Deputy Róisín Shortall was in possession. Is she sharing time with Deputy Catherine Martin?
Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016: Second Stage (Resumed)
Yes. Last night in my contribution, I was talking about the fact that a couple of groups who are campaigning in this area for the removal of the baptism barrier have received their own independent legal advice to the effect that it would be perfectly constitutional to remove section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act. I do not accept what the Minister is saying in this regard. I believe this issue needs to be tested. There is a clear precedent that when dealing with competing constitutional rights and legislation, the courts do not impose views on the balance struck. That is what we were talking about last night, namely, the balance that is already contained within the Constitution. Instead, the court's attempt is to determine whether the legislation is so contrary to reason and fairness that it constitutes an unjust attack on the individual's constitutional rights. It is very difficult to see how addressing this issue in a reasonable and proportionate manner would be deemed to amount to such a breach, particularly in light of the court's reluctance to overrule the Oireachtas on matters of social policy.
However, as we have previously stated, the Social Democrats do not believe that the possibility of legislation being tested in the Supreme Court or the potential need for a referendum should be used to impede the necessary reforms from taking place. Too often we hear constitutional impediments being used as an excuse for not taking action. Either they are impediments or they are not. If they prove to be impediments, then we have to deal with that. We cannot use that concern as an excuse to long-finger something that is a blatant area of discrimination against many of our citizens.
To date, no legislation, Government or Opposition, that is currently before the House substantively addresses this issue, and yet there is a clear need for us to act now. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has recommended that we make the necessary amendments to eliminate discrimination when it comes to school admissions. Indeed, only yesterday, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission published a range of recommendations, including 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 her or his religion. I look forward to the Minister's response to this recommendation of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission.
Even if we are to leave aside this matter for the time being, there remain other issues in the Bill as it stands that are matters for concern and that need to be improved on Committee Stage. For example, the Bill does not provide clear guidelines on the question of opting out of faith formation, nor does it, as the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission noted in its recommendations, provide the Minister with the power to regulate how schools provide for these students. Again, the strong argument is that we should be requesting schools to move religious classes, faith formation classes in particular, to either the start or the end of the school day to facilitate those students whose parents wish them to opt out. It is important that the Minister takes the lead on this and that he provides guidelines on how schools should do that. Parents need to know that their child will not be excluded from their school community due to not subscribing to the dominant faith of their school. A decision must be made on when it is appropriate for faith information to be taught and at what point during the school day.
If we are to allow this Bill to pass in its current form, it will undoubtedly be a wasted opportunity to address some of the clearest failings of our education system when it comes to admission to schools and to recognise and respect the diversity which exists in society. It is not a defensible position for the Minister to allow a situation to continue in which schools can discriminate against four and five year olds solely on the basis of their religious persuasion. The State simply cannot continue to abdicate its responsibility in this regard. I call on the Minister, yet again, to take this responsibility seriously, to recognise and respect the diversity we have in society and to indicate that he is open to considering amendments on Committee Stage.
The Green Party will support this Bill because it proposes some positive steps forward in ensuring equality of access, participation and opportunity in schools. However, while what is proposed in this Bill is clearly preferable to the current prevailing system, it simply does not go far enough. This was a golden opportunity to remove finally the baptism barrier from the schools admission process to ensure no child is discriminated against because of his or her religion. Why has the Minister not incorporated the removal of this discriminatory barrier in the Bill? Such barriers have no place in education as equality must be central in any educational reform. Proper and fair access to education is a cornerstone of equality. Therefore, although the Green Party will support this Bill, I will table amendments on Committee Stage to address the baptism barrier that the Government simply refuses to address.
Schools should reflect the modern diversity of families and communities. No State-funded school should be able to discriminate for or against a child on the basis of his or her religion. While there is a place for freedom of religion and religious schools, this should be recognised and respected, but not in an exclusive way. Taxpayers’ money should not fund discrimination. While I welcome the provision in this Bill whereby schools will have to publish their procedures for working with children who do not wish to partake in religious instruction classes, it is essential that the Department of Education and Skills goes further and provides guidelines to schools and accessible options for children who will opt out of religious classes, spelling out and committing to access for these children to appropriate alternatives to such classes.
The events of recent days, weeks and months have surely shown us that our children are growing up in very worrying times. We have the challenges of climate change, the rise of the far right and populists preaching intolerance and hate for those who are "other" - other nationalities, other races, other genders, other sexual orientations and other religions. Anyone who has spoken to a young child knows that children simply do not see these differences or these so-called others. Where they do notice a difference, it is to be explored, to be gazed on in wonder and to be celebrated. Put simply, we have an obligation to challenge hate and fear of those different from ourselves. We must defeat exclusion and alienation with inclusivity in everything we do, including how we educate our children.
The most valuable lessons any child can learn are respect, tolerance and love for all the people around him or her, regardless of their ethnicity, age, religion, the language they speak or where they are from. We as legislators must do all in our power to protect children from becoming isolated and insulated. I am concerned that we are falling short of doing what we can and as a result we deprive children of the rich lasting experience of encountering children who come from different backgrounds, cultures, points of view and ways of life or religious beliefs. Apart from the long-term benefits of helping to create a more stable, tolerant enriched society a child who cannot interact with the wonderful diversity of this country and the world to the fullest possible extent is a child whose childhood is not as rich as it should be. Schools are where children make friends, and often where their parents make friends also. While the religious ethos of many schools is helping to shape the good values of the people of this country, no child should be denied a possible friend because he or she prays in a different way, or he or she does not pray at all.
That said, I acknowledge the contribution made by religious orders to education over hundreds of years. Many of us here in the Chamber owe our education to the religious orders. They were often the only educators who were playing an invaluable role at home and abroad. So many of them are rightly renowned throughout the world. In the past, they provided education in a voluntary capacity, and at times at grave risk to their own lives. We can acknowledge that and show our appreciation while at the same time we prepare to step forward into a new era, a new Ireland which is a changing society where all children must be embraced and treated equally. The demand for non-denominational schools in Ireland is surely an indication that many parents seek a more secular and pluralist education for their children. Parents should be allowed make that choice and children should be allowed to benefit from it.
This Bill also takes some steps towards removing barriers for children with special educational needs, but I respectfully suggest that, again, it does not go far enough and to that end I intend tabling amendments on Committee Stage. At a recent education committee briefing with the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, I noted that many schools do not open classes for children with autism despite a local need being identified. I believe the Bill should have a provision whereby the NCSE would have the power to instruct a school to do so. That would, of course, be in cases where a school has the physical space to allow for that. The NCSE could then provide the appropriate resources. That would prevent the current situation where parents are stressed and frantically trying to find appropriate schools, making numerous applications, being refused and having to go through numerous appeals. I have met many such parents while canvassing the area of Dublin Rathdown and their stress, hurt and sometimes exhaustion was palpable. It is something I will keep with me and I propose that we as legislators should not allow that to continue. Simple measures to address the issue in the Bill would relieve massive burdens from those parents.
We must acknowledge, embrace and cater for a changing, modern society in which all children are treated equally when it comes to education. Religious discrimination has no place in modern society. All schools in receipt of State funding should be fair, transparent and inclusive in their admissions policies and discrimination on the basis of religion or special educational need should never be tolerated. Go raibh maith agat, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle.
I understand Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick is sharing time with Deputy Jim Daly. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome the opportunity to take part in today’s debate on the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016. First, I congratulate the Minister on his action plan for education and his vision to ensure this country has the best education and training system within the next decade. A fit-for-purpose education system is the foundation for any successful country. I believe the education system has been instrumental in our success as a country.
In terms of the Bill before us it is only right and proper that we provide a framework for students and their parents that will provide a basis for school enrolment that is structured, open and transparent. It is also vitally important that we are fair to schools and that there is a balance between a school’s admissions policy and the regulations imposed by the Department. The stated aim of the Bill is to address issues such as school enrolment policies, put an end to waiting lists and the introduction of annual enrolment structures. There is no doubt that situations arise whereby a child is unable to get a place in a local school even though the school has available places. As the Minister stated in his speech, the Bill will increase transparency and fairness in terms of school admissions.
