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

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

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important Bill. Similar legislation was introduced in 1927 and its replacement is long overdue. In the interim, a great deal of money, effort and resources have been invested in the education system, evidence of which can be seen in the arrival of the so-called Celtic tiger.

It is important for any country to spend its available resources on education. However, as in other areas, one can end up with the kind of two-way traffic flow which exists at primary level in the education system. The Minister must recognise that a high percentage of people cannot read or write when they reach 14 years of age. He may say that this is not his responsibility because the root of the problem lies in the past. However, that was not the approach taken by the Taoiseach on the Order of Business when Deputy Bruton inquired about upcoming legislation. The Taoiseach immediately recalled the events of 1988 but I have no need to remind anyone about how vague can be the Taoiseach's memory of other matters relating to that era.

I want the Minister for Education and Science to face up to this responsibilities. He holds office at a time when the percentage of people who cannot read is higher than ever before. That is the reality. Thanks to his good PR machine – he is no different from his colleagues in Government to whom PR is very important—

The Minister is delivering the goods.

I did not hear Deputy Smith's comment. The Government spends its time with its spin doctors and the Minister for Education and Science is no different. In the age of the soundbite, it is important for him to be seen announcing the introduction of this, that and the other. If the Minister concentrates on reducing the numbers of people who cannot move, he will have done his Department a great favour.

I will refer to a number of issues. When Keenagh national school, County Longford, was built, a general purpose room or outside shelter was not provided. At that time, the former Minister for Education, Deputy O'Rourke, stated that there was a lack of resources and that construction had to proceed in a slimmed down form. As a result, Keenagh national school has no general purpose room or outside shelter and I ask the Minister to address this matter immediately. It is unbelievable that children are obliged, in all kinds of weather, to spend their lunch break outside in an open yard. I ask the Minister to ensure that the school is provided with a general purpose room.

The other matter I will raise, which is very important, involves provision of a speech and lan guage unit in Longford. This is a pressing issue, in respect of which I have received representations from parents and other concerned parties. It is like bouncing a ball between the Minister's Department and the Department of Health and Children. Nothing has been done. I have tabled questions to the Minister for Education and Science and to the Minister for Health and Children. The Minister for Education and Science told me it was a matter for the Midland Health Board; the Department of Health and Children said it is up to the Department of Education and Science. I say to the Minister across the floor of this House—

The Deputy must address the Chair.

Unfortunately the Chair cannot deliver a speech and language unit to Longford. Through the Chair, I ask the Minister—

The Minister cannot deliver it under this Bill either.

This Bill deals with educational disadvantage. There are people under 14 years of age with special educational needs in County Longford. I was elected by the people of Longford-Roscommon to point out their needs at any given opportunity and that is what I am doing today. I am saying, through the Chair, to the Minister for Education and Science that a speech and language unit should be put in place in Longford at the earliest opportunity.

This Bill deals with school absenteeism. That is an area which has not been dealt with in years. Some of the Cavan and Meath Deputies will recall the garda coming to school with someone on the bar of their bicycle. I remember well a garda arriving at the school with one student on the bar of the bike and another on the carrier. Those were the days when the gardaí went out and brought people into schools. That time has gone.

At the same time, there are people who, for one reason or another, do not even attend primary school. They have left the system at ten years of age. Statistics have proven that those who opt out of education at an early age are those who appear in the crime statistics later in life. That is the reality. The State has to pay then for their time in prison and their court cases. The Minister now has the opportunity to deal with this. With the money available to the Government to spend over the next seven years, which goes up by the second, the Minister has the opportunity to do something that no Minister has done in years – he must concentrate on this area and ensure that everyone up to 14 years of age gets a start in education. If they opt out at that stage they are gone. Even in the midlands the number of young people who opt out of education is remarkable. Education is important for the individual, the community and the State.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Johnny Brady. I am glad to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this important legislation. I commend the Minister on bringing forward once again legislation which will be of great benefit for the education system. I also congratulate him on the major improvements he has made to all areas of education, He has outlined a major programme of school building at all levels, the introduction of supports for children with special needs, funding for a literacy programme and improvements across the whole education spectrum. I congratulate him for targetting in particular children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with special needs.

Deputy Belton referred to the need to improve the educational psychology service. I ask the Minister to speed up the provision of a national educational psychology service. In my county there is a need for a proper service. It is not lack of funding which hampers the establishment of such a service, however, but the difficulties in recruiting suitable personnel.

There is an inaccurate perception that the school system is only interested in winners. We must encourage success but that does not mean that we should not care for the needs of all students. Education does not occur in a vacuum. Pupils come from home and may bring their problems to class with them, if they come to class at all. Traditionally the assessment of the stresses affecting pupils was left up to teachers, who were often compelled to fulfil a host of tasks in addition to being educators. Experience alerted them to potential problems, especially in non-attendance, but there was little they could do, even if they had the time. In cities and large towns, there were school attendance committees but elsewhere, as Deputy Belton pointed out, it was left to the local gardaí. There was no opportunity to intervene early. It was only when truancy became a problem that anything could be done. Sometimes this would mean the threat of court action against the parents. The teachers and gardaí acted with great humanity in all cases but were helpless to do anything else.

Through this legislation, schools will be able to utilise an educational welfare officer who will be able to identify potential problems before they develop. The school welfare officer's activities will be co-ordinated by the educational welfare board which will have the resources and power to carry out its own research into the causes of truancy. The educational welfare officer's job will be to assist parents and pupils so the children will derive the maximum benefit from participating in the education system. The work of the board will support the work of the schools.

Truancy exists throughout Ireland. Sadly it can be the beginning of a life of petty crime. This legislation aims to provide an understanding approach to the problem. This Government is firm in its belief that the proper place for young people is in school. The traditional sanctions for non-attendance will still be applied to pupils who are not bothered to attend school and, more importantly, to their parents.

There are some parents who prefer to educate their children at home or outside the established educational structures. This may be because of religious beliefs, the disability of the child or a belief that they can provide a better standard of education at home. This legislation respects those parents' actions as long as it can be proved that the children are receiving a level of instruction commensurate with that they would receive in a conventional classroom.

The raising of the minimum school leaving age from 15 to 16 is welcome. It is regrettable that so many people still leave school so early. We have a comprehensive system of education which provides opportunities for a wide range of interests and abilities. Those who leave early miss the chance to benefit fully from those opportunities.

These young people are being lured away by the prospect of employment. For many 16 and 17 year olds, there is a great deal of peer pressure to leave school, where they believe nothing but failure awaits them. In many families there is no tradition of staying at school. The world of work is the ultimate goal for these children, just as it was for their parents. They do not feel they are adults until they start earning their keep, even in low income employment. The jobs for which these teenagers leave school are usually badly paid, with long hours and few prospects in areas older people with better qualifications would consider untouchable. However, people who leave school aged 16 or 17 should not be condemned to a life on low pay without prospects. In future, they will be told that they have choices.

The Bill is progressive. In the past the care of the education system only extended to those in school. Once pupils had reached the minimum school leaving age and wanted to leave, they were on their own. The Bill foresees a registration system where early school leavers can remain in contact with education even after they leave school. Those who register will receive information about how to maximise their abilities and the options for continuing education that are open to them.

The Bill also sets itself the challenge of ensuring that every pupil receives a certain minimum education. In the past this concentration on a basic education was understandable. The world seemed to be an unchanging place and as long as one could read, write and count, one was considered as having just the necessary amount of learning. However, the problem with this approach is that the world is changing quickly and will continue to transform itself beyond recognition. The advent of computers in the classroom means that many seven and eight year olds have skills beyond those of their parents. The concept of a minimum education is almost impossible to define and the Government and the Minister have quite rightly not attempted to enshrine it in legislation.

The legislation derives from a belief that all the nation's children are entitled to the best and most suitable education that can be provided. We must take care of them equally thereby giving our young people the best chance in life. There exists no better mechanism for ensuring our future prosperity as a nation than looking after the well-being of those upon whom it depends. I wish to share the remainder of my time with Deputies Brady and Cooper-Flynn.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate. This legislation is proof of the Government's commitment to support education and our young people. Ireland's current prosperity is in no small part due to the fact that it has a young, well educated population. There is a clear link between education and prosperity but we cannot be complacent. Consideration must be given to those who drop out of the system and do not receive as full an education as they need or want. The Government has asked why this is happening and what can be done to help and this far seeing legislation provides many answers.

One of the most progressive and pragmatic elements of the Bill is the establishment of a national educational welfare council which will co-ordinate the various aspects of the welfare of our students. We are fortunate to have a marvellous education system, staffed by dedicated teachers who have given years of service. They have often been left to cope with problems as they arise. One of the greatest of these continues to be non-attendance. Truancy has always been a problem. Many of us during our school years did not want to be in classrooms on a bright, sunny day but we resisted mad urges not to go school. Some young people were caught between the need for education and their parent's need to use every available pair of hands on the farm during certain times of the agricultural year.

Truancy often occurred when there was illness in the family. It is prevalent in modern day Ireland but it is most common in deprived areas. However, truancy only ensures that deprivation will continue in the future. Education continues to be the best passport to a better tomorrow. The approach to truancy in the past has been to penalise the parents of those who did not attend school. The job of inspecting school attendance was handled by special school attendance committees in cities and large towns and by the Garda in smaller towns and rural areas. These people did an excellent job as they dealt humanely and sympathetically with difficult cases.

However, they did not have the back-up to deal with the causes of the problem and it is better to try to tackle the cause than to deal with the symptoms each time they appear. It is a sad reflection of modern life that the Garda has more pressing issues to deal with. We have a duty to establish the problems which lead to non-attendance. Teachers are aware of some reasons behind individual non-attendance cases but they lack the time, training and, most importantly, resources to do anything about it. That is where the social welfare officers to be appointed following the enactment of this legislation will play a new and valuable role in the education system. Their activities will be co-ordinated by the national educational welfare council. The legislation aims to help and understand. However, youngsters who prefer to roam the streets rather than obtain an education and, most importantly, the parents who cannot be bothered to ensure that they attend school will be penalised.

A small number of children do not attend regular schools and sometimes they have valid reasons. Their parents may feel that they are able to provide a better level of education at home. While all of us may not agree with an approach that isolates children from each other, their parent's wishes must be respected. It must also be ensured that the education they receive equals that in conventional schools. The national educational welfare council will ensure that this takes place. It will also put in place a system where teachers who operate outside the education system must be registered.

