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.