Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016: Report Stage

Bill recommitted in respect of amendments Nos. 1 and 2.

Amendment No. 1 is consequential on amendment No. 29. Amendments Nos. 1 and 29 will be discussed together.

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 3, line 16, to delete “a school,” and substitute the following:

“a school; and to provide that, following a report from the National Council for Special

Education, in certain circumstances the Minister may issue a direction in respect of the additional provision of education for children with special educational needs;”.

These amendments arose out of our discussion on Committee Stage. In recent years we have made considerable expansion in the provision for special education. It has seen a 43% increase in the financial provision with similar increases in both the numbers of special needs assistants and in resource teachers. One of the significant features in that time has also been the large expansion in the number of special units within mainstream schools. They have increased from 548 in 2011 to 1,304 today.

The purpose of this amendment is to go beyond what was already in the Bill. The Bill already allowed the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, to designate a school to receive or accept a child with special educational needs. The NCSE could override objections or barriers to the placement of a child in respect of an individual school. During the course of the debate on Committee Stage, a number of Deputies, in particular Deputy Thomas Byrne, were keen that we should move beyond that and also make provision that the NCSE could designate or require a school to open a special needs unit. These are units that typically have six children. They would be provided with one teacher and two special needs assistants, SNAs, which would be the typical profile. They are provided by the NCSE and they have provided a very useful way in which we have been able to respond to the growing number of children who present on the ASD spectrum, in particular.

The Bill provides for that and it is quite a complex process, as Members will see. There are a number of stages in it which start with the NCSE informing the Minister, then a report is prepared, then there are opportunities for people to make representations and then there is a notice of intent served on the school which is followed by the opportunity for comment. That is followed by a notice confirming that the proposition will go ahead and the property arrangements that would be made for it. That is followed by the opportunity for the school, if it so wishes, to go to arbitration in respect of the property arrangements. If the school was not accepting of the direction of policy and the notice provided by the Minister, there would be a further move to provide an order to the board and a notice to the patron in the event of a refusal. Finally, there would be an issue of direction by the Minister.

People may make comment on the stages involved but these were advised to us when we approached the draftsman. In order to be robust and constitutionally secure, we needed to have these provisions because this raises issues of property rights. That is the reason they are there. That is the backdrop to the proposition.

Amendment No. 1 amends the Long Title of the Bill. Amendment No. 29 inserts a new section 37A into the Education Act 1998 that gives the Minister the power to direct a school to make additional provision in respect of children with special educational needs following a report by the NCSE. The provision is required to ensure that where there is a gap in provision for the education of children with special educational needs as identified by the NCSE and no school is forthcoming to make such provision available, the gap can be addressed effectively by issuing a direction by the Minister to the school. Under this amendment, exercise of this power will be preceded by a number of steps, which I mentioned, of engagement between the Minister, the NCSE, the board of management and the patron or, where the owner is not the patron, the owner of the school. The direction will require the school to make additional provision for the education of children with special educational needs in the form of a special class or classes. Once initiated, this process involves a number of stages, which I went through.

As outlined, the amendment will provide that based on a report from the NCSE, the Minister may take steps that will ultimately lead to the exercise of power to require a school to open a special class and increase the number of special classes in the school. The provision also provides that where agreement is not reached with the Minister on the property arrangements, there is a provision for arbitration, as I mentioned. Arbitration between the Minister and the property owner allows for an independent and effective resolution of any disagreement around the property arrangements required to give effect to a direction. The property arrangements required for this purpose may not involve a new build in all cases. These arrangements will differ from school to school, depending on local circumstances and having regard to the usual considerations of capacity, space restrictions and other local factors. The amendment provides that the outcome of arbitration on the property matters will be binding on the parties in the event that the Minister issues a direction to the school.

The amendment provides for the Minister to make that decision, following the conclusion of his or her further consideration and statutory engagement with the board of management and patron on the other matters - in other words, matters not related to the property arrangements relevant to whether the school should or should not make the provision.

The provision will apply to all schools recognised under the Education Act 1998.

The process will be transparent, with provision for all notices issued by the Minister and representations received by him or her at the various stages involved to be published on the Department's website within seven days of their issue or receipt by the Minister. While the Department and the NCSE will continue to work with schools to ensure that appropriate provision is in place for children with special educational needs, this new statutory power will ensure that if there are gaps in the provision of special classes by schools, such gaps can be effectively addressed in the future.

