Education (Welfare) Bill, 1999 [ Seanad ] : Report Stage (Resumed) and Final Stage.

Debate resumed on amendment No. 65:
In page 18, to delete lines 42 to 46 and substitute the following:
"(5) The board of management of a recognised school shall, not later than 6 weeks after the end of each school year, submit a report to–
(a) the educational welfare officer who has been assigned functions under this Act in relation to that school, and
(b) the parents' association of the recognised school concerned established under section 26 of the Act of 1998 (where so established), on the levels of attendance at that school during the immediately preceding school year.”.
–(Minister for Education and Science).

On a point of order, the Minister prior to the break at lunch-time, stated that there were 60 school attendance officers. That figure is incorrect.

I said there were between 50 and 60 such officers.

There are 36 school attendance officers and the Minister may wish to take this opportunity to correct the record.

That is not a point of order but the Minister may wish to comment on it.

I do not contest the point made by the Deputy. The information I have been given is that there are between 50 and 60.

Surely the Minister knows.

This amendment arises from a Committee Stage amendment proposed by Deputy Richard Bruton. Inclusion of this provision will ensure that as well as the educational welfare officer who has been assigned to each school, the parents association of the school is also informed of the levels of attendance in the school during the school year. This will also meet the thrust of amendment No. 66 proposed by Deputy Bruton.

I welcome this amendment. I am glad the arguments made on Committee Stage are reflected in the Minister's amendment.

Amendment agreed to.
Amendment No. 66 not moved.

I move amendment No. 67:

In page 19, between lines 10 and 11, to insert the following:

"22.–The Board, in pursuit of its functions, shall–

(a) undertake initiatives involving networks of schools and outside agencies to develop supports to assist schools in the retention of students at risk in education,

(b) participate in and promote the participation of schools in integrated service initiatives in support of families with difficulties across the full range of supports needed,

(c) develop models of financial and other support for students that will encourage continued participation in education, and

(d) develop and run training programmes for staff, particularly for schools which have asubstantial problem with attendance and early leaving.".

If the board is to be a success it must do much more than simply react to individual cases which come to its attention. It must undertake initiatives within schools and groups of schools to promote a different approach to children with difficulties. It must take a lead in developing integrated responses from across the range of service providers, such as the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs and the health boards, to respond to the needs of individual children. It must develop models, including financial models, which encourage people to stay on at school and it must be given the resources to do this. The board must also look at the training needs of some teachers in developing new methods and techniques to respond to the problems presented by early leavers and non-attenders. Very often the culture of the school is not sufficiently welcoming or supportive of these students.

The Bill would be significantly improved if it made explicit reference to certain things we would like to see. This amendment requests the board to encourage networks of schools to work with the community to develop integrated service initiatives and new models and ways of encouraging retention, and become involved in the training of teachers who could be supportive of this process.

I hope the Minister will accept this amendment which can only enhance the Bill. It will give the board guidance as to what the Oireachtas expects of it. I accept that the board's general functions do not preclude it from doing some of these things. However, this is the last occasion on which the Oireachtas can express a view on how we would like to see it conduct its work and this view should be reflected in the text of the Bill.

Deputy Bruton has proposed three specific actions for the board to combat non-attendance. These are networks of schools, integrated service initiatives and models of support. These are all important actions but they are not the only means by which the board might prevent non-attendance, nor do I think these ideas will be effective for all time.

If the problem of non-attendance lent itself to easy solutions the OECD would not now be reporting that every country it surveyed has some degree of difficulty with non-attendance at school. Therefore, I propose a general obligation on the board to investigate any and all means to reduce non-attendance and encourage participation in school. The Deputy's suggestions will be tested by the board. If they are successful, of course they will be developed and used. If not, the duty remains on the board to search for new strategies to reduce non-attendance at school.

Regarding the fourth point of the Deputy's amendment, there is already a specific duty on the board to carry out reviews of the training and guidance given to teachers in the area of school attendance and conduct. It is intended that the board would liaise with teacher educators, such as the colleges of education and the universities, to inform and advise them as to the training needs of teachers in this area. In addition, two working groups are currently considering the pre-service education programmes undertaken by both primary and post-primary teachers. Both of these working groups have been asked to consider the particular training needs of teachers to help them to treat children coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. These reports are expected shortly.

While I agree with the Deputy with regard to the three measures he proposes, I put an onus on the board to investigate any and all means to reduce non-attendance and encourage participation in school. The amendment would create a danger of a concentration on these three measures to the neglect of others. For that reason I do not accept it.

