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

Debate resumed on amendment No. 59:
In page 17, between lines 25 and 26, to insert the following:
"(3) Where a student has had problems relating to school attendance in a previous school, the school to which the application is made may request that the Board carry out an assessment of any special resources needed by that student and the capacity of the school to provide those resources.".
–(Deputy R. Bruton).

Deputy Richard Bruton was replying to the debate on amendment No. 59.

It is an appropriate amendment in that it deals with certain people's non-attendance to their duties. Unfortunately, it does not relate to the non-attendance of Ministers or the Taoiseach to their duties.

This amendment relates to the problem of school attendance. Where a student is identified as having serious attendance problems in a school and has, for one reason or another, been suspended or expelled and has decided to go to an alternative school to continue his or her education, there should be an opportunity for the school accepting the pupil to assess the additional resources required to ensure it has the capacity to deal successfully with the young person's education. The Minister suggested this amendment might be used as a way of excluding low performing pupils. However, schools will be more willing to accept their responsibilities towards pupils with behavioural or other problems if they have the confidence of knowing they can go to the Department and have an assessment carried out on the child in question.

If there is a need for special backup, whether psychological or counselling, the school should have an opportunity, with the help of the Department, to identify whatever measures are appropriate to the child's needs and ensure that an edu cation plan is put in place for that pupil. It is ironic that we are happy to put in place education plans for pupils after they have dropped out of school, but the Minister is unprepared to give a commitment when a child exhibits behavioural problems or difficulties in school or before they leave the education system.

This amendment seeks to change the Bill as drafted. I hope the Minister will accept such a measure is needed if we want to deal successfully with pupils with persistent non-attendance problems, which often leads to long-term suspension or expulsion. Many pupils often find they cannot continue in a school and have to change to another school.

Amendment put and declared lost.

The House will now discuss amendment No. 60. Amendment No. 61 is an alternative. Amendments Nos. 60 and 61 may be discussed together by agreement.

I move amendment No. 60:

In page 18, to delete lines 3 to 8 and substitute the following:

"(5) The principal of a recognised school shall, on receiving a notification undersubsection (3) in relation to a child, notify the principal of the school first-mentioned in that subsection of–

(a) any problems relating to school attendance that the child concerned had while attending the second-mentioned school referred to therein, and

(b) such other matters relating to the child's educational progress as he or she considers appropriate.”.

Amendment No. 60 arises out of discussions during Committee Stage. Its purpose is to ensure that school principals are enabled to pass on both information relating to specific problems with school attendance and any other information relating to the child's educational development, which the principal considers relevant. I do not agree that information relating to illness, especially illness which amounts to a school attendance problem, should be ignored in reporting between schools. Illness, particularly recurring illness or long bouts of illness, can be a significant factor in a child's education and in his or her welfare. A school should know about that if it is affecting the child's education.

The use of illness as an excuse for non-attendance could mask more serious underlying problems. In this context, a recent study into non-attendance carried out in a Dublin area indicated that more than 70% of all cases where a child fails to attend school are excused on the basis that the child concerned had a stomach upset or a headache. While accepting that the majority of these excuses were valid, the report raised ques tions as to whether families which attach a low priority to education are using illness as a convenient means to detract attention away from non-attendance. The report stated that the ease and frequency with which parents write notes to excuse their children may denote an underlying belief on the part of parents, and indeed the children, that the education system has very little to offer them. I made this amendment following our discussions on Committee Stage, but I do not propose to accept amendment No. 61.

It is inexplicable that the Minister will refuse, as he did in regard to the previous amendment, to provide any assessment of a child who has exhibited problems such as persistent illness and any necessary resources to allow that child successfully complete his or her education while insisting, in the next amendment, that illness is an important issue that is relevant to a school assessing the intake of a pupil and that this is something that may be used as a subterfuge. I accept that illness is an important issue and that information about it is passed on but if a child has illnesses that result in persistent non-attendance and perhaps the need for home tuition to support his or her activities in the school, I do not understand why the Minister is not agreeable to an assessment of that child's position or to the provision of home tuition or whatever else we deem necessary. This goes to the core of what is wrong with the Bill and the Minister has consistently put his head in the sand on this issue.

