already overloaded with work. I caution the Minister against overloading the willing horse too much. He must ensure that enough resources are put into schools so the legislation can be properly administered in schools. It would be the worst possible scenario if another layer of bureaucracy was created in addition to the work principals must already do, but insufficient resources were provided to carry out the additional work.

An excellent home-school-community liaison scheme is in operation throughout the country. This scheme operates on the principle of changing attitudes towards education by creating links between homes and other agencies in society. We should be careful to avoid bringing the scheme under the scope of the Bill. At present, the home-school-community liaison scheme operates on the basis of incentives. The role of the liaison person is to support and help. He or she is not seen as an authority. However, if the home-school-community liaison teacher becomes a reporting agent, the relationship between the liaison officer and the people with whom he or she is trying to work would be completely changed. I ask the Minister to ensure there is a clear line of demarcation in this area. There must be a clear distinction between the work of home-school-community liaison teachers and education welfare officers.

It is important that enough resources are put into schools to help them in this area. One of the aims is to advise and assist the parents of children who exhibit problems relating to attendance at school. That is one of the functions of the board. I would be interested to know who will do that. I am happy that we will monitor and assess the effectiveness of strategies and programmes aimed at preventing truancy in recognised schools. Promoting and fostering an environment in recognised schools that encourages children to attend and participate fully in the life of the school was mentioned. We are talking about the school climate but it is aspirational and I am concerned that this is the case with much of the legislation we pass. I am interested so see how the board will do this. These are nebulous terms. How do we define school climate? What is a good or bad school, if there is such?

The board must have regard to the cost. I know cost is important but it should not be an overriding preoccupation with the board. I welcome the fact that courses and syllabi will be examined to see if they lead to truancy. I am anxious that those whom we establish as education welfare officers be qualified in some way to deal with students who may be vulnerable. I know the Bill is peppered with "consultation" and so on but if one was dealing with a child suffering from school phobia it would be important to recognise that and not have the welfare officer demand that the child be sent back to school. There are instances where children find it extremely difficult to go to school. We cannot force students into schools. We must look at the reasons they do not attend school. There may be very good reasons. I have had examples of students who were suicidal because they were, in their eyes, forced to attend schools and could not see any way out. They hated being there. We must be very careful. At the same time we must ensure that children receive an education. I urge that there be a balance when the board is set up. Perhaps it will look at this debate and take note of what I and other speakers said.

As regards qualifications, the education welfare officers must have an understanding of what is happening in the schools and, I suggest, specialised training in dealing with people and, in particular, students who may be at risk. In some cases all that is required may be a short meeting, a bit of a chat and a little encouragement, in others more may be required but we must use minimum force in these circumstances and not go in with the heavy gang first time round.

I welcome the liaison that is proposed but we need more data. Why not ask secondary schools to include the figure for absences in their databases? Most schools use computer databases and it would be easy to include the figure at the end of each term or at year end. What about a child who skips a class? Does the Bill require that we deal with that level of attendance? Sometimes a child appears in school in the morning, is registered as being present and then disappears for the day. In large schools, youngsters can get lost in the system.

Will this Bill improve school attendance? We must make adequate provision for disaffected students. Support is needed for students and families and it must be given at the earliest possible opportunity. Primary school teachers and principals tell us they can recognise, at senior infants level, a child who will have difficulty. We need extra resources as early as possible at primary school level. Once a child falls behind and begins to feel inadequate in school there is a difficulty. It is very hard for the child to catch up. I know primary school teachers are looking for extra resources and I agree they should get them. I know from experience that when a student reaches second level where there are resources – remedial teachers, career guidance counsellors, home school liaison and so on – it is too late. If a child is disaffected at 12 or 13 years going on to second level it is too late. In many cases if we force that child into a classroom he or she will upset the whole class or school. We must look at what we do with a child who is disaffected, a child who does not want to be in the classroom and cannot work with teachers or other students. Do we force that child to stay in the school and be a disruption? Do we have adequate resources in case the child must be removed from the school? Surely such resources should be in place so that a child who cannot survive in school with others will have somewhere to go. I have come across instances where children in school can be physi cally dangerous to others. What do we do then? It is a terrible worry for teachers, students and parents, including the parents of the child at risk.