Will the Minister admit that he is trying to leave this section as loose as possible because to prescribe specific actions for the board would be to commit to financial expenditure, which he is not prepared to do?

The debate on the Bill has demonstrated the mistake made by the Government in abandoning the idea of local education boards. As time goes on we see the increasing demand at community level for a local response to educational disadvantage and general educational issues. Difficulty is being caused by individual schools having to deal with the bureaucratic centre in Marlborough Street or Tullamore.

The Minister must accept that giving a legislative basis to the specific tasks proposed for the board by Deputy Bruton would ensure they are carried out. The obligation to take any and all means allows the board to take any of the measures proposed in the amendment or not. The board should be required to take particular actions.

Particular local factors, such as high levels of drug dependency among parents and siblings, poor housing conditions or poor rural transport making access to schooling difficult, can contribute to severe educational disadvantage. The absence of child care can place demands on older children in a family and prevent them attending school. Many such issues require an area-based response and the co-operation of the education partners with other agencies. One cannot tackle problems in a school in isolation. A school is part of a community in which there are usually other schools.

Issues affecting communities impact negatively on the students in those schools. There is a very strong basis for the proposal that there would be an area based response to non-attendance. The board should be required to take that kind of approach. Also, the development of models to provide financial and other supports for students to encourage them to participate in education has been raised often at community level. Various organisations have an interest in this area, whether through area partnerships or local drugs task forces, where proposals are now emerging on the specific issues that inhibit full participation in school. Some of those proposals include providing some kind of educational or financial supports to individual students. Again, it should be the responsibility of the board to propose models such as this, to examine best practice and pilot areas and make proposals for areas suffering from these problems.

This amendment, a little like the one we debated at length this morning, is prescriptive, which is what is needed. Very serious problems are now being shown up in our education service and we need to be very specific in the response to them. I support this amendment.

Once again, the Minister's approach is revealed in this. Essentially, an educational welfare board is a sort of jumped up research body. They are going to monitor and assess the effectiveness of strategies, carry out reviews of training and co-operate with persons. We really need someone to go out, roll up their sleeves, get into the community and examine which initiatives can be taken across networks of schools. They need to examine which models might work and to be working with the community in a hands-on way, with budgets to back them to take the initiatives necessary for this sort of action.

The Minister wants a hands-off, distant research group who will not be involved with the community in this intimate way. He has cut out any local bodies in this structure. He has not made any provision for the recognition of the many partnerships and community groups who are already working in this sphere. He has been unwilling to do that.

His only initiative is this huge, high level integration body he has created, with 68 members who will have the occasional meeting of high level integration. That is useless for disadvantaged communities who are grappling on the ground with real problems. To suggest that initiatives across networks of schools, new models of supporting pupils or the notion of integrating the different service providers at a local level would in some way fade with the passage of time and be no longer relevant, shows how little the Minister appreciates the nature of the response to non-attendance and early school leaving.

The Minister is just rabbiting out the sort of response drawn up by the Department. He is not really thinking about how he can make this agency one that grabs this issue, which has been the huge Achilles heel of our education system, by the scruff of the neck and tries to take some action in the communities where it matters. I am disappointed by the way, on every occasion, the Minister returns to the bureaucratic answer.

I am trying to avoid bureaucratic developments and answers. As Deputy Shortall talked about another huge bureaucratic arrangement which was proposed by the previous Government to set up boards countrywide. We want to give the people concerned the broad remit which will enable them to do the job effectively and let them get on with the job.

But the Department's centralised officials do not understand the problems.

I advise the Deputy that the later amendment No. 70f2>a gives discretion to schools to consult with whatever local community groups they may consider appropriate. That was done in response to the request put forward on Committee Stage. There is no question of what our thinking is on that matter. I agree with Deputies on the other side of the House in that regard. We will proceed along those lines. The danger in this is that, as I have said, if one puts down one, two or three measures which sound like good ideas in themselves, the focus tends to be on them to the neglect of other areas. That is the danger. By giving a broad remit, we can work very effectively in a hands-on way. I agree with Deputy Bruton on that. That is what we want. If we do not achieve that here we will not go anywhere with it.