There is no point having elaborate notification procedures, notes and messages streaming from principal to principal and maintaining long attendance records if there is not a willingness to say that a child who needs extra resources as a result of our early warning provisions will have those assessed in detail, that the school will not be left alone to cope and that there will be a proper assessment procedure with a proper statutory base in place to ensure that something is done for that child. The Minister has failed this House in providing a Bill that does not commit to that sort of approach to children who have difficulties. When the child has abandoned school and there is no chance of him or her continuing in education, the Minister is quite happy to put in place a plan to try to help their training and further education, but while the child is still within the system, when the case is still retrievable, there is not the same commitment. While I do not have any profound objection to this amendment, it only highlights the hypocrisy of not accepting my earlier amendment.

Deputy Bruton is talking mainly about the previous amendment and the provision of resources. I assure the Deputy that the intention of the Bill and of the Education Welfare Board is to ensure that the resources are directed in a realistic and timely way and that the problems are identified at the earliest time so that this can be done. I intend to follow through on that because I believe it is particularly important. Fortunately we live in a much more enlightened age when we are providing, for the first time, substantial resources to support children in need or disadvantaged in school in any way through the provision of resource and remedial teachers and all of that system. Assistance of various kinds is being built up rapidly and that will continue. The same applies to the measures under this legislation. The intention is to give support to children so that they can receive the education. We must ensure they are identified as early as possible and that they get the necessary back-up either at home from the parents if the children are ill or from the support which is frequently provided when parents notify the Department and the school authorities in relation to serious illness. On the other hand, we want to make sure that mild illness is not used as an excuse for not giving a child a basic education and for that reason it is important to include this amendment. I understand the general point the Deputy is making in his amendment which refers to "other than for reasons of illness", but this amendment is necessary because if we are to give the support—

Acting Chairman

Is this the Minister's two minute intervention?

That is all I intend to say.

I tabled this amendment because there is a fear that a child might be stigmatised and that private information on a child's medical condition is being passed between principals of schools. That should not occur without explicit sanction from parents that such confidential information should change hands. I do not see the protections built in here that would allow for that. We are talking about issues of a very personal nature and it is not clear to me how the Minister proposes that principals of schools will maintain the sort of confidentiality that will be expected when matters of a private nature are being discussed and passed about.

Acting Chairman

I will put the question.

The Minister has an opportunity, under Standing Orders, to respond.

Acting Chairman

If he wishes to do so.

As we discussed on Committee Stage, we are making an amendment to–

The Minister should deal with the simple question of how the confidentiality issue is to be addressed.

There is separate legislation relating to confidentiality. The main reason for this amendment is that when a pupil is to be moved from one school to another, the principals will exchange information on the problems to be overcome. If people do not want to disclose the details of an illness, they do not have to do so. If it is a question of illness or serious illness, the study carried out indicated that 70% of the cases involved headaches, tummy aches and so on but they often indicate something quite different, in other words, unease, unhappiness or, unfortunately, abuse. In relation to the elements of the illness which people do not wish to pass on—

Will the parents first see the report?

The parents will be involved in the discussion.

Will they see what is being handed across the counter? That is the privacy issue.

The parent concerned can see it. I do not see how they cannot.

Without going down the freedom of information route, because that would not be satisfactory?

We will have to establish guidelines and we will bear these questions in mind in terms of the detail of how they will be operated. The main concern is to ensure that illness cannot be put forward as a false reason for someone being missing from school.

Amendment put and declared carried.

Acting Chairman

Amendment No. 61 arises out of the proceedings and cannot be moved.

On the basis of the Minister's undertaking that the issue of privacy and confidentiality will be examined in drawing up the guidelines, I am happy to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment No. 61 not moved.

Acting Chairman

Amendment No. 63 is related to amendment No. 62 and they may be taken together by agreement.

I move amendment No. 62:

In page 18, line 33, to delete "15" and substitute "20".

The requirement that principals inform an educational welfare officer when a child has been absent from school for 15 days in a school year has provoked considerable debate. On the one hand, it is argued it is overly prescriptive, bureaucratic and could damage relations between schools and parents, but on the other hand, the interests of the children must be protected and any significant absence from school during a school year potentially threatens a child's education. To set a reasonable balance between the rights of children and the needs of the schools, it is considered the threshold after which a report must be made should be increased to 20 days.

Having raised the threshold, I do not propose to accept Deputy Bruton's amendment. As I stated earlier, illness, especially illness that amounts to a school attendance problem or a recurring or long bout of illness, can be a significant factor in a child's education and welfare. Schools should be, therefore, required to report that to an educational welfare officer.

