I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to bring the Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2007 before the House. In doing so I propose to give effect to a key recommendation of the task force on student behaviour that section 29 of the Education Act 1998 be revisited with a view to amending it to stress the rights of the compliant majority to learn while at the same time protecting the rights of the individual student to an education.
I established the task force on student behaviour in early 2005 to examine the issue of disruptive behaviour in our second level schools, to consider effective strategies already employed, to advise on best practice in fostering positive behaviour and to make recommendations on how best to promote an improved climate for teaching and learning in our schools. The report of the task force, School Matters, put forward a number of recommendations to place schools in a stronger position to meet the challenges of motivating and catering for their entire student cohort, including those whose troubling behaviour was reflective of a wider societal breakdown of acceptable norms of courtesy and civility.
At the core of the recommendations of the task force was the putting in place of a national behaviour support service, NBSS. The NBSS is now in place and has already commenced its engagement with schools and intensive work will begin shortly with a number of schools most in need of its intervention. As part of this initial engagement, the NBSS invited schools across the country to formally make application to benefit from its services. As a result of this process, the NBSS has now completed its consideration of 124 applications that were received from individual schools for support, including the establishment of behaviour support classrooms. The applicant schools are drawn from each of the school sectors and represent a good geographic and gender profile mix.
Based on careful consideration of each application, 50 schools have now been identified to receive support as part of a phased roll-out of activity under the new service. Each of these 50 schools will now be shortly notified of their participation and a progressive roll-out of services to these schools will commence immediately after the forthcoming mid-term break.
The task force report, in its recommendations to schools, also provided valuable insights into strategies and approaches for dealing with disruptive students. It set these in the context of a whole school approach to the issue of discipline and I am sure that the report itself will be a useful tool for schools in developing their responses to this issue. It is inevitable, however, that some students by their behaviour will leave their schools with little option but to use the last resorts of long-term suspension or permanent exclusion. It is vitally important that these sanctions remain avenues of last resort and are not taken lightly.
In such circumstances, the appeal system under section 29 of the Education Act 1998 has, since it commenced in 2001, provided parents and students over the age of 18 with an avenue of independent review when this difficult rubicon is to be crossed. Section 29 of the Education Act 1998 provides that an appeal may be made to the Secretary General of my Department against a decision by a school's board of management to permanently exclude a student, suspend a student for more than 20 days cumulative in any school year or refuse to enrol a student.
The task force, in dealing with section 29, outlined the concerns expressed by school representatives regarding their experience with what it termed "this evolving aspect of the new legislative framework". However, the task force also drew particular attention to the view of the National Educational Welfare Board that the advent of the appeals system had been positive for schools and had prompted schools to re-examine and review their policies, and to ensure, as far as possible, that policies and procedures were balanced, fair and transparent. In this respect I am glad to report that the National Educational Welfare Board is currently finalising comprehensive guidelines for schools on developing and implementing effective codes of behaviour.
The task force recommended that my Department revisit section 29 of the Education Act 1998 with a view to amending it to stress the rights of the compliant majority to learn while at the same time protecting the rights of the persistently disruptive student to an education. Following a review of the legislation, officials of my Department provided briefings for all of the education partners on the changes which were being considered to the Education Act 1998 and, in particular, the redefinition of section 29 of the Act. There was a general welcome for the proposals, as outlined, and the partners indicated broad support for the proposals at the briefing sessions. I propose, in this Bill, to amend section 29 of the Education Act 1998 to take account of the task force recommendations on the appeals process.
Section 4 of the Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2007 will require a section 29 appeal committee dealing with an appeal relating to expulsion or long-term suspension to take account of the educational interests of other students in the school, as well as the interests of the student who is the subject of the appeal, when deciding on the case. The Bill sets out a range of factors that an appeals committee will have to consider in dealing with expulsions and long-term suspensions, including the nature, scale and extent of the student's behaviour which gave rise to the suspension or expulsion, the reasonableness of efforts made by the school to enable the student to participate in and benefit from education, the educational interests of the student concerned and the desirability and practicality of enabling the student to continue to participate in and benefit from education with his or her peers in the school setting. They will also have to take into account the educational interests of the other students in the school and the maintenance of a classroom environment which is supportive of learning.
