Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am very pleased to be introducing this Bill to the House. A similar Bill was drafted in the previous Oireachtas but did not make it through. This is part of a suite of measures I believe we need to introduce in the education area that will equip our education service to meet and respond to the expectations of citizens for a progressive education system. The expectations of citizens are changing and we have to make sure that we have the capacity to change with them. I hope to introduce a number of measures that will bolster that. For example, we have already brought in the fitness to teach measure which gives parents and students the expectation that there will be accountability for the standards of teaching. That is an important measure and is a piece of the Teaching Council Bill. Work had to be done to bring it to this point but it is welcome that it is in place.

I also intend to introduce a parents and students charter, which I know the Acting Chairman is particularly interested in, so that more issues can be resolved at school level and that schools have in place the sort of charters that meet the expectations of pupils and parents, and that they ought to expect. This admissions area is another important area in which we need to have modern legislation. In introducing the Bill I am conscious that there is a wider range of issues regarding admissions that people have concerns about, and people want to see greater diversity and more choice within our education system. An important element of that is to promote new schools which will have a broader range of choice. We come from a situation where most schools are denominational, and there are changing expectations among citizens. We also need to see the transfer of school patronage where there are opportunities to switch from the existing patrons. I am working to deliver those as well.

This Bill provides the opportunity to bring greater transparency and fairness into school admissions. It makes clear that every school must be welcoming to every young person regardless of their colour, abilities or disabilities. For example, it will help to end soft barriers that some of our schools erect in the way of children with special needs. It is my firm view that we should have that spirit enshrined in an admissions Bill that sets out in detail the laws that should prevail in this area. This legislation derives from the Education Act of 1998 but things have moved on since then and we need to codify and put in place a better framework that emphasises transparency and consistency in school enrolment generally, thereby giving greater confidence to parents that the admissions criteria laid down by schools and the procedures used by them are legitimate, reasonable and fair.

I will go through the Bill section by section if time permits but I want to first highlight the main aims and provisions. A key objective of the Bill and its associated regulations is to improve access to school for all pupils. In this regard the Bill will strengthen our capacity to cater for a child who cannot get a place at school. This is important, particularly for children who are vulnerable and at risk. The Bill will allow the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, and the Child and Family Agency, Tusla, to designate a place for a child in a school. It is important to be clear that the Bill does not enable the Child and Family Agency or the NCSE to increase the school's capacity. The school must have places available for a designation to be made.

The Bill will enshrine in law a ban on schools charging parents to apply for a place in school.

The Bill, while including provision for single-sex schools and denominational schools to reflect in their admission policy the exemptions applicable to such schools under equality legislation, makes clear that every school must be welcoming of every child regardless of his or her colour, abilities or disabilities, or indeed, sexual orientation or membership of the Traveller community.

The Bill also requires schools to publish an admission policy which will include details of the school's arrangements for students who do not want to attend religious instruction. This is an important measure which will help ensure transparency from the outset as to how a school will uphold the rights of parents in this regard.

Many parents are happy with the schools their children attend and that the vast majority of schools are inclusive and welcoming places, but there are cases where there is disappointment and dissatisfaction, with limited means of dealing with this. It is with this in mind that the framework aims to strike an appropriate balance between school autonomy and the interests of parents in our education system.

This can he achieved through regulations that foster greater transparency and consistency in terms of how schools communicate and interact with parents. To that end, the Bill sets out clearly-----

On a point of order, the attendance here is pitiful. With no disrespect to the Minister, I call a quorum.

Notice taken that 20 Members were not present; House counted and 20 Members being present,

The emphasis should be on instilling best practice in relation to what schools do and how they do it in order to reduce difficulties or the need for grievance resolution subsequently. Within an overall regulatory framework of clearly set out requirements, procedures and timelines, better transparency and effective compliance mechanisms, the number of cases where grievances might arise should diminish. The Bill is the first step in putting this framework in place.

In some schools there are more applicants than places available and a selection process may be necessary. This selection process and the admission policy on which it is based must be non-discriminatory and must be applied fairly in respect of all applicants. In this regard, the Bill will prevent schools from prioritising applicants on the basis of waiting lists, a mechanism that often blocks students who move to a community from being able to access the schools in that community.

In regard to a school providing priority in admissions to children of past pupils, the approach taken in the draft regulations, which were published in September 2013, aimed to strike a balance by limiting the number of places that could be allocated to children of past pupils to a maximum of 25%. The previous Oireachtas committee's report on the draft general scheme considered that a school should not be permitted to give any priority to children of past pupils. At present, this Bill is silent in relation to a limitation on the power of a school to determine a priority for children of past pupils. I have already had discussions with Opposition parties and Oireachtas colleagues on this matter and I consider that in bringing the Bill through the Oireachtas, there will be further opportunities for Members to raise and debate this matter, which I plan to deal with in primary legislation by way of a Committee Stage amendment. My view is that the previous proposal, that this limitation be set at 25%, is broadly where I see consensus being possible. However, I intend to listen to all views on this matter.

I am committed to increasing choice and diversity in the Irish education system. The best and quickest way of providing diversity and choice for parents is by providing additional multi-denominational schools for parents, and I have committed to trebling the rate of delivery of these schools to reach 400 multi-denomination and non-denominational schools by 2030. The reality is that little progress has been delivered in this area under recent Governments. My intention is to step up activity in this area in order to deliver on these ambitious targets.

Before I discuss the Committee Stage amendments that I intend to table to this Bill, I wish to clarify that, in accordance with the decision of the Government and, indeed, the Dáil, any amendments to section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act, which currently provides that an oversubscribed denominational school may admit persons of a particular religious denomination in preference to others, will proceed separately to this Bill. I recognise the need to deal with the situation whereby some religious schools, when they are oversubscribed, admit children of their own religion from some distance away ahead of children of other religions or no religion who live close by. However, we have to protect minority religions, the tens of thousands of Irish people who subscribe to Judaism, Islam and various Protestant denominations among many other religions. Many of these people travel long distances to attend schools of their own denomination, and we have to make sure that the laws we introduce protect that right. The Dáil has agreed that the Joint Committee on Education and Skills will take time to scrutinise the proposed legislation, which was tabled in Private Members' time by the Labour Party, consider submissions and hold hearings involving legal experts and stakeholders in order to tease out the potential problems and propose solutions. It will give students, parents, teachers and other stakeholders an opportunity to appear before the committee and have their say, before we progress this law. Our parliamentary committees have previously noted the significant constitutional difficulties in this area. A previous report concluded that the provision in the Constitution poses a particular difficulty when legislating in this policy area. Teasing out the legal issues properly will ensure that any change in the law is not later struck down by the courts.

In regard to Committee Stage amendments, I can advise that the most significant amendment that I intend to bring forward involves amendments to section 29 of the Education Act to make this appeals process fit for purpose. The proposals for the Bill originally provided for an appeal against a decision to refuse enrolment to be excluded from the independent appeal process provided by section 29 of the Education Act. In the course of drafting the Bill, the Attorney General advised that an independent appeal should continue to be provided. Concerns were also raised by the then joint committee about the absence of an appeal process independent of the school and to take account of these concerns and the advice of the Attorney General, I intend to bring proposals to Government shortly involving amendments to section 29 of the Education Act to be introduced on Committee Stage.