I accept the points made by the Deputies on Committee Stage. I am prepared to increase the number of days from 15 to 20, as I consider that is reasonable.

On the balance of the argument presented, I will accept the Minister's amendment, given that under section 20(4)(d) a principal, who believes a child is not attending school regularly, has an opportunity to notify the educational welfare officer of that child's absence. There is a need for a long stop measure where such an obligation to notify applies. I am happy a reasonable balance has been struck by the Minister's amendment, which provides for increasing the number of days from 15 to 20. On the basis that the Minister will reconsider the handling of the issue of illness, I will withdraw my amendment.

Amendment agreed to.
Amendment No. 63 not moved.

I move amendment No. 64:

In page 18, line 34, to delete "for whatever reason" and substitute "for a reason specified insubsection (6) of section 19“.

As Deputy Michael Higgins said on Committee Stage, there appears to be a contradiction between section 20(4)(d) and section 19(6), which limits acceptable reasons for absence from school. For that reason, I ask the Minister to reconsider the amendment.

On Committee Stage there was some confusion about how this section relates to section 19(6), which provides only two instances where a child might leave the register. Deputy Higgins tabled a similar amendment on Committee Stage to eliminate any inconsistency. There is, however, no inconsistency between the two sections. Section 19(6) refers to a child, that is, a student who is below school leaving age while this section includes all students, those who are above and below school leaving age.

Students who are above school leaving age may leave the register for a number of reasons, primarily because they have finished school. In those situations it is right that the local educational welfare officer should be informed to enable him or her provide support and assistance, where appro priate, such as to assist in the provision of further education and training.

The confusion arises as a result of a technical difference between the definition of a child and the definition of a pupil. The legal school leaving age has been 15 until now and it will be increased to 16. The intention is to provide plans and supports for children aged between 16 and 18 who enter the workplace to ensure employers will be required to give them time off to complete short courses.

I accept the Minister's clarification and I withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Acting Chairman

Amendment No. 68 is related to amendment No. 64a and they may be taken together by agreement.

I move amendment No. 64a:

In page 18, between lines 41 and 42, to insert the following:

"(5) On receiving a notice undersubsection (4), an educational welfare officer shall–

(a) consult with the student concerned, his or her parents, the principal and such other persons as he or she considers appropriate, and

(b) make all reasonable efforts to ensure that provision is made for the continued education of the child and his or her full participation in school.”.

Deputy Bruton's amendment seeks to set out precisely what action an educational welfare officer should take in particular circumstances. I agree with the thrust of the Deputy's amendment relating to section 22(1). I am pleased to bring forward by way of amendment No. 64a a provision that will place an onus on an educational welfare officer, who receives a notification from the principal of a school that a child is not attending regularly, to liaise with the child, his or her parents, the principal and anybody else deemed appropriate by the officer. The officer must also try to ensure that provision is made for the child's continued education.

The Deputy's amendment relating to section 22(2) appears to envisage that an educational welfare officer will act to provide an alternative means of education for any students who experience difficulties in school. I intend that the officer's role should be somewhat different. Initially the officer's task will be to assist pupils and schools where a pupil is experiencing difficulties in order to resolve any difficulties within the school. Should that prove impossible and the school expels the student, the role of the officer will be to employ his or her liaison skills and links with other schools to facilitate the enrolment of the pupil in another school.

The main focus, therefore, is to provide for the educational needs of all pupils within recognised schools. That may not be possible in a small number of cases. As Deputy Bruton suggested, in such situations the National Educational Welfare Board will need to directly intervene to ensure that the child concerned continues to receive an education.

I have provided for that situation in section 26, which provides that the board must take appropriate action to ensure the continuance of a student's education.

I have significantly watered down my proposal in light of the Committee Stage debate. The Minister has come a small distance to meet my proposal, but the distance he has come is disappointing. This issue is at the core of the Bill. We are talking about what happens when the early warning system is triggered and what we will do to help children who exhibit persistent problems. As the Minister said, there may be some cases where the issues can be quickly and easily resolved, but there will be others where serious problems will be unearthed. It is important that we, as legislators, set out a framework within which those cases can be dealt with.