We must look at why children stop going to school. At what age does it happen? Does it vary between urban and rural areas? Why are some schools not attractive to some students and others are? Do schools bear part of the responsibility for school attendance? There is much research in this area. School factors come into play. What research has the Department commissioned in this area? Many issues related to school truancy can be generalised but quite often they are particular to the student and his or her situation. We must focus on the individual. I am a little concerned that we are looking at the macro level and I am more interested in looking at the student in the classroom and in the home and focusing there. We do not want to create a big brother watching over our shoulders without really helping us improve our work. We must be careful about placing an extra burden on schools, principals and boards without giving extra resources and information.

I like the notion of schools linking with agencies in a given town or area. That is a good idea. In every small town a wide range of attendance should be offered but there should be agreement on discipline and liaison between schools and agencies. Up to now when a child transferred from primary to secondary school it was quite possible for him or her to fall out of the system but under this Bill that will not happen. There should be provision for a record of transfer from one school to another. However, there is a certain reluctance to do that for various reasons.

Section 18 states that a parent should inform the school not later than three days after a child misses school. Very often parents are the last to know their child has missed school. How can a parent inform a school that his child is absent if he is not aware of this? The child may leave home in the morning with a bag on his or her back but may not arrive in school. The parents believe the child has gone to school and are very often shocked to discover the child has not attended school. This is an issue about which I am concerned. We cannot include in legislation a requirement for parents to inform schools that their child is not in attendance if they are not aware of this themselves. Perhaps the onus should be put on the schools to inform parents if their child is missing for more than three days, not the other way round which is not practical.

We must look again at suspending and expelling students and so on. This is dealt with in the Bill but it must be clarified. I realise there are grounds for appeal but I am concerned that some of these appeal mechanisms might take a long time to put in place. Perhaps a fast track mechanism should be included in the legislation.

The promotion of good behaviour is mentioned. I agree that sanctions should be put in place to promote good behaviour. Some schools have a certificate of attendance. The problem with this method is that when attendance is broken, the certificate becomes meaningless. We must be careful about the kinds of strategies that are put in place. While it is proposed to ask parents to sign a code of conduct, there is no provision whereby the child should sign the code. It might be a good idea for the child to sign the code also. This would allow the child to take ownership of the code and to have it explained to him. The code of behaviour mentioned in section 23 should be couched in such a way that children will understand what is required of them. These are the people at whom it is being focused.

I welcome the Bill's proposal to restrict employment of young people. We must ask why young people feel a need to take up work while their studies suffer. We must provide resources for students who work. My colleague, Deputy Richard Bruton, has suggested that students receive some sort of payment for attending school. Perhaps this is not a bad idea given that there are not sufficient inspectors to police the young persons employment Act.

I intended speaking on disabled students and special schools. The Bill does not focus on these issues but it is important to look at the need for more physiotherapists, speech therapists and special schools. While I welcome the Bill, a number of issues need to be clarified. However, I wish it well and I will watch its operation with interest.

I am pleased to have an opportunity to contribute to this Bill.

Education affects everyone at some point, usually at the early stages in their life when their attitudes and outlooks are being formed. Some people avoid the school institutions as much as possible. I speak as a person who took the other extreme and spent the vast majority of my life to date in the educational sphere. However, whether a person considers themselves academic, practical or in another category, I strongly believe that the school environment should, as far as possible, accommodate the diversity of students liable to enter its confines. The views, interests and economic situation of the parents and the school environment such as location, transport, building, staff, atmosphere, size, curriculum and so forth must combine to offer not just educational development, but also social development in a holistic manner. This is a tall order for any Minister to oversee and for anyone involved in the provision of education to provide. The Minister, Deputy Martin, looks at his departmental responsibilities in such an holistic manner. Together with his staff, he is working towards a better delivery of service that will assist in the overall welfare of students.