Let us be brutally honest about this because we are coming to the end of this debate. The Minister is referring to a budget of £2.5 million when this is fully up and running, with £4.2 million over three years. The Minister for Education and Science spends £3,000 million on education, very little of which reaches early school leavers. If a person goes on to complete third level education, £30,000 more is invested in their education than if they drop out at the age of 15. That is what is happening in our education system. Who is dropping out at the age of 15 and missing out on this investment of £30,000 – predominantly the children of the unemployed, the low skilled and disadvantaged groups and communities.

We have institutionalised disadvantage in the education system. It discriminates against people who are less well off. The education system does not equalise opportunity, it cements advantage for those who are already well off. The lack of provision for resourced plans to help those children, to make provision financially and to take action at local level with money available to help people is the failure of this Bill. The Minister just wants to write on his CV that he did something about educational welfare and non-attendance but he is not interested in putting in resources that can make a difference.

Let us be honest. We heard this morning from the Deputies who participated. Money in schools and communities is needed, not 100 welfare officers who will be as poorly resourced as those we now have. That will not address this issue, nor will a research body contribute anything that will make a difference, no matter how well they review strategies. It involves saying that these children cannot be allowed to drift in the way they have for so long. We cannot have one in five people leaving our education system with poor skills, dropping out early and ending up as those most likely to become long-term unemployed.

The Minister should be willing at some point to accept some of these amendments that force his successors and those in the Department of Finance, who frame education estimates as much as he does, to acknowledge they have a legal obligation to answer some of the measures in this Bill. Instead the Minister is willing to acquiesce in legislation that is soft, fluffy and cannot be pinned down. There are no hard and fast rights in this legislation.

Once again we will have failed the children whose voices are least heard and whose parents will not be knocking on the doors of principals and complaining about what they are receiving because that is all they expect from education from their own experience. This is a sad disappointment again. Here again, as on amendment No. 68, the Minister is not willing to put the teeth into this legislation that would make a difference. That is the difference between us on this. It is not about words; it is about being willing to make a difference with the resources and the legal obligations. That is where I part company and say that despite the hours of effort we put in on the fundamental points encapsulated in these two amendments, the Government has not given any ground.

Amendment put and declared lost.

Amendment No. 68 was already discussed with amendment No. 64a. Is the Deputy pressing the amendment?

Yes. I move amendment No. 68:

In page 19, between lines 10 and 11, to insert the following:

"22.–(1) Where an education welfare officer receives a notification under section 20(4), he or she shall carry out an assessment of the case referred and, where appropriate, shall consult with the young person concerned, his or her parents, the school principal and such other persons as appropriate in an effort to secure satisfactory attendance and participation by the student at the registered school if this is in the student's best interests.

(2) Where the education welfare officer is unable to secure a satisfactory attendance and participation by the student, the Board, after consultation with the young person concerned, his or her parents, the school principal and such other persons as appropriate, shall –

(a) prepare a plan for the purpose of assisting that young person to avail of educational opportunities,

(b) give all such other assistance to such young person, his or her parents, the school, alternative education providers or other persons as it considers appropriate for the purpose of carrying out such a plan,

(c) mediate with other services to deliver appropriate supports to the student in the context of the plan, and

(d) monitor the progress of the student in the context of the plan.".

Amendment put.

Barnes, Monica.Barrett, Seán.Belton, Louis.Boylan, Andrew.Broughan, Thomas.Browne, John (Carlow-Kilkenny).Bruton, John.Bruton, Richard.Burke, Liam.Burke, Ulick.Carey, Donal.Clune, Deirdre.Connaughton, Paul.Cosgrave, Michael.Crawford, Seymour.Creed, Michael.Currie, Austin.D'Arcy, Michael.Deasy, Austin.Deenihan, Jimmy.Durkan, Bernard.Enright, Thomas.Farrelly, John.Finucane, Michael.Fitzgerald, Frances.Gormley, John.Hayes, Brian.

Higgins, Jim.Higgins, Joe.Hogan, Philip.Howlin, Brendan.McCormack, Pádraic.McDowell, Derek.McGahon, Brendan.McGinley, Dinny.McGrath, Paul.Mitchell, Olivia.Moynihan-Cronin, Breeda.Naughten, Denis.Neville, Dan.Noonan, Michael.Owen, Nora.Penrose, William.Perry, John.Quinn, Ruairí.Rabbitte, Pat.Reynolds, Gerard.Ring, Michael.Sargent, Trevor.Sheehan, Patrick.Shortall, Róisín.Stagg, Emmet.Stanton, David. Wall, Jack.