The Minister's amendment provides that in such cases an educational welfare officer should consult different people and then make all reasonable efforts to ensure provision is made for the continued education of the child concerned. There is nothing offensive about that, but my amendment is more in tune with what the Minister seeks to provide for later in the Bill, where he proposes that a plan would be prepared to assist young people who have left school to avail of educational opportunities, that the board should give all such other assistance to young persons – alternative education if that arises – or other persons it considers appropriate.

For the purpose of carrying out such a plan, it is proposed that the board will mediate with the other services to deliver appropriate supports to the student in the context of the plan, for example, speech therapy, psychological support, work experience, Youthreach etc. or anything that constitutes a package and works for that child and monitor the progress of the student in the context of the plan.

The Minister has already been thumbing the pages of his 1971 book on management and will say this is not an issue for the Oireachtas but one for the educational welfare officer. I beg to differ, because the weight of experience in the education system is that where these things are not made explicit they do not happen. If you go back through our history we have failed children who have special needs. The Minister has almost admitted that. Children with special needs are forgotten at the back of the class, they drop out or are troublesome and people are happy to see them suspended and they fade into the woodwork to join the long-term unemployed or worse.

This Bill is about drawing a line in the sand for such children. We want to see a structured way back for those children and we want more than vague references to making reasonable efforts. We all know people would say they did what was reasonable. There will have to be a structure within which the reasonable efforts occur and where a parent, guardian or whoever takes an interest in the child, can ask the board if it has been mediating with others or monitoring that child's progress. We are fooling ourselves if this structure is put in place and the Minister claps himself on the back and says, "We now have a modern Education (Welfare) Act". At the end of the day, we must be able to say there are rights that are capable of being exercised on behalf of children who head into educational disadvantage of all sorts. This is the core of the Bill. This is what we want. I have listened to many Deputies on both sides and they recognise we have failed children at the back of the class.

The drop out rate is one in five or 20%. Among 17 year olds, the drop out rate is 17%. One in six cannot read the side of an aspirin package. There are serious problems in the educational system among children who are weak. We are aware from surveys that those weaknesses are exhibited early on in poor attendance problems. The only time one can catch them is through a process such as this. We are setting up a bureaucratic system of early warning but we are not equally specific and prescriptive about what happens when the red light shines, when the children are persistently non–attendant. What will happen to those children? We know from surveys in your constituency, Acting Chairman, that in some disadvantaged schools 12.5%, one in eight children are absent for more than half the year – 75 to 80 days. A structured response is needed. While I am pleased the Minister has moved some distance I am not happy that his amendment is sufficiently explicit. I hope he will accept my alternative approach.

The Minister said this presupposes that we will go for alternative educational provision. It does not do any such thing. I propose that the educational welfare officer will consult the young person, the principal and so on in an effort to secure satisfactory attendance and participation at that registered school, if it is in the student's best interest. That is the first port of call, to make every effort to ensure that the child can successfully continue in that school. Where the educational welfare officer is unable to secure that, the board will trigger this response, after consultation with the young person. This is the second line of defence after the first effort has failed.

I am not prescribing that every single notification of 20 days absence should result in a plan because that is not reasonable. There are probably 10,000 children who have serious attendance problems who could be notified to the board. It would not be reasonable or practical to do that. Where the educational welfare officer cannot succeed with the normal approaches and needs the support of psychologists, extra interventions, alternative settings, safe havens for the child who could participate sometimes in the school and sometimes in other settings, we cannot say it will be all right on the night and that it will happen because we know it will not be all right on the night. This amendment goes to the heart of the proper structure.

Conscious of what the Minister said on Committee Stage I have attempted to make my amendment more reasonable from an administrative point of view and I hope he will accept it.

I strongly support Deputy Bruton's amendment No. 68. The Minister's amendment is much too loose and vague. Presumably everybody working in the system makes reasonable efforts and yet the system is failing many children. We need to be specific about what is required where there is consistent non-attendance at school. I can think of a number of categories of children who have difficulties with school attendance, for example, those houses where nobody gets up in the morning at 7.30 a.m. or 8 a.m. Sadly this is an increasingly common occurrence where there is only night time activity in the home. In this environment a child has little chance of getting out to school not to mention being on time.

I was struck recently by a project in my constituency where a group works with children at risk. Its first act to assist children with school attendance is to buy them an alarm clock in recognition of the fact that nobody gets up in the morning to wake the children or to get breakfast. Often the needs are that basic. In that situation there is a need to draw up a plan for that child, for family supports to be put in place to help the family function normally, and to provide the support and care to which that child is entitled. In those circumstances it would be easy to argue that reasonable efforts were made to get that child out to school whereas what is actually needed for that child is that serious interventions are made into that family's life and that proper supports are put in place. That is the kind of action that is required if adequate numbers of children are to be kept in the system.