We welcome the spirit of this amendment and will support it. I stated on Second Stage that we would require such a provision in this Bill in order to support it. I am not going to be churlish; I welcome it.

It is exceedingly complicated, however, and that is a worry because it seems the amendment seeks very carefully to protect the interests of the national council, the Minister, the board of management, the school and the patron. Everybody’s interests and constitutional rights are looked after, with one exception, those of the child or the children most in need of the special classes who cannot get them. This is particularly a problem at second level in some parts of the country.

The child should be at the centre of this. If the Minister were to offer one of the schools that will not take a special class a new building, he would not need any arbitration clause or appeals mechanism because the school would take it with open arms. It should be similar if the school is asked to take on a new unit. Under US federal law there is often a way for the federal government to get around its powers by saying it will give the institution money if it does something. Surely that is the way around it. We can put the funding in question for schools that do not do this, rather than having a procedure that could take seven or eight months.

I hope that if this provision is in the Bill it will send a signal to schools that the game is up and that if they are required to establish a special class for autism or any other disability, they will do it. We should never forget that special classes are only one aspect of special education. There may be other needs such as educating children in a mainstream classroom or in special schools. This is one aspect of the Bill that has been identified as a problem up and down the country. We will be examining this between now and when the Bill is brought before the Seanad to see if we can improve on it and whether it can be whittled down a bit to make it less complex and to put the child with special needs, who needs to be in a special class, at the centre of our thinking.

Last June, I raised this issue with the Minister, having previously raised it when two Labour Party Ministers published legislation to provide for school admissions, which was later adopted by the Minister.

Yesterday morning I spent a couple of hours in two schools in my constituency, Dublin West, which are not untypical. They are both delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS band 1. Not only do they not have the kind of special facilities Deputy Thomas Byrne referred to but when new buildings were being built or total refurbishment of existing buildings was taking place in many other schools in Dublin West, the Department provided for a special unit. Both of these schools received news recently in the reports of the special educational needs organisers, SENOs, on their allocations of special needs assistants, SNAs. There seems to be a very variable allocation in the adjudication of the SENO requirement. Both of these schools are junior schools and one had evidence on file, which was shown to me, of the applications regarding more children with special needs coming in this year. Notwithstanding that some children were transferring into the senior school on the same campus it was getting a smaller allocation, down by approximately a third on the previous year. I will be writing to the Minister in detail about this.

The issue involves one I raised last year. The Department has not clarified whether, in recognising children with special needs, it recognises behavioural disorders. The people carrying out the SENO assessments do not seem to know. Instead, principals, who have a lot do, now have extensive and elaborate forms to consider and fill in about children seeking enrolment, or already enrolled, who emerge as having a special need. There is no clarity on how the SNA is being provided.

I will not object to the Minister’s amendment on this provision but he is running into serious problems. His standard answer is that he is providing more SNAs on a countrywide basis. As we know, they are in part being allocated to the whole school via the principal but the principals are cracking under the burden of extra administration that the Minister, through the Department, has imposed on them. For instance, in one case an allocation for special needs was denied because the report referred to a potential hearing issue that the child with special needs had. As the Minister knows, being a parent, children who have special needs often have multiple problems that must be addressed and which the school has to support. Everybody has agreed that it really is the right thing, where possible, to mainstream children in their local primary school and, in particular situations, in a special unit, which has gone ahead under this Government and I am glad of that.

The test of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is very simple. Does this child require care over and above the level that a child who does not have special needs requires? If the answer is “Yes” that child’s parents will qualify for the domiciliary care allowance. I do not understand why the Department of Education and Skills has not adopted that principle. It would probably mean more parents qualifying. During my time in the then Department of Social Protection many more parents qualified, with the agreement of all the parties in this House, for the domiciliary care allowance and that was seen as positive but it is not being translated into the education system. Will the Minister explain to us how those two schools are going to function with more children with special needs in the junior school on the smaller quota of SNAs that the Department is allocating to them? The appeals process is mired in bureaucracy which has grown extraordinarily and which makes it really difficult.

I welcome the amendment. We should be constructive when discussing Bills and amendments and we should speak to the amendment before us.

I could say a good deal about special education in general and about some teachers carrying out certain functions in that there is a belief they could perhaps require additional training and support. This is a welcome provision, however, and it is good to see the dimension of autism spectrum disorder, ASD, units specifically included in the Bill. While there is always room for improvement and there is much we could say about that, we must acknowledge when a step has been taken and something good has been done. I believe in that approach in that there is no point in being critical if some good progress is being made.