I will also be tabling amendments to the Bill on Committee Stage to ensure that this Bill, when enacted, does not disrupt the smooth operation of the admission process to special classes or special schools. I have also advised that I intend to table a Committee Stage amendment that will deal, in primary legislation, with a limitation on the power of a school to determine a priority for children of past pupils where a school is oversubscribed.

I will briefly go through the provisions, many of which the Deputies will be familiar with. There are ten sections. Section 1 defines the "Act" as the Education Act 1998. Section 2 inserts into the Education Act an interpretation for the term "admission policy", which is defined as having the meaning assigned to it by section 62 of the Bill. Section 3 amends functions of a school of the original Education Act by providing for a school to conduct its activities in compliance with any regulations made from time to time by the Minister under the Act of 1998 and not just regulations under section 33 of the Act as is currently provided for. Section 3 also amends section 9(m) of the Education Act to remove the reference to subsection 15(2)(d) of the Education Act when requiring a school to establish and maintain an admission policy which provides for maximum accessibility to the school.

Section 4 amends section 10, the recognition of schools, of the Education Act by providing for a school patron to agree that the school shall operate in accordance with the Education Act and such regulations as may be made by the Minister from time to time.

Section 5 amends section 15, functions of a board, of the Education Act by providing that the current reference to a board publishing the policy of the school concerning admission to and participation in the school be amended to "subject to this Act, publish the admission policy of the school" and that the principle of inclusion be considered in addition to the principles already specified in the Act. The amendment also provides for the removal of the requirement on a board to publish the policy of the school concerning admission to and participation in the school by students with disabilities or who have other special educational needs, as the school's admission policy should set out the arrangements for admission of all categories of students without itemisation in that way.

In addition, the requirement on a board to publish the policy of the school "relating to the expulsion and suspension of students" is being removed, as this policy is a separate policy to the admission policy of a school and the existing requirement to publish such a policy will be addressed by an amendment to section 23 of the Education (Welfare) Act 2000, which is provided for by section 8 of this Bill. The amended section 15(2)(d) will then read as follows: the board shall "subject to this Act, publish the admission policy of the school and ensure that as regards that policy principles of inclusion, equality and the right of parents to send their children to a school of the parents' choice are respected and such directions as may be made from time to time by the Minister, having regard to the characteristic spirit of the school and the constitutional rights of all persons concerned, are complied with,".

Section 6 amends section 23 of the Education Act by including a requirement for the principal to be accountable to the board of management for the implementation of the admissions policy of the school and by replacing the reference to regulations made under section 33 with a broader reference to "regulations made under this Act".

Section 7 provides for the insertion of a new Part in the Education Act 1998. Part X, entitled "Admission to Schools", contains sections 60 to 69 and aims to set out the key provisions of the regulatory framework for school admissions in primary legislation. Section 60 provides the definitions which apply to the new Part X. Section 61, while including provision for single sex schools and denominational schools to reflect in their admission policy the exemptions applicable to such schools under equality legislation, requires the admission policy of a school to include a statement that the school shall not discriminate in its admission of a student to the school on the following grounds: gender, civil status, family status, sexual orientation, religion, disability, race, Traveller community ground or special educational needs of the student or of the applicant in respect of the student concerned.

Section 62 sets out the arrangements by which a board shall, following consultation, draft, obtain patron approval for and publish an admission policy. It also sets some mandatory requirements for a school’s admission policy, which include: setting out the characteristic spirit of the school; including an admission statement; providing details of the school's arrangements for students who do not wish to attend religious instruction; providing that the school shall enrol each student seeking admission other than where the number of students seeking admission is greater than the number of places being made available by the school, where the parents of a student fail to confirm in writing that the code of behaviour of the school is acceptable to them and that they shall make all reasonable efforts to ensure compliance with such code by the student or in accordance with the existing exemptions in the Equal Status Act for schools of one gender and for schools where the objective is to provide education in an environment that promotes certain religious values. It also will include setting out the selection criteria to be applied where the number of students seeking admission to a school is greater than the number of places being made available by the school and the manner and sequence in which selection criteria will be applied. It will include providing details of procedures for appealing a decision to refuse admission and setting out the procedures for admission of students after the commencement of the school year and to classes or years other than the school’s intake group. It will include a statement that no fees or contributions can be requested as part of the admissions process, except in accordance with section 63.

Section 63 prohibits the charging of fees or seeking payment or contributions for an application for admission to a school or for the enrolment or continued enrolment of a student in a school. Exceptions are provided in the case of fees charged by schools known as fee-charging schools, fees charged by boarding schools for the boarding element and fees charged by schools for post-leaving certificate courses.

Section 64 clarifies the power of the Minister to make regulations, following consultation with the relevant education stakeholders, for the purpose of the preparation and publication by schools of admission policies and the admission of students to schools. These regulations may include matters relating to the preparation, content, publication and review of school admission policies and procedures relating to the admission process. The regulations may provide selection criteria that schools shall be permitted to apply and-or selection criteria that schools shall be prohibited from applying in cases where the number of students seeking admission to the school is greater than the number of places available at the school.

Selection criteria that schools shall be prohibited from applying may include criteria based on a student’s prior attendance at a specified category or categories of preschool or preschool service, the payment of fees or contributions to the school, the occupation or financial status of the parents of a student, a student’s academic ability, skills or aptitude, a requirement that a student or his or her parents attend an interview, open day or other meeting as a condition of admission and the date on which an application for admission was received by the school.

Section 65 provides for the Minister, where he or she considers that it is in the best interests of students in an area or in order to accommodate students in the case of a school closure, following consultation with the patrons and boards of the schools concerned, to direct two or more boards to co-operate with each other in their admission processes and to set out procedures relating to any such co-operation.

Section 66 provides for the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, to designate a school in the case of a child who has no school place for reasons related to their special educational needs and for the Child and Family Agency to designate a school in the case of a child, other than a child to whom an NCSE designation may apply, who has no school place. Section 66 also provides for the Minister to establish an appeals committee to deal with appeals that might arise with regard to designations by either the NCSE or the Child and Family Agency or with regard to an appeal taken by a parent regarding a failure to designate and sets out the process for hearing and providing notification of the outcome of such appeals. The Minister may, following consultation with the relevant bodies, make regulations to specify the time limits applicable to such appeals and to further set out the procedures to be followed by an appeals committee.

Section 67 enables a patron, following issuance of a notice and consideration of any representations received relating to same, to issue a direction to a board where he or she is of the opinion that the board has failed to prepare and publish an admission policy, the admission policy of the school does not comply with the Education Act or students are not being admitted to the school in accordance with the Education Act or the admission policy of the school. lf the board fails to comply with the direction the patron may, following issuance of a further notice and consideration of any representations received relating to same, and subject to the consent of the Minister, appoint an independent person to comply with the direction.

Thank you. I gave the Minister additional time for some of the time lost during the call for a quorum.

I will share time with the chairperson of the Oireachtas education committee, Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin. She certainly will have an interesting contribution to make as she will be central to much of the debate taking place on this.