A common reason for non-attendance is that students have to look after younger siblings. Speaking to a youth club recently in my constituency I was struck that the issue of child care came up. I was surprised that 13 and 14 year olds were interested in the issue of child care. It transpired that they saw child care as offering them the opportunity to have their own younger brother or sister cared for which would free them up to live a normal life of a teenager. That is a serious indictment of society. There is a problem where parents are forced to go out to work for economic reasons and where teenagers or even ten or 11 year olds are required to stay at home to look after the baby or the toddler. Clearly in that situation it is not a question of requiring reasonable efforts to be made but of ensuring that a serious intervention is made in that family and that the family supports necessary for the family to function normally are made available. A plan must be drawn up and there must be careful mediation with the appropriate health and welfare services to intervene in that family to help them provide the normal care and support which their children need.

What the Minister is proposing is wholly inadequate given the scale of the problem of non-attendance at school. I am happy to support Deputy Bruton's amendment.

This is one of the greatest problems afflicting Irish society but there does not appear to be recognition of its extent. Perhaps the Minister will say how many education welfare officers he intends to employ.

This problem has been growing for 20 years. I am a school teacher by profession although I have not taught for many years. The type of problems I encounter at my constituency clinics did not exist when I was teaching or, if they did, it was to a minute degree. The establishment has not taken account of the changes that have occurred over the last 20 years. The breakdown in the social fabric has meant there are thousands, probably tens of thousands, of children who do not go to school or who go there on an irregular basis. They are illiterate leaving school and have virtually no chance of getting meaningful employment.

It took an OECD report last week to make people realise the extent of the problem. The report pointed out that 25% of adults and adolescents are, for all practical purposes, illiterate. The Minister issued a statement saying that the amount of money allocated to the problem has increased from £600,000 to approximately £16 million. That is not the point. The depth of the problem has not been understood or tackled. Throwing money at it and saying there are remedial teachers to help children in this category is not the solution. Remedial teachers are teachers who have simply completed courses to help them deal with the problems of these children.

The teachers in a primary school in an urban area of my constituency, which is not even classified as disadvantaged, tell me their job is not education but containment. The children arrive at school hungry, with no homework done and ill equipped to be educated. It takes all the teachers' time just to manage them. Education becomes a secondary concern. The children run wild. This is due to the breakdown of the social fabric, broken homes and unmarried mothers. We have seen this in relation to housing. We are probably more immediately concerned with housing because it is usually the first problem with which these people come to us. However, the breakdown in the education system is mammoth and is not being dealt with. The admission that it exists is not even made.

We must recognise there is a problem if we are to attempt to solve it. Massive resources will be required to solve it. Fully qualified remedial teachers are required, not just teachers who have completed a course. The remedial teachers are doing a tremendous job but we are only skimming the surface. We are not dealing with the problem in depth. Some of these children should be in classes as small as three or four pupils. That is the long and the short of it. Massive resources and will power will be required to deal with the problem confronting us.

Deputy Bruton referred to special needs. When I was teaching I did not encounter special needs. Difficulties such as dsylexia and the need for speech therapy obviously existed but we put them down to pupils being slow learners or pupils with difficulties. They were not identified. Now they are being identified but I am not convinced that the difficulties are being addressed as they should be. I do not blame the Minister or the Government for that. We are all to blame. We have not recognised what is happening before our eyes. Parents come to me about children with difficulties like cerebral palsy. That is a real problem where doing examinations or even homework is concerned. These are huge problems and they are virtually swept under the carpet.

As Deputy Shortall mentioned, many children come to school hungry. The school to which I referred in my constituency provides breakfasts. The children arrive there hungry with no homework done. Many of the parents are illiterate as well so the children get no help with their homework. They have no chance of succeeding within the education system or within society. This House is failing those children.

I am not seeking a defensive attitude from the Minister but an admission that this is the true situation. There are huge numbers of children for whom the education system means little or nothing. Huge numbers of people are, for all practical purposes, illiterate. I believe the level of illiteracy has grown in the past ten or 15 years, even though we claim to have a super education system. We did have such a system and it was probably due to the religious orders, a tremendous body of dedicated men and women, running our national schools over the last century. That is slipping away from us and the children are suffering.