While the mechanism involved is very detailed and I can understand what Deputy Thomas Byrne said about that, it could mean there will no room for mistakes, slippage or for the need to come back at another stage and say it is unworkable. It is a new mechanism and once it is bedded down and people are used to dealing with it, it may become an easier system and as it progresses there may be other ways around it in terms of simplifying it. Overall, it is welcome and good to see it included.

The Minister will be aware that I have raised several individual cases with him regarding the lack of availability of ASD units, particularly in Carlow-Kilkenny. A school will now be compelled to deal with that. This is partly related to a cultural and societal change. I know from my time in school that we never heard of any ASD units or certainly that was not an option for people. This will involve a change of mindset and we must acknowledge that we have to change the mindset of certain schools that simply regard this as a hassle. There is nothing else to say about it. They consider it is too much hassle and stress to go down the road of creating an ASD unit in their school. It is welcome that schools will be compelled to do this. There is always room for improvement. The quality of teaching in some ASD units could be examined but that is not necessarily relevant to this debate. I welcome this provision.

Should schools, where necessary, be compelled to establish ASD units? Yes, they should. The situation on the ground speaks volumes as to why that is a necessary step. I cite the example of County Cork where we have 148 ASD classes in primary schools but a mere 55 ASD classes in secondary schools. That gap, approaching the 3:1 mark, is growing year on year. The situation in many other counties is worse than it is in County Cork. Those statistics do not take into account in any sense the child who goes to primary school and is not in an ASD class but who needs an ASD class when they go to secondary school. That includes a significant number of students. The situation is added to by that cohort. Currently, every special class in Cork city is in a DEIS school. That is not a position that should be maintained.

Do we support the idea that ASD units or classes should be provided with schools being compelled, if necessary, to do so? Yes, we do. Are we fully satisfied with the mechanism the Minister has put in place. No, we are not. We believe it is tortuous. A process which can play out over a period of seven or eight months is too long. We are in agreement with the points that have been raised, namely, that there is provision for the schools, the patrons and the boards but sufficient care and attention has not been given to the needs of the child. We agree also with the idea that linking this to funding can be an effective way to compel schools to do what needs to be done in the interests of the children. We may tease out those points a little further before the Bill proceeds to the next Stage. The basic point is that schools can be compelled to establish an ASD unit through an intervention, and we will support that provision.

I generally support this amendment. Its objective is very desirable. I would express some concern regarding the fact that the process is very convoluted and could be drawn out over a very long period. It again highlights the issue that we have schools that are fully funded by the State, with staff paid by the State and yet the State is not in a position to instruct the schools to open, for example, an ASD unit. It highlights the problems associated with the farming out of responsibility for our education system, and many of those chickens are coming home to roost at this stage.

The Minister, in his contribution on the amendments, referred to property rights. We have seen previously in legislation where attempts to facilitate people with disabilities were stymied where they have been trumped by property rights, even basic items such as the need to provide proper bathroom facilities, and an employer can claim undue hardship under property rights. If we are serious about addressing the needs of people with disabilities, we should remove from our Constitution any of those obstacles that exist. Property rights for that reason and for many other reasons need to be addressed and taken out of the Constitution in the format they are currently in.

I also very much support the point that has been made about ensuring sufficient funding is provided. Schools should be required to provide facilities and, for example, ASD units where there is a local need for such a facility, but they should not be faced with a situation where their resources are stretched because of that. In requiring a school to provide any special facilities for students with disabilities, it is essential those services are fully funded. We have a problem with special needs assistants and with other physical facilities in schools which are not necessarily always funded by the Department. That has to go hand in hand. The schools must on take their responsibility but the Minister and Department must also take on the responsibility for fully funding those services and supports.

I endorse the point made regarding the problem that exists where the provision of ASD units at primary level seems to be close to being adequate but the big problem occurs at secondary level. We are all familiar with that problem where students have had the necessary supports at primary level but there is a gap at that critical stage when they go into secondary school. They find they have to deal with ten or 12 teachers and all the new subjects. It is a challenging time for any teenager transitioning to secondary school but especially for a person with special needs. There is a need for the Department to up its game to ensure an adequate supply of places is available at second level. We are very far from that position at this point. Otherwise, in terms of the general thrust of the amendment, I welcome it.