My firm belief is that the education system and by extension the schools must make places available for all children regardless of their race or ability. All schools must be fully inclusive and be seen to be so when it comes to the admission of pupils. The Bill will also put into law a ban on schools making it a condition of entry for a charge to be paid before a child is admitted to a school. I have come across the situation on many occasions where parents could not send their child to a certain school due to a so-called voluntary contribution system being in place. In fairness, in recent years there was a steady decline in the practice, which is welcome.
It is important to point out that the vast majority of parents are delighted with the schools their children attend and that the vast majority of schools offer a warm and welcoming environment. However, I am not convinced that the Bill addresses all of my concerns. There are a lot of schools where the number of applicants greatly exceeds the places available. In those circumstances, schools have no option but to operate a waiting list. In such cases, a school must have some basis on which to select students. One of the more contentious issues in that regard is the treatment of the children of past pupils. In his speech, the Minister indicated that the Bill is silent in terms of limiting the power of a school to determine a priority for children of past pupils. The Bill must be more proactive in that regard. We cannot simply allow it to remain silent on the issue. I note from my research into this matter that 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. I put on record that I totally disagree with that opinion. It is a tradition in this country that children generally attend the same school as their parents. For us to put a barrier in that regard is wrong and it is not fair to either the children, their parents or the schools.
I welcome the Minister's statement that he is open to discussions on this matter. I note that he stated a maximum limit of 25% of places could be available for the children of past pupils. However, I foresee problems with such an approach. For example, what happens if children of past pupils apply for, let us say 35% of the places available? In such a case we would be back to a situation whereby a number of applicants would be treated unfairly. There is no easy solution to the issue. I do not believe we can solve it by simply stating that 25% of places should be reserved for the children of past pupils. My view is that the children of past pupils should always be given the option to attend the school their parents attended. As I already stated, that is the tradition in Ireland and one I would like to see retained. I am not favour of tinkering with long-held traditions that have worked successfully in the past and continue to work successfully now and will into the future. I welcome and acknowledge the Minister's statement that he will listen to all views on this matter when the Bill is on Committee Stage.
Another area on which the Minister touched last night was the protection of minority religions in schools. I fully agree with him that we must protect all minority religions but we must also protect the majority religion.
We cannot discriminate against any religion, whether it be a minority or a majority religion, when it comes to school admission. Parents and schools will have rights in this regard that need to be protected. I would be the first to admit that a solution to this issue will not be easily found.
I agree with the approach that the Oireachtas education committee will scrutinise the proposed legislation, take submissions and hold hearings with legal experts and stakeholders. It is important that all potential issues are addressed as we do not want a situation to arise later where changes to law are changed by the courts.
I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Bruton, on his efforts to improve the education system with his action plan for education, which I believe will be successful. I look forward to seeing the Bill make its way through the Houses.
Fáiltím roimh an deis labhairt ar an mBille seo. I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill before the House today, which is very welcome legislation. I acknowledge the work of the Minister in bringing the Bill before the House and that of his two predecessors, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan and former Deputy Ruairí Quinn, the officials in the Department of Education and Skills, and the members of the previous education committee, which debated many of the issues that are finally coming before the House in this Bill. The legislation is welcome across the board.
Legislation on education is always difficult because we can legislate for every eventuality but end up in a vicious cycle. It would be preferable if many of these issues did not have to be legislated for because we are dealing with challenging and changing times and if this Bill is an indicator of anything, it is of the significant shifts in society and in the population as a whole. The world we live in is constantly changing and we need an Oireachtas that can react to those changes. Not everybody will be happy with the result that finally comes about. Everybody has varying opinions but that is the challenge we face as an Oireachtas. I am glad we are stepping up to meet that challenge and making the best effort we can with this legislation. It is not perfect and it does not answer all the issues arising within the education sector, but it is a great start and it will go some way towards dealing with a number of them.
The Minister gave most of the detail in his opening statement to the House last night and identified the specific provisions. One or two of them have to be teased out in considerable detail on Committee Stage in terms of section 29 of the Education Act and the percentage, if any, for former pupils. Deputy Catherine Martin referred to amendments she intends to table and I am sure other amendments will be tabled also that will open up this legislation.
The Education Act was significant legislation and a game changer. I spent much of my life in the education sector and spent many happy years working in both the primary and secondary sectors. I was working in the sector at the time of the Education Act. It was an exciting time to be in education as there was an explosion in the emphasis on new models of teaching. The education of children with special needs came to the fore and it was an interesting and exciting time to be in the sector. That is a challenge that still faces us today and while we have made significant progress as a society, a Government, a Legislature and educators, many challenges remain but this Bill is a welcome start to meeting them.
We live in a diverse, pluralist society in which many views are held, including on the issue of religion. Admission to schools would become a problem with the explosion in the population and the imbalances in terms of development throughout this country. Those issues have posed many significant challenges.
I raise an issue that grated on me more than any other. I live in an area that does not have major issues with admissions based on numbers. Population pressures would not be a huge issue in the constituency I represent but I sat on many section 29 appeals boards during my time as a member of Cork County VEC, now the education and training board. I chaired many appeals at that time but it is very frustrating when a parent comes to one as a practising politician, and I am a parent, who cannot get their child who has special educational needs into the school because of those learning challenges. They cannot continue their education. To be fair, the primary sector is much more open, flexible and accommodating in terms of children with special needs learning in their own community. Those schools have made huge strides in dealing with the area of special needs but the secondary sector is significantly behind in that regard. A child with special needs has to leave their community and their classmates, having done well for eight years in primary school despite the significant challenges they faced, to try to get into secondary school but they cannot because of those very challenges.
I have tried to assist parents in this regard. I have dealt with schools and boards of management on many levels but we came up against the same challenge each time. The appeals were always only on the process. There was no room in the appeals system for the substance of the appeal. That is frustrating for the children but particularly for the parents who represent their children in the appeals system to their local secondary school. One can go through a number of different appeal processes but all of them result in the same outcome, namely, standing by the school as long as it adheres to the process. For example, a school can state in its admissions policy that it will not take any child with the surname Daly and as long as it is in its admissions policy, it can stand over that. All the appeals in the world will not allow that child gain access. It is disheartening and heartbreaking to see that happen at second level. The Minister referred to a suite of legislative measures coming up but that is the reason I have been championing for an education ombudsman since coming into this House and as a member of the previous education committee. An education ombudsman could deal with many of the issues that are arising here in that parents would have an independent authoritative body, which would be qualified in the area of education, to which they could appeal these decisions. When my proposal for an education ombudsman came before the House and got the support of all parties on Second Stage, it was the parents of children with special needs who responded the loudest and fastest to me to tell me that it was wonderful and a hopeful step for their children. Any parent will say that nothing is good enough for their child. They will do anything to help their child, particularly if they have learning challenges, and want to do all they can for them.
I very much welcome the proposal for a parents and students charter, which will be a substantive development in the education sector because we need to open up the schools. We should consider the number of people who are impacted by our education system, including the hundreds of thousands of students who attend it on a daily basis, their parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, uncles, aunts and so on. Everybody is in some way impacted by the education system, and we all rely on it. Almost all of us go through the education system. It is a hugely important sector but it is so closed because of the archaic model of management that has evolved for historical reasons over the years. That has left boards of management isolated and closed and it has left parents at the front door, so to speak, as a result of what is an autocratic and sometimes cold system.
Many schools are doing wonderful work. I do not want to ever take from that but when something goes wrong, fails or when a parent or a child is let down, it is impossible to penetrate that. The Department has always taken a hands-off approach because of the historical situation that has arisen. Boards of management are unique in their isolationist approach. Each board can do as it sees fit as long as it is following its own guidelines. This legislation will go some way towards ensuring that schools have a responsibility to be more open and transparent and to reach out to parents. Having them involved in the parents and students charter will add to that.