Fianna Fáil supports this Bill. We are supportive of the overall thrust of the legislation. It is old legislation but it has been brought forward, at last. It requires schools to publish an admission policy and it gives the Department of Education and Skills new powers to determine what admissions criteria schools can use. As the Minister has acknowledged, the Bill must be strengthened and other matters are to be included in it. I am not entirely clear on the issue of religious preference, but it appears that the Minister is proposing that it not be dealt with in this Bill and that it be dealt with separately.

Maybe the Minister can explain his view of it in more detail when he sums up. It was not my impression. My impression was that we could merge the equal status issue with it at some point to get an overall Bill. Many people are watching the issue and their voices need to be heard as best we can.

We need to introduce amendments to the Bill to achieve a stronger legislative framework that would more fundamentally reform school admission policies. As I said during Question Time today, every child deserves to be admitted to his or her local school. Without any issue of discrimination, there are areas where there is no room in the local school to admit children. This must be addressed and I will bring forward amendments on it to make Tusla and the Department of Education and Skills work more closely, particularly regarding capacity issues, which is becoming more of an issue around the country.

The Bill does not address the elephant in the room, namely, the religious preference issue. Fianna Fáil believes no parent should have to baptise his or her child simply to get the child into a school and that all children, regardless of their religious denomination or outlook, should have access to a school in their local communities. There are independent studies that demonstrate that the vast majority of schools do not need to operate a religious preference, given that there is no issue of oversubscription. However, it is an issue in urban areas and in parts of my constituency. It has been well documented.

We favour the introduction of standard selection criteria for oversubscribed schools based on locality and catchment. Selection rules should be based on two criteria. First, there should be a sibling principle. We would certainly allow siblings of pupils to be enrolled preferentially. It makes sense for families. There was an issue about it previously and I am glad it is out of the equation. It is only sensible. Second, children living in designated catchment areas would have to be prioritised. Catchment areas would have to be drawn up in order to have a workable solution. In certain parts of the country, particularly the city, people are able to move around in order to get into particular schools, and local people can lose out. In other parts of the country, particularly suburban towns, the issue is that there is not enough provision to cater for the demand, and the demand for diversity, that exists.

We recognise what the Minister said, which Oireachtas committees have said previously, that the "baptism barrier", or the issue of religious preference, is a complex legal and constitutional issue. We must be cognisant of the rights of minority faith schools especially to protect their ethos and identity. I say this most sincerely. The Church of Ireland community is very worried about any proposal to open up school admissions. A very simplistic approach to remove the issue of religious preference would have a disproportionate effect on our Church of Ireland communities. We will support them and their schools. The State owes them the preference in order to ensure their communities can continue to thrive. The issue is also a concern to some Roman Catholics. Roman Catholic priests I have talked to in my area, where this is an issue, are not overly concerned about it. One priest described it as an issue of administration and said he would prefer if it were not there. This is not the common view.

We must also say we value the Roman Catholic church's contribution to education and acknowledge that many parents want to have their children educated in Roman Catholic schools. This choice and diversity is essential. The Minister will have to expedite the establishment of new non-denominational schools to give people the choice. There are people who want to continue to go to Roman Catholic schools and this choice should be respected. There are people who want to go to multidenominational schools and they must be given the opportunity to do so. Although the choice is excellent in certain areas, in large parts of the country, they are not able to do it. A constituent contacted me tonight about a particular town in which there are several Roman Catholic schools and there are no options. One school has told the constituent the child definitely will not get in given that the child is not baptised. The other school has said, as things stand, the child will get in, however there is no guarantee and it may change by the time the child reaches school age. I do not know what the answer is. Presumably the answer is to provide an extra school. Divestment has caused too much controversy. It just gets people's backs up and has not achieved much.

We welcome the other main provisions outlined in the Bill, including the requirement that every school prepare and publish an admissions policy. Many schools do and the legislation simply tightens it up. We welcome the ministerial power that will allow the phasing out of waiting lists and other discriminatory admissions practices and we welcome the ban on non-fee paying schools charging application fees or admission fees. It is an oxymoron. I welcome the provision that a direction can be made to a number of schools to work together on an admissions policy. I presume the Minister means that in certain geographical areas, a common enrolment list would be prepared. Maybe the Minister could elaborate on it. If it is the intention of the section, it would be welcome. Schools do not know how many of the children on their lists are enrolled at other schools. It causes serious problems. It causes stress for parents who do not know which school their children will get into. A common enrolment policy would greatly help the Department to know the numbers in areas of high pressure.

New powers are to be given to Tusla and the NCSE and this is very welcome. The Minister will bring further amendments on it and I may bring amendments too. This will enable these bodies to designate a school that would be obliged to admit a child who cannot find a school place elsewhere. The Minister mentioned they will not be able to interfere in issues of capacity. As I said earlier today, I have an issue in Ashbourne in which Tusla is trying to find a place for a child. There should be a provision in school admissions that children should be admitted to their local school. We have a situation in which a child who had been in senior infants since September before moving to Ashbourne has been told by a very hard working welfare officer in Tusla that the only option available is a place in junior infants in Ashbourne or a similar class in Garristown, outside the town. It is wrong. We need Tusla and the Minister to work much more closely together regarding the capacity issues that are appearing in certain parts of the country. When I took this brief, I was unaware that the issue of getting a school place in a child welfare context was with a separate agency or Department. It is crazy. It is not joined-up thinking. The Minister should seek for it to be brought into his Department or, at least, to have a formal structure between Tusla and his Department on the issue. It is a difficulty. Talking off the record, civil servants agree with me.

There are more powers and obligations regarding patrons and the role of the patron is becoming more entrenched in the system. Patronage is an inheritance we have and we must live with it. Patrons offer excellent services and a particular ethos to schools. They are being asked to do more and have been given more powers. The complaint I am getting, particularly regarding second level patrons, is that the funding is not there and they do not know how they will do it. Often, they have been funding their activities themselves. I would be wary of further entrenching the patronage system. While it is good for what it should be there for, namely providing the ethos or value system in which parents want their children to be educated, I am wary of the patrons getting even more involved. Patrons themselves are wary of it, given that they do not have the resources. It is all right for ETBs: they are State agencies and this would be the expected work for them. However, it will present difficulties for the voluntary secondary schools.

What concerned me was the appeals mechanism established regarding the intervention of Tusla and the NCSE. The Minister could clarify it, and we will have plenty of time on Committee Stage to examine it. There seems to be an appeals system for the school. For a school to fight an appeal to prevent a child from being admitted seems a weird situation. Although the Minister may tell me it is necessary for fair processes, it seems weird. That is the best word. We will be seeking a new appeals body to be established in the Department for parents who believe their child has been discriminated against by a school in the admissions process.

This will make it easier for parents who feel their child has been unfairly treated achieve redress.

This is a good Bill. It tightens things up that by and large are happening already in some ways. We will have to examine closely the issue of special needs. We will deal with the issue of religious preference on Committee Stage and I know that Deputy O'Loughlin will speak about that, but I would also like to hear from organisations involved with special needs education on Committee Stage. I invite them to contact members of the committee with their views on what is involved. Do they feel enough is being done or that anything can be changed? It is certainly something that people are beginning to contact us about.

A lot of work is required. I think all of us gave a commitment in the Dáil last summer, when the Labour Party tabled its Private Members' motion, that the issue of religious preference would be dealt with in time for admissions next year. The clock is ticking. I want to see us live up to the commitment, while recognising that it is an extremely complex area with many interests, but the interests of the individual children must be at the heart of it.