Another problem facing the system is the number of pupils who leave aged 16 or 17 or even younger. They are often enticed by the prospect of low paid employment with poor conditions, prospects and often little protection against injury. It is easy to understand why some people opt out. The pressure on young people to contribute financially in families where both parents are unemployed is great. Young people also get an ego boost when they are working for themselves with the sense that they have become adults.

The media does not help by glorifying the achievements of some successful people who left school early. We are always glad when people succeed but few pupils leave school early without any formal qualifications and then become millionaires. Most are employed in badly paid jobs for the rest of their lives if they are lucky. The Minister is anxious to curb early school leaving through persuasion. The school leaving age has been raised to 16 years. It is unfortunate than many 16 and 17 year olds will still leave because their place is at school. In the past those who left were forgotten about and nothing could be done but that will change as a result of this legislation. Early school leavers can still stay in contact with the education system through registration. This will provide them with continued assistance and information on the education options open to them. This is a valuable and pragmatic aspect of the legislation.

The Minister and the Government are committed to providing all the nation's children with the necessary education to allow them to make meaningful contributions to society but the scope of necessary education is changing continuously. The days are gone when education consisted of providing ability in the three "Rs"– reading, writing and arithmetic. This may have done many of us good but the world will go on changing. Few people over the age of 30 received any computer training but children aged eight or nine take this knowledge for granted, as do employers.

One of the greatest aspects of education is developing the ability to learn from life. This legislation will ensure that no one will leave school without having gained this ability. Every student will know that he or she is valued. We must ensure the well-being of all our students for it is upon them that the future well-being of the nation depends.

I compliment the Minister on the consultation process which was undertaken to ensure that the Bill is informed and represented the views of all those who have an interest in education. This Bill has two focuses, which I welcome, to provide a minimum education for our children while recognising the duties and responsibilities of parents, the State and the child and to do so in a balanced way. We all recognise the importance of education and a child's need for a proper education to prevent social and economic disadvantage in the years ahead. It is clear from many of the studies, particularly the ESRI study, that in 94% of households which are experiencing serious disadvantage the head of that household was an early school leaver. That is why I welcome the whole focus and thrust of the Bill.

The second issue which is addressed is school attendance. There is a strong link between poor school attendance and social and economic disadvantage. Unfortunately, in Ireland today, 10,000 children leave school each year without any qualification whatsoever. People are no longer prepared to tolerate this and there is no need for it. In a booming economy it is important to encourage everybody to ensure our young people receive a minimum education and spend as much time as possible within the school system. For that reason I welcome the decision to raise the minimum school leaving age from 15 to 16 years or the completion of three years post primary education. It is also important to have a co-ordinated policy throughout the country. In Cork, Dublin, Waterford and Dún Laoghaire the enforcing authorities for children who are not attending school are the corporations or county councils. In County Mayo the enforcing authority is the Garda. I am not happy with the idea of gardaí coming into schools and having to deal with this problem. I welcome the Minister's decision to set up the National Educational Welfare Board which will have a co-ordinated policy throughout the country. An important feature of that board is that it will appoint education welfare officers for each school, or group of schools, to enforce this legislation. I welcome also that the Bill allows the National Educational Welfare Board to lodge appeals, particularly where parents for one reason or another are not doing so, where a child has been expelled or, for some reason, is not obtaining a minimum education. I mentioned earlier the importance of balance and I recognise the responsibility of parents. If a parent is not fulfilling that role, the State has a responsibility to do so.

I welcome the provision which allows for the exchange of data. Where children leave school early it is important they are not forgotten about and that there is a system in place to monitor their performance and what they do in years ahead. The exchange of data concerns schools, FÁS, CERT, traveller training centres, Youthreach centres, the Education Research Centre and the ESRI. It is important that young people, particularly early school leavers, are given every chance in the education area to ensure they get proper jobs and are relieved from social and economic disadvantage.

I compliment the Minister on the consultation process engaged in prior to bringing the Bill before the House.

I welcome the Bill. Deputy Cooper-Flynn referred to the exchange of data. This is important because of the emphasis on the number of points one obtains in their leaving certificate. If we look at that class five or ten years down the road, the number of points obtained do not necessarily bear any reflection on how successful they have been or what they have achieved. It is important to realise that because it may show some students, who may not be academically gifted, they may succeed in areas where others may fail in the future.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill, the general aim of which is to ensure that children of a compulsory school going age attend school and, if not, that they receive at least a minimum education. The explanatory memorandum states that the Bill seeks to address the underlying causes of truancy and to identify at an early age children who are at risk of developing school attendance problems. The Bill goes on to impose statutory duties on schools.

In Ireland we have always had the perception that our education system in one of the best in the world. The National Development Plan 2000-2006, published on Monday last, points out that a comparison of inter-country data on outcomes suggest that Ireland's education system has produced consistently good outcomes. However, it goes on to say that a great deal remains to be achieved if economic and social policy objectives are to be met. The plan refers to the link between economic growth and education, stating that the rate of investment in education and training has been identified as one of the primary contributors to our economic development and that investment in education and training has a very high rate of return and accounts for a significant proportion of the observed variation in economic growth rates around the world. The plan refers to labour force flexibility and labour force availability. Accordingly, under the plan, investment in education will be concentrated on prevention of early school leaving, increasing the retention rate at second level, expanding adult and second chance education and training opportunities, widening access to third level education and supporting the requirements of the labour market, among other measures outlined in page 95 of the plan.

Research has shown that low education achievement increases the risk of becoming unemployed, entering into long-term unemployment and eventually dropping out of the labour force. On the education system, on which we pride ourselves, 25% of people have literacy problems. We bemoan our labour shortages and seek to fill the gap with asylum seekers, yet there are 200,000 unemployed. This is one of the great imponderables in the present economic boom. We say we have full employment and yet 200,000 are unemployed. Why is this so? These people have been failed by the education system because it did not identify what was amiss and what needed to be done. In decades gone by, this figure was smaller by 40% or 50% because a certain section of these people were employed as farm labourers or in labour intensive heavy industry. Due to economic changes these are no longer required as work practices have changed. We have 200,000 people who do not have the skills, confidence or knowledge to break out of the cycle yet they have the ability. Despite our advances as a society, I have yet to see any concrete measures to address this terrible injustice. The problem will not be solved by butter vouchers or the modern day eviction type notices that tell the FÁS worker his time is up, to get a job or produce evidence to show he was seeking a job. What is needed is a radical rethink of the education policy.

Over 10,000 teenagers leave the education system each year without any qualifications. In his contribution, the Minister of State told us the Government has launched a number of policy initiatives in this area over the past two years, including the extension of the home-school liaison service to every school classified as disadvantaged, special education needs which have been targeted through the introduction of a needs based system of supports, the extension of the remedial teaching service to every school in the country and the establishment of a new national educational psychological service which is already under way.

Many primary teachers, despite having no formal training, can identify that some of their students have some difficulty, be it in the area of application or an inability to grasp certain aspects of instruction but, despite this recognition, many are not aware of what corrective steps could be taken in an endeavour to address the problem. For those who do, they will generally seek to make an appointment for the child with an educational psychologist who has been assigned to their area. Having discussed the matter with the child's parents there is general satisfaction that the problem may be solved. Later a response is received indicating it will be 12 months before the child can be attended to. Further inquiries show that a private appointment can be availed of within four to five weeks. In some cases the family can afford the charge and go privately, in other cases the school may take up the fee but in many cases nothing happens. This child will almost certainly go on to become one of the 10,000 early school leavers before becoming a member of the 200,000 persons on the unemployment register.

Unfortunately, life is not necessarily fair and there are few opportunities to address the equality problem. However, this is surely one area where the absence of equality can be overcome by an adequate provision of the required service. I do not intend to be over critical of the Minister. He is only a couple of years in office, many faults have arisen over the decades and successive Governments have fallen down in this area. The main difference today is that funding is available, but this is no insurance against the final result. Throwing money at a problem does not necessarily result in a solution.

This is especially true with regard to remedial teaching difficulties. The Minister was under pressure in recent years to provide a remedial service to all schools and this may have deflected from the overall plan. All children today have access to a remedial service. The Government believes it has addressed the clamour for remedial services, but unfortunately this is far from the case. The service was initially required for those 25% of people with literacy problems, but it is now required for those 10,000 who will become part of the 200,000 to whom I referred earlier. Virtually all children who need the service receive minimal attention in tuition. One teacher may have to cover up to five schools in a round trip of 40 miles. To date, the service is only scratching the surface. There is a shortage of teaching resources. In this context how short-sighted was the decision to close Carysfort College?

If student teachers received proper instruction during their training on how to teach young children how to read we would not have such a requirement for remedial services. Perhaps my good friend, Senator O'Toole, might disagree, but I believe many remedial teachers may not be using the best methods. This is not necessarily their fault as the Department of Education and Science has failed to establish a coherent policy on reading. At what age should children be taught to read and what method of instruction should be used? The Minister may give an apparently acceptable answer, but the reality is that there is not a standard practice, and not alone does practice vary from school to school but from classroom to classroom. We try to teach our children to read at too young an age.

In almost all cases teachers do not have the required expertise to recognise dyslexia. I have encountered many families who have spent years in desperation as they tried to establish why their child, who they knew to be clever and intelligent, did not like school and wanted to opt out. It was caused by embarrassment about not being able to read and the resulting effort of trying to hide this kept the child away from school.

Recent research at a juvenile delinquent centre in Britain found that 50% of offenders suffered from dyslexia as opposed to approximately 5% of the general public, although the latest research indicates that the percentage figure among the public has increased to 8%. I have tabled parliamentary questions this week to ascertain if the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Department of Health and Children are aware of this research. In an era when our prison system is causing much difficulty surely we need to carry out similar research here. If we do I am confident the results will show that a very large proportion of offenders will have the symptoms associated with dyslexia. Ultimately, this complaint will have been the catalyst to throw these people into a world of exclusion and crime as they felt removed from mainstream society and sought to strike back at a system that had failed them.

I implore the Minister, in conjunction with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, to initiate such research here, not because the money is available or out of a prurient interest, but because, ultimately, it may save many people from the dark side of life and make our new and quasi-modern society better. I cannot over-emphasise the importance of this aspect and I hope the Minister will look at it. I realise it is difficult for him to get on with the day-to-day running of his Department without undertaking research in other areas.

