Pre-Legislative Scrutiny of Education (Amendment) Bill 2015 and General Scheme of Education (Parent and Student Charter) Bill 2016: Discussion

At today's meeting, the joint committee will begin the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Education (Amendment) Bill 2015 and the general scheme of the Education (Parent and Student Charter) Bill 2016. This is the first of two days on which witnesses will appear before the joint committee.

On behalf of the committee, I welcome all of the witnesses to the meeting. From the Department of Education and Skills, we have Mr. Martin Hanevy, Mr. Tom Deegan and Mr. Martin McLoughlin, from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, we have Mr. John Lohan and from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, we have Mr. Mark Bohan and Mr. Niall Mulligan. From the Office of the Ombudsman for Children, we have the Ombudsman, Dr. Niall Muldoon, Ms Nuala Ward, director of investigations, and Ms Róisín Webb, head of policy. From the Office of the Ombudsman, we have the Ombudsman, Mr. Peter Tyndall, and Mr. Tom Morgan. From the National Parents' Council, we have Ms Áine Lynch, CEO, and from the Irish Primary Principals' Network, IPPN, we have Mr. Seán Cottrell, CEO, Ms Maria Doyle, president, Mr. David Ruddy, the deputy president, and Ms Geraldine D'Arcy, research and publications manager. From the Special Needs Parents' Association, we have Ms Lorraine Dempsey and Ms Gina Grant, who are co-chairpersons. I thank all the witnesses for their written submissions which will go up on our website following today's meeting.

Given that we have so many witnesses, we will be limiting the amount of time for the oral presentations. I ask everybody to stick to a four-minute period. We will take one representative from each group to speak and then we will go to the members of the committee and to the other Deputies and Senators who have joined us, if they have any queries or questions. We will then come back to the witnesses again. We will have a busy few hours.

I draw the witnesses' attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the joint committee here today. However, if they are directed by myself as chair to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Any opening statement or other document submitted to the committee may be published on its website after the meeting.

Mr. Martin Hanevy

I will try to observe the Chairman's stricture. I will keep it succinct because the committee has the written presentation.

There are a number of key objectives that we are trying to reach with this charter for students and parents. One is to fill what we feel is a gap in the Education Act 1998 by setting out in this legislation the principles that schools must apply in their engagement with students and parents. If one looks at the 1998 Act, one will see some measures that relate to parents or to students but one does not see any cohesive set of principles that set out the way parents or students should be treated by a school. That is the first objective and that will be done in the proposed legislation by replacing the existing section 28, which speaks about grievances narrowly, with much broader legislation. The key thing we are trying to achieve here is a change of culture. Having a statutory charter would bring about changes in how schools interact with parents. The key thing is that if things are done differently at the beginning, or on a day-to-day basis, difficult grievances do not arise or are minimised, simply because the issues are resolved in advance. The charter is about coming at this in a different way than before and trying to front-load measures that will bring about a change of culture.

The second key piece is that we ultimately arrive at a standardised parent and student charter in all schools. The legislation itself is enabling. It sets things out. The key piece of work will begin after enactment, if the Oireachtas decides to enact it. That will be when the Department will have to sit down with the education partners to work out the details and put flesh on the charter. The Minister is given the power to make them the statutory guidelines. We see that work being done in the manner in which we work with our education partners on many things, that is, where we get together in a room and around a table and have working groups. That is what we mean by consultation when the Bill talks about the Minister producing the guidelines based on consultation that will have taken place. The principles I spoke of at the beginning are sort of the basic skeleton, the Bible if you like, that has to be followed in the making of the guidelines. The real piece of work will be there.

The third key piece is the linkage with the Ombudsman for Children. We see that as quite important. It brings in a set of measures where the Ombudsman is not stopped from proceeding with an investigation or examination of a matter simply because an appeal within the school has not concluded, which is the current legal position. One of the heads of the Bill is to remove that. The other is to give the Ombudsman the capacity to examine matters within the charter. The charter itself will be extensive in terms of the things it will cover. They are in the papers we presented. Critically, if the Ombudsman then makes recommendations to a school, either in a formal space or after a formal investigation, this head makes legal provision for the Ombudsman to write to the Minister and say that he or she is unhappy with a situation and that the school does not seem to be taking his recommendations on board. The Minister can then raise that with the school. It is provided for in the law that the school can respond but that ultimately the Minister can give a direction. We have a mechanism here that can bring about change in the school in what is hoped will be the small number of cases that will ultimately arise and arrive with the Ombudsman.