I will now yield to my colleague, Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin.

The decision parents make about where to send their children to school is hugely important. Whether they are renting or buying, many parents choose where to live on the basis of the schools in the area. However, there are many parents who do not have a choice. Approximately ten years ago, when schools were becoming oversubscribed in Dublin, my area in Kildare saw a huge influx of young parents. They were coming to live in Kildare because they could not get their children into schools in Dublin. We are now feeling the squeeze. We are at that point. What we are discussing is incredibly important.

We must note that Ireland is an increasingly pluralistic society, but this is not yet reflected in our school admissions policies. The statistics show us that 33.7% of couples opted for a non-religious marriage ceremony in 2015. There has been a 20% reduction in Catholic mass attendance rates between 2008 and 2014. Despite this significant social shift, approximately 96% of State-funded schools are denominational, with 90% of these Catholic. The treatment of non-Catholic parents and children in our education system is an issue that urgently needs to be addressed. I say this as someone who had the benefit of a Catholic education not just at primary and secondary level but also at third level when I attended Carysfort. I also taught religious studies at primary school level and enjoyed that engagement with children. Ultimately, we were working with children to help them respect their families, community and environment.

The existence of discriminatory admissions policies has resulted in children being forced to commute long distances to schools outside their localities and in baptisms of convenience, which are often against a parent's conscience. These should not be necessary in a modern, multicultural society. All children, regardless of religious denomination, should have access to a school in their local community. The effect of discriminatory policies is more pronounced in more populous areas where schools are oversubscribed. The Department of Education and Skills reports that one in every five schools is oversubscribed. It is in these schools that enrolment that discriminates on the basis of religion takes place. These oversubscribed schools have been broadly allowed to draw up their own admissions policies based on criteria such as catchment area, religion, that a parent was a past pupil or that a sibling attends the school. There is also anecdotal evidence that suggests some schools use their admissions policies to select applicants based on academic achievement or socio-economic background. With population growth in many areas, including mine in Kildare, the number of oversubscribed schools will only increase. Where a school is oversubscribed, its selection criteria should not discriminate on religious or other grounds such as ability, race, etc.

Fianna Fáil also considers that simply amending section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act, as proposed by the Labour Party and other groups, is too simplistic. It would endanger the ability of minority faith schools to defend their ethos. To remove completely a school's right to use denominational criteria would be unconstitutional and would fail to acknowledge the rights of these minority schools. This is a complex legal and constitutional issue, given the rights to both religion and education in our Constitution. Fianna Fáil believes that locality or catchment area is the fairest selection criterion and that children who have a sibling in a school should be given priority in admissions. We do not believe schools should be able to give admission to children of a particular denominational background from outside their catchment area ahead of children inside the area. We also believe that catchment areas for schools should be provided for in our legislation and should be a statutory requirement in admissions policies. The size of the catchment area could reflect the popularity of the school's ethos.

I welcome the phasing out of school waiting lists. These have also been a problem in my area. I also welcome the proposal to establish a new schools admission appeals body as a recourse for parents who feel that their child has been discriminated against in the admissions process. The improvements to transparency and fairness of schools admissions in the Bill are to be welcomed. As stated by the Minister, every school must be welcoming of every young person, regardless of ability, disability, race or religion. I welcome the Minister's commitment to increasing choice and diversity in our education system.

The Bill obliges schools to publish their admissions policy but does not oblige them to change them. It obliges them to give details of arrangements put in place for children who do not wish to receive religious instruction, but gives no guidance or standards as to what these arrangements should be. The current arrangement of children sitting separately and alone for 30 minutes, possibly every day, while their classmates receive religious instruction is not satisfactory. This has a greater impact in communion and confirmation years.

My colleague referred to my role as Chairman of the committee that will examine this issue. I know that the Minister appreciates that we are currently dealing with the Cassells report. We have started our engagement with stakeholders and the matter is progressing successfully. This is a hugely important facet of the commitment of the Department and the committee to react appropriately and in a timely way to the Cassells report. The committee is committed to engaging with the stakeholders on this Bill prior to Christmas and has been in touch with the Department of Education and Skills to suggest possible meeting dates prior to Christmas.

This is hugely important to the committee, as it is to all Members of the Dáil. We look forward to further engagement with the Government and the members of every party on this hugely significant Bill.

On behalf of my party, Sinn Féin, I broadly welcome this Bill as an important first step in providing parents with transparency on, in particular, the criteria to be used for selection in school admissions. The Bill contains many important provisions and will require schools, for the first time, to prepare and publish comprehensive admissions policies. We particularly welcome the fact that agencies such as the National Council for Special Education and Tusla will have the power to designate a school place for a child in difficulty in securing admission to school. The fact that the practice of fees and contributions for an enrolment or continued enrolment at school has been prohibited, save in limited circumstances, is also welcome, although I must admit that I am not clear as to what affect this will have on the growing phenomenon of the “voluntary" contribution that is keeping many schools open in light of slashed resources.

These are the positive aspects of the Bill but I must also admit that the Bill, as presented here today, is a missed opportunity. There should be much more in it to address other issues, particularly that of religious discrimination.

I appreciate that for the vast majority of schools there are no major issues around admissions. Where there are enough places for those who apply, each child is offered a place. However, in situations where a school is oversubscribed, there can be serious problems with the admission criteria applied by schools. The issue of religious discrimination in this context is by far the most pressing issue for many parents. The United Nations, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the Office of the Ombudsman for Children have all recommended that the Equal Status Act be amended to give effect to the principle that no child should be given preferential access to a publicly funded school on the basis of their religion. Countless campaign groups and commentators have called for the repeal of this law and there is a real sense that the campaign is growing momentum yet the Bill is silent on this fundamental issue. Let us be clear, this Bill will not do a single thing to change the status quo and, in fact, reaffirms it by restating the provision of the Equal Status Act. Furthermore, while the Bill will place an onus on schools to publish arrangements for those who wish to opt out of religious instruction, there is no minimum standard set down in this regard and there is no provision for the Minister to regulate in this area. The right to opt out of religious instruction in school is one that is set down by our Constitution. It is fundamental and yet nothing has been done by successive Governments to ensure that children who wish to assert that right can do so effectively in practice. Schools have been left to their own devices in this regard and it is just not good enough.

Another area of considerable concern is that of access for children with special needs. I welcome the provision of the Bill that gives power to the National Council for Special Education to designate a place for a child that cannot secure one. However, I have some reservations about the impact of the Bill in this regard. First, will it be the case that all avenues must be exhausted before the NCSE can step in? Is it fair on parents to put them through a rigmarole of applying to every school in the county just to secure a place for their child? Children with special educational needs have as much right to attend their nearest school, where possible, and this Bill will need to reflect that. Furthermore, the issue of the establishment of special classes where there is clear local demand and need for such classes is not provided for in this Bill. We see particularly in cases of children on the autism spectrum that suitable places simply are not available and the NCSE must be given powers to address this where possible. This Bill is an opportunity to address this. There is also the need for an appeals process for parents in response to the designation of a school place where there is a genuine belief that the place designated is not suitable or not in the best interests of the child. In many cases, this issue boils down to resources and I am firmly of the view that a statutory timeframe for the provision of suitable resources for children with special educational needs would address many of the concerns of schools in this regard. It is something that should be seriously considered as the Bill progresses. While I appreciate the Minister has proposed a new resource allocation model, I reserve judgment on the proposal until the report of the pilot project is published. The fact that, under this new model, schools will have their resources set for a three-year time period is of concern. We need clarity on it. We need to see the published report. It is not clear how the model will work in providing schools with the necessary resources to provide for new admissions of students with special educational needs. It is clear that both the new resource allocation model and the admissions legislation need to be considered in tandem as they develop and progress. The measures must complement each other and we cannot realistically expect schools to be in a position to implement inclusive admissions policies. The majority of them would like to do so but they simply do not have the resources in many cases. Such short-sighted approaches are unfair on both schools and children.