As the Minister will be aware, I put forward a series of amendments on Committee Stage to allow the National Council for Special Education to compel a school to open an ASD unit. This amendment is not as strong as what I proposed but I welcome the move in the right direction. I agree with other Deputies who have spoken that the mechanism the Minister is adopting is vague and convoluted.

On the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, compiling a report if there is insufficient capacity in an area, will the Minister clarify what constitutes insufficient capacity? Is there a minimum number? Is it when one, two or three students present to the school? I would like to be clear on the number as I do not believe the child is at the heart of the Bill.

I respectfully suggest another issue that needs to be addressed within the inspectorate of the Department of Education and Skills and which is not helping at all. In management, leadership and learning, MLL, evaluations in a DEIS school, I have heard that inspectors pose a question to the staff about whether the school has ever asked itself why it has so many students with special educational needs. In turn, the inspectors are asked if they pose this question to other schools but rephrased as, "Has your school ever asked itself why it does not have children with special educational needs?" I suggest that, for the purposes of equality and fairness, this question be added to the MLL evaluation.

Most of the points have been made. It is correct that we should be able to compel a school to make provision for children with special educational needs. As Deputy Thomas Byrne indicated, the Bill seems to be a little convoluted in the way it proposes to do so. It appears to focus on the school, the council, the rather lengthy process involved and the powers of the Minister but does not seem to emphasise the child enough.

Is the process of reporting on the provision of capacity in the area a bit of a get-out clause that allows a school to state it does not have to make provision because somebody else can do it? This argument is used by schools and one of the soft barriers in getting a child into his or her school of choice. The school states, "You would be better off going to the school down the road because it has the capacity to deal with you and we do not". The Minister should address that point to be sure the Bill does not allow for the continuation of soft barriers which discriminate against children with special needs in seeking to gain entry to a particular school.

As I listened to the debate, I was struck that it might also be useful to strengthen the Bill a little to give power to the Minister and place an obligation on a school not to take any action that would degrade special education provision in a school. I say this and the Minister may remember because of the very strong case made by Clonkeen College in the fight to retain its playing fields. I have raised this issue on numerous occasions in the House. It was also one of the arguments put to the Minister when they met - that the decision of the Christian Brothers to sell the school's playing fields - essentially to benefit them - would significantly degrade the quality of the unit for children with mild and moderate disabilities that had recently been constructed in the school. The school has testimony from agencies that cater for children with special needs in the area that the move to profit from a school site by flogging off playing fields to developers will impact significantly and badly on the children with special needs in the unit because of the proximity of the unit to the commercial for-profit development on the green space that surrounds it. The agencies have pointed out that for children with special needs having an open green area is extremely beneficial and for it to be near the unit. Now they will be boxed in with a private development because the Minister will not intervene to stop the sale. In the Bill could we have the power to intervene on the basis of protecting facilities and preventing the degradation of special needs provision if anything was being done to degrade it and that would impact adversely on children with special needs? That would be a useful addition for the Minister to make to his amendment.

I thank Deputies for their general support for the provision.

Deputy Thomas Byrne is concerned that children are not at the centre of this provision. It is important to see it in the context of the overall Bill which provides explicitly for the banning of discrimination in school admissions policies based on a child having special needs. It also provides that the NCSE can compel a school to take an individual child. In the amendment we are seeking to add an additional power that the NCSE can compel a school to open a special unit. The child is at the heart of this provision.

I take the point about complexity, but to be fair to the process, the first two elements, effectively, are the NCSE exchanging with the Department to establish that it believes there is a need, checking what the Department has planned to build and confirming that it is building it. The first two stages of the process are entirely internal to the Department. It is at that stage that a notice is served. One can move very quickly to serve a notice where there is a need. I accept that following these representations may lead to the possibility of arbitration, which may hold up the process. We are, however, very optimistic that where a school is agreeable, we will considerably beat the seven-month fear of the Deputy. We hope that in virtually every case the school will be agreeable and that it will be a reserved power, rather than a power we will continually have to exercise. In a short space of time, we have gone from a figure of 548 to 1,304. Schools are responding. We have made the arrangements favourable to them by the provision of investment and support. It provides for additional teachers and SNAs and it is also recognised in other dimensions of support for the school. It is not true to say we will need to compel a lot of recalcitrant schools to respect children's rights, but there may be cases and we need to be able to deal with them.

Reference was made to putting funding in jeopardy. It would, however, be the other children in the school who would carry the cost if one was to start cutting budgets because schools were not delivering in this area to the satisfaction of some. Compulsion, direction and our making financial provision are all important elements because we are not asking schools to do it without their consent. I thank Deputies for their support.