Mr. John Lohan

Like Mr. Hanevy, I will shorten what I have to say in light of the limited time available. I think the committee would be best served hearing from Dr. Muldoon from the Office of the Ombudsman for Children rather than hearing from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.

My Department’s interest in the legislative proposals arises from our responsibility for the Office of the Ombudsman for Children. While the committee will be aware that the Ombudsman for Children is independent in his functions, the Office of the Ombudsman for Children is a public body that comes under the aegis of the Department and is funded through the Department's Vote. The Minister also has responsibility for the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002, and would therefore be interested in any legislative proposal that may seek to alter the role or remit of the Ombudsman for Children, even if the policy responsibility for that legislation rests with another Minister, as is the case here.

At a broader level our Department would be quite supportive of what is being proposed in the Education (Parent and Student Charter) Bill, particularly the principle of participation of children in decision making. This is a core principle not only in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child but in our national policy framework for children and young people, Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures.

We would welcome that development.

I thank the witnesses for their brevity. They got their points across well too. I ask Dr. Niall Muldoon, the Ombudsman for Children, to give his opening statement.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

I thank the committee for the invitation today. As was stated earlier, the Ombudsman for Children's office, OCO, is an independent human rights institution established under the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002 to promote and monitor the rights of children in Ireland. We examine and investigate complaints made by or on behalf of children about the administrative actions of public bodies. We are independent and impartial, and act neither as an advocate for the child nor as an adversary of the public body. We respect and promote local complaints procedures, and we aim to achieve systemic change that addresses the root causes of complaints.

I am statutorily obliged to consider the best interests of the child and to give due to consideration to the wishes of the child, in accordance with age and understanding. I also have a statutory remit to promote and monitor the rights and welfare of children. This involves a number of actions, one of which is to advise on legislation as I am doing today. It is the opinion of my office that the general scheme of the Education (Parent and Student Charter) Bill sets out a sound legislative framework to improve engagement between schools, students and parents. It will also increase consistency across schools' complaints handling practices. The implementation of a charter across all schools will see a cultural shift in how they operate. It will see a move away from reacting to and dealing with grievances after they occur. Instead, schools will have to engage proactively with students and parents to establish their views and positively invite feedback, and will have to be open to concerns and negative comments. The early identification of concerns will allow problems to be considered and dealt with by the school, and will minimise or avoid reliance on formal compliant procedures. The guidelines on the charter will also include procedures to deal with any grievances that occur once the charter is in place.

This very much complies with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, UNCRC, and will be a significant move towards fulfilling commitments made by all the Departments under the national policy framework for children and young people, Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures. In February 2016, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended that Ireland should ensure the Education Act 1998 is amended to guarantee the right of the child to be heard in individual cases. By bringing forward this Bill, the Minister is beginning the implementation of that recommendation. The Education (Parent and Student Charter) Bill provides an opportunity for the general principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child to be incorporated in legislation, both through specific provisions and at a more general level. The full implementation of Article 12 in this educational context is of particular importance because it enshrines children’s right to freely express their views in all matters involving or affecting them.

The Bill also seeks to strengthen the role of my office when dealing with complaints about schools. In 2015, some 45% of the complaints we received were about education and of those, three quarters related to individual schools. In our experience, local resolution involving children, parents and boards of management leads to fast and effective conclusions. However, there are cases where more difficult complaints arise and it is important that there be a robust system in place. This Bill would require boards of management to consider any suggestions, guidance or recommendations issued by my office and would provide the Minister for Education and Skills with a power of direction in respect of the encouragements or recommendations of my office. It should be noted that this is likely to be used sparingly.

While this legislation will strengthen the work my office can do with schools, the statutory role and independence of the OCO will in no way be compromised. I wish to emphasise the importance of consulting with children and young people at policy level when developing the legislation that will provide for the establishment of the charter. If we move forward with a change-around in terminology to call it a student and parent charter, this would put the emphasis on children. Children should also have their views taken into account when developing individual school charters.

In respect of the Education (Amendment) Bill 2015, I last appeared before this committee on 21 October 2015, the same day that Deputy Jim Daly first presented his Private Members' Bill to the Dáil. As outlined in our submission today, I believe that the Education (Parent and Student Charter) Bill addresses the issue of principals and boards who do not respond to the encouragements and recommendations of my office. Establishing an ombudsman for education with legally binding powers would add another legal layer without addressing the systemic problem. It would result in confusion and new legal costs for schools and families, many of whom may not be able to afford such costs. This would change the whole dynamic of complaint handling and would undoubtedly lead to longer delays. I feel strongly that it would demotivate parents and carers from bringing complaints.