Sinn Féin believes the right to education is a fundamental human right and every child should be able to access his or her local State-funded school on an equal footing without discrimination on any ground, including disability or religion. Sinn Féin has campaigned heavily on this issue and last year we produced a Bill that would eradicate religious discrimination in access to education. I commend my predecessor, Deputy Jonathan O’Brien, for his hard work on this issue. The support we give to this Bill tonight is a qualified support. My party would like to see this issue debated thoroughly with the views of all stakeholders taken into account. The State clearly has an obligation to ensure the rights of all our children are protected and it must take action to ensure that this is the case. This Bill does not go far enough to achieve that and we will be seeking to amend it on Committee Stage to ensure the most robust possible protection is in place for all of our children.

I look forward to working with my colleagues on this issue and making the most of this opportunity to ensure equal access to education.

As my colleague, Deputy Nolan, has indicated, Sinn Féin broadly welcomes this Bill and, in particular, the fact that schools will now be obliged to produce an admission policy that will include a statement that the school will not discriminate in its admissions on the following grounds: gender, civil status, family status, sexual orientation, religion, disability, race, membership of the Traveller community and special educational needs. We welcome that statutory agencies will be given the power to designate a school place for a child when they have been refused and that an appeal process will now be available. We also welcome that the Bill specifically prohibits the use of fees and the seeking of contributions for enrolment or continued enrolment in a school, although it is a little ambiguous - my colleague referenced this - as to what this means for the practice of voluntary contributions. Perhaps the Minister will address that in this closing remarks on Second Stage.

However, while we broadly welcome it and will support its passage to Committee Stage, we believe the Bill still does not address many of the issues of concern with respect to admissions. Special educational needs services in schools, both primary and secondary, are hard to come by and suffer from chronic underfunding, particularly in disadvantaged areas. In my capacity as spokesperson for disability rights, I am particularly concerned that this Bill does not give powers to the National Council for Special Education to request that a special class be established where there is sufficient demand as there is no power to increase capacity. The NCSE notes that many schools will not open autism classes where the local need is identifiable and there. A provision in the Bill that would give the NCSE the power to instruct a school to open an autism class would be welcome. The current situation is that a child can only be offered a place where there is an existing place. This is not acceptable and it is regrettable that the Bill will not address this issue. I ask the Minister to consider the importance of this. It is an opportunity to address this deficiency.

Given reports that have come to light this week, it is important to briefly touch on the urgent need that exists to reform the system which determines whether or not a child with particular needs can access special needs support. This issue, as the Minister will know, has been reported on quite extensively this week. It has been said that at present, the only way a child with particular needs can receive additional supports is to be diagnosed by a professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist, with a diagnosis that fits a very strict criteria. This is a flawed system in which young children are being diagnosed with a specific disability for the sole purpose of receiving additional educational supports.

It is wrong, I believe, that resources are only provided for specific diagnoses. Teresa Griffin, the head of the National Council for Special Education, has said that professionals are actively making some children "fit a certain category of disability in order for them to get a resource" even though they "don’t theoretically meet the actual label".

The NCSE has rightly proposed a reformed system whereby access to resource teaching would no longer rely upon a formal diagnosis of learning difficulty, emotional or behavioural problems. The particular educational needs of the child are what matters. This is a serious issue that must be addressed as a matter of urgency. I would appreciate it if the Minister referred to this in his closing remarks on Second Stage.

Many of the problems within the education sector are down to a lack of resources. Many schools, for example, create what are referred to as soft barriers to the enrolment of children with special educational needs due to issues around resourcing. This issue needs to be addressed. As I mentioned previously, we will support the Bill to Committee Stage, but the fact remains that without appropriate investment, resources and ministerial intervention, this Bill, in and of itself, will change very little.

Deputy Bríd Smith is next. You have 20 minutes.

The introductory part of the Minister's speech was well written and moving in its aspirations. I could not agree more with the Minister's view that we should use our economic success to build a fair and compassionate society. I could not agree more on the need to remove soft barriers in the way children with special needs are accommodated. I could not agree more that we need schools to publish enrolment policies and end waiting lists. I could not agree more that we need to ensure we do not discriminate against parents and children on a number of grounds. However, I am not at all happy with the Bill and I think many people take the same view. This is an historic opportunity to do something that no man has dared to do before in this country.

I will read a letter from a constituent of mine. She begins by saying the Dáil will debate the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill this week. She says the Bill makes many reforms that have the potential to affect the lives of children and families in a positive way. She cites the example of how schools will have to publish an official policy for pupils who want to opt out of faith formation during the school day. However, she goes on to say it is unacceptable that the Bill does not deal with the baptism barrier. She says she finds it incredible that we allow our publicly-funded schools to use a child's religion or non-religion to discriminate in respect of a school place. She states that this is no longer acceptable in a modern pluralist Ireland and that it is discrimination towards children, plain and simple. Her view is that no institutions in receipt of taxpayers' moneys should be allowed to discriminate against any citizens.

She asked me to raise these points with the Minister during the debate. She called on me to ask the Minister for Education and Skills to remove the baptism barrier as part of the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill in time for September 2017. She asked me to call on the Minister to publish the standard guidelines on opting out of faith formation so that all schools can use them as a template and to ensure schools would comply with the requirement under the Bill.

I strongly endorse those comments. This constituent referred to how it was incredible in this day and age that we have not dealt with this issue and that we are unwilling to deal with it This reminds me of how difficult it has been in recent years to try to get this House to agree to a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment. At issue in both cases is the legacy of the domination of the Catholic Church over our lives, including every aspect of our bodies, health and education.

When we are marching and protesting to repeal the eighth amendment, we use a slogan: "Not the church, not the state, women cannot wait, repeal the eighth". Obviously, the slogan does not fully apply here but a version of it applies in respect of school admission policies. I find it astonishing that no one has had the courage to face down the dominance of the church in education in this country in the 21st century. This year has seen the centenary of the Easter Rising. In 1916, Pearse, who was passionate about education, signed the Proclamation, which referred to how all of the children of the nation should be treated equally. They are not being treated equally. If they are not baptised, they cannot access 96% of schools. What in the name of God is that about? That is not to deride or abuse the idea of baptism or Christianity or the will of parents who want it to happen. Rather, it is to say that this is utterly unfair, unequal and discriminatory towards children.

