Other Questions.

School Discipline.

Andrew Doyle

Question:

43 Deputy Andrew Doyle asked the Minister for Education and Science the number of appeals made to his Department relating to requests to have local school decisions on expulsions and suspensions overturned in each of the past three years; the number of appeals that were ultimately upheld; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44245/09]

Section 29 of the Education Act 1998 provides parents with an appeal process where a board of management of a school or a person acting on behalf of it expels or suspends a pupil for a period of greater than 20 days or refuses to enrol a student.

Concerning expulsions, a total of 91 appeals were lodged in 2006 and 69 of these went to hearing, of which 23 were upheld. In 2007, a total of 76 appeals were lodged and 55 of these went to hearing, of which 13 were upheld. In 2008, a total of 84 appeals were lodged and 76 of these went to hearing, of which 24 were upheld.

Regarding suspensions, a total of 8 appeals were lodged in 2006 and five of these went to hearing, of which one was upheld. In 2007, a total of 11 appeals were lodged and six of these went to hearing, of which three were upheld. In 2008, a total of 22 appeals were lodged and 14 of these went to hearing, of which nine were upheld.

The Education Act 1998 provides that parental and student grievances should, in general, be determined in the school concerned. However, specific provision was made in section 29 of the Act for an appeal to be made to the Secretary General of the Department of Education and Science against decisions by schools which concern the enrolment, suspension or expulsion of pupils. I believe that the intention behind this distinction in the legislation is clear. Suspension and expulsion are very serious decisions that can have a major impact on the education of individual pupils. In such circumstances, good governance provisions allow for a right of appeal against these decisions. The most efficient and effective means of doing so is for an independent appeal to a panel of people with the requisite experience of the types of issues that arise at these appeals.

While the legislation provides for an appeal to be made to the Secretary General of my Department, it specifies that it is to be heard by an independent committee appointed by the Minister. Each committee consists of a serving school inspector and two other people nominated from a panel appointed by the Minister. The committee members I have appointed, like those appointed by my predecessors, have essentially been people with previous experience and expertise in the educational field, including a significant number of former school principals with a particular understanding of how schools operate. This committee, rather than my Department, determines the outcome of the appeal. Furthermore, there is no provision in the legislation for the Secretary General or any other departmental official to modify or interfere with decisions taken by statutory appeal committees. The Secretary General of my Department cannot direct a school to enrol or reinstate a pupil unless an appeal under section 29 is upheld.

This is sending out a very bad message to schools. The Minister has just told the House that over the past three years, one has had a one in two chance of having one's suspension overturned by making an appeal to the Department of Education and Science. In the case of an expulsion, one's chance is better than one in four. That says two things. It tells me that the local decisions of schools about suspensions and expulsions are being second-guessed. It tells disruptive and unruly pupils that if they appeal local decisions to suspend or expel them to the Department of Education and Science, they have quite a good chance of having such decisions overturned. We are sending a very dangerous message to school authorities, which are in the best position to make the right decisions on the range of issues involved in these cases.

In light of the information the Minister has given me today and over the past few months, will he consider examining this issue again? His predecessor, the Minister, Deputy Mary Hanafin, introduced legislation in March 2007 to put in place a much tighter framework for ensuring that we support schools when they have to make decisions of this nature. We need to send a clear message to the tiny minority of students who engage in unacceptable behaviour in our school system that we will take a clear stance against it.

One can make one's own case. One in four appeals has been upheld. Many cases — 40% of suspensions and 20% of expulsions — are resolved before they go outside the school. I wish to speak about the system that is in place. If a better or more efficient system were available, I would consider it. It is important to examine the structure of the appeals process. One makes one's appeal to the Secretary General of the Department of Education and Science, who establishes an independent committee, comprising an inspector from the Department and two other experienced people, to adjudicate on one's case. As this is a time-bound process. the committee has a specific limit on the amount of time it has to make a decision. The costs associated with the process are minimal. Generally speaking, we have to give parents the right of independent appeal. As it is happening in the health and social welfare systems, it has to happen in the education system.