It is also important to note that, from a practical point of view, in respect of many of the complaints received by my office, while the main issue may be education related, there may be aspects involving disability, health, children in care, housing or other issues. At present my office has the ability to address such complaints in their entirety. This allows us to work across various Departments and organisations to achieve local resolution, or to effectively investigate a complaint.

Since I last appeared before this committee, Part V of the Education Act has been implemented. This allows for professional conduct issues to be properly addressed via the Teaching Council. This was a change called for by the OCO since we were set up. I expect that this will have a significant impact on complaints handling in schools and will afford parents a much more direct route to complain about professional misconduct.

Since the establishment of the OCO, we have investigated many education complaints and our recommendations have contributed to positive systemic change in a number of areas. In individual schools, too, we have successfully worked with principals and boards during preliminary inquiries. We work to improve communications with parents and children, to highlight and alleviate gaps in policies and to enhance engagement with students. We look forward to the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill, which will introduce designation called for by this office after we published an investigation into a case where one student was refused access to 28 schools.

In 2016, we published a report on complaints received regarding the State Examination Commission’s reasonable accommodations for certificate examinations, RACE, scheme, which provides exam supports for children with specific learning needs. This scheme has since been reviewed. Our Education In Focus report, published in 2016, outlines other work carried out by the office in the area of education. I very much believe that the parent and student charter would place Ireland in a strong position internationally in respect of our obligations under the UNCRC and it would attest strongly to the Government’s promise to deliver on the commitments made under Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures. It is the opinion of my office that the parent and student charter would best serve children and young people by developing a culture of participation and engagement. It also provides a robust complaints procedure in those cases where a local resolution cannot be achieved. I look forward to working with the committee in advancing this legislation in the best interests of children. I thank the members for their time.

I thank Dr. Muldoon for his submissions on the two Bills in addition to his own statement. Next I call on Mr. Mark Bohan from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

Mr. Mark Bohan

I thank the Chair. I, too, can be brief. Essentially the position of my Department is the same as that laid out by my colleague from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, in so far as it relates to the Ombudsman's office. The Ombudsman, Mr. Tyndall, will be making his own statement shortly.

The Office of the Ombudsman is independent in its function. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has responsibility for the Ombudsman Acts which underpin the statutory role of the Office of the Ombudsman, while the responsibility for policy rests with another Department. We are here in order to examine any issues which may arise for the role of the Ombudsman. If there were to be any changes to the powers of the Office of the Ombudsman for Children to investigate school complaints, we would have to ensure that the role would also be assigned to the ombudsman where the student had reached the age of 18. That is really where our connection comes in. That is really it.

Thank you for that. We move now to the Ombudsman, Mr. Peter Tyndall.

Mr. Peter Tyndall

I will begin by echoing the comments of Dr. Muldoon. Our offices work very closely together and our views on these matters are shared. I would obviously defer to Dr. Muldoon on the issues of the charter in so far as it affects the rights of children. I am fully supportive of his remarks.

I want particularly to address proposals for the creation of a new ombudsman for education. I have concerns about this, which I think are similar to those expressed by Dr. Muldoon. The first is that most of these proposals relate to schools. Much of the work of my office is in the field of education. Much of that is in further and higher education, including issues about access to education for students with disabilities; grants for further and higher education; and the administration of universities and institutions of further and higher education. This is a significant piece of work and, if we were to have something called an education ombudsman, it would create confusion in the mind of the public. People would automatically assume that matters of further and higher education - grants and so on - would rest with that office.

That is a general concern about confusion.

There is another concern about creating a proliferation of ombudsmen's offices. People need to know where to go. Currently, they do. If more offices are created, though, confusion can be created. Across the water in the UK, there was a growth in the number of ombudsmen. This caused a great deal of confusion and is now leading to legislation to consolidate offices. We do not want to repeat the mistakes of others. That is not to say that I disagree with the intentions, given that they are correct. Some of Dr. Muldoon's remarks in support of that are important to bear in mind.