Tied in with this aspect of teacher training is the concept of in-service training. Some teachers can teach for 40 years and not attend a training day. They may use outdated and outmoded methods. The Minister referred to the launch of the revised primary curriculum. How can he assure us that all teachers will attend the necessary in-service training organised for this school year and, more importantly, how will he address the absence of teachers on maternity leave or career breaks? Can he assure the House that these teachers will have the opportunity to avail of instruction at a later date?

The concept of in-service training must be developed. Every profession is involved in it. Industry spends much money on research and development and invests heavily in training. However, the education system draws a virtual blank in this respect. The Minister launched a highly publicised campaign on the computer project for primary schools, yet many computers are untouched and the only concern of teachers is that they are not stolen. What is the point in giving the computers to some schools when none of the teachers can operate them and no system of teacher training has been put in place to instruct them on their use?

Some 40,000 teachers have been trained on ICT programmes in the past two years. It is a record.

When the Minister has a day or two off work I will show him a few computer-free schools.

A total of 40,000 teachers have participated in ITC programmes. It is a phenomenal achievement.

If that is the case I congratulate the Minister. However, all 166 Members of the Dáil have received tuition in computers, yet only about 10% can operate them. Perhaps the same applies to teachers. Attendance on courses may not indicate proficiency.

Perhaps the Deputy would let me know of the schools in his constituency that are not participating.

They are in the Minister's constituency.

I will take back the computers.

The creation of a proper in-service training system, which at a rough estimate should entail five or six months every five or six years, would require a radical investment in the provision of teacher training places. The effort to overcome this impasse is welcome, but it needs to be more structured to address the needs that will arise.

In all such areas of public sector employment, we must re-examine our policy of recruitment, as a far greater proportion of people will now leave for the private sector than was the case heretofore. This, and the desirability of making available a more comprehensive service, must have a major impact on our recruitment policy. It is a sad fact that in every aspect of life the ‘eat, drink and be merry' theory takes such an over-riding precedence that we often face unnecessary suffering in the future due to a lack of planning in the past. I was strongly reminded of this earlier today as I sat in traffic on the Rathgar Road as part of a two hour journey that just two years ago would have taken one hour. Traffic is always heaviest when schools are open.

The journey gave me the opportunity to see the many private schools and colleges that have been established to cater for those who are dissatisfied with the public system provided by the Minister. There appears to be a proliferation of Cole's notes schools. In my day the use of Cole's notes was the handy way of studying King Lear or The Tempest if one did not have time to study the play in its entirety. Such schools are exclusively geared to obtaining for students a certain level of points.

The right of parents to educate their children in the home environment is enshrined in Article 42 of the Constitution and I hope the Bill will not encroach on this right. The Minister refers to a required minimum of education. Section 14(1) states:

The Minister may, after consultation with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and such other persons (if any) as the Minister considers appropriate, prescribe a minimum education to be provided to each child.

This is a very important provision. Given its central position in the Bill, it would be better if, in the interest of clarity, the Minister provided an operable definition of the term "minimum education", even if it is to be subjected to change in the future. Perhaps he will do this on Committee Stage. Much reservation and apprehension has been expressed by those who have chosen to educate their children in the home. I hope the Minister is seeking to address these concerns when the Minister of State referred to the continued and intensive process of consultation with the partners in education by him and officials of the Department. I welcome his statement that these consultations have proved immensely useful and have informed a number of amendments he will table on Committee Stage.

Last night I attended the meeting of a board of management in County Wicklow. One of the items on the agenda was called "Student Report". It briefly outlined the case history of a problematic student in her early teens who had been suspended and whose case had been passed to the social welfare officer. Members of the committee were disturbed to discover that little or no support was available to her in the education field. I hope the new National Educational Welfare Board will be able to assist this student. I appreciate it is a difficult area and I hope the structures which will be devised will be operable and attractive to such students. It is an area which will have to be closely monitored and the success or otherwise of the Bill will ultimately be judged on how the board approaches and handles such matters.

One hopes the provisions of the Bill will be implemented in a more thorough manner than those of the School Attendance Act, 1926. Much of this depends on funding, support and the follow-up monitoring system which is put in place. The Bill also places certain responsibilities on boards of management and the necessary expertise and guidance should be made available to ensure these can be carried out in an effective manner. Many people on boards of management are apprehensive in the current climate that they may go beyond their prescribed duties. It is important, therefore, that an exact field of responsibility is outlined for them.

I wish to refer to a few general points. I realise my good colleague, Deputy Belton, has used all the Minister's budget with his requirements for Longford but, if anything is left, I would like the Minister's officials to take note of the points I raise. The first relates to income levels for higher education grants. Many people, especially PAYE workers, are excluded from these schemes, although in my view such people are the new poor. The income levels should be raised. There are many delays in the administration of these schemes. While I realise this is the responsibility of local authorities in many respects, perhaps the Minister could examine the possibility of his Department paying colleges directly.

Regarding league tables, I disagree slightly with my party spokesperson on education. All things being equal, perhaps they should not be published because the information may be misused. However, it is important to note that when I attended NUI Galway, then UCG, individual students' results were placed on the noticeboard but were previous to that published inThe Connacht Tribune, which is unusual.

The Deputy is enlightened.

I will table a question to see when that was done. Perhaps UCG, as it then was, was unique. People in the west do things their own way.

The Deputy is correct. It was done.

Could the Minister give an exact date for junior certificate results as many parents tried to organise functions for the night in question last year only for him to pull a fast one by bringing the release date forward by a day? This forced many parents to cancel their arrangements, but it did not stop the shenanigans. Other areas of which the Minister should take note include the disabled and education. This is a difficult area which I am sure he is trying to address. I understand bullying in school may in future replace Army deafness where many cases for compensation will be taken. I received that information from some of my sources in the legal field.

Regarding facilities in County Wicklow, the PE hall in Scoil Chonghlais in Baltinglass is at the tender stage. Perhaps the Minister could do something about it as we are under great pressure in that regard. The same applies to the PE hall in Arklow. This should be borne in mind because physical education is being included in the curriculum. Scoil Bhríd in Carnew has made a submission for additional facilities which the Minister might bear in mind. The parish priest heading the project for the primary school in Lackan passed away recently. The project is at a loose end and I would appreciate if the Minister could address it. Finally, I am sure the next time my good constituents in Grangecon visit Cork, the Minister will welcome them with a cup of tea and the provision of the extra teacher they seek.

I understand Deputies Collins and Killeen are sharing time.

Before examining the specific provisions in this Bill, I will make a few general comments about national education policies in Ireland. One of the reasons a high level of inward investment is secured from third countries, especially America, is due to the confidence foreign investors have in the educational and training standards of our young people. Those in the workplace with good qualifications are fortunate, having come through an exacting education system. It is fair to say that consecutive Governments since the 1960s have all worked towards improving educational opportunity. By the year 2004, Ireland will be the fifth wealthiest country in Europe. This does not arise as matter of coincidence. The large sums of money invested in primary, secondary and third level education programmes contribute to the ever greater spiral of job opportunity and job placements.

However, we must recognise that, notwithstanding the strong performance of the economy in recent years, our new-found wealth has not filtered through to all sectors of the economy. No nation can be proud of itself unless it can guarantee assistance to the less well off and disadvantaged within its respective communities. The Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrat Government recognises this fact and, moreover, the need for comprehensive moneys to be put aside to combat many of the key social problems in our society. These include the problem of adult literacy as well as combating unemployment in many urban and rural blackspots.

Many of our social problems derive from the explicit link to educational disadvantage and a lack of job opportunity. Investing in education and in people is the key way a Government can ensure people can accept a job in society with dignity and self-confidence. It has been well documented that people without the most basic of educational training qualifications have difficulties carrying out their affairs in life compared to others who have better education and training skills. This is certainly the case when one looks to the problem of adult literacy which is a hidden problem in our society. Education and training work best when they are lifelong experiences. It is always important, however, for people to get off to a good start. It is more difficult to have to catch up with others in later life if one has been unfortunate enough to have fallen through the education net, whether due to slow learning, truancy or other related matters.

This imbalance needs to be rectified by every child being guaranteed a minimum standard of education. The facts speak for themselves in terms of the links between poor education and marginalisation. ESRI research has shown that 94% of households in poverty are headed by an early school leaver, of whom 75% have no qualification, while a further 19% are headed by a person who has completed only one junior cycle of education. Intervening in this cycle of disadvantage, in the view of the Government, requires a strategic investment to stem the flow of the minimally qualified and unqualified young school leavers into the labour force, allied with a strengthening of second chance education options.

This is why the Government has brought forward the Education (Welfare) Bill, 1999, which is designed to redress many of these issues. The Bill has come about after extensive discussions with the partners in education. It is always better that changes in an important field such as education come about as a result of consultation and discussion and not by an approach-based means or coercion. I commend the Minister, Deputy Martin, on the fact that widespread discussion and consultation has taken place with regard to the important provisions presented in the Bill.

The Bill has been drafted to address the needs of those most at risk from suffering educational disadvantage. At present, the main statutory basis for compulsory school attendance is the School Attendance Act, 1926. No significant amendment has been made to this Act in the years since its enactment. The general aim of the Bill is to provide a comprehensive national system to ensure children of compulsory schoolgoing age attend school, or if they do not attend school, that they at least receive a minimum standard of education.

The Bill shifts the focus of school attendance enforcement from criminal sanctions to addressing some of the underlying causes of truancy, helping children and their families and identifying, at an early stage, children who may be at risk of developing school attendance problems. The Bill imposes statutory duties on schools to adopt a more positive approach to the issue of truancy and provides a mechanism for the co-ordination of the activities of various publicly funded agencies with regard to school attendance matters. Under the existing legislation the school leaving age is 15 years. Under this Bill, this is to be raised to 16 years or the completion of three years post-primary education, whichever is the later. The statutory duty imposed on parents to send their children to a recognised school is also retained.

The Bill provides a legal basis for bodies specified by the Minister for Education and Science to gather information and to exchange data between them on children who leave school early. The purpose of this provision is to put in place an effective tracking system to ensure children can be identified and a record kept of their subsequent involvement with the education and training system in the interests of helping these children achieve their maximum potential. This Bill will ensure that young people under the age of 18 years who leave school early are identified. The parties concerned include schools, FÁS, CERT, traveller training centres, youth centres, the Education Research Centre and the ESRI. Every year, more than 10,000 teenagers leave the education system without any qualifications.