The safety, health and welfare of teachers, students and staff of the school will be also among the factors to be considered. The school's code of behaviour and any other relevant policies will also be looked at.
The aim of the Bill is to provide a clearly stated statutory framework within which an appeals committee must determine an appeal and provide for a balancing of rights between the educational interests of the student who is taking the appeal and the educational interests of the school community as a whole.
The task force also recommended that a protocol be provided to assist school boards in the preparation for an appeal. This recommendation will be given effect to in the revision of the procedures for hearing and determining an appeal. These procedures, currently required and in place under the Act, provide the administrative framework within which appeals are dealt with. The procedures will be revised and expanded to reflect a level of detail which would not be appropriate to the primary legislation but which will be of practical assistance to all parties to an appeal. Consideration will also be given to putting the procedures into the more formally structured framework of a statutory instrument. Further consultations with all of the education partners will inform this process.
The Bill allows the Minister to regulate for the suspension of the time limit for hearing an appeal during periods of school closures, for example school holiday periods. This was also a specific recommendation of the task force. Currently appeals are dealt with on a year-round basis. This provision will be expanded upon in the proposed revision of the procedures for hearing and determining an appeal.
The Bill allows for a section 29 appeals committee to refuse to hear an appeal, or to continue with an appeal, which may be frivolous, vexatious or an abuse of process and to draw inferences from the failure of parties to an appeal to comply with requirements made of it, for example on requests for information or clarity of a position. This may arise in particular in respect of refusals to enrol where there may be a dispute as to whether or not a formal application was made or a definitive decision was taken on an application.
Specifically with regard to refusals to enrol, the Bill will extend the application of section 29(1)(c) to situations where a child is refused enrolment to an all-Irish division of a school. This addresses an anomaly which exists at present in respect of schools which contain a separate all-Irish division or Aonad. At present, a child could be refused enrolment to the Aonad but would not have a right of appeal if offered a place in the English language stream within the school. This provision will now permit an appeal, in its own right, in respect of a refused enrolment to an all-Irish division of a school.
The Bill also ensures that a section 29 appeals committee does not hear an appeal which is being or has been dealt with under the appellate functions provided under section 10 the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 and vice versa. The Bill ensures however, that the National Council for Special Education, like the National Educational Welfare Board, will be able to make submissions, as it considers appropriate, to an appeals committee dealing with an appeal under section 29.
A number of minor amendments to other parts of the Education Act 1998 are also contained in the Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2007. Section 53 of the Education Act currently permits the Minister to restrict access to information which would enable the compilation of school league tables based on students' academic performance and to information relating to the identity of examiners involved in the State examinations. As the State Examinations Commission, SEC, has operational responsibility for the conduct of State examinations, the Bill will extend section 53 to the SEC.
The Bill will address procedural matters relating to the functions of the chief inspector and will change some of the functions of the inspectorate under section 13 of the Education Act. Certain functions of the inspectorate in respect of examinations and psychological assessments are now performed by the State Examinations Commission, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and the National Educational Psychological Service respectively and the Bill will amend the inspectorate's functions to reflect this. The Bill also amends section 13 of the Education Act 1998 to allow the chief inspector to delegate his or her functions to another inspector and permits the Minister to appoint an acting chief inspector in the event of illness or incapacity of the chief inspector.
The Bill will also give effect to the Government decision to establish the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork as a national cultural institution within the remit of the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism. In this regard, the Bill provides that the Minister can order the transfer of the lands and property of the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork from the City of Cork Vocational Education Committee to the Office of Public Works.
I hope the Deputies will agree with me regarding the positive benefits of this Bill and I look forward to listening and debating the various provisions with the Members of the House. I commend the Bill to the House.