I confirm the Department's policy on the allocation of SNAs, which is to ensure every child who has been assessed as having a need for an SNA will receive that support. This policy has been in place since before my time as Minister and it has always been forthcoming. The NCSE decides independently. Admittedly, the decision is made on the basis of diagnostic tests. That is the system in place. There are diagnostic tests to establish need, but the decision also takes into account behavioural problems. We have recently changed the resource teaching model which does not require all of the submissions on diagnostic tests. We are profiling schools to make it easier and it is working. Schools report that it is a better system. The domiciliary care and SNA need tests are not the same. The domiciliary care test is about the child's financial needs such as for the domiciliary care allowance, while the SNA need test is about the child being able to participate in and complete school. The tests are different.

Deputy Kathleen Funchion spoke about some elements of the amendment being cumbersome. If there is a willingness, it will not prove to be cumbersome. Should it be required, we have protections to deal with it.

While I take Deputy Barry's point about the larger provision at primary level than at secondary level, the latter is growing faster than the former, which indicates our success in retaining people in the education system. It was heartening to see Ireland's rate of retention to completion of second level improve, with the drop-out rate halving in the past ten years. The policy is succeeding in getting people to complete second level. I expect to see even faster growth in autism spectrum disorder, ASD, units at that level. Those units are determined by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, based on its own assessment of need.

Deputy Shortall was right to state that property rights should not block reasonable provision for disability services. Given that we are making provision for property that is not in State ownership to be allocated to a certain unit, we must be careful to show that what we are doing is properly grounded in the public interest and so on. We are taking care to ensure that there is no potential for a challenge to what we are doing.

Regarding Deputy Catherine Martin's point, need decides an allocation. We are expanding, as the figures show. We have had a 40% increase in special needs assistants, SNAs, and a similar percentage increase in resource teachers in the past six or seven years. There is a large allocation. This is not restricted by a budgetary factor. That is remarkable, given the period we have been through. The allocation is made where it is established that a need exists, and that will continue to be the case. I anticipate that we will continue building capacity. The new resource teaching model is proving its worth because it is giving greater flexibility. The Deputy will have seen that we recently announced a pilot in community healthcare organisation, CHO, area 7. Under it, 75 preschools and 75 schools will have speech and language and occupational therapists provided within the school network. This will ensure that we not only have the appropriate supports, including SNAs and resource teachers, but that we also integrate them into the school. That is the right direction of travel.

Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the Clonkeen issue, but I cannot comment on it. I have received an application to dismiss the board. I have a statutory role in this matter, which I will exercise with the care required under the legislation. I welcome the Deputy's support for this approach.

While I see Deputies' point about the possibility of this proving cumbersome, that will not be the case where there is an acknowledgement by the school, which I hope will be the rule rather than the exception. On the face of it, the amendment's other elements seem cumbersome, but they are designed to ensure that we meet the legal requirement to make orders robust where they are issued against schools' wishes. The intent of the amendment is to ensure that a direction issued to a school, even where the school resists it, is not overturned should it be challenged.

We will re-examine this amendment before the Bill goes to the Seanad to see whether we can do anything. Would it be possible to publish the initial notice under what the Minister is proposing or could an amendment be tabled in the Seanad to that effect? Such a notice could put significant pressure on people and short-circuit the process because schools would not want to be named and shamed over being identified as needing an extra class but being recalcitrant about providing it.

I thank a teacher in Cork, Mr. Graham Manning, for bringing this matter to our attention some years ago when he held a public meeting in Cork. Senator Kelleher was involved, and my party leader attended the meeting. As Deputy Barry mentioned, there is a particular problem in Cork. It has schools that are overflowing, to exaggerate slightly, with special classes and others that are not accepting their responsibilities. I thank Mr. Manning for being involved in this legislative process, bringing his direct experience to bear and forcing legislative change. He made an interesting point, one that I ask the Minister to clarify. Is it the case that, in special classes at primary level, there is an extra capitation of €682 per annum per capita while there is no extra capitation at second level? That has been suggested to me. It would be a further disincentive to provide for these classes.