It is important that the National Educational Psychological Service continues to be well funded. The Government has also launched the Stay in School initiative which aims to keep pupils in school until their leaving certificate at a minimum. These programmes will also complement the existing leaving certificate applied and leaving certificate vocational programmes as well as the junior certificate programme.

The Bill must take account of the Minister's duty to ensure all children receive a minimum education. A national educational welfare board will be set up which will provide a supportive framework to assist schools with implementing the provisions of this Bill. There will be a statutory obligation on the board to make an education available to children of compulsory school-going age to whom an education is not otherwise available. This latter provision gives a statutory expression to the constitutional duty of the State to ensure children receive a certain minimum education.

The Bill also provides that the national educational welfare board may act in the place of the parents by lodging an appeal against a refusal to enrol or to an expulsion. In addition, the board may make submissions to an appeals committee where a parent has lodged an appeal. For children who have left school and who are under 18 years of age, the national educational welfare board will assist them to access continuing education and training.

It has been suggested that the Bill will result in excessive reporting of trivial school attendance problems to educational welfare officers. This is not so. In the majority of instances, schools will deal with the problem of non-attendance at local level. This Bill is not intended to deal with the child who misses three or four days over the course of the school year which could quite conceivably occur in the case of many pupils. However, the Bill must make provision for the Minister for Education and Science and the Government to fulfil their duty to ensure every child's right to a minimum education is vindicated.

I will turn to the issue of the role of educational welfare officers within the structures of the new regime. It is the intention of the Government to ensure educational welfare officers continue to act in a positive and supportive role to children and to schools. The particular roles the educational welfare officers will play under the aegis of the new national educational welfare board will include the assessment of the education provided to children educated outside the mainstream school system and assisting schools in tracking students who stop attending one school but fail to register in another one.

I welcome the provisions of the Bill which are premised on the need to ensure all children are given a real opportunity to secure a minimum level of education. The Bill updates legislation on this subject which is decades old and ensures the Government will take substantially more practical measures to comply with its legislative and moral obligations to provide education to all the children of the nation.

I welcome the departure from the traditional approach in this Bill, particularly in regard to the provision of a supportive infrastructure to ensure a better level of school attendance. The Bill sets out children's right to minimum education with great clarity and acknowledges the rights of parents to choose. Many of us have received correspondence on the latter issue, about which some people have expressed concern. The Bill also clearly outlines the State's role in providing an education service.

The major departure in this Bill lies in the provision of a structure to encourage students to attend school until leaving certificate level or its equivalent. Heretofore, the constitutional position set out the broad principles and, of necessity, a fine balance was struck between the rights and duties of children, parents and the State. However, that balance has not always been clear. Any legislation in this area must reflect the constitutional provision and must respect the balance between the rights and duties of children, parents and teachers. The central consideration must always be children's rights and the opportunities presented to individual children. This Bill goes a long way towards that. It has not attracted a great deal of attention in the manner which the Education Bill might, but it is extremely important in practical terms.

Many Deputies referred to the ESRI reports which identify the close correlation between early school leaving and levels of poverty. Many people will have been shocked to learn that as many as 10,000 pupils per annum leave the education system without qualifications. That is entirely unacceptable and there is a need for intervention such as that provided for in this Bill.

The Minister has had the pleasure of providing more, in terms of support to education, than any of his predecessors who set out the theoretical position on what was required and desirable. However, nobody has been in the position to make provision in regard to remedial, resource and special needs teachers, the development of the National Educational Psychological Service and the huge departures in curriculum development which we have witnessed in recent years and which represent the culmination of five or six years' work over the course of recent Governments. The Minister has made an enormous and positive contribution to education in terms of the provision of resources, which are always a central consideration of those involved in education. I know the Minister is somewhat disappointed that school principals believe his efforts to date have not addressed the level of resources available to them. I am sure he is tired of me pursuing this issue with him. The INTO will commence a further phase in its campaign on this matter either today or tomorrow.

I was a school principal for 20 years. The fact that 80% of school principals are engaged in full-time teaching duties militates strongly against the quality of education which can be provided. It undermines the morale, not just of the principals themselves, but also of their schools. It is past time the matter was addressed. The Minister has forcefully stated that, more than any other provisions he has made, this matter has implications for resources. I am satisfied the issue is being addressed but perhaps it needs to be addressed with a level of urgency which has not been brought to bear heretofore.

I do not recall ever having seen a school attendance officer during my 20 years in teaching. It is a long time since I trained as a teacher and I must confess to being relatively ignorant of the 1926 Act. I learned some information, which I had either forgotten or never known, in the course of this debate. The 1926 Act had become defunct for most practitioners in education. There were not any support structures in place and there was not a realisation that the support structures which existed should have been adhered to.

I am particularly concerned about the transfer of pupils between schools and the enrolment of students who come from outside the State. The Bill is somewhat weak in this regard. It is very difficult to put in place a watertight system which ensures this is adequately deal with. I suspect that, in the current climate, the way in which it is dealt with in the Bill perhaps needs to be strengthened. I do not know how the Minister can do that but it is something which needs to be looked at.

When I mentioned the various provisions in terms of resources and supports to schools, I forgot to mention the employee assistance scheme as it applies to teachers. It is a pilot scheme in a number of areas and the feedback I have received from teachers in those areas is extremely positive. It is a service which has enormous potential and I would like it developed more than it has been and its role within what is proposed here set out very clearly and centrally.

There is considerable interdependence within a school system and between schools and, unfortunately, teachers, in general, and principals, in particular, do not have access to the level of support from their peers which would greatly benefit them. That is one of the main weaknesses in the system. It is perhaps the key factor which will undermine the effectiveness of this Bill.

For a many reasons, the State needs to look at an effective and adequate system for monitoring the location of children. I was present at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government the other day when officials from local government set out the difficulties in locating voters and the reasons the electoral register was quite inaccurate in particular areas. It struck me at the time that if it is that difficult to know where adults are in built up areas, huge apartment blocks or even in remote rural areas, how much more difficult it must be to know whereabouts children of school going age. The system in some European countries is straightforward and there is a link between various elements, including social welfare and so on, and there is a tracking system.

In the context of the revelations about child abuse, we need to look carefully at a similar system. Five, six or seven years ago, I would have been strongly opposed to it in terms of considerations of people's personal freedom but the more I have looked at it and the appalling experiences of children, the more I believe it is not adequate to pay lip service and that we must ensure a tracking system is in place, which we are effectively demanding of the officers we appoint under this Bill. However, in some instances, we are making impossible demands.

Even our support structures for teachers who suspect child abuse as a result of direct disclosure from the child, third party information, which may or may not be reliable, direct observation, observation of suspicious injuries over time or even aspects of the child's behaviour – I am talking about children attending school – are totally inadequate. Perhaps we should have gone much further in this Bill to ensure the difficulties, which afflict a small number of pupils but which have a huge impact on them in their most vulnerable years, should be more centrally addressed in this Bill or elsewhere. The remit of the National Educational Welfare Board should be extended beyond what is set out in this Bill to include a much more central role in supporting teachers, perhaps with the services I mentioned, in a way which is not laid out in the Bill and in a way which would be hugely beneficial.

There is some concern that parents who take their children on their annual holiday to the sun in January, September or whenever it is possible to do so may be targeted by the provisions of this Bill. The Minister's counterpart in the UK got into hot water about that issue. I strongly oppose that type of approach. In the 20 years I was a school principal parents told me they could only take their family holiday during school time for various reasons. I always encouraged them to go because I believed the value of the holiday in many respects far outweighed whatever gems of knowledge I would have been in a position to impart to them during that week or ten days. I have found a very right-wing opposing view to that.

I welcome the provision of educational welfare officers, although I would be concerned about their qualifications. I understand the legislation may not be the appropriate place to deal with that. This Bill can have a very positive impact and I welcome it.

Mr. Hayes

We are discussing this Bill on the eve of a strike in the north-west where I understand principals in Mayo, Donegal and Sligo will go on strike tomorrow to highlight their plight in terms of the huge administrative tasks and burdens which are being placed on them by the bureaucracy in Marlborough Street. We are discussing this Bill in that context – a context of increasing frustration among principals and which Deputy Killeen so well articulated in his contribution. Increasingly, principals do not have the time to do their job because Bills such as this are producing more responsibilities and form filling.

I am not suggesting for one moment that there is no need for accountability within all aspects of education but sometimes we in this House – there is also a tendency among Ministers – believe the only way we can sort out a problem is to ask a principal, a board of management or other partners to come up with strategies to solve it. We have built this type of mania into our legislation over the past ten years – that the best way to sort out a problem is to ask the board of management or principals to come up with a strategy.

What is required in this instance to deal with the issues of truancy and early school leaving – they are not the same issue, they are quite different – are resources. In that context, this Bill is a disappointment. The Government promised the Bill over two and a half years ago. If the Government was serious about the problem of early school leavers, which I will discuss in respect of my constituency in a few minutes, this Bill would have been before the House last year or in the first six months of this Government's term of office but it went further down the list of priorities.

I want to be fair to the Minister. I have read his contributions and remarks since the Bill was published in the latter part of the summer, but I do not believe this is a great advance in dealing with the issue of children dropping out of school which is only a small number that can be readily identified in certain parts of the city and country. This comes from a Minister who, as Opposition spokesperson, was completely opposed to the introduction of boards such as this. One must remember his contribution to the education Bill in which the then Minister, Ms Bhreathnach, proposed to introduce regional boards. The Minister was opposed to this regionalised board structure because he felt that if the money was available for the establishment of such boards, it could be put to better use in other areas. He may well have been right but when it comes to dealing with the problem of school attendance and early school leavers, he adopts the same approach – we should set up a board, give it a lump sum and ask it to do the job we should do ourselves because we have not had the wherewithal over the past 70 years to amend the legislation. Let us be clear. Prescribing new responsibilities to a board will not solve the problem, which is that we have 40 school attendance officers in four local authority areas, Dublin Corporation, Dún LaoghaireRathdown, Waterford and Cork city. There is a structure in those four areas and those 40 school attendance officers are doing a marvellous job. However, there is no structure in the vast majority of areas to deal with children who regularly do not attend school. In my constituency there is a laughable situation where gardaí are running around housing estates trying to pinpoint children who are not attending school. Those gardaí have other things to do with their time and, although they have a responsibility in this matter, they are not going to put the time into it. As a result, children are habitually missing school.