The Minister referred to expectations changing and to how we must have the capacity to change with them. This Bill does not do that. Instead, it makes concessions to the idea that the Government has received certain legal opinion. This view has been expressed by the Minister, his predecessor and the Taoiseach. Apparently, the legal opinion states that it would be unconstitutional to remove from the legislation section 7(3)(c) of the relevant Act. This section effectively allows religious schools to discriminate against children of different religious backgrounds from the patron. We have other opinions and there are more opinions taking the view that this is not the case and that it would not be unconstitutional to remove that section. We may have a problem with the Constitution and we may have to point out other aspects of the Constitution that should be put to a referendum or that require repeal.

The current set-up does not fit the modern Irish State. It does not fit the demographic make-up of the State. Certainly, it does not fit a modern Irish State that has utterly rejected the dominance exercised on the people for decades through fear and power. Such was the imbalance of power held by the church over the lives of every man, woman, child, community, school, hospital and institution. There is no need for me to go over the litany of desperation that such dominance wrought on our society.

I echo the comments of my constituent. The Minister should put into the Bill a ban on schools being able to discriminate on religious grounds. The Minister went through the list of grounds of impermissible discrimination. He referred to every other ground under the sun except for the ground of religion. Removing the baptismal ban would echo the comments made by the Minister so eloquently in his introduction. It would give meaning to his aspiration to use the economic success to create a fair and compassionate society. If the Minister really wishes to do that, then he should use this opportunity.

The neo-conservatives in America famously said that one should never waste a good crisis. They did not waste a minute of the economic crisis. Similarly, not one of the troika, this Government or the previous Government has wasted a minute of the crisis. We should not waste a minute of the crisis resulting from religious domination in this country. We should use it to the full and get rid of all the legal bars on treating children, women and everyone else in this society with full equality.

I put it to the Minister that he should have courage. He may lose it or he may be constitutionally challenged. If he is, it is not necessarily a bad thing. It would bring this to a head and instil in the Bill the vision to which my constituent referred. I am referring to the removal of the baptismal barrier and getting rid of section 7(3)(c) of the relevant Act.

There is no compassion in using the baptismal ban. It is utterly disgraceful. If we go forward from this debate without removing it, the Government will have absolutely failed. Having said that, we do not intend to leave it there. AAA-PBP has a Bill in the pipeline that challenges this head on and aims to get rid of this section. We may lose when it comes to a vote, but it does not matter as we must challenge these matters head on, not pussyfoot around them and not create other sections of Bills and laws that allow for the continuation of discrimination rather than its total abolition.

While this Bill has been welcomed by some of the parties speaking in the House and while there are attempts in it to do something about admission policies in schools, there are many problems with it that need to be addressed further on Committee Stage to correct them. There are three aspects of concern regarding discrimination in our school system, namely, schools can refuse entry of a child based on religion if it is oversubscribed, even if the child is designated a school by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, and the Child and Family Agency; schools can discriminate by not providing an alternative to religious instruction; and schools can discriminate by prioritising children who are related to previous students.

Overall, the Bill fails to echo best practice in including the best interests of the child as a measure for educational standards. At a minimum, the best interests of the child and his or her wishes should be reflected from the outset in admission policies and throughout the school day. The Bill obliges schools to publish admission policies but it does not oblige them to change them if they are wrong, and this Bill will not limit the practice of discrimination. The National Council for Special Education or the Child and Family Agency can designate a school for a student where he or she has not secured a school place. However, this Bill allows for that school to appeal the decision based on the "refusal arm" of the current exemption on religious grounds. The best interests of the child should be the primary standard by which the National Council for Special Education and the Child and Family Agency shall have regard to when making a designation or a decision not to designate a school. There is also a need to include the right for parents to appeal where a school has been designated by the Child and Family Agency or the NCSE and the parents believe that the designation is not in the best interests of the child or failed to take into account the wishes of the child. The appeal committees provided for in section 66 should be required to apply the best interest of the child as the primary consideration when assessing an appeal and be required to take into account the best wishes of the child. Furthermore, a child in a particular region with a specific disability could be required to attend a school not of his or her belief in order to access the support he or she needs, or that school could refuse admission of a child with a disability claiming it would preserve the school's ethos.

While separate legislation is before the committee regarding the so-called baptism barrier, it is important to address it here as well because there cannot be comprehensive reform of school admission policies without reform of the baptism barrier. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has repeated this assertion in calling for the baptism barrier to be removed. It recommends that the Equal Status Act be amended to give effect to the principle that no child should be given preferential access to a publicly funded school on the basis of his or her religion. Three constitutional experts have given a legal opinion on how the Dáil can legislate for the power to eliminate the baptism barrier. The Dáil can do this immediately, taking account of the Constitution but not using it as a barrier to take action in this regard. The three constitutional experts have outlined that the Oireachtas has the power to impose reasonable conditions on the provision of funding to educational institutions. This includes requiring that all publicly funded schools must accept all children of all religions, and none, on an equal basis. That can and should be addressed, and this Bill should not be taken in isolation in the context of the baptism barrier. The Bill does not contain provisions to enable the Minister to regulate the use of an admission policy which restricts the admission of students who are related to previous students either. There are also many concerns as to whether the 1998 Act actually has better provisions than those proposed in this legislation to control the admission policies of schools.

Regarding religious instruction, the Bill obliges schools to publish "arrangements" for students not taking religion class but without guidance or regulation on how they should do so. The minimum standards of the nature of exemptions for students who do not take religion class are not included in this Bill either. It does not attempt to move religious instruction towards the end of the day or outside core school hours, which should be the objective in a publicly funded school system. Schools should maybe facilitate religious instruction outside of core hours rather than as a core part of daily class. This would mean that children would not be discriminated against if they did not want to opt into religious classes.

State funded schools should accommodate and respect diversity across all nine discrimination grounds in the equality legislation, including, as I said, the baptism barrier and the right to opt out of religion class.

I, too, am delighted to be able to speak to this legislation and I welcome the Minister's speech. As he said, the basic aim of the Government is to use our economic success to build a fair and compassionate society, and few areas are more important to this vision than education. The Minister also stated that the Government's ambition for the action plan for education is to provide Ireland with the best education and training system within a decade. The action plan is very ambitious, and I wish it well. We need highly educated and versatile young people, especially to deal with our jobs, economic future and all other issues.

The Minister stated that the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016 is a significant public service reform designed to make it easier for parents to more easily access local schools. The parents' and students' charter will for the first time set out the principles to guide how schools engage with students and their parents.

For the first time, any person, including a member of the public, an employer or a teacher will be able to make a complaint to the Teaching Council about a registered teacher. Complaints will be possible under a number of headings, including professional misconduct and poor professional performance. That is very welcome. Speaking as a parent first, but also as a former member of a board of management of a national school, a secondary school, a VEC college and, before that, a technical school that was amalgamated, I believe there are issues for parents and guardians but especially for students. The vast majority of teachers are excellent, do a good job and do their very best to impart their knowledge to the students, but there are bad teachers. That is an issue that came up during the recent days of strike action. Teachers turned up for work and were locked out, but there was not an all-out strike.