I do not intend to delay the debate. This amendment is welcome. I accept the Minister's comments about schools not being able to refuse someone on the grounds of disability and that the NCSE can identify a school. Those will be important provisions. Any use of the procedure under amendment No. 29 would need to be careful, but it is welcome. We are glad to support it and will, bar one or two elements, facilitate all of the Bill's provisions on the basis that this amendment is agreed, will work and will change things for children who need special classes. ASD units are the commonest type of special class, but amendment No. 29's provisions do not restrict the Bill to them. Rather, they apply to any need that the NCSE identifies as requiring a special class.

My constituency of Dublin West is one in which school provision has expanded rapidly to cater for the significant increase of recent years in the number of children at primary and secondary levels. As the Minister is aware, the practice in Dublin West has been for the Department to offer ASD units at the time of a new build or, in many instances, a substantial rebuild. The schools have been positive about this and welcomed it.

I do not know whether the Minister got the point about the cases that I raised with him. DEIS band 1 schools are often located in areas suffering multiple disadvantages and there may be issues at home for children. While not necessarily on the autism spectrum, although a number will have elements of that, some of these children will have been referred by, for example, the special needs service of Barnardos. By and large, Barnardos accepts children into a number of its facilities who have been referred to it by social workers and the like. Therefore, the level of need is verified and significant.

The Minister would have no difficulty with agreeing that when a child who has been identified as requiring significant special support moves from preschool to junior school at primary level, it is important that the school to which he or she is moving should be able to maintain that framework of support. On Friday, the Minister published notifications and a list. If people know their schools' numbers, they can see whether their DEIS band 1 schools have lost SNAs. When the Minister made his announcement about 800 extra SNAs in schools, I presumed that, simply because of the age cohort of special needs children who were moving into second level, quite a lot of that provision was properly going to secondary schools. Perhaps he will agree that, in DEIS schools, the principals face a significant educational challenge to do the best for every child.

They work hard at this in the city centre and the west of Dublin. I know many of the people who work in this arena and they are totally dedicated. I am saying to the Minister that they are finding the bureaucracy that now accompanies the new system quite difficult. In some cases, the parents who are bringing their children to primary school may also need support. This is critically important. It does not just involve the completion rate which is important for both primary and secondary schools and which has become high. It is also important that children who have a spectrum of special needs be in a position to receive a special needs assistant, SNA. I am only taking the examples from my constituency. On Friday's list schools were losing resources. Will the Minister commit to publishing, for the sake of the principals involved who have to make appeals, the criteria? The special education needs organisers, SENO, seem to be independent of the Department. They are doing it to some extent on a whole-school basis. There was much discussion of this issue some years ago when it was said this would give better outcomes. I am disturbed when it is not doing so. In the case of schools which have welcomed children with special needs, parents have approached them and they are now in a terrible quandary about what will happen in September when they will have more children than for whom they will have special needs assistants.

The Minister is talking about the autism spectrum disorder, ASD, units, many of which are extremely successful. I support expanding them more generally into other schools. I want the Minister to look at the issue and tell us if we can get the information on how SNAs are being supplied and what principals are supposed to do, having done everything to welcome children with a variety of special needs into schools. Some children may not have an ASD, but they may need help in toileting and meeting a range of other needs. However, they will not be in an ASD unit. As the Minister knows, with the resource model directed at the school in general, many children will no longer have a dedicated SNA. Instead they will have one for days or parts of days or the junior school day. It might be helpful to principals and parents to have published the basis on which the decisions are made. I was dealing with a significant number of people in distress who will appeal. I have advised them to do so. In September, if the additional resources are not forthcoming in a school that has many difficulties, having a withdrawal and a reduction of resources is incredibly difficult for the school staff who then have to manage an increased number of children and do not know why.

To respond to Deputy Thomas Byrne, we provide that the publication of notices issued will happen within seven days of issue. There is transparency in the process and it will be clear that that request has been made to the school. I will have to get back to the Deputy on the issue of capitation. I think he is right, but I am not sure.

On the allocation of SNAs, Circular 0030/2014 sets out the criteria. I will send it to the Deputy. It is produced by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE. I have asked it to review the allocation of SNAs and it will report shortly on its view on the way in which it should be done for the future. The issue is under direct scrutiny.

The other thing that is worth saying is that this year the additional allocation to the National Educational Psychological Service was devoted to DEIS schools in recognition of the special needs they have to support. We are prioritising that area.

As the Minister says, it seems that on the capitation issue, what I said was correct, that they do not receive it at second level. Presumably, it would really help in the provision of ASD and special classes at second level if capitation was provided.

