I thank all of the witnesses who have given of their time so freely. I appreciate many of them were made aware of the meeting at very short notice, and we appreciate the effort they have made. This is an historic day, as it is the first time in the history of the Houses a Private Members' Bill and a Government Bill have been brought to committee side by side for pre-legislative scrutiny. It is a very welcome development. It is 20 years since the Education Act 1998, one of the most significant and progressive pieces of legislation brought through the Houses, and nothing has had the same impact on education.
I am not saying this in a boastful way, but there is no doubt none of this would be in this room if the Education (Amendment) Bill had not been published in 2015 and brought this issue to a head, albeit 20 years too late to enact section 28 of the Education Act. The genesis of my Bill was frustration. Coming from the inside, as I am a former principal as was acknowledged by Ms Dempsey for which I thank her, and now being a parent, and having dealt with boards of management and witnessed the trials and travails of other parents I was blown away. This is because of the system we inherited, which probably goes back to the days of the church when the religious did the schooling for us and the State was able to operate a hands-off policy. To this very day we take great advantage of this gap. Most parents believe if a problem arises they can write to the Minister and get it sorted. Of course we know they will be told the Minister has nothing at all to do with it and it is down to the board of management. In my days as a principal I was told by someone in a trade union that the most important decision I would make as principal was to pick the parents on the board of management because I needed to surround myself with a good body of people who would say "yes" to me at all times. This was the basis of the selection criteria for a board of management. I understand the good reason for this. It is not disparaging about anybody, it is just a fact of life. The IPPN is before the committee representing principals. I am a former member of the organisation, and I have great memories and great time for what it does, but I can understand how an ombudsman for education would not be popular with its members because it is another layer of scrutiny.
We must be mindful of the times in which we live. Tonight I will be on Vincent Browne's television show and I will speak about the Grace case, the Tuam babies and all of the shames of our past. We all have a responsibility to face up in the present and do what we can to bring openness and transparency. We have a responsibility to do more than just defend our patch, which is the line I would like to bring across today. If we do not accept this and move on in this spirit we will be back here again in 20 years' time hanging our heads in shame at what is wrong with the system.
The letters I have received from parents since I published the Bill three years ago are heartbreaking. We see an 11 year old child in hospital with anorexia from being bullied at school by a relative of the principal, but nothing can be done about it by going to the board. I could tell the committee story after story of heartache in the lives of real people. The one voice that is missing from this room is that of the students. They are not here today, which is telling in itself. We must be very cognisant that the system we represent must bring forward the students' voice.
With regard to expanding the role of the Ombudsman for Children or whether we have a new ombudsman, I began this journey three years ago by publishing legislation to expand the role of the Ombudsman for Children to address educational issues. At the time I was rebuffed by the same Ombudsman, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Minister of the day, who was a member of my party. I was told the legislation would not fly and there was no need to expand the role of the Ombudsman for Children into educational matters, which was my specific objective. Here we are, three years on, having come full circle and I am being told the solution to the problem is to expand the remit of the Ombudsman for Children, which is where I began three years ago.
This is not about right or wrong or about anybody having a monopoly on the right thing to do. I was one of the first to quote the figure that almost half of complaints to the Ombudsman for Children related to education.
Perhaps we could end all this and call it the education ombudsman in light of the fact that half the complaints to him are about education. Maybe we could get over our hang-up with the title one way or the other.
