School Enrolments

I appreciate the Ceann Comhairle's decision to select this important matter. The serious concerns about the grossly unfair treatment of a pregnant teenage girl underline the need to develop clear and fair admission policy guidelines as part of a broader approach to ensure fairness and equality in the education system. The Office of the Children's Ombudsman carries out important work and the concerns of the ombudsman are clear from her comments, as she has requested that the school involved apologise for excluding the 16 year old girl in question. While the Minister may not want to comment on the school, he must have a view on the general issue of refusing access to a student on grounds such as those cited by the school. It is absolutely scandalous in this day and age for a school to refuse admission to a girl simply because she is the mother of a child. Most would agree that the behaviour of the school is unacceptable and that such instances should never be allowed to happen. This is discrimination, pure and simple, and it is most disappointing that it is happening. Nobody in the education system should be discriminated against, whether a gay teacher looking for employment or a young girl looking for entry to a school.

What is the timeframe for the introduction of the admissions policy guidelines about which the Minister has spoken? Will school inspectors scrutinise admission systems in the future based on these guidelines? Will the guidelines be legislated for? Are the requirements of the Education Act 1998 that each school have an admissions policy applicable to all private schools? We want to see an inclusive and modern education system in place in this country.

When I read this story, I was appalled at the treatment of the young girl at the centre of the case. An unplanned pregnancy is incredibly stressful for a young girl and the discourtesy shown to her by the school was something she could have done without.

Research and personal experience tell us that if young people are given every opportunity to complete their education, they will go on to reach their full potential. How then have we arrived at the situation outlined by Deputy Brendan Smith? How was a State funded school allowed to impose its own set of beliefs in a manner that could, at best, be described as blunt and, at worst, vindictive? We have heard from the Ombudsman, Ms Emily Logan, that the spirit of the Education Act 1998 is accessibility. In this case, the principal did not adhere to that spirit.

The mother at the centre of this story has been discriminated against in a modern society in the most despicable manner. It gives me no pleasure to raise this issue in the Dáil. The media spotlight cast on this story must be adding to the discomfort of the mother and the family at the receiving end of this scandalous treatment. One has to wonder in what century are we living when the school in question has refused to issue an apology to the young mother involved. To me, that is arrogance at its absolute worst. I understand the Department of Education and Skills is to launch an inspection in the coming weeks. I would like to know when that is going to happen. How will the Department ensure schools are adopting and following a policy of equality in admissions for all students?

We have come a long way from the story of Anne Lovett, a girl of 15 years who died in her school uniform while giving birth to a child in 1984. We have come a long way since a member of my own family was refused re-entry to her secondary school 20 years ago on becoming pregnant at 17 years. Irish society has moved on, but our legislation has not. It is important to recognise in this House that there are many schools around the country which deal with this situation every day in a compassionate, caring and understanding manner. If we bring ourselves back to the days of Anne Lovett, we are back to a situation where we isolate and condemn and push teenage parents out of the education system.

Pending the introduction of legislation, the Minister should ask the Department to issue a circular immediately to all secondary schools to advise them how to deal with such cases. They are doing so under their own policies. They need guidance and policy advice from the Department. I recognise that the Minister has pre-empted this discussion by creating a working group on admissions policies and indicating that the legislation is pending. However, in this case, we need a circular immediately from the Department.

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. I reiterate my concern at the treatment of this young person which is completely at variance with any republican principle to which we adhere as democrats. The manner in which this young person was treated was also un-Christian. I sympathise with her and agree with the Deputies.

I can confirm to the House that the Department and the Minister take this matter very seriously. On foot of correspondence from the Ombudsman for Children, the Department has initiated an inspection of the school concerned and that inspection is ongoing. The first part involved an unannounced incidental inspection visit which took place in February. A second inspection visit will be completed this month. It is expected that the report on the inspection will be completed before the end of June. In order not to prejudice the outcome of the inspector's report, I do not propose to comment further on the specific case. That is not to fudge the issue, but in respect of enrolments generally, the current position is that every school is legally obliged to publish its enrolment policy in such a manner as the board, with the agreement of the patron, considers appropriate. Section 29 of the Education Act 1998 provides parents with an appeals process where a board of management of a school, or a person acting on behalf of the board, refuses enrolment to a student. Where a school refuses to enrol a pupil, it is obliged to inform parents of their right under section 29 of the Education Act 1998 to appeal that decision to the Secretary General of the Department of Education and Skills.

The Minister has made the issue of reform of enrolment in schools a priority since taking up office. Last June he published a discussion document on school admissions aimed at leading to changes in regulations and legislation on how primary and post-primary schools allocated places to students. Central to the question of enrolment is the need to ensure a fair and transparent system in all schools which does not discriminate unfairly against students or parents. The discussion paper on a regulatory framework for school enrolment contains suggestions on how the process of enrolling in schools can be made more open, equitable and consistent. The has made it clear that the paper was not meant to be prescriptive, nor have any decisions been made as to what elements will be contained in any final regulations or legislation. The purpose of the paper was to lead and provoke debate on enrolment policies and practices.