I will examine the issue.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments Nos. 2, 22, 37, 39 to 44, inclusive, 52, 53, 71, 72, 74, 81, 103, 137, 138 and 140 to 144, inclusive, are related and will be discussed together.

I move amendment No. 2:

In page 3, line 16, after “school,” to insert the following:

“to amend section 7 of the Equal Status Act 2000 in relation to its application to recognised primary schools, to further amend that Act to provide for the application for admission to recognised primary schools by students of minority religions;”.

This is an amendment to the Long Title of the Bill to reflect the fact that the Bill will amend the Equal Status Act. There is a series of amendments which I have tabled. They deal with the use of religion as a criterion in an admissions policy.

Before the Minister continues, I will check to see that Members have the groupings list.

We are discussing all of the amendments in this group?

They are concerned with the religion question. Is that right?

The Deputies will be familiar with it because it was debated on both Second and Committee Stages. On Committee Stage, I indicated the direction we were taking in our thinking. As Deputies know, in the intervening period I have had consultations on a number of options on which we did not reach consensus. I am of the view and have said publicly that I think it is unfair that preference is given by publicly funded religious schools to children of their own faith who live some distance away, ahead of a child of a different religion or no religion. I also believe it is unfair that parents should feel obliged to baptise their child simply to gain admission to their local school. The amendments have been designed to make it easier for children to access their local school. It is a complex issue because there are many contrary views and there are provisions in the Constitution that have to be respected. I indicated to the committee that I intended to remove the capacity of recognised denominational primary schools, where they were oversubscribed, to use religion as a criterion in their admission process. The amendments I am bringing forward seek to give effect to that intention.

I have also been conscious of the need to ensure children of minority religions can continue to access their primary schools or schools of a similar minority religion. Such minority religions add significantly to the diversity of the options on offer and I respect the desire of parents to have their children educated in their own faith, for which we should provide. I do not believe that, where 18 out of every 20 schools in the primary education system are Catholic, there should be the operation of a provision that gives preference to a Catholic child living a considerable distance away over a local child.

Under the amendments, a recognised primary school will no longer have the protection of the Equal Status Act 2000 if it has as part of its admission policy a criterion that gives a preference to applicants of a particular religion or denomination.

The amendments will, however, allow a student from a minority religion to seek admission to a recognised primary school that provides a religious instruction or religious education programme that is the same or similar to the religious ethos of the student concerned.

In this grouping, amendment No. 137 is the specific amendment which provides for the amendment of the Equal Status Act. The remainder of my amendments in this grouping are consequential to that amendment. I will deal with them as follows.

Amendment No. 2 amends the Long Title to reflect that this Bill will amend the Equal Status Act 2000. Amendment No. 22 is consequential to the amendment of the Equal Status Act and updates the references to that Act in the provision of the Bill that makes clear that an appeal under section 29 will not apply where the grounds of appeal relate to the Equal Status Act.

Amendments Nos. 43 and 44 are also consequential to the amendment I am making to the Equal Status Act 2000. They update the provisions in the Bill which require schools to reflect in their admission statement the relevant provisions of the Equal Status Act. Accordingly, in line with the amendments being made to the Equal Status Act, the Bill will now provide that a denominational primary school will not be permitted to state in its admission statement that it does not discriminate where it gives preference to children of its own faith. A denominational primary school that admits children of a minority religion in accordance with the amended Act will be required to state this in its admission statement.

These amendments will not change the requirement on all denominational schools to set out that they do not discriminate where they refuse admission where such refusal is essential to maintain ethos and the requirement on denominational post-primary schools to set out that they do not discriminate where they give preference to children of their own denomination, as I am not making any changes to those particular provisions in the Equal Status Act.

As I outlined, amendment No. 137 is the amendment which makes the changes to the Equal Status Act 2000. In that regard, it removes, in the case of recognised denominational primary schools, the provision that provides that such schools do not discriminate where they give preference in admission to children of a particular denomination over children not of that denomination, that is, where they use religion as a selection criterion in school admission.

However, it also provides that a recognised primary school does not discriminate where it admits as a priority a student from a minority religion who is seeking admission to a school that provides religious instruction or religious education consistent with the religious beliefs of the student concerned or a religion similar to that of the student concerned. The detail of how this will operate is set out in a new section 7A in the Equal Status Act.

The new section 7A will provide as follows: when making an application for admission to a school, the applicant may provide a statement confirming that the student is a member of a minority religion and wishes to be educated in a school that provides a programme of religious instruction or religious education that is the same or similar to the religious ethos of the student and provides evidence to support the above statement.

