Education (Amendment) Bill 2015: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to establish an Ombudsman for Education, to provide an appeal mechanism for decisions of boards of education concerning decisions of teachers and grievances against schools, to provide for the investigation and reporting by the ombudsman for education of various matters pertaining to this act, to amend the Education Act, 1998, and to provide for related matters.

I welcome the opportunity to introduce this Bill. The most recent annual report of the Ombudsman for Children outlines the appalling vista created by the refusal of a public, State-funded school to enrol a teenage girl because she was pregnant and to refuse again to enrol her after she had her baby because she was a single mother. The school in question is funded by the taxpayer. Modern Ireland is supposed to be a pluralist, inclusive society. The Office of the Ombudsman for Children investigated the case at the request of the girl's parents. When it sought notes and records of the school's decisions in the matter, it found that no records were held. In addition, it emerged that the school did not have a board of management or patron but was run by one individual.

That parents or teachers who have a grievance arising from decisions taken by school boards or authorities do not have an avenue of appeal is an appalling vista in this day and age. The Office of the Ombudsman for Children dutifully carried out an investigation into the case to which I referred but found it was powerless to compel the school to act and could only recommend to the Department that such decisions cease. The Department responded that it does not have any control, power, role or function in the actions taken by the management of schools. I cannot understand how such circumstances are allowed to prevail in 2015.

The education sector was described earlier as the cornerstone of society and engine of economic growth. Notwithstanding the wonderful terminology used to describe it, the system is not accountable or transparent when people with a grievance arising from decisions taken by school management have no avenue of appeal. People who receive a parking ticket are entitled to appeal the decision to a superior independent authority, yet no such avenue is available in the education system. It is to our eternal shame that this continues to be the case.

The purpose of the Bill is to establish an office of ombudsman for education which would allow for independent, professional adjudication of grievances of all partners and stakeholders in the education system, whether parents or school staff who are also victims in many cases. Unlike the Office of the Ombudsman for Children which deals with thousands of such complaints every year but has no power of compulsion or direction, the new office would have the power to compel and direct school boards and authorities to act under its direction. Its decisions would also be enforceable in the District Court.

This is not populist legislation. If anything, it will be difficult to implement because many of the vested interests in the education system, which is funded to the tune of €8.2 billion per annum, do not want an office of ombudsman for education with real powers of compellability to be established. However, this is the right thing to do and we as legislators owe it to the nation's children to right this wrong. I commend the Bill to the House.

Is the Bill opposed?

Question put and agreed to.

Since this is a Private Members' Bill, Second Stage must, under Standing Orders, be taken in Private Members' time.

I move: "That the Bill be taken in Private Members' time."

Question put and agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 1.08 p.m. and resumed at 2.08 p.m.