There is nothing in this Bill about additional resources for school attendance officers, who will now come under the control of the new board. There is no commitment in the Bill to additional funding for this area and that is why I am sceptical of the conclusions offered by the Minister in his Second Stage contribution. As other speakers have said, we are talking about 900 children who are not making the transition from primary to secondary school. That is an indictment of our society and of the checks and balances in our education system. That number is not huge in the context of the school going population, but it is still unacceptably high. In this city we are talking about 1,600 children every day who are not attending school. Those areas where the problem is most pronounced are the disadvantaged areas all Members know about. In those disadvantaged areas 20% of children do not attend school on a regular basis. As I said earlier, we have the ridiculous situation of 40 school attendance officers trying to deal with the problem on a national basis when we do not have one such officer in my constituency, where this is a real problem, because we are not in the Dublin Corporation area. The new county areas of Dublin, where this problem is most acute, have no school attendance system in place and there is no response from the State. That is ridiculous.

I do not like using the word "truancy" as it is rather Victorian and does not reflect the experience of those involved. This Bill is full of material one would expect from a PhD or MA in education, but it is not practical for many education providers, particularly those in my constituency and that must be addressed. The Minister accepted many Committee Stage amendments in the Seanad and I hope that on Committee Stage here he will be open to more. We are talking about children who are the products of an education system that has failed them. These are children whose parents have a very negative attitude to education and who have had poor educational experiences themselves. They had poor educational opportunities and do not relate to schools. These children are at most risk but there is no logistical provision in this Bill which will dramatically change the situation on the ground for those families. As I said earlier, the Minister was opposed to more layers of bureaucracy when he objected to the education Bill while in Opposition. However, he now seems to have accepted a bureaucratic system in this Bill, though it will not make a huge difference to children in these circumstances.

Children are not attending school for a variety of reasons and we must tackle that problem. One of the best examples of dealing with the problem in deprived areas is the partnership approach. There is an excellent project in my constituency, the STAY project in the St. Aengus area, which is trying to nip truancy in the bud by offering alternatives to children. There is a notion in education that children should be in class all the time, when a variety of models must be put in place to keep children's attention and to keep school and the curriculum relevant. The STAY project employs many extracurricular activities to keep children interested in school. There are regular group work sessions, outdoor pursuits and homework support two nights a week. Children are also given after hours tuition and support with their homework and there is an incentive built in for every week they attend. Computer skills, sports, woodwork and arts and crafts are also used. The kind of innovative work being done by the STAY project and countless other groups is the kind of model we need to adapt for the mainstream. There is no recognition of this kind of partnership approach in the Bill, though it is the only kind of intervention occurring now, and we will have to revisit this on Committee Stage.

There will have to be a greater emphasis not just on the responsibilities of parents but on the responsibilities of schools to parents. Some of the best primary schools are now involving parents in the work of the school. However, a parents' room should be a prerequisite for any new school. Parents, particularly those in deprived areas who may see the school as alien to them, should have a place in the school. Parents come into many schools in my constituency for coffee with the staff and are encouraged to take their place in the school. Parents are very involved in a school reading week in another school in my constituency. Other community leaders, such as gardaí and politicians, are encouraged to get involved in the reading week also.

These novel approaches encourage children to stay in school and try to ensure that the education system is more responsive, but they are not mentioned in the Bill. The Minister sets up a board, gives it a lump of money and tells it to go off and do its work. That is not good enough. We will have to tease out many problems with the Bill on Committee Stage. No pilot scheme is mentioned and the Minister should address this. The four areas – Cork city, Waterford, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown and Dublin city – have a structure in place to deal with school attendance problems, but I wish to refer to a speech given by the Minister on 21 September 1999. He was addressing a seminar he had established to deal with this matter and said:

It is my intention, ultimately, to extend the system of school welfare officers nationwide. While I appreciate that this objective may take some time to achieve, officials of my Department have already begun to plan for the development and expansion of the service.

Does that mean those outside the four areas I mentioned will have to wait until this new scheme is put in place? Will the schools in my constituency with attendance problems have to wait, like other parts of the country, until the new system is up and running and the board and the 40 school attendance officers have been appointed? Will we have to wait another two years for the publication of this Bill? Once again we are seeing the Minister's inertia on this issue. The Minister also stated that the development of welfare officers should be a matter for the board. In one respect, the Minister is claiming to give all this responsibility to the board while at the same time he wants to be central to the decision making process. Whose responsibility is this? We need to clarify the responsibilities of the board and the Minister.

We all recognise society's complete failure to encourage people to remain in education. There is no system in place whereby one can leave education and resume it in five or ten years, particularly as regards adult education. I welcome the announcement by the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea, about the provision of additional moneys for adult education in the development plan. However, there is no culture of easy movement in and out of education, as is the case in other EU countries where people acquire knowledge, work in industry and then return to education.

I wish to refer to the problem of school hopping which is particularly evident in September and October when parents, for whatever reason, take their children, lock, stock and barrel, out of a school, do not have another school to send them to and then complain to politicians that no other school wants to take them. I welcome the section which deals with that problem. Parents have a responsibility to ensure that before they remove their children from a school they secure a place for them in another one. There is a certain amount of educational snobbery, particularly in the larger urban areas, whereby parents feel their children are not getting a fair crack of the whip if they are not performing and consequently think they have a right to take their children from the learning environment in which they have been for a period of time and move them to another school. As someone who was involved in education for a short period, I am opposed to that. It is important to highlight this problem and I welcome the section in the Bill which deals with it.

As regards the composition of the board, the Minister must select from the unions, the parents' representatives and the trustees. The partners in education are not referred to in terms of new board members, which is a major deficiency in the Bill. I do not want this board to be another board of hacks established by this House, the composition of which is changed every three or five years at the Minister's discretion. To ensure better balance, a section mentioning all the partners should be included in the Bill stating that two members will be taken from each category. As I understand it, the Minister has sole discretion in choosing board members, which will not please the partners. This issue was discussed in the Seanad and I hope the Minister has had time to reflect on it. He should concede to the categorisation of board members similar to that in the legislation dealing with An Bord Pleanála and which needs to be in place if the Minister wants the partners on side.

The Bill is a disappointment and I will believe it is operational when I see 100 or 120 school attendance officers working in my constituency and all over the country, dealing with the problems of children who are dropping out of school. It is not comprehensive enough. It is a grave disappointment that two and a half years into office, the Government produces this Bill – an academic exercise which will not make one iota of difference to the problem of truancy.

I propose to share my time with Deputy Moloney.

Acting Chairman

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome this Education (Welfare) Bill which offers a radical and imaginative departure from the traditional approach to the problem of non-attendance and early school leavers. My opportunity to speak on this issue is especially timely given a conversation I had yesterday with a 15 year old constituent. She dropped out of school at 14 years and was absent for the year. Not one individual from the formal education system came to find her or to inquire of the circumstances which led to her being absent. A year later, only the intervention of a local youth worker, who encouraged her to return to school and spoke on her behalf on her reintroduction, resulted in her being brought back into the system. That child is enjoying being back in school and is thriving in the school environment. The structures proposed in the Bill will ensure such a child cannot come so perilously close to being lost to the rights and advantages of education. As drafted, the Bill is a courageous and bold recognition of the needs of those most at risk of suffering educational disadvantage.

More than 10,000 teenagers leave the education system each year without a qualification. The Bill puts in place another element in a framework of successive initiatives launched by this Government to target interventions towards this group. Earlier measures recognised and addressed the vital importance of linking schools to families through the extension of the home-school liaison service to every school classified as disadvantaged; the targeting of special education needs and the introduction of a needs based system of supports; the extension of the remedial teaching service to every school and the establishment of a new educational psychological service, which is under way.

The obvious objective of the Bill is to encourage young people to remain in the education system so they get the maximum benefit from it and lay a solid foundation for successful participation in their social and economic development and that of their community. Considerable progress has been made on the development of the curriculum. All these changes need to be underpinned by a strong, up-to-date, legislative framework. The new approach embodied in the Bill does this by addressing the complex issues surrounding non-attendance in a positive and holis tic way, replacing the negative and essentially punitive approach of earlier legislation.

The key objective of the Bill is to provide a structure to encourage and promote school attendance and by so doing to give our students a solid education basis in later life. We are all acutely aware of the strong evidence of close links between poor school attendance and social and economic disadvantage. This Bill recognises the complexity of the issues that surround and determine school non-attendance and early school leaving, explicitly acknowledging that a multitude of factors contribute to these problems. It creates a forward-looking and proactive support mechanism for children. Its focus is not merely on punishing poor school attendance as was evident in previous Acts but on promoting positive attitudes to school attendance.

With the exception of the limited school attendance service, dedicated supports are not currently provided to assist schools in tackling school attendance problems. The Bill is radical in proposing a new structure in the form of the educational welfare board to, for the first time, provide dedicated support to schools and to engage with the wider issues surrounding school absenteeism. Recording and reporting absenteeism will allow for appropriate direction of the resources of the new Educational Welfare Bill so that schools which are at the coal face in dealing with this problem are adequately supported. The Bill goes to the heart of our responsibilities and commitments to enhance the life chances of all children through education in its attempts to address the needs of children who risk marginalisation and for whom the mainstream approaches have not worked.

Early school leaving and absenteeism are hugely problematic in some schools while they barely feature in others. We must ensure enough flexibility so that the board is able to direct its attention where its help is most needed rather than having its resources diverted to engaging in extensive bureaucratic interaction with schools where the problem does not feature. I am concerned to ensure there is enough room for flexibility at local level in the provisions of the Bill. The national structure must be flexible enough to be sufficiently attuned to deal with an issue which is intensively local and community based.

The issue of why children do not attend, or drop out of school early is not only an educational problem. It is usually a symptom of more wide ranging difficulties in a variety of areas which cannot be addressed through the educational system alone. Many of the reasons are deeply interwoven in the environment and support available in those communities. The Bill makes provision for liaison between the board and 49 specified bodies. The concept of integrated delivery of support services is hugely important, but an integrated delivery with a top down approach is not sufficient.

The Bill and the work of educational welfare officers must allow a place for people in the area based partnerships and the different community initiatives who have been trying to create mechanisms to support early school leavers. I refer in particular to the recent initiatives being undertaken in Crumlin and Drimnagh. The vital importance of their contribution must be recognised and incorporated. Local structures must be provided and mechanisms in terms of how they will interface with the new national structure must be devised.