Speaking as the Ombudsman for public services, those services are democratically accountable to Members of the Oireachtas in respect of Departments and Government agencies or to local authorities. That means that ombudsmen's recommendations, which do not have the force of law, are almost always observed. In the 31-year history of my office, only one recommendation has not been implemented. In the case of private sector ombudsmen, however, mechanisms are needed to ensure that their recommendations are delivered upon, given that the same democratic accountability does not exist. The proposals giving the Minister the capacity to make directions would achieve that.

I draw the committee's attention to a final point. Were a new office to be established, we would have all of the costs and delays associated with its establishment. We would have to recruit someone, find premises and provide the office with ICT and it would have to develop processes and procedures. All of that takes time and money. Were the powers of existing offices to be extended, however, it would simply be a matter of recruiting new staff who could undertake that work within processes, procedures and a management structure that already exist and offices that have a record of delivering.

The Oireachtas needs to achieve what is proposed, but it can be done within the context of the existing framework. The legislation that is on the table to extend those powers and jurisdictions would have the necessary effect without creating confusion and incurring costs.

I thank Mr. Tyndall. I invite Ms Dempsey to contribute. I understand that, although there are two chairpersons, Ms Dempsey will make the opening statement.

Ms Lorraine Dempsey

I thank the committee for the invitation to present at this meeting. The issues arising from both Bills are our bread and butter. Every day we receive complaints from parents about schools after they have gone through local complaints processes, contacted the Department of Education and Skills and the Ombudsman for Children's office, which redirects them to local resolutions, and the boards of management will not budge on decisions. If parents are at the start of that process, we usually talk them through it so as to ensure that they do not go down the wrong avenue before contacting the Ombudsman for Children's office. After they have done that and still do not have a resolution, though, they are often in a dire psychological state. I have personal experience of that, believe it or not. I have been there with a board of management. I have also sat on a board of management, so I am well aware of how boards operate and the challenges of having that responsibility.

These complaints are the bread and butter of the Ombudsman for Children's office, with 45% of them relating to education. We have concerns about the capacity of the office to conduct investigations in a timely fashion. Its own reports indicate that although there may be a resolution in a case, the child has either aged out of the school or the parent has voluntarily, albeit under pressure, removed the child to a new school placement. That is not necessarily in the best interests of the child or parent in terms of the former's educational pathway. Were the Ombudsman for Children's remit to be extended, we would like it to have greater capacity so that the investigation process could be undertaken in a timely fashion. In the interim, we advocate for a formal, free advocacy or mediation service, be that under the auspices of the Ombudsman's office or an external service, whereby schools and parents can find local resolutions. Some schools have funded mediation, particularly where there have been heated disputes, but doing so is up to each school. The parent is often not in a position to afford a mediator and the school may be reluctant to allow in an external person.

Deputy Daly introduced the Education (Amendment) Bill 2015. I have been giving out about the problem with boards of management for a considerable length of time, so I commend the Deputy on introducing the Bill and recognise that, as an ex-principal, it was difficult for him to do. We find that many boards side with their principals' opinions and defer to their day-to-day managers regardless of whether they have different opinions on a case. As long as the theme and intentions of the Education (Amendment) Bill are fulfilled within the parent and student charter, we would welcome whichever Bill proceeds if there is a solution that is external to the boards of management - another pathway for a parent to take where the interests of the child are paramount - and the Minister has the power to make the board's decisions accountable.

In the decision-making process, the balance of power in schools has shifted towards the boards of management. This can have an impact. For example, if the relationship between the parent and the principal breaks down, the latter has the power to sway board decisions. The principal can also withhold information from the board - I have seen this at first hand - and, therefore, a board's decision is often not based on the reality of the situation or the complaint. Parents try to subvert this process by contacting the parents' representatives on boards so as to ensure that the latter have whatever correspondence or complaints have been delivered to the board's chair. As such, I would welcome better accountability in the decision-making processes of boards and oversight of how they reached a decision.

In general, we recommend the proposals in the parent and student charter, which would provide for parents and students to be treated more equally and with greater esteem. The self-esteem of a parent who is fighting for a child's rights can be battered by the power that boards of management hold within the system, especially when there is no "out" if the decision is contrary to what the parent would like to see.

We have submitted observations on the heads of the Bill. Some aspects have left us questioning the decision-making processes between the Ombudsman for Children and the Minister for Education and Skills. For example, if the Ombudsman advises schools on a pathway to a resolution but they disregard it, at what point does the Ombudsman approach the Minister, would that be timely and what would be the timeline for the Minister to respond to the difficulties at the schools?