When, after all procedures have been exhausted, it is impossible to accommodate or retain a particularly difficult student in the school where the original problems developed or in an adjoining school, does the Department of Education and Science have other facilities it can offer as an alternative to the standard school structure?

The Deputy is broadening the scope of the question somewhat.

It is important to emphasise that each parent has the right to go to court. Deputy Brian Hayes suggested recently that parents should go to the High Court. I would like to give some comparative figures in that context. The facilitation cost of a section 29 appeal is €500. The price of a full hearing is €1,000. If a parent opts for a judicial review, he or she would incur a cost of €50,000, as would the school.

They would not go.

It would cost €100,000 in all.

That is the point.

Given that an independent process is in place, surely the Deputy is not trying to ask parents to bring cases of this nature to the High Court.

The Minister has it in one.

The independent process is far less costly and takes less time.

They would not go. That is my point.

They would not go.

A great deal of time and stress is involved for parents who go to the High Court.

What about the cost?

I thought it was a daft idea, to be honest. It would cost a great deal of money.

What about my question?

Information and Communications Technology.

Kieran O'Donnell

Question:

44 Deputy Kieran O’Donnell asked the Minister for Education and Science if his recent announcement on information and communications technology for schools includes a commitment to spend €252 million as envisaged under the national development plan; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44283/09]

The Deputy will be aware that €252 million is being invested in information and communications technology, ICT, in schools under the national development plan between 2007 and 2013. The national development plan also required that a detailed ICT strategy be published by my Department to target investment appropriately. The report of the strategy, Investing Effectively in ICT in Schools 2008-2013, was published by my Department in July 2008. Investment in ICT in schools has continued since the ICT in schools programme commenced in 1998.

In 2007 and 2008, some €12 million was invested in up-skilling teachers in ICT skills, providing curriculum-relevant digital content and software and facilitating the broadband connectivity of schools. Equipment grants of €2.3 million were provided to new post-primary school building projects in 2008, while €2.2 million was provided to 72 primary schools when newly constructed schools or large-scale extensions reached practical completion. Grants of €17 million have been issued to 500 post-primary schools since September 2007 to upgrade their facilities to provide the new technology syllabus and the revised design and communication graphics syllabus, T4, subjects.

By the end of this year, I will have provided funding in excess of €45 million for ICT in schools, including the €22 million grants package recently announced for primary schools, equipment grants of up to €6.2 million for schools where construction work was completed this year or last year and funding for broadband, teacher development and the provision of curriculum digital content. Earlier this year, I established a joint advisory group to explore with industry possible approaches to implementing the recommendations of the strategy group's report.

The recommendations of the advisory group have been published in its report, Smart Schools = Smart Economy, which the Taoiseach launched on 16 November last. The advisory group report recommends an initial investment of €150 million over the next three years. I am committed to making funding available for ICT in schools over that time. Some €22 million in grants was issued to primary schools last week as a first step, with the priority on ensuring that there is a teaching computer and digital projector in every classroom. Funding for post-primary schools will be made available early in the new year. The total amount of funding to be made available for ICT equipment next year is being considered as part of the overall capital allocation to be agreed by Government.

I am satisfied with that reply.

Residential Institutions Redress Board.

Emmet Stagg

Question:

45 Deputy Emmet Stagg asked the Minister for Education and Science the progress made regarding the renegotiation of the indemnity agreement of 2001 signed between the State and the 18 religious teaching orders to cover the expenses covered by the Residential Institutions Redress Board; if he will publish the findings of the audit into the assets of the 18 religious teaching orders; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44099/09]

Following the publication of the Ryan report, this House passed a unanimous motion calling on the congregations to commit to making further substantial contributions by way of reparation. In June of this year, the Taoiseach and the relevant Ministers, including me, met representatives of the 18 religious congregations that were party to the 2002 indemnity agreement. The congregations indicated their willingness to make further contributions. Any such contributions are separate from the 2002 indemnity agreement and associated contributions.