The fitness to practice section that will come under the Teaching Council is another one of these steps in the suite of measures announced to try to open up the entire system to more accountability. There is nothing to be ashamed of in our education system. We have a fantastic education system and we should be very proud of it. Individual schools should be enormously proud of what they do. They should not fear any of these measures because they are designed to embrace the talent available in the pool of parents, and parents will do anything for their children. The argument is often made that we cannot put pressure or more regulation and rules on boards of management because they are voluntary and it is difficult enough to get parents to go on schools' boards of management. I reject that argument out of hand. It may happen that a very small school can be deprived of talent but in most cases parents would love to be a part of their children's education and the opportunity to be part of the board of management and contribute in some way to the education of their children. They are more than willing to do it and there are amazing skill sets in that parent body, but for reasons of fear and so on many schools stick to the tried and tested method of using the same few parents time and again.
Opening it up there will make it much more real, beneficial and fruitful for everybody. As already stated, the key issue here is to break down that barrier for children with special learning needs who want to continue their education in their communities and access their local schools, particularly at second level where there is an acute issue.
We will tease this matter out somewhat more on Committee Stage to ensure - the Minister has already made provision in this regard - that a school can appeal. Of course, a school can appeal the decision. Regardless of whether it is a school, a child or whomever, there should be a right to appeal provided to all involved - not only the school - to have their rights vindicated. What this Bill sets about is the vindication of the rights of the child who wants to go to a particular school. Of course, a school can have legitimate reasons - much of which may be down to resources - for not being in a position to admit a child.
I particularly welcome the aspects of this Bill that deal with schools charging fees. This is an issue that has grown exponentially in recent years. One hears bizarre stories about the efforts to which schools go to raise moneys from parents, the bills that are being sent out at the start or, in some cases, the end of the academic year, the lengths to which some schools go to apply pressure on parents to pay and the reminder letters, further letters and warning letters that are sent out. All of this needs to be regulated. There should not be such a system and schools should not be obliged to rely on it. Barnardos has been consistent on this matter and has raised it on numerous occasions. In fairness, it does so every year. Barnardos has done its homework. From memory, €103 million is the figure Barnardos puts on ensuring totally free schooling for our children. In the greater scheme of things, given that the entire education budget is €8.7 billion, it is not a lot of money. On its own, of course, it is a large amount. It is something in respect of which we should have ambition. If we are true to the principle of free education, we should stand over that. I do not doubt that liberties are being taken on all sides. What is proposed will increase the accountability, the openness and the transparency of the system. The only ones who will win are those who are in the system - teachers, pupils, principals and boards of management. There will be more of a framework set out. Obviously, the Department will have a role in providing much assistance to the different schools to advise them on how to deal with the various new issues that will arise. Change is often difficult and can be a matter of concern. However, change is what legislators have to drive through.
I compliment the Minister on his ambitious education action plan. While he is a party colleague of mine, I still have independence of thought enough to say it as I see it. The Minister had a successful term in his previous Department and the action plan he introduced there served us well. The action plan and the ambition the Minister is bringing to the Department of Education and Skills are welcome within the education sector. I have real hope and confidence that there will be many benefits for all the users of the system for decades to come as a result. I look forward to working with the Minister and the other members of the Select Committee on Education and Skills in progressing this legislation.
With the permission of the House, I will share some time with Deputy Eugene Murphy.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
On Deputy Jim Daly's concluding point, he need not inform the House that he has the benefit of independence of thought. Certainly, the Taoiseach is quite aware that Deputy Jim Daly has the benefit of independence of thought and the Deputy does not need to spell that out for the Minister, Deputy Bruton.
My colleague and party spokesperson already outlined our party's support for this Bill. We support the overall thrust of the legislation, which will make it a requirement for schools to publish their admissions policies. I welcome that. I hope that, unlike on previous occasions when this matter was dealt with in the House, we will not be obliged to return to consider a similar Bill at a later stage. I also hope that the Minister will give a commitment to the full passage of this legislation through the Dáil and the Seanad and that, in fact, it will become law.
The matter at issue here affects some areas more than others. In rural areas such as that from which I come in the heart of County Westmeath - and in which I attended a one-teacher national school - it was not an issue of the school being oversubscribed. It was not an issue of who was to be selected to go to that school. The issue was whether enough pupils would attend in order to keep the school open. In the previous Dáil, the disproportionate increase in the pupil-teacher ratio had an immense effect on smaller schools. I refer to those schools with fewer than four teachers and minority faith schools. The increase in the pupil-teacher ratio made it more difficult for these schools to keep their doors open. The schools in question would not have turned anybody away because, as I stated, their goal was to enrol as many children as possible in order to keep their doors open.
One of the big omissions from this Bill is a provision to deal with the practice of people needing to supply baptismal certificates. As a practising Catholic who went to a Catholic national school and Catholic secondary school and who has nothing but the height of praise for what the religious did in education - there was certainly a lot of negativity and that was well documented through various investigations and reports - I must acknowledge, on the whole, the good work done by the various religious orders in the schools. However, as a republican, I also must acknowledge that not everybody wants to have his or her son or daughter educated in a school of a particular faith. Nobody should be forced, against his or her will, to adopt a particular faith just to have access to what is a fundamental right, namely, the right to an education. This matter will not be dealt with in the legislation but it needs to be dealt with without delay.
Some people may believe that a greater need exists - and that this is happening on a larger scale - than is actually the case. One of the Minister's predecessors, Mr. Quinn, set a target of divesting 50 schools from the control of the Catholic Church. The matter went out to consultation with local communities and a sizeable majority of people did not want what was proposed. That target - or anything like it - was never achieved. This is not the significant issue that some make it out to be but is an issue for a certain people in our communities and it must be dealt with. Nobody should be forced to adopt a particular religion just to have access to education. When the Minister is replying, he should outline, quite clearly, how he intends to deal with this matter.
A welcome aspect of this legislation is the prohibiting of application fees. It is becoming common practice in many schools to charge application fees. They are not charging application fees out of spite or to get at the parents or cause them undue financial hardship. They are charging application fees because the State is not adequately resourcing schools in terms of the various capitation grants. We have all seen evidence of this. Schools are undertaking cake sales, fashion shows, cycles, walks, runs - you name it. It is not the job of school authorities to fund-raise. While the Minister is bringing in a prohibition on application fees - which is right and proper because such fees place undue financial hardship on families who have been put to the pin of their collar as matters stand - we must also ensure that the level of resources is increased sufficiently in order that schools can function without the need to engage in any fund-raising.
Another welcome provision in the legislation relates to the powers that will be given to Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, and the National Council for Special Education, NCSE. It is regrettable to see a child who has been born with either an intellectual or physical need being unable to access an appropriate setting. It is right and proper that the Department will have the authority to direct schools to admit these children and ensure that they get their basic right to an education, so they are not penalised because they happen to have been born with a disability. Again, however, as with the case of removing the ability to charge fees, this provision will do no good unless adequate resources are put in place. Adequate resource hours and special needs assistants must be put in place in the school to ensure that not only will the child with the disability get the additional resources required, but also that the rest of the students, who benefit from having somebody with a disability in the classroom from the point of view of social inclusion, will not be put at a disadvantage because the teacher will have to spend more time dealing with the child who needs additional time.
In that context, I wish to raise the position in the capital programme of a school in my constituency, something I have raised numerous times in this and the last Dáil terms. We are discussing admission to school, equality and ensuring that all citizens are treated fairly. Saplings Special School in Mullingar, in my constituency of Longford-Westmeath, deals with children who have severe autism difficulties. It is currently operating out of a private rented facility. It is doing fantastic work. The school invited all Deputies and prospective Deputies to visit it in advance of the last general election and gave us a tour. I had been to the school previously but that was my most recent visit. We met the teachers, parents and students and saw the level of engagement, care, attention and good work taking place with children with severe physical and intellectual disabilities. That gives them a start in life. Unfortunately, however, the project for that school is sitting on a list on a desk somewhere in the Department. We need special schools because some children, due to their level of need and disability, require a special setting. They will never be able to enter mainstream education so they need those facilities.