The Bill appears to give boards the right to reply to the Minister's office. We would ask that the parents concerned and student body also be given that right. Otherwise, an unbalanced power will be given to the boards.

Head No. 4 is unclear as to who would inform the Minister of a school charter's non-compliance with the Bill's proposed guidelines. Would that be picked up through a complaint or the inspectorate?

One of the Bills seeks to establish a separate office of an ombudsman for education that would have a restrictive remit, given that education spans a broad area beyond just schools. On the other hand, there is a proposal to extend the powers of the Ombudsman for Children. As long as the outcomes are positive for parents and their children, we do not mind which pathway is chosen. I assume that the decision will come down to the financial considerations.

It is proposed that student councils would give more regard to the interests of the students within a school than the school itself. We want that same powerful principle to apply to any decision-making by boards of management. Protectionism and risk aversion have strangled decision making in boards of management. The outcomes are not always in the best interest of the child but influenced by insurance and indemnities, fear and ignorance, misinformation and lack of internal transparency, and fear of legal action by parties concerned. It may be timely for the Department of Education and Skills, managerial bodies and education stakeholders to review the composition, functions and processes of boards of management in line with the processes under pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bills.

I thank Ms Dempsey. The next witness is Ms Maria Doyle of the Irish Primary Principals' Network, IPPN. I was at the recent IPPN conference. I commend them on a very informative and inspirational conference.

Ms Maria Doyle

That makes for a good beginning to the discussion. I thank the Chairman for her comments and for the opportunity to speak.

The IPPN represents 6,000 principals and deputy principals at primary level. It does not have any remit at second level. We looked at both amendments, beginning with the Education (Amendment) Bill. The IPPN considers the establishment of an ombudsman for education unnecessary and sees no justification for an additional oversight layer. A number of people have addressed that it would be another layer on top of layers already within the education system.

We currently work very well with Office of the Ombudsman for Children. The Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Muldoon, has articulated his own position eloquently today, and we concur with everything he has brought to the table here. That is based on our experience as principals and as an organisation representing principals and deputies. If there were issues regarding that relationship, we would not be currently working in tandem with him on other groups such as the well-being for teachers and learners group, which we established in the recent past. The Ombudsman for Children and his office work collaboratively and effectively with schools and professional organisations such as ourselves in representing the voice of children. It encourages schools to have robust and effective policies and practices in place to promote the welfare and the rights of children.

The provisions of the Education (Parent & Student Charter) Bill as outlined will strengthen the current role of the Ombudsman for Children. In doing so it will eliminate the necessity to establish an ombudsman for education, for all the reasons that have been put forward by other speakers today. The number of pieces of legislation in recent years has created a considerable stranglehold on an already oversubscribed sector. The current system can include the Ombudsman for Children's office in the new charter. We believe it is unnecessary to consider an ombudsman for education.

The IPPN welcomes and supports the provision of a parent and student charter, particularly when the focus is on fostering culture change within school communities to prevent grievances from arising. Schools are all about prevention. If we address things at an early stage in any grievance, that is the best possible way to deal with complaints. As outlined in the parent and student charter, we believe that this focus on culture change would enhance that. Schools currently work collaboratively at primary level with parents and pupils to promote the welfare and rights of children. We welcome the setting out in law of principles of engagement with students and parents. It is well-established that a significant number of primary schools have a well-functioning parents' association. Those that do not are currently looking creatively at establishing parents' associations. Working collaboratively with parents underpins everything that our organisation adheres to. Primary schools have engaged in recent years with establishing student councils. I am an advocate for that. It has worked very well in my school. We have seen very good examples of student councils working extremely well at primary level.

Current procedures used to address parental complaints in schools have been agreed by management bodies and unions. I am aware they have not been agreed to by the National Parents Council. However, these procedures are not underpinned by legislation. They have in the past and are currently widely interpreted, often giving rise to confusion and conflict. Schools will require significant assistance in drafting individual parent and student charters as there could be a variety of interpretations of the elements outlined in the legislation, which would be counter-productive. We would be happy to see the complementary role of the parent and student charter and the school self-evaluation mode mentioned in the parent and student charter outline. It is viewed by the IPPN as a very positive move.

I am heartened to hear from the Department that the skeleton of this charter is currently there, and that the details of this charter will be worked out with the partners in education. That has worked very well with the Department and ourselves heretofore. We look forward to examining the detail and influencing how it will look when finished.