The Bill before us today focuses on addressing the needs of those most at risk of suffering educational disadvantage. It is yet another important initiative the Minister has created to put in place a supportive infrastructure which will help tackle the difficulties of school attendance. This measure is the culmination of much work and its aim is a positive step in the right direction. I commend the Minister for his attention to bringing other people's ideas on board. He has reached out to the partners in education and held seminars on the Bill. Such consultation has been part of the Minister's style since he came into office. That consultation, and taking on board the views of those closest to the coalface is definitely the manner in which to proceed if one wants to achieve a workable Bill.

The right to an education is a fundamental right. As I have had many representations from the home educators, I am pleased the Minister in his speech clarified that the Bill respects the parents' rights also. He said that the Bill explicitly recognises that some parents will opt to have their children educated outside the recognised school system. The people I am familiar with have been very successful educators and are very responsible in their approach to the educational development of their children. I understand that many concerns have been raised by this section of the community in respect of their children being branded as truants and being deemed to be guilty before being proven innocent. I trust that these concerns can be addressed. I balance that statement with an understanding that there are other sections in society who may not encourage their children to have a minimum education. These students deserve the attention the Bill offers.

The second objective of the Bill is to create a structure to encourage and promote attendance at school. This should have the result that, if implemented, together with continuing reforms already begun by the Minister, students will achieve the best possible chance to have a solid educational base for life. Coming from a region that has had, and continues to have, a serious problem with early school leaving, I believe that every effort should be made to ensure this trend is reversed, given the proven links between poor school attendance and disadvantage in social and economic terms in later life. In Donegal at present, particularly in Inishowen, the early school leaving level is almost unsurpassed by any other region in the country. At this point, I offer the Minister my warmest thanks for choosing Inishowen as one of the pilot zones to study early school leaving. This project can only be constructive in a region where 59% of the adult population lack basic educational qualifications. While I realise there is a level of administration involved in any pilot scheme, I trust that the Minister will expedite this issue so that we will see the programme develop on the ground as soon as possible. I welcome the support the Minister has given in the form of the pilot project for early school leaving and we all look forward to both its implementation and to learning from the issues it throws up.

Unfortunately, one of the major reasons for such early school leaving, as happened in Inishowen, has now been almost eliminated. The reason was not a lack of educational ability or aptitude but the easy access to a well paid job in the textile industry. The decline of that sector has emphasised the lack of qualifications of many of my constituents. It leaves them in a situation where they are motivated by the current situation to look at the option of returning to education. They do not need the ESRI to point out that, as the Minister of State Deputy O'Dea stated earlier, the absence of educational qualifications among many school leavers will leave them seriously at risk of spending much of their lives unemployed and that despite our economic success, these people who leave the educational system without qualifications will remain at a significant disadvantage in finding employment. It is, therefore, important to further the wishes of the ESRI that intervention programmes be put in place in the next national development plan.

I want the Minister to take on board the wishes of those who have lost their jobs and wish to gain further qualifications but because they have a mortgage and no employment, they have no safety net to survive as students. Their plight is too late for the current Bill given that they are now outside the school system being dealt with. However, their plight must not be ignored and I ask the Minister and the Minister of State to seriously consider, together with their Cabinet colleagues, the financial support that can be offered to those who are made redundant and wish to take up the option of second chance education. The answer cannot be to allow them to receive social welfare support until they qualify for a back-to-education allowance. This is not the answer for the people with whom I am dealing. They are used to being in employment and getting up in the morning for a purpose. They do not want to experience life without such a goal or purpose and they deserve more help.