Saplings Special School in Mullingar is waiting on the list, as is St. Mary's Special School in Delvin which also deals with children with severe high dependency due to physical and intellectual disability. St. Mary's is waiting for a new site and new school. An uncertain future hangs over the schools because they do not know what is happening. That puts undue pressure on the principals, teachers and staff of both schools. It also puts undue pressure on the parents. I am sure some of the Minister's colleagues in the Government will have brought this to his attention. I ask him to look into the matter and refer back to me. In the interest of equity and fairness, these children deserve a new school. They have no alternative and should be prioritised in that regard.
Our party welcomes the Bill and will support it. However, I have outlined the issues I have with respect to having a baptismal certificate and the area of special educational needs. It is welcome that there will be the power to instruct a school to admit somebody, but if that is not met with adequate resources it will not work. I would appreciate it if the Minister would examine the two cases I mentioned in my constituency and refer back to me on them.
I thank Deputy Troy for sharing his time. I will be brief because our education spokesman, Deputy Thomas Byrne, has indicated to our Parliamentary Party, the media and others our policy on this Bill. I welcome the Bill. It is important and will bring about some necessary change, which we welcome.
It must be said that my constituency of Roscommon-Galway has a very good policy of accepting all children into its schools. Admittedly, the schools do not have waiting lists, although obviously one tends to encounter more problematic situations in the big urban areas. I am proud of the fact that many of our schools have a good policy in this regard. It is important that such a policy should be in place in all schools. Like Deputy Troy and Deputy Thomas Byrne, I am a practising Catholic but I always refer back to what is said about education in our Constitution, that all of the children of the nation should be treated equally. It is most important to include that in this Bill.
The Bill has a number of good provisions. It removes the provision dealing with the past-pupil rule, an issue that has been spoken about a great deal. The Minister said it will be dealt with on Committee Stage and by ministerial regulation. I am sure that will happen but our party will ensure it is dealt with on further Stages. The Bill also explicitly prohibits the use of certain additional selection criteria in school admission policies. These include a student's prior attendance at preschool; the payment of fees, which is a huge issue and Deputy Troy has addressed it; the occupation or financial status of the parents of a student, which is an important issue for me; 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 the application for admission was received by the school. Barring schools from using these provisions to select students for admission is welcome. It is something our party and our spokesman on education, Deputy Thomas Byrne, have sought. Indeed, our party has campaigned on this issue for a number of years. The big issue here is the retention of the denominational status or religion as a basis for use in admission policies. We believe that no parent should have to baptise their child simply to get him or her into a school. All children, regardless of religious denomination or outlook, should have access to a school in their local community.
In conclusion, I wish to mention a matter referred to by Deputies Troy and Thomas Byrne. The financial strain many schools are under at present is extraordinary. The Minister is correct that we cannot have application fees; nobody wants them. However, as Deputy Troy said, schools are being pushed into that situation because they are short of finance. I have been involved in school management boards. Schools are struggling to keep all of the services going. In Ireland, we are very lucky to have the commitment of our teachers and the people on school management boards. It is extremely important that we alleviate this financial burden on our schools to some degree. The problem is that it gets worse with each year. It is a massive challenge now for schools and communities. I am sure the Minister is aware of that and I hope he will address it. I thank Deputy Troy for sharing his time.
I welcome the Bill. It is a copy, save in two respects, of the Bill that was worked on by two of my colleagues, the former Ministers Deputy Jan O'Sullivan and former Deputy Ruairí Quinn.
During the previous Government, very few issues which were as divisive as the issues reflected or, in some cases, not reflected in the Bill. I recall, and the Minister will recall, how divisive some of the discussions were. The Bill and the issues surrounding it speak to how much Ireland has changed since the national school system was introduced in the 19th century. On many occasions I looked around the Cabinet table and saw how many people were products of very exclusive and expensive secondary schools. The Cabinet debated the rights of children of former pupils to access their parents' schools, their fathers' schools for the most part, given that many of Ireland's private schools are top of the range boys' schools. Many of the Ministers, including those in the current Government, attended those schools. Before the last election, there was a very vocal and lively campaign to ensure these schools would retain the privilege of guaranteeing access, in whole or in part, to the children, grandchildren and relatives of former pupils. However, Ireland has changed.
I have the pleasure and honour of representing Dublin West, which has a range of schools, including a number of private schools and a very large number of public schools. All the schools are funded by the State, and this is why the issue of who gains access to schools is so important. I agree with many of the comments by Fianna Fáil Members, and there was much empathy and sympathy with the situation in which parents find themselves when their children, for reasons of denomination, religion or otherwise, cannot access their local schools.
We also have a policy, unlike the Labour Party.
I did not interrupt the Deputy.
The Deputy is making allegations.
While there was much empathy, it was a bit like Mother Machree's dog. It was going a bit of the road with everybody. When our Bill was brought before the Dáil, before the summer, it was parked in cold storage, if I recall correctly, with the support of Fianna Fáil, for 12 months to ensure no decision would be made or that this Bill would pre-empt it. Only the Minister and the Government can tell us. Perhaps Fianna Fáil already has an agreement with the Government on the matter. I do not want to prejudge it.
The Deputy just has, and the answer is "No, we do not".
I am sure Fianna Fáil will tell us in due course.
The Deputy without interruption.
I have to respond to this nonsense.
I refer to modern Ireland and the area I represent, and an amount of the area the Fianna Fáil spokesperson on education, Deputy Thomas Byrne, represents, is similarly a very diverse area. The most recent census showed Fingal has close to the highest level of international community. It has the highest growth in diverse communities and in many schools there are children from 30 to 50 different countries. This means those children may be children of people of professed faith, or who are not particularly attached to any faith, or who might classify themselves as humanist or atheist. In Dublin West, we have had to grapple with a situation in which for almost everybody the school of choice for parents is the local school. The local school is the heart of the local community. Understandably, when people get a long-term tenancy, buy a house, as has been the norm over a long period of time in Dublin West, or rent a house long term in the private rental sector, they by and large look to the local primary school to provide their cherished children with education. The heart of the problem is that we do not have great clarity on how people can access their local schools.
The Constitution properly recognises rights regarding denominational education in terms of different religious bodies including, given our history, the Roman Catholic church, the Church of Ireland and other Protestant denominations. However, we have no clarity, and much confusion, as to whether, and in what circumstances, a child whose parents do not profess the faith associated with the particular patron, can access the school. Approximately more than 20% of schools are heavily oversubscribed, perhaps due to population growth in an area or because a school is very popular and considered very desirable. In Dublin West, the critical pressures are population growth, shown in the most recent census to be among the highest in Ireland, and the fact that the population is diverse and includes people from many countries.
Notwithstanding the many good and clear elements set out in the Bill, for example, the commitment not to discriminate against applicants on grounds of gender, civil status, family status, sexual orientation, religion, disability, race, membership of the Traveller community or special educational needs, the Bill provides for the exception that denominational schools will continue to be able to prioritise, or refuse enrolments, in accordance with religious denomination under section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act 2000. This is the crux of the issue, and the Minister is not addressing it in the Bill. Our Bill sought to have a balance between the constitutional right to the expression and freedom of religion and religious denomination and the constitutional right of a child not to be discriminated against. The Minister, in the Bill, has decided, as he did with the Labour Party Bill, to park and evade the question entirely.
Equate got legal advice and opinion from a trio of very distinguished lawyers, Dr. Conor O'Mahony of UCC, Dr. Eoin Daly of NUIG and Dr. David Kenny of TCD. They went further in their opinion regarding the issue and set out a case to say there should not be some of the discrimination which is a feature of education in Ireland.
As someone who is hugely involved in the different schools in my area as well as in education in general and having worked in third level education for more than 20 years, my experience has been that the patrons, boards of management, principals and staff of schools are fantastic in terms of seeking to ensure every child at primary or secondary level is made welcome. The Minister for Education and Skills is not providing leadership on the difficult issue of balancing two constitutional rights, namely, the right to denominational and religious freedom and the right of a child to access a local school. Almost everyone who has spoken during the debate has referred to the desirability of a child being able to attend the local school. So far I have not heard from the Minister of any development of his understanding of the issues involved.