The Government has made clear that these contributions must be capable of being assessed by the public for their significance by reference to the full resources available to the congregations and in the context of the costs of well over €1 billion incurred by the State. In this context, the Government appointed a panel of three independent persons to assess the financial statements submitted by the congregations and to report to Government as to the adequacy of these statements as a basis for assessing the resources of the congregations. The panel submitted its report at the end of October. The report was examined within my Department and a number of clarifications were sought from the panel. In response, the panel elaborated on the relevant points within the context of its report and submitted an expanded report on 25 November 2009. Although an overall offer of a contribution on behalf of the congregations collectively was sought, the congregations' responses have been on an individual basis. I expect to have the complete set of responses from the congregations in the next day or so.

I will bring the panel's report and details of the congregations' offers of contributions to the attention of the Government at the earliest opportunity. The position in respect of publication is that while it has always been the intention to publish the conclusions of the panel and the offers from the congregations, the arrangements for publication will be considered by the Government. In this regard, I am concerned to ensure that the survivors and their representatives are kept fully informed of developments. Deputies will be aware that some religious congregations have published their individual offers and details of their respective financial positions. Although the approach taken by an individual congregation is a matter for it, my objective is to have the collective comprehensive position available.

Once the full position is known, the Government will consider the uses to which the contributions will be put, in consultation with the representatives of the survivors and the congregations.

Is the Minister disappointed by the slow progress made and the loss of the sense of urgency that dominated the State in June when he met with these people? What has he done, personally, to accelerate the process and ensure the congregations which met collectively with him will provide the information in an effective and proper manner? This was not money they generated themselves but was taxpayers' money that went into the private coffers of congregations.

Of course we were disappointed with the progress made. Did we contact the congregations? Yes, we did. The Taoiseach wrote to them as did my Secretary General, giving them a deadline by which time their contributions would be made known. We are now at a stage where one outstanding contribution is to be made known to me and I understand this will be done during the week. An e-mail or text message was received within the Department this week, indicating clearly that this congregation would be making its offer.

At all times, I was conscious we made a commitment to the survivors to keep them briefed as matters progressed. I was very anxious that when we got the panel's report and the offers I would bring that first to Government, then to the survivors and finally to the public.

I suspect the Minister and I have very similar personal views on these matters, particularly on the recent revelations. We are of a similar age.

I thought the Deputy was younger than me.

Not that much younger, and the Minister has more hair than I have. I ask him, as Minister for Education and Science, to introduce a sense of urgency with regard to the relationship the religious teaching orders and other aspects of the Catholic Church have with the citizens of this Republic. In that context, would he contemplate introducing a name-and-shame policy if these congregations do not provide the information ? We reluctantly did this with regard to citizens who are taxpayers. Why can we not do it to congregations which have cost the taxpayers of this Republic €1.3 billion?

The idea that one of the congregations would simply text or e-mail the Minister as to its latest position speaks volumes about the attitude that still exists towards the State among those congregations. I am aware of one congregation that has made public the new funds it wishes to make available to victims and to the State. Can I take it the Minister will now call on all remaining congregations to make their new offers public so that the people can see the additional sums or assets they now wish to give in reparation for the damage caused?

There are two issues here. We wanted to do the opposite, namely, not to make the contributions public because I wanted to give the survivors an opportunity to be the first to know, after the Government had considered both the panel report and the offers made.

With regard to Deputy Quinn's point, the important thing is that when the Taoiseach and other Ministers met them the congregations indicated quite clearly they were prepared to make a substantial contribution. We now have the panel's report from the three individuals who did an outstanding job and graciously did not charge any fee for it. That is now available and will go to Government, probably in the week after the budget on the basis of this latest and final offer that came in. The Government will consider the assetsvis-à-vis the cash in hand and the offer made. It is then a matter for Government to decide where it wishes to go from there.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.