A recognised primary school can decide to admit the student in respect of whom the application is made if it is satisfied that the student is a member of a minority religion and that the school provides a programme of religious instruction or religious education that is the same or similar to the religious ethos of the student. In satisfying itself as to whether the applicant is a member of a minority religion, a school must only take into account the statement and any evidence submitted by the applicant.

Schools that admit students of a minority religion in accordance with the provision in the amendment will not be permitted to rank those students according to the particular denomination or religion of the child concerned. However, applicants may be ranked using the school's other selection criteria if the number of such students seeking admission to a school under this provision is greater than the number of places available. For the purposes of this provision a minority religion will be defined as a religion whose membership is not in excess of 10% of the population, established by the census and published by the Central Statistics Office.

In summary, these amendments remove religion as a criterion in school admissions in recognised primary schools while retaining a protection to ensure that a child of minority faith can access a school of his or her faith. A school will be permitted to admit a student on that basis but will not be compelled to do so.

As I stated previously, this is a complex area and there are no easy solutions to the problem. However, I believe that the approach taken is reasonable and proportionate to balance the rights of the three affected groups, namely, minority religious communities, Catholics and non-denominational families and to ensure that no child is disadvantaged. Minority religious communities because of their small size within the overall population could otherwise find it extremely difficult to access schools of their own religious ethos. Unlike Catholic schools and Catholic families, these communities need this protection if they are going to continue to be able to access schools of their own religious ethos. They represent just one out of every 20 schools.

Catholic families will continue to be able to enrol their children in Catholic schools and Catholic schools will be able to protect their ethos, based on the fact that Catholic schools already make up 18 out of every 20 schools and Catholics make up 78% of the population. Non-denominational families will now find that for well over 95% of primary schools, which accounts for all schools except minority religion primary schools which admit children of minority religions, they will be treated on the same basis as all other families in primary school admissions. I hope this commends itself to the House. It has been a difficult issue on which to develop a robust and workable legislative proposal.

I do not know how much evidence we need of the requirement for us to separate church and State completely, but we have had plenty of it in recent days. To my mind, in 21st century Ireland, it is just not acceptable to continue any form of religious discrimination in admission to schools or to continue a religious bias, which is imposed on children in a school of a particular ethos on children who do not share that faith or ethos.

I submitted these amendments which allow for that discrimination and the continuation of essentially imposing a religious ethos on people who do not share it in our schools before the astounding result we had in the referendum at the weekend. If evidence and support was required for the idea that people in this country want a different type of society, we certainly got it at the weekend when it comes to church diktat imposing on the lives, choices and rights of citizens. Most obviously it was around the question of a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy but everybody knows it was about much more than that. The exit poll carried out by RTÉ was clear. There was and still is a lot of debate about what it all meant but the exit poll clarified some of that. A total of 62% of people who voted said for them the vote was about "the right to choice". That is what people want, namely, the right to choose and to make their own decisions. It was also about equality. It was obvious from the preponderance of women in the campaign and its mobilisation that it was about a demand for equality, that they are not putting up with this anymore. That was the feeling. We all know it. We saw a tidal wave of that sentiment demanding a change.

That has obvious implications in terms of the legislation and all that has been discussed today but to my mind it is obvious that it has implications for the relationship between church and State, especially in the area of education and in the area of health, which we should discuss on another day given the unbelievable situation where a religious order will control the national maternity hospital. However, we will deal with that on another day. To my mind it is just not tenable anymore that in the aftermath of that vote we are not going to move to separate church and State completely in the education of young people. Before getting into the detail, I refer to the point made by Deputy Clare Daly. One of the schools she mentioned was in Booterstown. I got calls about it. People complained that when they walked into a national school to vote on the referendum they were confronted with Bibles and statues of the Virgin Mary. They complained about them but they could not get them removed.

Frankly, they were intimidated by them when they were voting. Thankfully, the vast majority were not so intimidated that they did not vote "Yes", but nonetheless they did genuinely feel that way. Obviously, I did not know at the time that it was more widespread than that, but Deputy Clare Daly has confirmed that it was widespread throughout the country. That is because we still allow Catholic domination of schools. It even impacted on voting during the referendum. I might mention in passing the statement made today by the Minister, Deputy Katherine Zappone, about the Sisters of Charity and St. Patrick’s Guild.

Debate adjourned.