One way of addressing this has been through the Educate Together movement. Deputy Shortall and I were deeply involved in its foundation many decades ago. However, not every child will have the opportunity to attend an Educate Together school. We have also had the development of the community national school model under the education and training boards, ETBs. This is a very good model, as are the second level schools and colleges under the ETBs. Many of these schools, including ones in my area, are giving the expensive private schools on the south side of Dublin a good run for their money in terms of leaving certificate points achieved and academic and other successes, be they in debating, sport, arts or creativity. The older private schools are being given something to think about. However, it is still not clear how the ETBs can deal satisfactorily with the children in their care. They have made it clear that religious instruction and a religious and social curriculum will be made available if parents want it. However, what of the child whose parents do not want him or her to participate? I received an interesting letter from a teacher on the issue. The teacher asked what one does with the child. This could occur in a smaller school or one in which the resources are not available to set up direct facilities for the child. Should the child, as happened years ago, sit at the back at the class reading a book while the religious instruction takes place? These issues are difficult.
Most Deputies referred to the issue of parents feeling they have to have the child baptised to enhance their child's chance of getting into the local school of their choice. None of us wants to see, in essence, an educationally forced baptism. If people are being baptised, it should be an expression of religious faith and freedom. It should not be a strategy to ensure a child obtains a place in a local school. This is not a problem in many parts of the country, particularly in rural areas. The further one goes from Dublin or the other big cities, the more local schools are delighted to have additional families registering their children with them. It is a problem, however, for those in cities and towns where there is a strong demand for places as a result of increases in population. I am interested to hear what proposals the Minister has to address the issue of parents being forced to baptise their children when they might otherwise wish not to do so.
The Minister, in his previous role, recognised that Ireland is changing. We are one of the most open economies in the world. We trade right around the world. We now face changes and challenges in terms of Brexit and the President-elect of the United States, Mr. Donald Trump. Despite this, here in Ireland we have this educational situation that needs to be resolved. There are many good provisions in the Bill. Many sections are exactly the same, word for word, as what was prepared by Ruairí Quinn and Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, with the two exceptions I have referred to earlier. The Minister needs to tell us what he is going to do about the two omitted sections. There is the section that provided for the appointment of an independent person by the Minister to comply with the Minister's direction on the admissions functions of a school. What will happen in that regard? There was also a provision on the past pupils issue which was to be dealt with in regulations.
I listened with some astonishment to the passion that emerged from the Fine Gael benches about the need to retain access for children and grandchildren of those who had attended private schools. Perhaps we can call these the families' hereditary schools. I know that this was the subject of quite a lot of canvassing. I can understand that people may have a strong personal association with a particular school. A family builds up a relationship with it. We all understand that. It is a positive thing in the development of a school's community. However, we need to address the issue of children not being able to access the local school on a reasonably fair basis.
The Bill's sections dealing with non-discrimination and the declarations about non-discrimination on a whole range of grounds are excellent. Why then the cop-out by the Government? I remember the many discussions I had during the lifetime of the previous Government with Fine Gael Ministers and the Taoiseach on the issue and how we might reach an agreement that would benefit the children of Ireland and bring forward a system that reflects the pluralism in our society. We are proud to have significant foreign direct investment throughout the country. It results in many people from many countries working and living for periods of time, sometimes very long periods of time, in Ireland. If we want to ensure our education system keeps apace with the changes that are happening in society, we have to address these issues. I am sorry to say that the Bill is a cop-out.
This month we had the publication of the report of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, which is a merger of two former bodies. It set out a schedule of recommendations on the first page of the report. The first of these recommendations was that the Equal Status Act should 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. What response, if any, does the Minister have to that recommendation?
There is a whole set of other recommendations, which I do not have the time to go into, but I ask the Minister to respond to the summary recommendations. Will he also respond to the arguments put forward by different groups and bodies, including Equate?
I will finish on this. I saw a reference yesterday to a meeting of a group which had been cancelled in a hotel across the road. That group made very strong statements from a right-wing perspective about what this country should be. I hope the Minister in his approach to the Bill will say this is a pluralist country where we respect people who practice different religions and that we also respect people who do not choose to be involved in religion.
I call Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett. His group has 20 minutes. I understand he is sharing with Deputy Ruth Coppinger.
We have 20 minutes; ten minutes for me and ten for Deputy Coppinger. According to the Minister, the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016 is designed to ensure every child is treated fairly and that the way in which schools decide on applications for admission is structured, fair and transparent. It does none of those things. It does not go anywhere near delivering on those aspirations.
There are a couple of elements in the Bill that are to be welcomed as minor steps forward. The fact that denominational schools will have to publish what they do with children who opt out of religious instruction is something. There are no minimum standards attached to that so they could still just let those kids sit in a room on their own but as long as they publish it, it is transparent. It does not deal with the fundamental problem of segregation, discrimination and lack of equality in a school system that is completely dominated by a particular religious ethos. It is somewhat welcome that Tusla and the National Council for Special Education will be able to instruct a school to take a child and not discriminate on the basis of colour, ability or disability. The Bill does not address the key question of the religious discrimination that comes from the fact that more than 88% of our schools are denominational, most of them Catholic, and dominated by a particular religious ethos. They, therefore, fail to give real equality to all children, particularly those of minority religions or who have no religion at all. This Bill completely fails to deliver that equality.
I will come on to the central issue of what this Bill does not do but should do, which is address the baptismal barrier, but before that I will mention briefly the so-called soft barriers, which this Bill also fails to deal with. One of the two major soft barriers in terms of equality for children in the school system is the issue of voluntary contributions, which are an absolute scandal. They act as a barrier and discriminate against people who are less well off. The necessity for voluntary contributions flows from a chronically under-resourced and underfunded education system. The system of voluntary contributions creates, in reality, a tiered education system consisting of schools where parents can afford significant voluntary contributions and those where parents struggle to do so. Such parents are in effect inhibited from sending their children to schools where the demands for significant voluntary contributions are way out of their reach. The Bill fails to deal with that. We should completely ban the entire system of voluntary contributions which are a disgrace and lead to a tiered education system. Similarly, in the area of special needs there are soft barriers. This Bill will say schools cannot formally or explicitly discriminate. There is also soft barrier discrimination in the area of special needs. Schools essentially tell people who try to get children with particular special needs into a school that they do not have the resources to cater for them, they do not have any experience, or there are not enough specialised staff. The signal is sent to the parents of children with special needs that the school cannot take their kid. They cannot actually preclude them but in reality they do. I have a friend of a friend whose child is due to go to school in January. The child has diabetes, which is unusual in young children, and needs special support in school. She has asked four schools if they can cater for her child and the schools have said they cannot do it. Unless the resources, special needs assistants and so on are there, this soft barrier continues to create discrimination against children with special needs.
The big issue and gap in the whole Bill is the complete, total and utter failure of the Bill to deal with the baptismal barrier in a situation where the vast majority of our schools are denominational and where non-denominational or multidenominational schools are massively over-subscribed. My kids were lucky enough to get into DSP in our area, which was the first Educate Together school in the country. My partner had to run from Holles Street hospital when our baby was born to get out to the school to put its name down and even then it was not guaranteed that the child would get in. Hundreds of mothers and parents fail to get their kids into the multidenominational or non-denominational schools. They consequently have to put them into denominational schools where they are segregated, discriminated against, isolated, excluded and made to feel different in a way that completely flies in the face of this Bill's claim that it is trying to deliver equality and a welcome on an equal basis for all children. This Bill does not achieve that. It continues to pander to religious denomination of our schools and, therefore, exclude people of minority religions or of no religion.