Education partners and interested parties were invited to submit their views to the Department by 28 October last and officials are co-ordinating the submissions received. The feedback from this consultation will help inform the nature and scope of a new regulatory framework for school enrolment. The Minister intends to bring legislative proposals to Government this year, the primary aim of which will be to ensure every child is treated fairly and has a place at school.

I hope this answer is an adequate response to the questions raised by the Deputies. There is no timeframe for the legislation. With regard to enrolment policy, there should be no distinction between publicly and privately funded schools. That is a personal opinion. If we cherish all the children equally, where they go to school should not affect how they are treated. That is a personal view but it is one I would articulate in any legislative piece and I have made my view known to the Minister

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. Could he ask the Department to check my particular query? I presume the section of the Education Act 1998 is applicable to all schools, whether private or public. Could the Minister of State confirm that, perhaps in the next few days?

Comments attributed to some of the education partners are important and set out clearly what the norms should be. Overall, schools are, and should be, supportive of pregnant teenagers and of young mothers. I refer to the comment of Mr. Clive Byrne, chief executive of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, who said, "It is the norm that schools routinely deal with issues like this in a supportive way". Mr. Ferdia Kelly, of the Joint Managerial Body, stated that pregnancy should never have been an issue. He said, "Schools are highly supportive and pastoral towards girls who find themselves pregnant. There is never a question of their position in the school coming into question." I also refer to the comment from the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland that every school should have an "open and transparent admissions policy which is inclusive, which actively promotes equality of access, and which is fully compliant with legislation". I hope the regulations and legislative framework can be put in place to ensure those policies are administered in every school. An important comment from the representative teen parents' support programme, Margaret Morris, states, "It is not acceptable that any school would not be supportive."

I welcome the Minister of State's response regarding the unchristian nature of this girl's treatment. I also welcome the response of the Department. This is an opportunity for the Department to look outside the walls of Marlborough Street in influencing policy. Projects and services throughout the country have been dealing with situations like this for many years, and in a supportive and positively outcome-focused way for girls and children.

Deputy Smith mentioned teen parents' support initiatives. I have much admiration for the Waterford student mothers' group which was set up more than ten years ago by a home-school-community liaison teacher who saw that girls who became pregnant were not coming back to school. The group's mission was simple. It was to ensure girls completed their leaving certificate because all the evidence shows us that if a girl does so, her child will go on to have a more fulfilled educational experience. The service is run by Barnados in Waterford and has been working closely with all the schools in the city and county for more than ten years. The group has a 100% record in terms of girls completing their leaving certificate.

I ask the Department to look outside its walls and put best practice and policy in place to ensure everyone gets equal access to education.

There are fantastic models of practice, as we have heard. Two months ago, the Joint Committee on Jobs, Social Protection and Education visited a project in Tallaght which is run by Frances Chance on behalf of Barnados. It also deals with student fathers, whose emotions also need to be cared for. As was suggested when we visited the project, leadership is taking place within communities and schools, but it is not coming from the Department. We are waiting for legislation on enrolment, which is fair enough. However, we need an immediate communication from the Department to all second level schools giving policy advice on how to deal with a young student who finds herself pregnant or with a young father who may be going through emotional turmoil. It is important we take that leadership. I suggest the Minister of State talk to his officials and ensure it takes place.

I thank the Deputies for their considered views on the issue. All education stakeholders throughout the land would look with empathy on this case. There is sense of empathy for the girl given the manner in which she was treated. This example is an aberration in the system. A decision was taken by one school. The system and its stakeholders, by its nature, is empathetic and deals positively with people in all sorts of circumstances.

I take the points made about the need for greater co-ordination at departmental level. That is something that could be worked through the Joint Committee on Jobs, Social Protection and Education. Perhaps an initiative could arise out of those meetings that have taken place.

The Minister has made it very clear that discrimination of this nature is unacceptable. We would all agree with that position and I restate it.

Road Network

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing this topic to be discussed and the Minister of State for coming to the House to debate it.

When the Ennis to Gort motorway, including the bypass of Crusheen, was completed some years ago, people in east Galway and the west were looking forward to the commencement of the Gort to Tuam motorway. As well as the need for the motorway, there was a hope that the project would create employment.

The Minister of State knows the history of this project. In 2010, the contract for the project was awarded to the BAM Balfour Beatty consortium, which could not secure the financial backing to start it. Later, the National Roads Authority had discussions with the consortium known as Roadbridge. Again, private funding was a problem. It is now reported that consideration has been given to completing the Gort to Athenry section only.