I would like to think that the Minister would start a revolution to confront and rectify the situation. He should start a movement and not simply dot the i's and insert commas and semi colons. He should admit there is a massive problem and set about dealing with it. I know many of these youngsters. They are unemployable. All they are fit for is manual work where no reading skill is involved.

Youngsters of 18 and 19 years of age come to my clinics to ask me to fill out forms for them. They are well dressed and pleasant but they are not literate. That is a shocking indictment in this millennial year and the problem is increasing by the day and the year. We owe it to the children to look after them.

I support the amendment and I agree with much of what Deputy Deasy said. I have a great deal of contact with the national schools in my constituency and I do not believe that the extent of the problem of educational disadvantage is appreciated. Greater resources are and have been provided over the last few years. Unfortunately, however, in some areas the social problems, particularly those related to drug abuse, are even greater now than they were in the past. While additional resources have been put into these schools, in many instances they are totally inadequate. The end result is that many of the children who could be saved if the resources were put in at an early stage inevitably become victims of heroin and various other social problems.

Recently I received a copy of a letter from the principal of one such school to Deputy Eoin Ryan, Minister of State with responsibility for drugs. I was appalled by the letter and I hope the Minister will take on board some of the points made in it. The principal said he came to the school as acting principal in March 1999. He had come from a school in Rathfarnham, was utterly shocked at the level of need of the children in this school and was equally shocked at the inadequacy of the statutory services to meet the needs of these children. He said it was a poorly equipped school with insufficient psychological services and a lack of co-ordination of services, etc. The morale of the teaching staff had become so low that all of them left the school in the first year while this principal was trying to cope with the difficulties. He set about recruiting a whole new staff and was extremely lucky. He said that the school now has a fine staff of eight teachers who are in the process of turning the school around. They are working extremely hard and are just about getting their heads above water. He pointed out that 28 of the 83 pupils in the school at present have been psychologically assessed and all require placement in a special school or special class. They have children from the Travelling community, children of refugees and children from a residential home. Many of the pupils have acute emotional, behavioural and social problems but the school is doing its best for all of them.

It seems the school is trying to cope. However, the reason the school principal wrote to the Minister of State, Deputy Eoin Ryan, is that the school, St. Michael's CBS national school, serves the community in St. Michael's Estate, Inchicore, a community which is probably the most devastated by heroin in Dublin. Because the school dropped two children in September 1999, all the efforts the principal and staff have been making are now being undermined by the Department of Education and Science telling the school that it must lose a teacher. The school principal stated, "We find it appalling that if, in spite of all the work we have put in and the huge level of need that all are now acknowledging is in the area – because our numbers on roll were down just two pupils last September 30th we must now lose a teacher".

This is not the only school to which this type of thing is happening. The Department of Education and Science has no policy which is specific to the designated drugs task force areas in Dublin. The Government designated these areas with the objective of providing greater resources, yet the Department of Education and Science which can help with the drugs problem and reach vulnerable children at an age when they might be identified and helped, has no policy or flexibility in relation to these schools. If these schools drop one or two children below the departmental number they lose a teacher and it does not matter a damn what effort the school has made to help these children.

I have raised this issue in various questions and received the usual departmental answer which I felt was quite insulting to the school and the efforts it is making. If teachers and principals in the front line, who are trying to help children in the most devastated communities, get a response from the Department of Education and Science that they must lose a teacher, we are wasting our time talking in the context of Education (Welfare) Bills. I ask the Minister to consider the particular needs of this school to ensure it does not lose a teacher and that it is given greater resources to carry out its work rather than undermined by the loss of a vital member of its staff.

I appreciate the points raised by the Deputies but we are discussing specifically the operation of the new national educational welfare board and the welfare officers. Deputy Shortall highlighted some of the more immediate problems which in some instances could be solved by the use of an alarm clock. This is a local community approach. The alarm clock is indicative of the need for practical solutions such as local and parental support. This was highlighted further in Deputy Deasy's contribution. I recognised this problem when I first took up my post as Minister for Education and Science and I will be working on the issue with great intent and providing additional funds.