The biggest challenge facing the Bill is how to ensure a prescribed minimum education for every child. As it stands, there is provision in the Bill for an early warning system in the new record keeping measures and then, as a final endeavour, provisions for delivering responsibility for a child's education to the board in the event of the child being expelled and refused admission to school. We need to know what happens in between and this issue must be addressed on Committee Stage.

There is no point waiting until a latent problem has hit crisis point or goes beyond the stage where the child has become marginalised from the system. We need to elucidate the types of strategies and approaches which the education welfare officer will pursue in the event of finding a child who persistently fails to attend and which will be acted on before the situation reaches crisis point and results in expulsion. The Bill does not outline what will be done in a realistic and committed sense of partnership with communities and families to deliver a pooled set of services to children who will otherwise fall out of the system. All this needs to be set out in statute. Otherwise, we risk worthy aspirations going awry on implementation.

The Bill contains definite and clear provisions regarding the recording and reporting responsibilities of schools. If we want this Bill to have an impact, recording and reporting is not enough. We need to go further and determine the response that follows on from an early warning system. The Bill mentions schools designing strategies and sending them to the board. However, we need to know how we can be satisfied that they will be implemented. There is a need for elucidation on a statutory basis for a framework of practical support for schools, personal plans, case conferences and referral systems to appropriate agencies. We need to know how all the parties relevant to the problem will be gathered together and how action will stem from that arrangement. All these issues deserve attention on Committee Stage.

A major issue in Dublin South Central is what happens to children who are in the school system and who may be working until midnight and later which is a common occurrence. How can these children be expected to come to school the next day and participate fully? We must work out the means to deal with the problems of those whose work is interfering with their schooling. We must find some way to support these children.

The Government's concern that young people should benefit to the maximum extent from the education system does not stop when they reach school leaving age. We must ensure that the 16 to 18 years age group is also looked after, particularly those who are in employment. There must be a system where employers have a responsibility to ensure that further training and educational courses are given to the 16 to 18 year old group to ensure they will not continue in marginalised jobs and risk future unemployment.

I thank Deputy Ardagh for sharing his time. I welcome the Bill because it addresses the needs of a vulnerable section of society, the young people who drop out of school early without a qualification. Many of these young people join the ranks of the long-term unemployed and often get caught in a cycle of poverty from which they cannot extricate themselves. Many of these young people leave school because of the temptation of earning a wage for the first time. In many cases, the wages are low and the job prospects are poor. Some may re-enter the education system through adult education schemes but, unfortunately, many are condemned to live forever in the cycle of poverty created by dropping out of school early.

The Bill is aimed at tackling the problems of poor school attendance and early drop out from the education system. It is unacceptable that we should continue to tolerate the level of drop out which exists at present. The current attendance system is governed by outdated legislation, mainly the School Attendance Act, 1926. The existing legislation is often implemented in a haphazard manner and has been proved ineffective in many areas.

I welcome the general aim of the Bill which is to provide a comprehensive national system for ensuring that children of compulsory school going age attend school or, if they do not attend, that they receive at least a minimum education. This aims to raise the minimum school leaving age to 16 years or the completion of three years at junior cycle level. It also aims to establish a comprehensive legislative and administrative system for dealing with school attendance problems and to amend existing school attendance legislation.

The Bill will integrate early identification and intervention in problem cases in the normal work of schools, a move which I welcome. An important point is that the legislation will shift the focus of school attendance from sanctions to addressing the underlying causes of truancy and helping to identify at an early stage children who may be at risk of developing school attendance problems. As previous speakers noted, the Bill will impose a duty on schools to have a more pro-active approach to problems of absenteeism. It seeks to ensure that schools will be more alert to their duty towards students regarded as problem children.

The Government has always considered the issue of young people leaving school early with out qualifications as a policy priority. It was highlighted in the programme for Government.

Last December the Minister announced that all schools classified as disadvantaged would have a home/school/community liaison teacher and every school would have the services of a remedial teacher. This Bill proposes to bring together the full range of interventions both within and outside school. The previous School Attendance Acts, 1926 and 1963, were enacted to ensure children attended school. They treated those who failed to attend as delinquent and deserving of punishment. The Bill will put in place legislation that will give effect to a system that will seek out the causes of school attendance problems and ways to remedy them. I am satisfied that the Bill will raise the school leaving age from 15 to 16 years or three years post-primary education, whichever is the later. A comparison with the previous School Attendance Acts shows this is a new approach to school attendance and early school leaving.

The Bill will enable us as a society to produce well educated students who are fully developed as individuals with the qualifications necessary to be financially independent and play their part in the economic and social life of the country. Students who leave school must be capable of adapting to the economic reality of life-long learning. Too many young people leave school before the age of 17 without obtaining any qualifications that would make them suitable for the world of work. The State must intervene and ensure these young people receive the education they need and to which they are entitled. The present legislation seeks to ensure students remain in school until they are 15 years of age but this Bill seeks to ensure they have a qualification before leaving school.

As I mentioned previously, there is a problem with young people leaving school early to take up low paid employment with poor future prospects. In these days of the Celtic tiger and our economic boom this can seem very attractive but often such jobs are the first to suffer when the inevitable slow down occurs. At present when students leave school at 15 years of age they are outside the system and there is no opportunity to provide further help for them. Under the proposed Bill there is an opportunity to radically address this where students will register, and proof of registration will be required to take up employment. Unfortunately, over 10,000 students leave school early each year. There is strong evidence of a close link between poor school attendance and social and economic disadvantage in later life. A recent survey shows that 90% of households classified as poor are headed by an early school leaver. People with low educational qualifications have less chance of employment than those with higher qualifications. A recent ESRI survey made the point that the absence of any educational qualification leaves many early school leavers spending much of their lives unemployed.

I am glad the Bill seeks to take a proactive rather than a reactive approach to the problems of non-attendance and early school leaving and seeks to promote positive attitudes to school attendance. The Bill aims to encourage young people to remain in the education system so as to derive the maximum benefit from it and, in the process, lay a solid foundation for successful participation in society.

I am pleased that the Bill introduces a new national education board. That is welcome. It will be responsible for the implementation and operation of this Bill and of school attendance policies and activities. It will provide a supportive framework to assist schools and minimise the impact of compliance with the Bill. The board will have a national remit and will appoint education and welfare officers for each school or group of schools who will have responsibility, at local level, for implementing the Bill. It will have two keys roles – ensuring that every child receives a minimum education and supporting and assisting schools in promoting school attendance. There will be close liaison between this board and the many other agencies that already operate in the local school attendance areas. This close co-operation should ensure that potential problems are identified well in advance. The education welfare officers appointed by the board will provide a positive and supportive role to children and schools and ensure children receive their entitlement to education. The service will vary depending on the extent of the non-attendance problem evident in each area.

The Bill will ensure our education system will respond in a positive fashion to the needs of that group who are in a vulnerable position in society. It represents a radical new approach to a problem that has existed for some considerable time. I welcome the Bill.

I do not believe any Deputy will disagree with the objective of the Bill which is to tackle and resolve the issues of truancy and early school leaving.

When presenting the Bill to the House the Minister stated it had been drafted to address the needs of those most as risk of suffering educational disadvantage. He went on to say that it represents a radical but necessary departure from the traditional problem of non-attendance. In a major initiative it proposes to put in place a supportive infrastructure to help every element of the system to make its own contribution to tackling school attendance difficulties.

I hope these are not just fine words and sentiments. However, as we know from experience, the School Attendance Act, 1926, was also strong on sentiment and ideals and yet the Department stood by and let the system fall by the wayside. What evidence do we have that this Bill will be any different?

The history of the Department's record in fulfilling its obligations under the School Attendance Acts is one of serious neglect, under-resourcing and failure to fulfil its obligations. Against this background how can the Minister expect a warm welcome for this Bill that neither pins legal responsibility on the proposed new education welfare service to deliver on the objectives of the Bill nor obliges the Minister to adequately resource the service?

One must take into account the long-term neglect of the school attendance service when considering the justifiable scepticism among the teachers, school attendance officers, social workers, youth and community workers, probation officers, gardaí and other related professionals in their responses to this Bill. They have all had countless experiences of sitting in health board convened case conferences or planning meetings about young children where truancy is a major problem or perhaps the child's behaviour is causing such a problem that the school can no longer cope. Such case conferences are laudable attempts to deal with the difficulties the child is experiencing but time and again these professionals have come up against a brick wall. They know what services they would like to put in place to keep the children in school. Where services exist the waiting list is so long that the child will be well past any intervention by the time his or her name is reached.

Imagine the frustration and anger of these professionals, whose hands are tied, as they watch countless young people start on the slippery slope to life outside school, more often than not a life of crime and drug abuse. Imagine the pain and anger of these children's parents who, together with the professionals, know that early intervention is the key. An immediate referral to an educational psychologist may be the answer for the child, a place in a remedial class or smaller class may have stopped the rot but these are not and have not been available for many children.

Throughout my period as a public representative I have met countless parents in clinics who were at their wits end because their children were facing expulsion from school and the parents were not in a position to appeal that decision or do anything about it, often because of their own difficult circumstances. The reality for a young person who has been expelled is that most other schools will refuse to offer the child a place and that is the end of the child's formal education. We do not welcome that but it is my experience and I am sure it is the same elsewhere in the country.

To date, countless young people have simply disappeared from our education system. One or two may have been lucky to have been picked up by some area based initiative or community project, of which there are many, but many have slipped through the net to a life of poverty and disadvantage.

The education of children is of particular importance in any country. Ireland has always prided itself on the standard and quality of our education system – a nation of scholars. We should be embarrassed at how we as a progressive country have stood back and allowed children drop out of education too soon and enter into a life cycle of poverty. I am sure Deputies are aware of the strong evidence of a close link between early school leaving and social and economic disadvantage in later life. The Minister referred to a CORI study when commending the Bill to the House. This shows that 92% of households classified as poor are headed by an early school leaver and that with low educational qualifications have less chance of employment than those with higher educational qualifications.