We are all about resolution. Schools are all about resolution, not about conflict. If we look to this parent and student charter as it is evolving, we do not see that the establishment of an ombudsman for education is warranted.

Ms Áine Lynch

I thank the committee for the invitation to attend.

In 2012, the National Parents Council, NPC, made a submission to the then Minister for Education and Skills requesting a strengthening of the role of parents in the Education Act. The research overwhelmingly supports the benefits of parents' involvement in their children's education. Before making its submission to the Minister in 2012, the NPC examined the status of parents and parental involvement in the Irish primary education system. A significant amount of policy supporting parental involvement ranging from the literacy and numeracy for learning and life strategy, to school inspection procedures and many other policy areas was evident from this examination. However, despite the range of policies and procedures that have been developed that reinforce parental involvement in schools, parents consistently report to the NPC that they do not feel supported to be involved in the key partnership role they have in their children's education.

The NPC examined the legislation regarding parental involvement and further examined directives to schools in the form of circulars issued. Irish legislation, namely the Education Act, gives express rights to parents and responsibilities to school boards of management in supporting parents. However, compared to other jurisdictions, Irish legislation is quite limiting in its reach, in particular in regard to school planning regarding parental involvement. The legislation does not provide in depth direction to schools. However, Circular 24/91, "Parents as partners in education", issued by the Department of Education and Skills, did give clear guidance to schools in regard to the involvement of parents in their children's education.

The circular contained a number of key instructions for schools regarding their role in working with parents as partners in schools. The NPC wished to learn to what extent parents had experienced the benefits of the implementation of the circular in their school and therefore initiated a survey to its membership to assess the impact for parents of Circular 24/91. Broadly, this is the background to how we came at the parent and student charter, and we welcome the general scheme of the education (parent and student charter) Bill. The Bill broadly encapsulates the submissions and representations the NPC has made to the Department of Education and Skills and the Ministers over the past five years. We know that when parents are engaged and involved in their children’s education the children do better, and creating the right environment and culture in a school for parents and children to be active partners in school life is critical to this involvement. The NPC believes the general scheme of the education (parent and student charter) Bill 2016 provides the legislative basis for the necessary change in schools to take place.

The NPC welcomes the statement of statutory principles under head 3 and agrees with all of the principles as laid out. The NPC requests the inclusion of an additional principle, or the extension of the first principle, reflecting the values in the second principle. This would give acknowledgement to the importance of the students' voice and participation in their own learning and progress. This part of the Bill gives this to parents but we feel it could also be given to students.

The NPC supports the inclusion of head 4 and believes it is vital the Minister has powers to direct school boards to comply with the guidelines on the parent and student charter. The NPC's survey in 2012 showed a lack of awareness by parents of Circular 24/91 on parents as partners in education, and furthermore showed parents did not experience the provisions contained in the circular. For example, Circular 24/91 states each national school is required to establish as part of its overall school policy or plan, a clearly defined written policy for productive parental involvement. The response from parents when asked if they knew whether their school had a parental involvement policy was that only 17% said they knew that their school did so. It is vital that any legislation developed in this area is robust in ensuring parents and students are able to experience the benefits of its provisions.

The NPC particularly welcomes the expanded role of the Ombudsman for Children as set out in the general scheme. The Education (Amendment) Bill 2015 is useful in setting out the challenges and possible way forward in addressing them. The NPC believes the expanded role of the Ombudsman for Children, as set out in the education (parent and student charter) Bill, addresses the issues raised in the Education (Amendment) Bill and negates the need for a separate ombudsman for education. The Education (Amendment) Bill drew attention to the deficiencies in the system that resulted in parents and students feeling they had nowhere to go with concerns and complaints if they felt their issues had not been addressed at school level. Expanding the role of the Ombudsman for Children will address these issues and will ensure a one stop facility to which parents and students can go with their concerns. As we know from other areas of policy and practice, dividing children's issues across Departments and services often leads to overlap and gaps, with significant work, financial resources and time spent establishing links.

The NPC welcomes the amendment to section 9 of the 1998 Act to insert the additional function of a school to promote the involvement of parents and students in the education provided to students. The NPC believes head 9 completely supports the first principle outlined in head 3. If the parent and student charter is underpinned by placing the student at the centre of school life and securing optimum outcomes for each student in his or her learning and holistic development, we know from research that parents are essential to the delivery of this principle, so ensuring a function of the school is to promote the involvement of parents and students in the education provided to students becomes vital.