The Deputy asked about attendance officers. A figure of 50 or 60 has been mentioned and £4.25 million is being provided immediately in this regard. The Government intends to make this work and whatever resources are needed will be considered. It was mentioned that a study on adult literacy had been carried out. The ratio of unemployed to employed people scoring in the lowest levels was 2:1. There are issues to be dealt with right through to adult literacy. Problems in this regard arise as a result of what has happened in the past.

I am convinced about the value of meals in schools but how it is operated is important. There must not be a public system of meals in schools without recognising what Deputy Shortall was saying. I will be giving great consideration to the development of this aspect. I will return later to Deputy Gregory's point.

The Minister is missing the point. The amendment seeks to set up a structured way of dealing with children who exhibit serious problems whether they come from a community which has a serious drugs problem or they have other behavioural problems. If the educational welfare officer working with the school cannot resolve the problem, the resources to help that child succeed must be available.

We recently conducted a survey which showed that 35% of children receiving speech therapy receive it for ten minutes or less per week. Speech therapy needs cannot be addressed on that basis. The evidence proves that the resources these children need are not being delivered. If we are to set up this elaborate early warning system, there must be a mechanism to identify a child's problems, the solutions to them and a method to monitor progress. That is what we are looking for – a commitment that something real will be put in place rather than salving our consciences by saying we passed the Education (Welfare) Bill, 2000, so everything is fine. Unless we put in place such a step by step approach, where a child and his or her parents or guardians have certain rights which they can exercise when these problems occur, we will not deliver the change we want. This is where the Bill falls down.

I support Deputy Bruton's amendment and agree with the procedure it outlines. The Minister talks about goodwill but this legislation will be in place long after we have left this House. There is no guarantee the Minister will be around to ensure certain steps are taken. Deputy Bruton's amendment attempts to co-ordinate the skills necessary to resolve the problem of a child who sees no point in attending school.

There are areas in all of our constituencies where such things happen and, in many instances, it would be honest for parents to say they have done their best and can do no more. Those parents could be the victims of circumstance themselves and may not be capable of dealing with the problem. They need the support of not only a welfare officer but of people in the community to help the child or children to see that education has a meaning.

During the by-election campaign when I was canvassing in a town in south Tipperary I asked two 17 year old lads who were sitting outside a house what they were doing. They told me they had finished school. I then asked them what they were going to do with themselves. They replied that there was nothing for them to do and that there were no jobs in the area. Those two lads had spent 13 years in school but education meant nothing to them. I asked if they would do a further course and they did not have a clue what they would do.

Governments of all sides have no difficulty finding money to build prisons or to deal with crime on the streets but unless we get it right when children are young, Governments are bound to need more prison places in the future. The circumstances in which some children live, the lack of proper housing, no proper meals and no encouragement to study are the major problems on the ground. It is meaningless to say, as the Minister did, that the welfare officer will consult with the student concerned, his or her parents, the school principal and other persons considered appropriate, and make all reasonable efforts to ensure provision is made for the continued education of the child and his or her participation in school.

Those appointed as welfare officers will be committed to their jobs but the £4.25 million quoted by the Minister is over a three year period. If a welfare officer costs £25,000 per year, we will be lucky if there will be 100 in the State. We will be asking 100 people to do the best they can across the entire State. At least Deputy Bruton is attempting to establish structures where the welfare officer would be obliged to do certain things and consult with certain people in the community to solve the problem. If there are 100 welfare officers for the entire State—

There are 68.

Parts of Dublin would need 68 welfare officers to deal with the problem.

There are 60 welfare officers at present.

I know, and the system is a shambles. There is no point in saying there will be £4.25 million available over three years. We spend £100 million on building prisons and millions more trying to deal with a drug problem which is already endemic when we should be trying to prevent the illness before it happens.

There is consensus in the House that there is a need for massive investment in this area. When we have an opportunity to introduce legislation like this, we should make certain that an amendment from the Opposition side of the House, if it is a good idea, is included in the Bill. It would not be a defeat for the Government, it would represent the combined efforts of all parties because we all see this on the ground every day of the week.

The example of the school in Inchicore given by Deputy Gregory could apply anywhere in the city. If we are putting so much effort into solving this problem, why do we have to explain to parents and teachers at public meetings why they are losing teachers? We look like fools and that is why people are losing confidence in the political system; they see we cannot do anything. If we cannot do anything, and if the Minister will not accept reasonable amendments that will force future Governments to do certain things, we are not doing our jobs.