Returning to the issue at hand, while I see the Bill as a type of policing measure for attendance there are many influences which motivate people to stay within the system and many reasons others opt out, either temporarily or permanently. When we ponder the reasons we ponder the aspects of parental interest and school environment, location, transport, buildings, staff, atmosphere, curriculum and the sense of belonging which must relate to the school size. When we look to motivation we can see the obvious issues but often we ignore the people who can truly give us a picture of the main factors – the people who have opted out already. I firmly believe in the importance of talking to early school leavers, as the Joint Committee on Education and Science did recently. Given the academic manner in which we determine statistics and trends and then predict behaviour, we often miss the obvious. I would encourage the Minister to add this category to his list of people to be consulted if this has not already been done and I trust it will be an element within the pilot project on early school leaving.

The Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy O'Dea, and the Minister have done a great deal in the recent past for the people at school. The first thing a student encounters is the building itself. I am glad the Ministers, collectively, have been in a position to accelerate the building and repair programme since they came into office and this is much appreciated in my county where, while there are some beautiful new rural schools, many of the other buildings are old and in need of major repairs or replacement. I know that the level of development has placed great pressure on the building unit within the Department and I hope, should extra personnel be needed, they will be in a position to provide the necessary resources. In the main, the level of population has been maintained, even in the rural areas, and I trust that the many projects with the Department will come on stream for those who await them in the near future.

The teachers in the schools are another key ingredient. While my county has some of the best teachers in the country I am disappointed that all schools do not have a full complement of full-time staff and this issue must be addressed. It is not good enough that schools and boards of management have to struggle on without a full team and are under pressure to find even temporary teachers. The high turnover of teaching staff is not constructive and it is occurring at an unacceptable level in my locality. The Minister may have to decide on incentives for such schools but without a full staff there are obvious implications for the continuity of educational provision for the student, and I hope the Minister can address this issue.

The home-school liaison programme is a major success. This link between home and school is extremely important and should be expanded as much as possible as resources permit, particularly in schools which have not achieved already the status of disadvantage despite being in the same catchment as other schools with that designation which are catering for students from the same background. There is a substantial investment of time and effort from all sections involved but all those with whom I have been in contact agree that the home-school liason programme is a productive channel for interaction which has significance for all concerned, even if the time level involved is, as yet, not adequate.

Similarly, for people with difficulties, whether physical or intellectual, I applaud the Minister's efforts to support integration, his efforts to help reduce the pupil-teacher ratio and his efforts in respect of the extension of the remedial service. The argument regarding how to deal with people with disabilities are diverse and the solutions are multifaceted. Many people complain that the rally drivers, which we create of teachers in the remedial service, serve many schools – I could give examples within my own area – but my comment on this is that at least we have more rally drivers now than ever before. I hope the Minister is committed to the continued development of the system of remedial teachers as opposed to that of rally drivers. However, the pupil-teacher ratio and the number of support people within the classroom can be as important a focus.

Many children fall behind the rest of the class for various reasons and this affects their attitude towards school. The fact that they are falling behind might not be a conscious but a subconscious element in absenteeism, but it will have a bearing on how they react in class and to the education system in general. The situation should be recognised and assessed early, as intervention at a later stage is so much more difficult and it takes much more of an effort to achieve success. Children who have difficulties in their early school years will get very dispirited if their situation is not noted in those early years and this will undoubtedly have a spiral effect as their self-esteem decreases and their performance worsens as they give up.

That difficulty will be somewhat alleviated with the development of the national educational psychological service. Some parents used to ask me whether it was worth being diagnosed and labelled if there was no support available, while other parents pleaded that their children be assessed so that they would know just how they stood. The provision of help is slightly better than before, but I would ask the Minister to continue to look at the level of psychological and support services to which we, in Donegal, have access, given the size of the county and the history of the educational background. Some people who left school early in the past are becoming parents and they do not have the personal, as opposed to financial, resources to support their children educationally.

While there will probably always be controversies in rural Ireland regarding school buses and school transport, the availability of a transport service can have a bearing on the attendance rate of a child. Some children of a family of which I am aware are asthmatic and have to walk past a lime quarry to the point where the bus picks them up. This aggravates their illness and all possible attempts to alter the route to accommodate them have failed. There is a great need for a realistic and commonsense approach to transport issues. At present the regulations tend to leave no room for discretion. This can lead to other foolish situations where buses cannot take alternative routes which would appear "on the ground" to make sense and accommodate better the needs of more pupils but may involve lengthening the journey by a fraction of a mile. Linked to the need for transport is the fact that we try to assist integration. There are other issues regarding the 15 mile rule which I want to see the Minister address and I want to see him addressing the punt-sterling situation, where parents are losing 15% and not receiving much positive benefit as a result.