Níl

Ahern, Dermot.Ahern, Michael.Ahern, Noel.Ardagh, Seán.Aylward, Liam.Blaney, Harry.Brady, Johnny.Brady, Martin.Brennan, Matt.Brennan, Séamus.Briscoe, Ben.Browne, John (Wexford).Byrne, Hugh.Callely, Ivor.Carey, Pat.Collins, Michael.Cooper-Flynn, Beverley.Coughlan, Mary.Cowen, Brian.Cullen, Martin.Daly, Brendan.Dennehy, John.Doherty, Seán.Ellis, John.Fahey, Frank.Flood, Chris.Fox, Mildred.Gildea, Thomas.Hanafin, Mary.Harney, Mary.Haughey, Seán.Healy-Rae, Jackie.Jacob, Joe.Keaveney, Cecilia.

Kelleher, Billy.Kenneally, Brendan.Killeen, Tony.Kirk, Séamus.Kitt, Michael.Kitt, Tom.Lawlor, Liam.Lenihan, Brian.Lenihan, Conor.McDaid, James.McGennis, Marian.McGuinness, John.Martin, Micheál.Moffatt, Thomas.Moloney, John.Moynihan, Donal.Moynihan, Michael.O'Dea, Willie.O'Donnell, Liz.O'Donoghue, John.O'Flynn, Noel.O'Hanlon, Rory.O'Keeffe, Batt.O'Keeffe, Ned.O'Kennedy, Michael.O'Malley, Desmond.Roche, Dick.Smith, Brendan.Smith, Michael.Wade, Eddie.Wallace, Dan.Wallace, Mary.Walsh, Joe.Woods, Michael.Wright, G. V.

Tellers: Tá, Deputies Barrett and Stagg; Níl, Deputies S. Brennan and Callely.
Amendment declared lost.

I move amendment No. 69:

In page 19, between lines 10 and 11, to insert the following:

"(1) The board of management shall make the successful integration of pupils at risk of poor attendance or early school leaving central to the objectives, strategies and actions developed in their school plan.".

While the conception of the Bill has been very good, I am disappointed that we have not been able to put in place a Bill which would provide serious legal rights for early school leavers and a properly resourced planning approach to children with difficulties. I know that the Bill will now pass all Stages but we have missed an opportunity. Having said that, I wish those on the board well in their work which will be very important. We look forward with interest to their reports.

The Bill is a welcome development, although opportunities have been missed to tie down the kind of intervention that would make a difference in children's lives and by which we could measure the outcome of the approaches that will be taken. It is a pity that those opportunities have not been taken. Like much legislation, the Bill is aspirational and will only be effective in making a difference if the appropriate level of funding is provided. I urge the Minister to do so in the coming years.

I cannot accept this amendment. I have difficulty with it, not in terms of its approach to non-attendance but rather in its approach to school planning. The role of the school plan is to act as a means to provide for increased school effectiveness. The question of school attendance is, of course, an important part of school effectiveness, but not the only part. The school plan will also consider such issues as maintaining the school ethos, improving attainment levels, staff development and parental involvement.

The effect of Deputy Bruton's amendment would be to reduce the school plan from a broad school effectiveness issue to a much narrower attendance issue. While attendance will be a large part of any school plan, it will not be the only part.

Regarding Deputy Shortall's query, the number of full-time attendance officers is 36.

I thank the Minister.

They are full-time but there are also other officers.

We must conclude the debate.

In addition to the Government amendments which remain, I wish to accept Deputy Bruton's amendment No. 83. I also wish to correct a small typographical error in amendment No. 70f2>a, to delete the first word, "with" in subparagraph (d)(ii). I also intend to accept, with a small change, Deputy Bruton's amendment No. 2 to amendment No. 89, after "concerned" to delete "and" and insert "his or her parents and his or her employer".

As it is now 5.30 p.m. I am required to put the following question in accordance with an order of the Dáil of this day: "That amendment No. 83, amendment No. 2, as amended, to amendment No. 89 and the amendments set down by the Minister for Education and Science and not disposed of are hereby made to the Bill, Fourth Stage is hereby completed and the Bill is hereby passed." Is that agreed?

Yes, as long as the small typographical change in amendment No. 70f2>a is also included.

That is included.

Question put and agreed to.

The Bill, which is considered by virtue of Article 20.2.20 of the Constitution as a Bill initiated in Dáil Éireann, will now be sent to the Seanad.