The key issue is that of section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act which allows that discrimination and barrier to continue. I want to get to the bottom of something the Taoiseach said, which the Minister repeated. I have asked the Taoiseach three times about the legal advice, which he has told the House he has, to the effect that removing section 7(3)(c) would pose legal or constitutional problems. I have asked the Taoiseach that three times after he publicly stated it. Those questions were bounced off to the Minister for Education and Skills, who also never answered the question. We have never seen the legal advice or the reports, yet it was cited by the Minister in his speech yesterday that it would cause constitutional and legal difficulties. He said we need all-party Oireachtas committees and a long, delaying, protracted process just like we had on the issue of abortion back in 2011. We had committees and so on and ended up with a rubbish Act called the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act that still makes abortion illegal and discriminates against women's right to have control over their own bodies. It is still not resolved yet that is what the Minister is proposing to do again on the basis of his claim that he has legal and constitutional advice that there are problems. Where is the advice? Will the Minister show me the report and the legal advice? I do not believe he has it. I suspect the Minister and the Taoiseach have been misleading the House, otherwise they would have published the advice. We do not see it. The truth of the matter is the Government - as successive Governments have done - continues to kowtow to the domination of the Catholic Church and its control of our schools rather than stand up for them and insist that a system of education funded by the public and taxpayers' money is run publicly, in the interest of all citizens and all children, on the basis of real equality and without any discrimination against minority faiths or those with no faith at all.
If I am wrong, the Minister should show us the legal advice to the effect that there are constitutional and legal impediments. If not, I call on the Minister to move ahead and give us the equality which he claims to want in this Bill but which he completely fails to deliver.
The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has said the Government is in breach of four UN conventions because of admission policies. I have seen legal advice from Equate and Education Equality to the effect that there are no legal or constitutional impediments. Therefore, I do not believe the Minister or the Government. The Minister had better start telling the truth and stop covering up for the fact that he does not want to end religious discrimination in our schools and that he is continuing to facilitate the Catholic domination of our schools. As long as the Minister persists with this approach and as long as he fails to act on this, he is abusing, neglecting, segregating, excluding and discriminating against young children. It is not fair. It has to end. We want education equality and this Bill does not deliver it.
Deputy Coppinger, you have almost ten minutes.
I assume I will get an extra minute, like Deputy Burton.
I have already given you half a minute extra by saying you will have ten minutes.
This Bill is meant to be aimed at reforming significant inequality in school admission practices. In reality, it is more like a patient with cancer going to the doctor to seek treatment but only getting treatment for a head cold she happens to have as well. The core glaring practice of discrimination in this country in education is on the grounds of religion and religious patronage. The idea that the Minister would draft a Bill, leave out that issue or side-step it and that this would be somehow acceptable is absurd. A Green Party Deputy spoke earlier and said that her party would support the Bill. They should not support a Bill that encourages and facilitates discrimination against children on the basis of their parents' religion.
Let us put the religious issue aside for a moment to deal with some other aspects. There are some welcome reforms. The prohibition on schools seeking a fee or contribution for an application for a child to attend a school is welcome, as is the prohibition on the practice of a determination on the basis of parental interviews. We have all heard about these in the past. Another welcome measure is the prohibition on schools screening out those they deem to be difficult pupils on the basis of tests. There is a change to references to special educational needs in admission policies, although far more needs to be said about this on the next Stage, and I remain unconvinced that this will no longer happen. It is welcome that schools will have to publish admission policies, although most of them do so now in any case.
I take issue with the Minister retaining the past pupil rule. In effect this is a continuation of the old boys and old girls network. People who end up in university together studying law, medicine and other prestige courses tend to have gone to the same schools. It is simply a continuation of that culture. This rule was used recently to discriminate against a Traveller getting in to a school. The school circumvented the equality legislation by arguing that the child's father had not attended the school. The Minister must explain why he has not removed this rule. It will be used as a further ground to keep people out. These people are already marginalised and we have had enough marginalisation of the Traveller community in this country. The rule affects immigrants and people who have come to this country in a similar way. One would have to agree that there are some things in this country that would make Mr. Trump seriously envious. When it comes to health and education and the control of the Catholic Church, we can see where that view comes from.
Deputy Troy asked whether this was really an issue. In Dublin West, one in four people are not of Irish origin. It is among the fastest-growing areas of Ireland. Most people coming to the area do not have a family history of anyone attending a local school. It is easy to see how this can be used, potentially. We also have an issue with homeless families. A total of 40% of homeless people in Dublin are from my constituency. We can see the complications in this regard if the rule is to be used against them as well. We are told the Bill will eliminate socioeconomic criteria when it comes to getting access to schools. However, while we still have poverty and social division, that simply will not happen.
We need to hear more about the changes in the area of special needs. There is also a concern among Irish-speaking families that they will not be able to secure priority access to Gaelscoileanna. That needs to be clarified.
The substantive problem with the Bill is that it continues to allow religion to be used as a criterion for keeping a child out of a school. This is despite the fact that education is a right in the Constitution. I would like to hear from the Minister which parts of the Constitution is he referring to when he says constitutional rights have to be considered. I would like to put the same question to Deputy Burton. The Constitution is being used when it comes to dealing with the housing crisis as well. There is no right in the Constitution to discriminate or to have a denominational education.
The Minister had tried to point us in the direction of the Labour Party Bill as a means of dealing with this issue. That will not work, I am afraid, because that Bill does not deal conclusively with discrimination. It simply gives the catchment area of a school a greater priority than the religion of the parents. Of course, it does not challenge the status quo. The only conclusion is that the State and political parties in the Dáil are petrified of taking on the Catholic Church and they will not do it.
People need to realise where they should go if they want this type of change. Left-wing parties have always advocated and championed such change and they are the only parties people can rely on to make the radical change that is necessary and to do so quickly. It will not be done by the big parties in the House. Those parties are willing to cower before the Catholic Church to the point of illegally allowing open religious discrimination in schools and in school admissions. As a socialist, I stand for the full separation of church and state. I fully support religious freedom as well. That is a very important principle to defend. We oppose the State interfering in the personal beliefs of people, but we also oppose religious views being imposed on people against their wishes. It is incorrect to suggest that allowing religious discrimination in school admissions has to be permitted to defend religion. The legal advice we have seen shows there is no problem removing religious discrimination in schools.
People are being discriminated against on religious grounds as we speak. We have all heard of Roopesh Panicker, a Hindu man who has gone public about the fact that his child was unable to get in to countless schools. Someone from the Archbishop's office told him that if his child were baptised – if the family changed their religion, effectively - she would get into the local school without a problem. Religious discrimination is happening all the time.
The shortcomings of the Bill are clear. Deputy Troy asked whether this religion question was an issue and suggested that only a few schools were divested-----
I cannot see how Deputy Coppinger heard Deputy Troy's speech. She was not here.
I did, actually. I was listening.
Deputy Coppinger, without interruption.
Deputy Coppinger was not here.
I was listening in my office. A large volume of e-mails have come to my office on this matter.
Deputy Coppinger should not be making things up.
Deputy Byrne should stop shouting over me. The UN has also taken issue with Ireland on discrimination.
I will illustrate how out of step the Government position is with the majority of people. Countless surveys have been done relating to this question. A total of 87% believed the State has a responsibility to ensure children do not experience discrimination in the school curriculum. Fully 77% agreed that schools should not have the right to refuse admission on the grounds of religion, while 84% agreed that the education system should be changed such that no child should be excluded on the grounds of religion. Those surveys have been done repeatedly. The UN has said there should be a review and an amendment of laws, as appropriate, to ensure publicly funded schools provide equal access to education for all, irrespective of faith or religious affiliation. This Bill continues to fly in the face of that conclusion. The only change the Bill will make with regard to religion is whereby schools must publish their ethos and outline how they will allow an opt-out. It is not good enough for schools to outline how they will allow children to opt out. Will they be put at the back of the room to read a book or do their homework while all the time assimilating the religion through what they hear? Are they to be put in the school library? None of this amounts to a vindication of the rights of children.
The issue of religion does not end with admissions, and I realise that is the limited scope of this Bill.