The Minister's efforts regarding the provision of computers in the primary schools are worthwhile. The curriculum and activities in school should have a bearing on life. Training in com puters is realistic in its aim and even the youngest children can gain a sense that this is the way forward. I trust that substantial support will be given to ensure that when children leave primary school with their initial knowledge of computers they will be in a position to be able to expand this knowledge throughout their secondary schooling. This has resourcing implications but it is a natural progression.

A difficulty within schools which ultimately has an impact on the students is that the teachers, particularly the principals, are becoming more like administrators every day. I hope the Minister will provide money to put in place resources necessary to implement the Bill in this regard.

As the legislation raises the school leaving age from 15 to 16, I agree with the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea, when he said that "it is not simply the period of time which is spent in the education system that determines life chances", although there were exceptions when many people reached great heights with few qualifications. In the current climate it is advisable to have some solid foundations. In this respect I welcome the fact that raising the age limit is presented in a constructive and innovative manner.

Given the Donegal experience, I commend the Minister for his aspirations regarding the second chance educational experience which he aims to offer for those between the ages of 16 to 18. I trust that the scheme will be allocated the resources to make it worthwhile. The Minister's track record indicates that he can move forward on most issues to which he sets his mind. I am sure he has a strong grasp of the multifaceted nature of the problem and the solutions that are needed. No doubt he does not see this as the be all and end all of the situation. That he has put in place pilot programmes regarding the early school leaving issue outlines that the Bill is not the end of a process but yet another step on the road to giving our younger generation a better start in life, both socially and educationally. I look forward to the continuing development of the Bill and to teasing out the issues at the Select Committee of Education and Science, of which I am a member.

I thank Deputy Keaveney for her constructive remarks and all the Deputies who contributed to the debate. We have listened carefully to all their comments. They have, as always, been very helpful and the Minister and I will take their comments into account as the Bill continues its progress through the House. I take this opportunity to address some of the points raised by Deputies during the course of the debate.

I am aware that many Members raised questions regarding the provisions in the Bill as they affect home educators. This is a very serious issue for many parents who wish to educate their children outside the State-funded system either in their own homes or through other forms of education. I appreciate and understand that.

The rationale for dealing with this issue is very straightforward. On the one hand we recognise the valuable work which many parents do in educating their children at home. Somebody suggested that many politicians regard these people as cranks or people who want to be awkward, but we do not look at them in this way. I further recognise the immense commitment and effort these parents put into this area, reflecting not only their deep commitment to the education of their children but also their desire that their children should receive a proper education. I know that many children benefit enormously from this rich and rewarding method of education.

Our Constitution recognises such home education as being worthwhile and deserving of fundamental protections. It is not our intention in this Bill to halt or impede this education. Our concern instead is simply to ensure that children who are being educated in this environment achieve a minimum education. We owe that to these children. This is a sensitive area. Officials of the Department of Education and Science have been in discussions with home educators to consider how we might meet their concerns without diluting the fundamental principle of a child's entitlement to a minimum education. In doing this, we will endeavour to attain the happy medium to which Deputy Dennehy referred. I hope that further progress can be made on this issue on Committee Stage.

Deputy Bruton suggested that the Bill will not be able to meet the needs of schools adequately because the structure it will establish is too centralised and not capable of meeting needs at a local level. I emphatically reject that criticism. The Bill has been specifically designed to tackle the issues of absenteesim through a partnership between schools as the central actors, supported by the education welfare officer locally, and the National Educational Welfare Board nationally. The Bill will further provide a dedicated mechanism in the form of a liaison committee to allow the statutory agencies working in this area to co-ordinate their efforts, both at national and at local level. This will provide for an effective dedication of resources to those areas most in need.