A 1996 report shows that an estimated 15,000 young people opted out of the educational system at some stage. Of these, more than 900 did not attend secondary school. More than 3,000 left before their junior certificate and 7,500 left before the leaving certificate examination. An estimated 85% of those who leave school early come from working class backgrounds or small farms. In a more recent report entitled "Resources and Choices – Towards a Fairer Future", CORI calls for the creation of a society with a place for all, which is socially, economically and environmentally sustainable in the long-term. Among the means for achieving this it suggests is an education system which would enable people to participate fully and meaningfully in developing themselves, their community and the wider society. It proposes that the State should provide the necessary funding to completely eliminate the phenomenon of early school leaving without a qualification by the year 2000. Will this Bill go any way towards meeting this objective?

The ESRI in its identification of the national investment priorities for 2000-06 have also pointed out that those who leave school without any qualifications are likely to spend much of their lives unemployed. They have also highlighted interventions for children who currently do not make it through the system as the first priority for investment in education.

Recently a report was published by the Area Development Management which made a recommendation to the Minister for Education and Science on how to tackle educational disadvantage. The report outlines the need for further training and support for teachers and educators working with young people. Speech therapists, educational psychologists, teacher counsellors and literacy support are all necessary features of a successful effort to stop educational disadvantage. Where are these provisions in the Bill? The resource implications of the proposals in the Bill are considerable and will require generous financing. The Minister must recognise this if we are to make any progress in tackling this serious and crucial issue of early school leaving.

My scepticism, and that of many professionals in the educational field, is linked to some of the facts about the shortcomings in our current education system. These shortcomings are too often directly experienced by young children on a day to day basis in their short schoolgoing lives. These are the children the Minister hopes the Bill will enable to participate in the education system for longer and benefit to the maximum extent from the system.

I will give some examples of the shortcomings to which I refer. There are still 200,000 pupils in classes of 30 or more in primary schools. Some 500 schools are still without access to a remedial teacher. Schools lucky enough to have a remedial teacher generally find that they have so many pupils to cater for that the service provided is often minimal and of little effect. The pupil teacher ratio for special schools and special classes set out in the special education review has not yet been fully implemented. Only one primary school in four receives a psychology service from the Department of Education and Science.

Most commentators will agree that the problem of educational disadvantage begins at primary level. Intervention at primary level is the best way to keep at school children who experience difficulties, for whatever reason. How can we be serious about the proposals to tackle early school leaving and educational disadvantage when these kind of shortcomings exist in primary schools? The problems currently experienced by primary schools because of the shortcomings of the educational psychology service are a prime illustration of my argument. Educational psychologists assess children who present with educational and behavioural problems in the classroom. Such children often may be experiencing a whole range of other difficulties and may well be at risk of early school leaving. They also help teachers to deal with problems such as bullying, advise them on teaching pupils with special needs and maintain liaison with health boards and other agencies.

Approximately 2,000 primary school pupils will be assessed by an educational psychologist this year. A recent Eastern Health Board report suggests that six times this number may suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. A child with ADD must be assessed by an educational psychologist before the school can make an application for funding for special resources or special classes for a group of children. Without the educational psychologist's report, the Department cannot even consider meeting the child's needs. The teacher is then left with the impossible task of managing this child, together with the 29 or more other children in the class. Is this child one of the children the Minister hopes to retain within the education system? He cannot do this without an adequately funded psychological service.

As we speak, Saint Kilian's junior and senior national schools in Castleview, Tallaght, have 900 pupils and one educational psychology service between them. The principal was quoted recently in the newspapers as saying that he has children who are emotionally disturbed and who need help. These are the children whom the Minister thinks this Bill will enable to remain in school until they obtain a qualification. That same principal went on to criticise the level of help given by the Department when an application for special resources is granted. He said he had a visually impaired child and that that child would be worth one-eighth of a teacher. Another principal was quoted as saying that his school is allocated four hours per week of a special teacher's time for an emotionally disturbed child. He said this allocation was completely inadequate and presumably would not facilitate him in keeping this child in school.

It is my contention that the Education Welfare Bill is flawed because it is set in the current context of an inadequately resourced primary school system. In terms of the Bill itself, it is a totally inadequate response to the problem of early school leaving. As I have already suggested, early school leaving will only be resolved by providing support services to enable schools to offer a range of assistance to pupils at risk of leaving school early. Resources will also be needed for out of school activities in the community. Whereas the Minister takes account of the wider picture of early school leaving, he fails to do anything about it in the context of the Bill.

The Bill imposes statutory duties and responsibilities on school principals, boards and teachers and expects that this will resolve the issue. There is not a commitment to provide extra resources to ease the increased workload which will follow for teachers, principals and board members. Little or nothing is offered to assist schools with the pressing problem of discipline. What exactly is the school supposed to do with the child who is persistently absent or indulges in unacceptable behaviour in the school? The TUI in its response claims that appropriate sanctions are not specified in the Bill which does not give the board of management the right to enforce the code of discipline and does not require parents to accept the school's code of discipline.

The Bill is almost silent on the rights of the child in that there is not a legal right of the child to the appropriate support services. There is not a system of any appeal for the child or its parents where they might feel they are not being treated fairly or have not been provided with the necessary support or services. The National Educational Welfare Board will not automatically have teacher, parent or management representation. The teachers unions have already made known their unease at the absence of a teaching representative and have predicted that problems of an industrial relations nature may follow if this is allowed to be the case.

The provision that deals with expulsion from schools is seriously flawed. The Bill proposes to wait until a child has been expelled before considering the supports and services he or she may require. Surely it would make more sense to address the child's needs before the matter reaches the crisis stage of expulsion. The Bill makes boards of management responsible for finding a suitable place in some other school for a pupil who has been expelled. It is beyond me how this will work. Will an alternative school agree to take a pupil who has been expelled?

The role of the new education welfare service requires further clarification and the duties of the welfare officer need to be specified. A crucial element of the welfare service will be its ability to work alongside the many other professionals involved in the child's education and welfare. This type of successful working in partnership can be achieved only where there are clear boundaries and no dereliction of duties. Already home-school liaison teachers have begun to express fears that their positions could be redefined to include some kind of enforcement role in terms of school non-attendance. Such a move would be disastrous for a service that has been very successful to date in fostering the vital links between home and school for some students.

The Bill does not place any obligation on employers to ensure early school leavers continue their education in some form. This is despite a suggestion from the Minister that the Bill would include a scheme under which all school leavers under 18 would have to maintain their links with the education system on a part-time basis. The Bill fails to address the question of pupils who work long hours outside school hours which disrupts their performances when at school. I had hoped the Bill would place some obligation on employers in respect of students who work at night or at weekends.

An innovation of the Bill will be the registration of all children being educated outside the school system, such as at home. Registration will involve assessing such education to ensure it is up to minimum standards. Whereas this is a welcome development and parents who chose to educate their children at home must be in some way accountable for the level of education they provide, it is unfortunate that this provision is included in a Bill which is perceived by many of these parents to deal with truancy and social disadvantage. Those who have chosen to educate their children at home are unhappy at being included in the same Bill. Such families have a commitment to education. Those parents feel the Bill is punitive in tone and that the standards used to assess home education may be arbitrary. They also point out that the Bill fails to mention supports for home education, such as grants for books or an information service.

This Bill does not address the question of why so many young people with their whole lives ahead of them abandon the so-called best years of their lives for a life of unemployment. Many of those who leave school early claim there is no link between what they do in school and what they do outside school. Such discontinuity occurs for cultural and socio-economic reasons and it involves not only the child's ability to cope with school but also the school's inability to cope with the needs of the disadvantaged child. People who live in poverty will always choose an immediate opportunity to secure an income over the longer term benefits of an education because they have to cope with the daily demands of life.

If the Bill is to have any real effect on those at risk of early school leaving, it must address these issues. Schemes such as the home-school liaison service, Breaking the Cycle, the Early Start Initiative and the initiative for eight to 15 year olds at risk must be expanded and made available to all disadvantaged communities. Youthreach courses, the educational psychological service and the remedial teacher and counselling service must be expanded and pupil-teacher ratios must addressed

The Department of Education and Science has set a target of 90% for leaving certificate completion by the year 2000. This goal cannot be reached without investment in the types of measures I have outlined, combined with efforts to redress the serious shortcomings in the primary school system. I hope the cycle of disadvantage can be broken to give all young people a chance to share in Ireland's Celtic tiger economy, but it will not be broken by this Education (Welfare) Bill. I urge the Minister to take on board the comments from the many professionals who are concerned about the inadequacies of this Bill and not let this opportunity slip.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Roche.

In discussing this or any new legislation, it is paramount that we are mindful of the fact that we are going through the most rapidly changing period for education since the setting up of free education in the 1960s. This is thanks in no small way to the Minister and his Department. I appreciate that in praising the Minister for Education and Science for his dynamic and innovative approach and, more importantly, for his ability to get funding for that approach, I may be accused of praising a party or constituency colleague.

Losing a few more votes.

It is important to acknowledge the excellent improvements that have been consistently put in place since he took office. The announcement of the figures for next year's budget already indicate a 16% increase over the 1999 budget. That is what it is about, getting the funding and having the vision to put in place programmes.

The various sectors involved in education may argue about the priorities and how we should spend that huge increased budget. Deputy Hayes referred to a few of the internal arguments and they will be ever present, but it is important that we have provided the money and that we argue our priorities here and outside.

We must view all of this in a positive light. In these debates, we should acknowledge the progress, but we should also highlight any weakness or short-coming in the area of education. Many speakers mentioned the 10,000 people who slipped through the net by leaving school early. As chairman of a health board a few years ago, I made a point publicly that the greatest heart break for me was the lack of facilities for severely and profoundly mentally handicapped people. One of the difficulties highlighted was the fact that the matter was falling between two Departments, the Departments of Health and Children and of Education and Science. Most of the difficulty has been resolved and I depend on the Minister for Education and Science, in particular, to improve matters because if anybody is to make progress in that area, it will be him.

The recently announced National Development Plan provides £5.35 billion for spending in this area over the next seven years. At the core of this is an enormous investment to tackle adult literacy problems and to provide for massively expanded second chance educational facilities. Recently CORI highlighted that four out of ten adults left school before the age of 15. We must address that problem.

The Minister stated that the National Development Plan represents the largest ever commitment to the improvement to the education system at primary, secondary and third levels. The sheer scale of proposed spending is mind-boggling to those of us who lived and worked through the era when the country was on the brink of bankruptcy. In particular, I remember 1986, not just because we were in Opposition but because some of the more illustrious gurus at that stage suggested that we would either hand over to a small group of business people or to the International Monetary Fund, which was demanding its money back. We have moved fairly rapidly since then. Undoubtedly the economic prosperity we now enjoy is due in large measure to the commitment to the education of pupils by parents and the teaching fraternity and the quality of the education they provided over the years.