This will not be good news for Tuam, where there is traffic congestion, while for years there have been traffic delays between Tuam and Galway city. Four years ago, a €29 million water, sewerage and utilities scheme was sanctioned for Tuam. It has become known as the big dig. It is nearly complete and will be of great benefit to the town. It is a great comfort that the work is to be finished. There has been major traffic disruption in the town of Tuam and there will be huge disappointment if the bypass, which was earmarked six years ago, is not included in the road development. If the funding allows a motorway from Gort to Athenry, there is the question of Claregalway. What are the proposals for Claregalway?

I know the Minister, Deputy Leo Varadkar, and the Minister of State, Deputy Kelly, have shown their commitment to funding motorway projects. They have stated this clearly with regard to the west. I raise this issue to learn from the Minister of State if funding is available for the motorway. I know funding from private sources has been difficult to obtain but the west has suffered cutbacks to transport infrastructure projects. There have been cutbacks relating to Galway airport and delays on the western rail corridor.

The Minister has not been hopeful about the western rail corridor project recently. Neither has he been hopeful about the future of Galway Airport. These are all related because they are part of the transport infrastructure we would like to see in the west.

I thank the House for giving me the opportunity to deal with this matter in the absence of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Leo Varadkar.

The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport has responsibility for overall policy and funding the national roads programme. However, the planning, design and implementation of individual national road projects are matters for the National Roads Authority, NRA, under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2007, in conjunction with the local authorities concerned. The N17-Nl8 PPP scheme is approximately 57 km in length and commences at the northern extremity of the N18 Gort to Crusheen scheme and ends in the vicinity of Tuam. It will replace the existing N17 and N18, providing bypasses for the towns of Clarinbridge, Claregalway and Tuam where significant delays frequently occur. Originally there were three separate schemes. The N18 Oranmore to Gort road scheme was approved with modifications by An Bord Pleanála on 6 June 2007. The M17 Galway to Tuam road scheme has been the subject of an An Bord Pleanála oral hearing and the motorway scheme was approved by it on 6 March 2009. The N17 Tuam bypass was approved by An Bord Pleanála in August 2006. A technical advisory consultant was appointed and commenced work in September 2007.

The project will significantly improve safety, reduce journey times, improve connectivity within the western region and significantly assist in the economic development of the Border, midlands and western, BMW, region. The scheme will improve access to Shannon Airport and Ireland West Airport at Knock which has been identified as a major infrastructural requirement for sustaining industrial growth in the region. Additionally, the development of a high quality dual carriageway-motorway link between Letterkenny and Waterford is a specific objective of the National Development Plan, NDP, 2007 to 2013 and the proposed N17-N18 PPP scheme represents a part of the proposed network.

The PPP project has been procured as an untolled road scheme with payments by the public sector to be based on an availability-based payment mechanism throughout the operational period. It must be recognised that the payment mechanism obliges the NRA to make availability payments to the PPP company, which gives rise to an ongoing financial commitment annually from 2017 to 2041. As the Deputy is aware, the successful awarding of a major PPP contract involving private funding is challenging at any time but is particularly challenging in current circumstances where the country has been the subject of intervention by the IMF and the European Union. Despite this, every effort will continue to be made to progress this PPP within the timeframe of the current capital programme which runs to 2016.

The Minister of State concurred with my point on the length of time it has taken to realise the project, given that the planning and design stage dates back to 2007. Approval was given by An Bord Pleanála for the Tuam bypass in August 2006 and a technical advisory consultant was appointed and commenced work in September 2007. The delay in proceeding with the project has been frustrating for people who live along the road and generally in the west. I hope the Minister of State will continue his discussions with the NRA to see whether approval can be given for the motorway project.

Suggestions have been made that funding could be forthcoming from investors in Europe. The Minister of State outlined there would not be a toll payable on the road, but media reports suggest otherwise and a toll plaza could be provided. Perhaps he might clarify whether there is to be a rethink on the matter? A toll plaza was not envisaged in the original proposal, but that was when the economic climate was better. I would be grateful if the Minister of State addressed the extra points I have made.

I accept the project has taken a considerable length of time. I know the value of such a road, as I am familiar with the area and the towns affected. I have been subject to delays there on many occasions in my current job and previous ones. The scheme is valuable, but, unfortunately, given the economic environment, as the Deputy is aware, funding is an issue. However, we are working with the NRA to consider every single avenue from a funding perspective. No stone will be left unturned to find a solution to the problem.

No change is envisaged on the issue of tolling. There is no plan to toll the road and no indication that there will be a change of mind in that regard. The economic logic behind such a proposal would not stand up to scrutiny.

It was suggested work on the 57 km stretch of road could be carried out on a phased basis, but I envisage the ultimate goal would be to complete the entire length, encompassing the towns to be bypassed, because the sum of the parts would be more valuable than any one part on its own and it would be of more benefit if the work was done in one go. As the Deputy is well aware, when that will be is something on which we will continue to work.