Deputies Hayes and Clune referred to the necessity for the membership of the National Educational Welfare Board to be representative of the partners in education. As I said when introducing the Bill, it is the Minster's intention that all members of the board should have a deep insight into, and awareness of, the education system. Having listened to the views expressed by the Deputies and Members of the Upper House, the Minister will consider this issue between now and Committee Stage with a view to introducing an appropriate amendment.

Deputy Finucane inquired how the Bill will provide for the needs of children with special educational needs. This is a crucial issue and I am glad to have the opportunity to refer to it briefly. I want to make it quite clear to the Deputy that we have already, in the Education Act, 1998 put in place the statutory structure to safeguard the rights of these children. Section 7 of the Education Act places an obligation on the Minister to make available to each person in the State, including a person with special educational needs, a level and quality of education appropriate to meeting the needs of that person.

Some Deputies, including Deputy Higgins and Deputy Naughten, referred to the other needs of the education system and stressed the importance of measures to tackle disadvantage, learning difficulties, and adult illiteracy. I assure them that our commitments to these and other areas of need remain unchanged. We do not see the enactment of the legislation as some form of trade-off against other needs in the education system. Our actions in these areas will continue unabated.

What we are concerned with in the Bill is to create a structure now which will ensure that the problem of early school leaving will be tackled effectively and immediately in order to prevent future generations growing up without the education necessary for their personal and social development.

Deputy Naughten questioned the decision to raise the school leaving age only to 16 and asked why it is not being raised to 17 or even 18. I will set out the rationale for this proposal. First, we are not proposing simply a one year raising of the school leaving age. Rather, we are proposing that the increased age be accompanied by a move to ensure that all young persons leaving school at the age of 16 should first have completed at least three years' junior cycle education. What we are doing, therefore, is changing the focus from an emphasis on the time spent in education to an emphasis on the level of education achieved during that time. This is a very significant proposal, the importance of which it is impossible to under-estimate. For the first time ever we are asking not how long a person spends in school but rather what that person gains from his or her time at school.

Second, we are not proposing to raise the school leaving age more than one year at present because we feel we should not move too quickly nor be too prescriptive on this matter. Rather, we should take this one step at a time. We should also remember that at the age of 18, compulsion can have very little effect in keeping young people at school. What we should be trying to do instead is to persuade young people of the importance of an education and to support them in their choices by making education services available to them, both inside and outside the formal education system. Only in this way can we expect to get a real return from the education services provided.

I am glad to hear that many Members agree with the proposals to provide some education and training for young people who leave school after the minimum school leaving age but before the age of 18. As indicated earlier, I am considering some changes to these. Our basic aim remains, as in all things educational, to help these young people to obtain the maximum benefit from education.

I take this opportunity to repeat the key principle underpinning all aspects of the Bill, namely, the educational welfare of children and young people progressing through the education system at first and second level. The Bill is not about sanctions for truancy – although they may, in a small number of cases, be unavoidable – rather it is concerned with securing the educational welfare of children and young people in the education system. Viewed from this standpoint, the Bill is just one element – albeit it a key element – in the network of supports for the education system, in particular those interventions designed to tackle absenteeism and early school leaving, which the Government introduced since coming to office two and a half years ago.

I reiterate my remarks at the commencement of the debate regarding the importance of consultation in the development of legislation in the area of school attendance. Deputies Cooper-Flynn, Collins and others referred to the extensive consultation process undertaken by my Department. Both the Minister and I are convinced of the importance of consultation, of taking account of the views of the experts – including the members of this House who I recognise as having a great deal of practical experience and, in some case, professional expertise – when developing policy in any area. Consultation is particularly important in the area of education. The Minister and I have laid special emphasis on consulting the partners on every educational policy development since the Government entered office and we propose to continue to do so.

I again thank the Members who contributed to the debate. I look forward to a further constructive debate on this matter as it proceeds through other Stages.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.