I would support this amendment no matter who tabled it because it is a good idea. We should make it loud and clear that all TDs demand adequate resources to deal with problems before they become insurmountable. We must ask why we spend such huge sums of money on the drugs problem and on prison places. Despite the success of the Celtic tiger and the number of vacancies in the labour market, over 160,000 people continue to sign on for unemployment benefit or unemployment assistance. These people continue to sign on because the system has failed to provide them with a meaningful education and they see no place for themselves in the workforce.

I ask the Minister to reconsider the his amendment and that tabled in Deputy Bruton's name. As far as I am concerned, Deputy Bruton's amendment is far more comprehensive because it imposes an obligation in law for certain action to be taken where children are in need of help.

We have had a wide ranging debate on this and a number of other issues that are highly relevant to the general situation. The powers to which Deputy Barrett referred in his concluding remarks are already contained in various sections of the Bill. As stated earlier, section 26 provides that the national educational welfare board may intervene directly in order to ensure that a child continues to receive an education. The section to which the amendment refers contains a similar provision.

On Committee Stage, Deputies stated that I should include a provision whereby, in the case of early interventions, welfare officers would be required to discuss matters with a child's parents and other interested parties. That is the purpose of amendment No. 64a, which I have tabled despite the fact that powers and duties relating to this area are already contained in the Bill. However, on Committee Stage, Members requested that it should be clearly stated that education welfare officers shall “consult with the student concerned, his or her parents, the principal and such other persons as he or she considers appropriate” and “make all reasonable efforts to ensure that provision is made for the continued education of the child and his or her full participation in school.” By introducing the amendment, I have gone part of the way towards complying with Members' requests.

Deputies Gregory and Barrett referred to the number of teachers employed in our schools. The school system operates on the basis of the pupil-teacher ratio, which is agreed by parents, boards of management, the INTO – in the case of primary education – teachers and the Department and depends on the circumstances which obtain in individual schools. If the number of children attending a school which is in the process of growing and developing drops below the agreed limit, teachers who are considered excess to requirements are transferred to schools where their ser vices are badly required. This unforeseen dividend is reinvested in the education system and it is the way that reinvestment is made which was the subject of negotiation.

If the board of management of a developing school can show that its needs will grow in the coming year and that the drop in pupil numbers was merely an aberration, it may make an appeal to have a teacher retained. If the school in question is situated in a particularly disadvantaged area, there would also be grounds to appeal against the transfer of a teacher. I will consider the case of the school to which Deputy Gregory referred in that context. Members who represent Dublin constituencies appreciate the difficulties experienced in an area of the kind to which he referred. A number of appeals have already been made and are being dealt with. If the Deputy forwards the relevant details to me, I will pursue this matter on his behalf.

I accept that there is a need to provide greater assistance and support. Deputy Bruton is aware that the Government, in view of the level of resources at its disposal, has increased the number of child care assistants from 275 to 1,095. In addition, the number of resource teachers has risen from 190 to 500. The number of people employed by the psychological service is currently being increased.

Deputy Bruton referred to speech therapy services. A number of special difficulties obtain in this area and I agree with Members that there is a need to take action. However, the provision of speech therapy services is the responsibility of the Department of Health and Children and the health boards. I recognise the needs that exist in this area and I will do everything possible to ensure that speech therapy services are provided.

I commend amendment No. 64a to the House. In my opinion it covers the situation to which amendment No. 68 in Deputy Bruton's name refers.

The Minister misunderstands what we are trying to achieve. Deputy Gregory and others stated the Celtic tiger economy has created many resources, some of which have been invested in education.

I am advised that the Minister's reply was the final contribution on this amendment and that the Deputy may not speak again in respect of it.

Will I have an opportunity to speak on amendment No. 68 when we come to deal with it?

Acting Chairman

No, because it has already been dealt with in conjunction with amendment No. 64a.

Is it possible to recommit amendment No. 68 in order that we might have an opportunity to discuss it?

Acting Chairman

The Deputy may do so when we come to deal with the amendment.

I intend to do just that because amendment No. 68 goes to the heart of this matter.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Acting Chairman

Amendment No. 66 is an alternative to amendment No. 65 and the two may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I move 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.".

This amendment arises out of a Committee Stage amendment proposed by Deputy Bruton. Inclusion of this provision would ensure that in addition to the educational welfare officer assigned to each school, the parents' association would also be informed of the levels of attendance.

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