Recent surveys, in analysing our prosperity, have shown that quality education underpins economic success and enhances the quality of life. I accept that there are rare exceptions to this rule, namely, people who become millionaires despite leaving school at 12 years of age. However, these people are exceptions and should be recognised as such. For the average person, further education will enhance their quality of life and improve their prospects.

The emphasis on adult literacy and second chance education in the national development plan is indicative of the Minister's enlightened approach. There will always be a certain number of people who will slip through the education net in their early years and the provision of appropriate educational facilities to them in subsequent years is crucial in terms of helping them to enjoy rewarding lives. It is important, however, that the number of people who drop out of the education system is kept as low as possible. We could beblasé and say that there will always be people who will slip through the net. However, it is incumbent on us to ensure that the figure remains low. I welcome the fact that the Bill focuses on the need to drastically reduce the number of people who miss out on educational development in their early years.

I welcome the provision which regulates non-recognised schools, a matter to which Deputy Clune also referred. It is my understanding that there are about 200 families who educate their children at home. At its recent conference, the group Home Education Network criticised the Bill on the basis that it requires parents who choose not to send their children to recognised schools to allow inspectors to observe the instruction being given. The group believes that this is an infringement of the constitutional right of parents to educate their children. This criticism is based on a misreading of the Bill and it is an unnecessarily pessimistic view of how the Bill will be implemented.

In my opinion, the best interests of a child are served by their being educated in a recognised school because this gives the child access to the professional expertise of the teaching staff, the facilities offered by the school and, very importantly, the social interaction resulting from mixing with other students. However, where a parent has the dedication and willingness to educate their child, this too must be a viable educational model.

There will be obvious concerns about the ability of parents to provide the range of facilities provided by a recognised school. However, few could doubt the commitment of parents who educate their children and help them develop. In that context, the Bill provides a happy medium because the right of parents to be the primary educators of their children is upheld and the role of the State in protecting the welfare of its citizens is fulfilled through the requirement that educational inspectors must be satisfied with the quality of the education to be provided. I accept that a High Court judge indicated that the State had not laid down a clear definition of the term "quality of education" and difficulties may arise as a result. However, the Minister is taking appropriate and early action in that regard.

The provisions relating to attendance at school and school discipline are welcome. Truancy can be a significant problem in many schools. In addition to undermining a child's individual education, it can disrupt the work of other pupils and teachers. It is difficult to imagine any single measure that could solve the problem of truancy, which has many causes. The Bill draws together a number of existing initiatives as well as introducing some additional measures. It provides for each school to have an appropriate attendance strategy and legally ties parents to the requirement to ensure that their children attend school up to the age of 16. This is particularly important and, together with the requisite level of resources, it should lead to a significant easing of the problem in the coming years.

Like other Members, I am concerned that the level of truancy is related to the availability of part-time work as a result of the benefits of the Celtic tiger. In that regard, we must ensure that the provisions in the Protection of Young Persons (Employment) Act, 1996, are implemented. Depending on their circumstances, children may be encouraged to leave the education system and partake of the finance offered by part-time employment. Parents have a critical monitoring role in this area.

The Bill is welcome on a number of grounds – it underpins the commitment to educational development contained in the national development plan; it provides a sensible balance between the welfare of children, the obligation of the State and the rights of parents in respect of the education of their children; it establishes a national welfare board to promote and foster in society and in families an appreciation of the benefits of education and it streamlines the process of tackling school truancy.

I thank Deputy Dennehy for sharing his time and I compliment him on his excellent contribution.

It is often said that Ireland's only real natural resource is people, which is a truism. We must recognise that education plays a fundamental role in the development of that scarce resource. The foundations of the current economic prosperity we are enjoying lie in decisions taken in respect of the education system 20, 30 or 40 years ago. For example, brave and courageous decisions were made by Ministers for Education, such as Donogh O'Malley, who, against the odds and to the horror of officials in the Department of Finance, came to the conclusion that free education was not only attainable but was necessary. Paddy Lynch and the team who put together the OECD document, "Investment in Education", gave sense and direction to the development of education, particularly technological and scientific education, in this country. A great deal of the prosperity enjoyed in the areas of IT and micro-electronics arises as a direct result of those decisions. It is often forgotten that Paddy Hillery's welcome decision to establish the regional technical colleges represents an extraordinary piece of clear thinking.

Education is extremely important. I do not say so out of a sense of political sycophancy but when we consider this period in ten or 15 years we will recognise the valid, valiant and welcome contributions made by the current Minister for Education and Science. A number of the criticisms made against him are unfair and unfounded. A previous speaker criticised the Minister in terms of the resources being provided. It is clear, however, that he has been remarkably successful in wresting resources from the Department of Finance. As a former official of that Department, I appreciate, perhaps more fully than other Members, exactly how difficult that is to achieve. If one considers the provisions on education in the national development plan which was published earlier in the week, it is obvious that remarkable progress is being made.

The Bill is a welcome development because it addresses a number of fundamentally important issues, namely, why children leave school, why they are sometimes driven out of school and the circumstances which prompt them to surrender their future, either for some short-term gain or because there is some impediment to the way they are realising their capacity and full potential.

One of the greatest tragedies in this country is that our society has become modern, developed, progressive and confident but, as the two previous speakers stated, we are faced with huge numbers of people dropping out of the system. In so doing, they are robbing themselves of their own potential and robbing the nation of the realisation of their true capacities. This is a serious issue and the Minister was right to address it in the way he has done in the Bill. Deputy O'Shea correctly stated that there are wider issues with which we must deal but we cannot deal with every issue in one Bill. There is a theory in economics – the theory of the "second best"– that if you cannot solve all of the problems at once, you solve individual problems incrementally. Although this is sadly referred to as a theory, it has certain pragmatic benefits.

The Bill is aimed at addressing a major problem with which we are all familiar, namely, the tragedy of young people who, for whatever reason, cannot continue their education. I welcome the Bill in broad terms. I will focus on the issues in the Bill which concern me, although I welcome the Bill and feel the Minister is achieving an enormous amount.

The Bill provides a statutory enforcement of the existing imposition on parents and on the State in this regard. I am deeply concerned by the manner in which home educators have responded to the Bill. I do not take the view that their response has been hysterical; they have a reasonable basis for fear. They are fearful that an ideological viewpoint might gain the upper hand in the inspectorate and that a situation might arise where they would be faced with more stringent tests of their capacity to provide education than would professionals in the education system. I have sympathy with that viewpoint. I know many home educators who did not choose that path easily. They did not choose it because they were quirky, they chose it in some circumstances because of what they perceived as a necessity for their children and because they perceive that the formal education system has failed their children. It is important to recognise that.

Unlike Deputy O'Shea, I welcome the establishment of the National Educational Welfare Board. The Minister is right to establish a stand alone board. I cannot understand the criticism of this. To suggest this is the equivalent of the crazy proposition of Ms Breathneach as Minister for Education to set up regional boards, which were nothing other than an entirely spurious layer of bureaucracy, is to misread the Bill in a profound sense. The National Educational Welfare Board will focus on the welfare of the children.

Having praised the board, and the Minister for producing it I will express my concerns about the focus of the board. I am familiar with many failures in the education system, as is every other Member. It may not be politically correct to refer to them and it is certainly not politically judicious to refer to them because when talking about the education system, a person who is critical faces the wrath of a strong and entrenched profession. I do not know of any case where formal home education has driven a child into the difficulties experienced by children involved in truancy. It is the failure of the formal education which arise in their cases. I have experience of dealing with the Department under this and previous Ministers in this regard. I drew to their attention a small minority of cases which are ignored, where children, because of personality clashes or deficiencies in teaching, are driven out of school – they do not leave school. I know of one case where a teacher was clearly incapable of teaching but was allowed to continue in that position with vulnerable children in a deprived working class area. I drew this issue to the attention of two separate Ministers and the Department. The Department did nothing. The welfare of children is threatened in such circumstances by formal education. I hope the National Educational Welfare Board will address that issue.

It does not just happen at primary level, it also happens at secondary level. Last year I had to intervene in a case where an absolutely brilliant child, a child who went on to score almost 600 points in the leaving certificate, had a major problem with a teacher. When the issue was brought to the attention of the principal, he said he was aware of the problem, and had been for years, that the teacher should not have been in the system but there was nothing he could do. I hope the National Educational Welfare Board, when it comes to fulfil its task, will look at the internal factors which drive children out of school as well as those which cause them to leave of their own volition or because of a failure of parental guidance.

I accept the Bill. The provision of strategies for schools will have to be funded. All too often principals and assistant principals find themselves so tied down with day to day detail that it is hard for them to plan or to involve themselves with strategies.

Although I have some small doubts about the Bill, I commend it to the House. I hope the Minister will address the issues the home educators have brought to his attention. These are serious issues raised by serious people who should be listened to.

I also welcome this legislation. Members will highlight issues of concern to them in the course of the debate. The Bill, as presented, allows us an opportunity to comment on matters of concern which are not fully addressed in by it and I hope the Minister will take some of those on board on committee stage.

Most of us recognise, at a time when the Government has an unprecedented level of resources available to it, that we must ensure that those resources are applied as effectively as possible in education to ensure that current problems in the sector are addressed.

The education sector has hugely improved over the past 30 years. The farsighted decision of a former Minister, Donogh O'Malley, to provide free education was mentioned. Deputy John Bruton has said on more than one occasion that decision had a huge impact on the economic development of the State. We sometimes speak of the cost of education but every pound spent on education is an investment in the future. The political decisions of the 1960s and 1970s are now reaping an economic reward for the State.

Today the tremendous progress at third level is noticeable. A record number of students now attend third level education and there is a course to suit almost every leaving certificate student. If we looked at that sector alone we would think all our problems had been solved. We must, however, concentrate on the other side of the coin – the number of people leaving school early with barely any education, the number of pupils who find school a complete turn off and the parents who have no interest in education. It is in that stratum of society that the problems exist. We must focus our attention on those people and devise a solution.

This Bill provides for a minimum standard of education, the registration of children being educated at home and compulsory school attendance. I am sure that it will, to a degree, be effective, but the legislation will not work unless it is funded, monitored and controlled. It is always difficult to accept, for instance, that a sizeable number of children leave school before reaching the minimum school leaving age.

Debate adjourned.
Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.