We all have experience of contingency planning if we are honest enough to admit it. I have kids who went through a variety of schools in the education system but for the money spent on grinds, they would not have been achieved the results they achieved. One then sees that same bad teacher proclaiming how good his or her class did but it is a pure fallacy and a travesty because the families, who are hard-pressed enough, had to pay a fortune in grinds to get their kids through the examinations. This is recognised in the school, in the system and in the area, but nobody can deal with it. Like any system, one cannot have all good people. There will always be bad apples. I apologise for my parlance, but there are poor performers in any occupation. However, teaching is vital. There needs to be an avenue here and in the context of any future pay talks. There must be some way of addressing or redressing this imbalance because, as I said, the vast majority of teachers strive to do a great job. However, more and more are probably in the wrong profession. I sat on a board of management with someone who was a principal for years who was impossible. That school was badly run. Frivolous complaints or cranks should be entertained but only those where there is a known reason for the complaint.

I do not know how the Department will deal with complaints and we do not want frivolous complaints either.

The Minister stated the Bill will increase transparency and fairness in school admissions, making clear that every school must be welcoming of every young person, regardless of colour, abilities or disabilities. He indicated it will help end the soft barriers that some of our schools erect in the way of children with special needs. That is a vital aspiration as people with special needs must be embraced. When the Minister and I were young - it is not today or yesterday - we were afraid of people with special needs and did not understand them. I would say so anyway but perhaps the Minister might think differently. I did not understand them and neither did my parents and others. There is much more understanding and acceptance of people all created by one God, born with whatever limited abilities or disabilities. It is very important that schools are not allowed to deny people the right to education because of their disabilities.

The Minister stated that publication of the Bill reflects a commitment outlined in the programme for Government to publish new schools admission legislation, taking account of current draft proposals and addressing issues including publication of the school enrolment policies, an end to waiting lists, introduction of annual enrolment structures and transparency and fairness in admissions for pupils and parents. I took part in the programme for Government talks and we were there for a long time. This issue was discussed and I did not hear the baptism rule, clause or barrier mentioned once. Is mór an trua that some of the Deputies that did not attend the talks, would not engage and did not want to be in the Government wish to be able to criticise every piece of legislation. They want to throw the baby out with the bath water and they want anything to do with Catholic or minority religions abolished without acknowledging the tremendous work done for decades by the sisters, brothers, priests, lay people and teachers. Without them we would not have had an education system.

It is easy now to rev up here and forget the past when it suits us. There were horrific issues and they had to be dealt with. I was a member of a number of boards, I have gone through the system and my children are going through it now. In the main the education imparted was top class. We would be a much poorer country but for the Christian Brothers in Cluain Meala. The Minister came to Clonmel agus fuair sé bean chéile álainn. We are delighted with that and that is the way we should be in Ireland. There were no barriers out around Jacksons Cross keeping the Dubs out of Clonmel at that time. The Minister was in Meath at that time so perhaps he was classed as a country fellow like Deputy Thomas Byrne from the plains of Meath. We had brothers and sisters in the likes of Loreto and Presentation schools and they did tremendous work. They should be recognised by this Dáil and the State for the work they did and commitment they had.

The same principle should apply to hospitals. If we had matrons now, we would not have half the bedlam we now see. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle will tell me to stick to the Bill but I am sticking to it. Perhaps it is a pre-emptive strike. There was accountability. We have gone around the country and succeeded in having plebiscites or competitions to rename our hospitals. Our own St. Joseph's in Clonmel is an example and it can cost tens of thousands of euro or hundreds of thousands of euro to run a competition, plebiscite or design scheme for a new name for a hospital as whatever we do, we seem to want to get the saint's name off it. It is such a waste of money. We now have South Tipperary General Hospital and the Mid-Western Regional Hospital in Ennis. It seems we have to banish all these names, whatever we do. Nevertheless, we have far worse treatment services in those hospitals. They are scenes of chaos and near-anarchy. That comes with our haste to change the name and remove any symbols from any religion. We were told the crib was removed because Muslim and other faiths might be annoyed and hurt but in many cases I know where people from such faiths appealed for the crib to remain. They have no issue with it. We need to pinch ourselves on such issues.

Some of the hard left are so hard they cannot feel themselves; therefore, they cannot pinch themselves. I said this in another debate. They want to banish such issues. To hell or to Connacht or to hell or to Israel or wherever else. We must reflect on where we have come from, how we came here and how we got our education, however limited it might be for many of us. It is the education we received and we were very proud to get it. I was a boy who walked to school and enjoyed my experience. I got a second level education and a very limited third level education. We must reflect on such issues.

I know the Bill is an effort by the Minister and his departmental officials to deal with many issues. I heard Deputy Bríd Smith say her group has another Bill to countermand this one. Those Members do not have a majority in the House so let them introduce their Bill. They also have a Bill to repeal the eighth amendment of the Constitution. They have very limited vocabularies on certain issues for people who have so much education and so many answers to everything. They do not think of consequences for issues like repealing the eighth amendment, as what would we put in its stead?

I will stick with education. The education system has served us well. Beidh fáilte roimh an t-Aire when he comes to Carrick-on-Suir in two weeks to open a wonderful school. For 40 years we have tried to get that complex. The Minister will be enthralled and amazed by the excellence of the work, as well as the community, civic spirit and appreciation in a downtrodden town that has been passed over for industry over the years. It is wonderful, lifting and leading the way. I salute the leaders, vocational education committee members, the former chair of the VEC, the late Councillor Dinny Bourke, as well as the others who fought for it. There was cross-party support, including from Councillor Jimmy Hogan, from the Minister's party, who died two weeks ago. It is a pity as although he saw the school, he will not be there for the opening. It will be a very joyous occasion. We can see what came out of that. I was with the VEC for much of the time fighting with different Ministers to try to get a school that is worth having. It has not all been bad. That facility has been in gestation for the past 30 years or longer. All the people served well and although there were issues, we now have a multidenominational and multicultural population at that school and all the schools in my constituency. People are integrated and welcomed. It is not that all people are locked out because of race, creed or religion. That is not the case, although there are some limited sad cases. That should not be. We can also think of Protestant schools, as it is a minority religion in many cases. They must be protected and included in the small schools scheme; with the closure of that scheme they were under a serious threat.

We must salute, honour and respect the pioneers. I want to a secondary school in Cahir where two men cycled from west Cork and opened a school. It was a private school but it was open to everybody. They imparted a wonderful education with no support from the Department. There are also the people in VECs, including former chief executive officers. We could mention Mr. John Slattery, Mr. Luke Murtagh and many others who did Trojan work. They were reforming in their own right. They were real leaders and visionaries. We can compare them with what we have today. We can also see the costs associated with today's education, similar to hospitals, because of the removal from management of all the church personnel, whether they are sisters, brothers or priests working in religious instruction. It is difficult to replace that. We must make haste slowly and think of from where we came. One is nowhere if one does not recognise from where one came.

There are many good aspects to the Bill but I urge caution in some areas. If the hard left wants to bring in its own Bill, let it do so. When it gets a majority in the House those Members can introduce all the Bills they like. When they are in Government they will have to see who will pay for all these issues. Where will we get the money? The Minister stated that the Bill provides an overarching framework for greater transparency, which is very important, and a consistent school enrolment policy. That is vital. We can consider recent demographic factors and how the Celtic tiger is probably the worst thing that ever happened because of the pressures it brought on enrolments in national schools, as well as preschool, playschool and after school services.