I want to make a point on my Bill. The legally binding powers aspect of it has been referred to by the Department and the Ombudsman for Children. I made it quite clear on Second Stage that I have no difficulty with amending the legislation to remove the legally binding aspect of it. I have no difficulty doing that and I want to put that on the record. I am trying to get at educational welfare. I have not seen it addressed in any of the submissions and I read every one of them before coming in here today. People talk about the welfare of children but I am talking about the educational welfare of children. There is a difference. I became interested in that following a case submitted to the Ombudsman for Children where 39 students were put into junior and senior infants classes. There should have been 24 in each class. The principal wrote to the board of management to complain and asked if there should be a smaller number in junior or senior infants classes. The board of management said that it was none of the principal's business and that it was the board of management. Eventually a parent was forced to take it to the Ombudsman for Children. I saw every letter from the Office of the Ombudsman for Children - there were numerous letters on this case - which it essentially said it had no remit. I investigated it further. There is an educational welfare issue where there are 39 students in a class. It is against the advice of the Department in that the smallest number of students should be in junior and senior infants. There are 39 pupils in the class for no good reason but the Ombudsman for Children said he had no remit. He has no remit because only their educational welfare is impacted. They are not being beaten, starved or bullied. Bullying is a grey area and I do not know if it is being addressed satisfactorily by the Ombudsman for Children. Educational welfare is very different from other welfare and it is not being recognised or addressed.
Mr. Hanevy from the Department of Education and Skills gave a synopsis of the Bill. We have had several conversations on it and I thank him for his engagement. He made the point that if a parent had a grievance about the exclusion of a child from a school sports team, the parent could ask the ombudsman for education, if there was one, to exercise the power of direction to have the team's composition altered. That is bordering on insulting because it is nonsensical and ridiculous. The board of management is not responsible for the make-up of a school team. I do not know of anywhere in the country where the board of management picks the team. The team is picked by the teacher of sports on the day. I am talking about decisions made by the board of management that should be appealed. This is taking it a step too far and there is an over-emphasis on the legal side of it that we could all be tied up in courts for the rest of our lives. I have accepted from the outset that I would be quite happy to remove that.
I have had discussions with Dr. Muldoon over a long time, including during his former role within the organisation. One of the cases I read in his report was about a school had expelled a girl because she was pregnant. A parent wrote to Dr. Muldoon and he carried out his investigation. If my memory serves me correctly, he wrote to the school advising that it should admit the pregnant girl and had no grounds to expel her but from that day to this one, the letter has been ignored. That is my issue with this. Even when Dr. Muldoon suggested something, he was ignored. Some 95% or so of schools are good and are doing a wonderful job but 5%, 2% or 1% are letting us down. What are we going to do with them? Children's livelihoods, education and well-being are all tied up in that.
I read Mr. Tyndall's submission with interest. As I said to the Ombudsman for Children's office, he does not get the educational aspect of it. He does not understand it. He referred to 87 complaints about Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, or 82%. They are about financial matters. They are not educational complaints. I do not see that as him addressing educational issues and educational welfare. They are mathematical by nature and are related to accounting and somebody's income. I am trying to make the point about the difference between educational welfare and financial welfare, general welfare and so on. Mr. Tyndall mentioned access, finance and administration. They are not really educational issues by nature. If I was to ask Mr. Tyndall what he thinks of the ongoing teachers' dispute which is affecting only third years but will affect leaving certificate students shortly, which would come under his remit, what would he say? I am not putting him on the spot, because I will not ask the question, but if I was to ask what he thinks of the teachers' refusal to correct their own children's work from an educational aspect and the protection of leaving certificate children, would he have a view on it? I do not expect him to have one and am not asking that question. That is the point I am trying to make. An education ombudsman would be solely dedicated to educational issues.
On the proliferation of ombudsman offices, given the Grace case and Tuam Mother and Baby Home, I do not think we can have enough accountability. Costs and delays were referred to. One cannot put a price on a child's well-being or mental health, or the child who is in bed at 11 years of age with anorexia. I cannot put a cost on that but if somebody has the expertise and interest to address the educational issues, I would not allow money to come in the way of that. I have never been known for throwing money away either.
I thank Ms Dempsey for her forthright and honest comments. They are welcome. I thank her for her acknowledgement of my own comments.
The first time I saw the Irish Primary Principals' Network, IPPN, comment on it was in its magazine and I was touched by its concern for the national purse. It is not a substantive reason to oppose it. That was the first I saw of it. It sees it as another layer. I have no difficulty with the IPPN's opposition to it and understand that it represents principals who are people behind boards of management and may not want it opened up. I would suggest it is not all but some of them. I thank Ms Lynch for giving a balanced and welcome view on behalf of parents.