There are other matters the Minister needs to consider. The UN and countless Irish equality agencies have pointed out that there is no uniform programme of relationships and sexuality education being taught in schools. It very much depends on what the school allows. Whole areas of sex education are simply not covered in schools. I do not know whether the Minister is at all concerned about this. For example, teaching on same-sex relationships is not allowed in Catholic schools, full information on contraception is not recommended in Catholic schools, and, of course, abortion is still a taboo subject and is taught from an anti-choice perspective in schools with a religious ethos. I have seen this to be the case not just in secondary school religion books, but also primary school ones. Does the Minister have any concern that the sex education of young people in this country is gender normative and discriminatory against LGBT people, despite the fact we have same-sex marriage in this country?
The Anti-Austerity Alliance supports the ending of religious discrimination in school admissions. We need to repeal section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act and amend the Education Act 1998 in order that the curriculum is delivered in an objective, pluralistic and critical way that avoids indoctrination. Religion should be taught after core school hours on an opt-in rather than an opt-out basis. Our Equal Participation in Schools Bill has passed First Stage, and we would like to see its provisions incorporated on the next Stage of the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill if it progresses.
We move on to Independents 4 Change. I presume Deputy Collins will speak.
Is she sharing her time?
I should be sharing my time with somebody. I do not know who.
The Deputy should take her time and keep going until somebody else comes.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill the Minister introduced, though he could have done better. The establishment of the national school system in the 1830s was a tremendously progressive step forward. The Stanley letter of 1831, which is the legal basis of our national school system, contains some core principles for publicly funded, that is, national schools. First, they would be free. Second, they would be open to all children, regardless of religion. Third, all religions would be taught in the one school as separate subjects, not by teachers, but by religious personnel, and there would be no public funding for any school where there was a hint of proselytism. A demand that a child be baptised represents a lot more than a hint. Would it not be wonderful if our national school system lived up to these progressive, integrationalist ideals of almost 200 years ago? We should base our legislation on them.
Any school operating a Catholics-first admissions policy is acting illegally. That is a fact. Such a policy is contrary to the legal basis of our national school system, that is, the Stanley letter of 1831, it is contrary to Article 42 of the Constitution, it is contrary to the Education Act 1998, and it is contrary to the Equal Status Act. An enforcement of the law by the Minister and the Department of Education and Skills is needed on this issue. In practice, the way our national schools are run is a million miles removed from the principles of the Stanley letter. The system has been hijacked. National schools have been given denominational status as allowed in the Rules for National Schools 1965. All State-funded primary schools are governed by the 1965 rules. Rule 68 reads as follows:
Of all the parts of a school curriculum Religious Instruction is by far the most important, as its subject-matter, God's honour and service, includes the proper use of all man's faculties, and affords the most powerful inducements to their proper use. Religious Instruction is, therefore, a fundamental part of the school course, and a religious spirit should inform and vivify the whole work of the school.
That is what we are working under at the moment. Schools are therefore required to adopt an integrated curriculum whereby all aspects of the school day reflect and are informed by religious values. Religious instruction is not confined to one discreet period of the school day. It is impossible for children to opt out effectively of faith formation in schools. We have segregation as opposed to integration. Religion is not taught as a separate subject. It is part of an integrated curriculum taught by teachers paid from public funds. All of this is contrary to the principles of the Stanley letter of 1831, which were incorporated into the Constitution of the Free State and are reflected today in Article 42 of the Constitution of Ireland.
The Bill may make some improvement, and I will seek to amend some parts of it. My contention is that the current situation should not exist. It needs to be ended, not amended. The opt-out situation is not good enough. Where will we opt out the children to, as has already been said? Will they be moved to the back of the class or into a library? Religious education should be provided separately by people involved in the particular religion, who can spread their own word if that is what they want to do, not in the national school system. Some of the measures in the Bill will actually copperfasten the situation by transferring powers from boards of management to patrons.
This is not really a rural problem. It does not come up much in rural schools. They seem to be more able to facilitate their children in their schools. However, in urban areas, it certainly is a problem. A number of parents from my constituency have approached schools to enrol their children in them and have been told openly that if the children are not baptised, they will most likely not be allowed into the school because preference will be given to those who are baptised. That must be dealt with. In 2016, in a so-called progressive society, we should consider these issues and try to deal with them, get rid of them and end them, not amend them. I ask the Minister to consider my comments, maybe address them in his summing up when he contributes again and try to address them in the Bill. The prohibition of children on the basis of not having a baptismal certificate is archaic and should be put in the dustbin of history. We should have as our base the national school system that had been progressive but, as I said, has been hijacked. I will leave it at that. I will not speak for ever and a day and make things up as I go along. I have made the points I wanted to make.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill, which was outlined in our programme for Government as a matter we would move forward. I welcome the Bill's passage to Second Stage and the Minister's presence in introducing it. As he is aware, the pressure on school places, particularly at secondary level, in south Kildare is a very topical issue and one that is leading to much concern and angst among parents. We have had a number of meetings about it. Some of the issues that arise from the pressure on capacity are addressed in the Bill, which is very important. It focuses on those schools that may not be at full capacity in many cases in respect of section 29 of the Education Act and other elements. However, in the Newbridge area, for example, we have schools that are turning many pupils away. Demand far exceeds supply in these schools.
This Bill really comes into its own in the case of people, such as those I meet in south Kildare, who moved to the area for work reasons or might not be from the area, which can happen. In Kildare, in particular, it happens sometimes. The measure to which I refer is a very important one to which we can point in saying that children should not be discriminated against. The use of waiting lists in the past has been a barrier. If somebody must move to a different area, their children should not be disadvantaged.
Similarly, families of lower socioeconomic background tend to leave enrolment of their children to the last minute and maybe do not plan to the same extent as other families who have a very keen focus on the education of their children.
That is not a good statement to make.
I can see how this has played out. Some schools have used this in the past.
Some of us got on because our families pushed us-----
Could we allow-----
-----through education without having any educational background.
My point is that waiting lists have allowed schools to cherry-pick, to an extent. It might not be particularly politically correct but it is a reason to do away with waiting lists, as that would leave a fairer and more level playing field. I am also aware of schools that have fees associated with being on a waiting list. With one school in particular, to the best of my knowledge, parents must pay an annual fee from when a child is in second class to remain on a waiting list. When the child gets to sixth class, parents must pay a significant registration fee in September or October of that year just to remain on that list. Even at that, the school has always had more applications over the past number of years than it has had space. It is another example of not necessarily having a level playing field so I welcome the measures within the Bill because they are positive.
Similarly, the publication of schools admission policies is really important. As a politician, many parents contact me who are concerned about such policies and there is much ignorance about what is in the schools admissions Bill. As we know, every school has the autonomy to have its own admissions policy but when it is not readily available, it can lead to much concern and suspicion as to how the process is carried out. The explicit ban on discrimination is key and it should be a given. We have a challenge in that discrimination can sometimes be hard enough to prove or find. Having a school admissions policy open and published, readily available to everybody, would particularly protect those schools doing their business in the right way. There are many schools I deal with that take great pride, even when they are over-subscribed, in dealing with these matters in a very fair way. We need to protect the reputation of those schools so even if a few act badly, those who act well would get to keep their good name in that regard. It is another good measure within the Bill.
The Minister knows the pressures in Newbridge and Kildare South that I mentioned as he met representatives of a campaign seeking an Educate Together school in the area. Similarly, I have told the Minister that many parents contact me who have concerns about provision. I know the departmental officials argue that future demand will be met by both existing and planned developments but there is much concern that this might not be the case. There is a planned extension to the Patrician secondary school in Newbridge for 2019 but that must happen sooner because the pressure on spaces and demand for the school is significant. I ask the officials to examine how quickly it can be expedited. Similarly, there is a planned extension for Cross and Passion College in Kilcullen for 2018 but as far as I am aware, no meaningful work has commenced in the process and we are near the end of 2016. If it is to happen in 2018, I would like to see real engagement from the Department.
