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.