The Minister has provided an explanation by section of the provisions of the Bill, which are noble. A key objective of the Bill and its associated regulation is to improve access to schools for all pupils and that is the most noble aspect of all. Education is a basic right and entitlement. We can see from the examples of Third World countries and places suffering war and famine that education is vital.

The Bill will strengthen our capacity to cater for children who cannot get school places. This is important, particularly for children who are vulnerable or at risk. The Bill will allow the National Council for Special Education and the Child and Family Agency to designate a place. Goodness knows that too many children are at risk for a plethora of reasons. They must be catered for and dealt with extremely sensitively. I wish the Minister well with the Bill. I think I have some experience because I walked to primary school and got the bus to secondary school after free school travel was introduced by Donogh O'Malley - God rest him. I have also been on a number of boards of management.

The Deputy should have stuck with Fianna Fáil.

It was a noble initiative and I give credit for it. I praise the bridges I go over. It was a wonderful-----

It is a little late to have to remind Deputy Mattie McGrath to keep his remarks relevant.

I am talking about a relevant issue. Donogh O'Malley brought in the free travel scheme. My colleagues to the right of me-----

We are very proud of Donogh O'Malley's legacy.

They are neither left nor right. I do not know if they are centre-right or centre-left.

We know exactly where we stand.

They are a little lost at the moment. There is always hope for them to come back to where they came from.

I am not sure the Deputy knows where he stands.

Can I continue without interruption, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle?

I think the Deputy is enjoying the interruptions.

I am not really enjoying them.

The interruptions are prolonging the Deputy's time and I think he is comfortable with that.

No, they are not.

No, I am being honest. I praise the bridges. Donogh O'Malley was a reforming Minister.

The Deputy has four minutes remaining.

Is that all? The Leas-Cheann Comhairle might have had a soft landing when he came back from the European Parliament to Donegal, but four minutes is not much. It could be an anti-climax. I recognise what Donogh O'Malley did. I was lucky to get a school bus to secondary school because I did not have to buy as many pairs of shoes.

The Deputy will be praising the Minister of State, Deputy John Halligan, in ten years time.

I will not be praising the Minister of State. He is in the air most of the time lately. The longer we keep him there, the better. I do not know about the people across in Buswell's Hotel yesterday who were talking about looking after the environment, because the Minister of State has been flying from one continent to the next. As long as he stays in the air, he will not do any harm here.

The Minister of State is not here to defend himself.

I did not bring up his name. I never invoked his name. My right honourable colleague from County Kildare mentioned him. The Bill makes provision for single-sex schools and denominational schools to reflect certain things in their admission policies. Certainly, we must allow them to do so. I have sat on boards of management that have had to expel pupils. I am sure other Deputies in the Chamber have done likewise. It was not very nice or pleasant. We had gone through all the different processes, involving accommodation and calling in the parents, etc. It is a complex and difficult issue.

I have received a good few e-mails in recent days from people who think the baptism barrier is the only issue. I can say without fear or favour, or without trying to insult anyone, that they are sadly mistaken. Like the Minister, his officials and Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin and the other Deputies who are present, I am aware that the baptism barrier is one of the least of the many complex problems and issues in this area. We must support and salute the lay members of boards and parents' councils and the lay fund-raisers who keep schools going. Donogh O'Malley brought in free education, but it is not free anymore. It is very difficult to run a school because of the costs and difficulties involved. I refer, for example, to the recent strike, the problems that can be caused by bad weather, climatic conditions and accidents and incidents in the school and the need to get small school grants to pay for repairs. I salute the community volunteers, múinteoirí and other people who work in our schools. The bad ones have been dealt with, in the main. Obviously, some more need to be reflected on and dealt with in a reasonable way. We cannot have poor teaching standards in schools, regardless of any baptism clause. There might be a clause of the United Nations in the school, but that will not remove bad teachers. We need to focus more on the delivery of a fair, free, all-embracing and engaging education for na daltaí go léir from the cradle to the grave. That is what I say. I will rest my case and not cause the Leas-Cheann Comhairle any more annoyance. We need to make haste slowly. The removal of certain clauses that people are hung up on will not get us anywhere.

I would like to share time with Deputy Catherine Martin.

Is that agreed? Agreed. I remind the Deputies that the debate will be adjourned at 10 p.m.

I am glad to have an opportunity to speak to the Bill. I have to say that in general terms, it has to be welcomed in as far as it goes. Obviously, it is welcome that more specific provisions are being made regarding the admission of people with special needs to schools. I am also pleased that a greater level of transparency is being provided in relation to admissions policies. In the past, it was often a very secretive process. Parents had to be in the know in order to get their children into schools. It is better that everything will be dealt with in an upfront and open manner from now on. I refer to the requirement on schools to publish their admissions policies. It is deeply ironic and incredible that the Minister is not addressing the baptism barrier in this legislation because it is the greatest barrier to admission to school and it is the cause of the most concern with regard to school admissions. Given the stage we are at in terms of our Republic and our democracy, it is utterly unacceptable that parents feel they have no choice other than to baptise their children in order that they can get into the local State-funded school. By any yardstick, the Minister is presiding over deep discrimination on the part of State-funded schools towards children who do not share the majority faith of the majority of schools in the State. He cannot stand over the continuation of that situation.

The Minister suggested that the issue of the baptism barrier will be dealt with in the context of a Labour Party Bill that was considered in this House some time ago. That will not happen. It is not possible to deal with this issue in the context of the flawed legislation in question, which would embed a discriminatory regime if it were agreed in this House. I ask the Minister to stop putting this live real issue, which is affecting many families in this country, on the long finger and to stop making excuses to put it off. It is wrong and cannot be defended. How can four year olds be denied access to their local schools solely on the grounds of religion because they are not baptised? The Government should not allow this discriminatory situation to continue. One of the excuses we have heard has involved questioning whether it is possible to amend the Equal Status Act 2000. I put it to the Minister that we should deal with this area of discrimination by abolishing section 7(3)(c) of that Act. As I argued in this House last year, I strongly believe it would be quite constitutional to take such action. The Constitution is balanced. We have to balance the public good against any particular protection there is for religions. I am not going to go into all the detail of the various sections of the Constitution. I did that when I spoke on this issue last year.

I would like to mention some of the various organisations working in this area. Equate Ireland has produced a compelling legal opinion from three senior counsel advising that it is possible to address this issue without amending the Constitution. Equally, the Education Equality group has come forward with suggested amendments that it believes to be entirely constitutional. While I do not intend to oppose this legislation on Second Stage, I appeal strongly to the Minister and Fianna Fáil to give a commitment to take a serious look at this issue when this legislation is considered on Committee Stage. The Social Democrats will be tabling amendments to the Bill. I am sure other parties will do likewise. In the interests of fairness and openness, and for the sake of respecting many families in this country who feel they are being seriously discriminated against in terms of the options that are open to them for their children's schooling, I ask the Minister to rethink his position on this matter and to consider the arguments that will be made on Committee Stage. This argument is not just being made by Members of this House or by parents who are affected by this problem. I will return to this point when I complete my contribution tomorrow.

Debate adjourned.
The Dáil adjourned at 10 p.m. until 12 noon on Thursday, 17 November 2016.