There are also planned extensions in Athy, not to mention the new autism spectrum disorder, ASD, units coming with those facilities that are really important. We have been good at developing ASD units at primary level but there is a shortage at secondary level because of pressure. We are facing a bit of a cliff because children are in ASD units at primary level but we do not have spaces for them at secondary level. That process must be expedited. Although there is a plan as part of the extensions, we need it to happen very quickly.
The issue of the process arising from section 29 of the Education Act 1998 has been touched on by colleagues. Perhaps it has been spoken about in a different manner. It can be a difficult process when there are spaces in the school but somebody has not met the enrolment criteria. There are many examples of this issue in my local area because the schools are over-subscribed. It is a harsh, blunt and costly instrument for the State, and I believe the average cost of a section 29 process is close to €700. It takes up many man hours, there is much emotional involvement from families and it can be a very crude instrument dealing with proof of a specific structural deficiency. One cannot get into more of the sentiment of the cases.
This Bill is definitely a step in the right direction. More needs to be done but I am delighted to be part of a Government that is addressing admissions policy. It is something we spoke about in the last Government and it is great to see it being progressed. I spoke about the pressures in south Kildare and an Educate Together campaign, and I have encouraged those people to look at other options. They have been fighting for a new school but the Department has stated the demand does not exist for that school. We would argue about some of the figures being used. We need more choice in provision for south Kildare and I call on those campaigning for that to engage with the education and training boards to see what options exist. We have partnerships and collaborations in other parts of the country that can be used as models. I ask the departmental officials to keep a very close eye on the demographics of Kildare South as we have one of the fastest-growing and youngest populations in the country. The pressure is very evident in our schools.
Like my colleague, I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this important Bill and I compliment the Minister on the quality, extent and structure of the legislation. It is required and it is an improvement on existing law, catering for all needs as anticipated. There was a need to carry this out in a non-discriminatory way and the Bill does that. We live in changing times, with changing demands and pressures, particularly arising from the urbanisation that has taken place in many of our constituencies. There are variations between the circumstances pertaining in those areas and less populated rural areas, and the Bill takes full account of that. I hope the regulations proposed by the Minister and the provision for reference to the Minister will eliminate the difficulties that could arise or which have arisen in the past prior to the introduction of the Bill.
Parents looking around for a school to which they would like to send a child can find it very stressful if they make repeated applications to a particular school in the immediate area without success. A school may well have reasons of its own for not allowing the application which are sometimes valid and sometimes not so valid; sometimes they do not appear to be valid. The Bill will address those issues and as a result of its introduction, there will be greater transparency and tendency to accommodate people, with more emphasis on accommodation than there was in the past. I am not suggesting for a moment that after the passage of the Bill we will achieve all we wanted as there will always be issues arising from time to time. The system relating to admission, including admission of children with special needs, discipline and expulsion is dealt with in the Bill but there must be a third party arbitrator to examine the process at arm's length from local circumstances. For example, it might apply when people of different religions, ethnic backgrounds or special needs are involved. From time to time we have come across cases where it would appear the ethnic origin of a child appeared to influence policy on admission or, even more so, with regard to expulsion.
We Irish travel all over the world and we emigrated everywhere. It was not always from a war zone as we were economic emigrants. I would like to think we could accommodate those who travel to our country and treat them in a way we would like to be treated ourselves in their quest for education in foreign lands. Perhaps we were not always treated the way we should have been, although generally speaking we were accommodated. The Bill goes a long way towards addressing some of those issues and I hope the theme of fairness strongly represented in the Bill will manifest itself in the time to come in a way that will illustrate to parents and children throughout the community that the legislation is intent on following a certain procedure.
I hope it will also advertise to the community at large that things are being done in a fair fashion. There is the old story that everything must be fair and be seen to be fair.
The secrecy that can surround decisions that appear to have two or three meanings, none of which apply to the benefit of applicants, has to go. The Minister is to be complimented on introducing that theme of fairness and transparency into the situation now. If parents feel they have to go outside their local areas to gain access to schools for their children, there must be issues with the local schools that have to be dealt with. There might be insufficient accommodation in those schools, or the parents might feel the quality of education in them is insufficient to meet their requirements. Such issues arise from time to time as schools develop their reputations in local communities. Like politicians, schools can establish reputations that are good or not so good. We all strive to have the better side of that argument if we can.
The Minister will recall our discussions about post-primary schools in my local area. I am grateful for the approval by the Minister and his predecessor of the provision of two post-primary schools in Maynooth. The sheer pressure of numbers meant that the approval of these schools had to happen. Some children have gone to schools outside the local area in recent times because of the pressure that is building. I am reliably informed that a system-built structure can be incorporated in the construction process, with huge benefits from the point of view of the delivery of the contract and with very little financial impact. It is hugely beneficial in terms of the speed of construction. The Minister might think about that when the time comes. It is not too far away.
While I am being parochial, I should mention that a gaelcholáiste is required in my local area. One should never travel too far from Tip O'Neill's saying that "all politics is local". He said that in the good old days when politics in certain parts of the world was very honourable and certain criteria were strictly understood and adhered to. I remind the Minister that we are still striving for a gaelcholáiste. Like his predecessor, he has been well disposed towards this project. We know it is in the offing and we want to make sure it does not slip away or get pushed aside by other competing demands. In this business, we all know about competing demands. My philosophy is that those demands which are competing also have to compete. We hope that in the current circumstances, the gaelcholáiste will receive favourable support and provision in the next year or so.
If many of the provisions of the Bill before the House are operated and become part of the philosophy of education, this could be a modernising and futuristic enactment the likes of which we have not had access to before. While it was always possible for requests to be made to the Minister in the past, I do not think they carried the same weight as they will carry as a result of the provisions of this Bill. An appeal to the Minister in circumstances in which there has been a failure to accede to or provide for the system of openness, fairness and transparency that is endemic in this Bill will bring about a beneficial response. If that were not the case, I do not think these provisions would have been included in this legislation in the first place. They are in place for a purpose.
I cannot talk about school admissions without referring briefly to the issue of bullying in many primary and secondary schools. Many victims of bullying are afraid to talk about the serious problems caused by it. Even though there are frameworks for making complaints and provisions in place to bring it to the attention of teachers and patrons that something has gone wrong, fear on the part of the victims of bullying often prohibits action from being taken and prevents the reporting of incidents by those concerned. All Deputies have heard complaints along these lines. The Bill may have a considerable impact on this area, and so it should because this has become a serious issue, particularly where there appears to be competition between bullies of one sort or another as to who can have the most serious impact on victims. It is in the nature of things that there can be tragic consequences if bullying goes unchecked for a sufficiently long period of time. There have been such consequences in many cases. We have all dealt with such cases. I would like to think that in the course of the operation of this legislation, in conjunction with other Education Acts, particular emphasis will be placed on paying attention to reports of bullying, including cyberbullying, physical bullying and mental torture by way of texts. The perpetrators must be identified and it must be explained to them that what they are doing may have consequences for them and for their victims.
I hope the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016 will be effective and adequately comprehensive to deal with the issues that are arising and are likely to arise in the future. I hope all patrons and boards of management in all denominational and non-denominational schools will have sufficient administrative procedures available to them, and will show sufficient commitment, to adhere to what the Bill purports to do. If that is the case, this Bill will be of considerable benefit to children, the community at large and the future adult population of this country.
There are no more speakers offering so I ask the Minister to bring the debate to a conclusion. As there are just two minutes remaining before the start of Question Time, the Minister may have to conclude his response the next time the Bill comes before the House.
I do not think there is any point in calling Deputies back to hear me speak. I thank the 20 Deputies who spoke on this Bill and raised many issues. It has been a universally constructive debate. Much of what is in the Bill has been welcomed. I agree with the sentiments of many Deputies who have expressed a desire for us to address the baptism barrier, as it has been described. We will do that by having hearings that give us a chance to tease out the issues involved. I am glad the education committee is taking on that role in the context of a Private Members' Bill that was passed here earlier in the year and referred to the committee for its assessment. I look forward to working with colleagues on the many issues involved in this legislation on Committee Stage. I am glad this Bill has received broad support throughout the House.