The NPC supports the amendment of section 27 of the 1998 Act in clarifying the purpose of a student council in promoting the interests of students as distinct from the interests of the school. The interests of the school will be better served if the student council promotes the interests of students.

I thank everybody for their insights and observations on the Bills before us. It is not often we have statutory and non-statutory organisations before the committee at the same time but it has been very helpful. There is a common thread in all of this. We all want the best possible scenario for our students in the education system, and we want to ensure there is a place for parents in ensuring their children have the best possible educational experience. We cannot forget the teachers and principals in all of this either.

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.

I thank Deputy Daly. We are inviting a representative of secondary school students in for the next day that we have witness hearings. I apologise for Deputy Thomas Byrne, who had to leave for another meeting at 5 p.m. I am going to take other questions and comments from members before we go back to the witnesses. With a Government Bill, it is traditional for a member of the main Opposition party to speak, so because Deputy Byrne is gone, I call Senator Gallagher.

I welcome everyone here this afternoon. I found it a worthwhile exercise and enjoyed the contributions. I would like to compliment Deputy Jim Daly for bringing this Bill forward and initiating this debate. He raised many points in his contribution, a number of which I was going to raise. Deputy Catherine Martin and I spoke a few seconds ago and said that it may be a useful exercise if we heard some of the responses to questions that Deputy Daly raised. It might inform the debate that bit better.

The Deputy will have the opportunity to come back again after the witnesses.

Fair enough. I do not know if it would be a useful exercise to have the witnesses respond to the points Deputy Daly made initially before the rest of us come in again.

If other members want to put something to the witnesses, they can respond to all the questions. If not, then we will go straight back to the witnesses. I call Senator Ó Clochartaigh.

I offer my apologies. I was committee-hopping today as committees are coinciding. My colleague, Senator Fintan Warfield, was here to cover for me. Deputy Carol Nolan is very much involved in the issue. I was a member of the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions in the previous Dáil and Seanad, where we would have met with the Ombudsman on a regular basis. One of the reports done by that committee was on looking at the power and the remit of the Ombudsman. It made many recommendations about extending those. It might be worth looking at that report in the context of this debate. I appreciate the Bill is being brought forward in good faith.

From what I understand, a broader question has been alluded to in the debate which is that the power of the ombudsmen at the moment to do what they want to do, and should be able to do on behalf of the State, should be looked at. They are quite hampered and that report will feed into this debate and show that there are mechanisms to extend the powers of the ombudsmen. We need to ensure there is a mechanism available to anybody who has an issue with education to be able to bring it forward to one of the ombudsmen. I am not 100% sure and I am happy to listen to the debate, which I welcome, as to whether we need a separate ombudsman.

At this stage I would not be sold on that debate, to be quite honest. That is because there are certain areas that the children's ombudsman has been critical of, for example, including direct provision and children in that system who are trying to access third-level education. Therefore we should also examine that report, as it would give us an insight into another facet of the debate.

This matter needs to be taken on board because it goes down to a core issue. If a citizen wants to make a complaint it should be as easy as possible to do so. It should be clear where a citizen must go to make a complaint. We should also know that the person to whom the complaint is made has sufficient powers to deal with it and that the complainant can obtain redress. In this scenario we need to clarify that pathway.

I thank everyone for their presentations. I wish to compliment my colleague, Deputy Jim Daly, on bringing this Bill forward. I am currently the chairperson of a board of management so I am looking at it from an interesting angle. Students represent the kernel of our discussion today.

The children's ombudsman covers those up to 18 years of age, whereas this measure will cover all aspects of education, as I understand it. There are many people in education who are over 18, so we need to examine that cohort also. As chairperson of a board of management I would welcome having a "go to" person.

I compliment the principal and staff of the school where I am the board's chairperson on the wonderful job they do. There is a level of accountability not only concerning the staff but also the parents' council and the board of management.

Ultimately, as Deputy Daly said, if one has a small percentage where there are difficulties it would be important to have a dedicated person to whom the board of management or principal could turn.

I thank everyone for their presentations. I concur with Senator Gallagher in commending Deputy Daly on bringing this Bill forward. Due to his knowledge of the legislation, he has already raised the relevant questions. I would be interested in coming back later to discuss the parent and student charter Bill.

I have one question for Dr. Muldoon. Currently, what are the biggest stumbling blocks or obstacles he sees in his work when it comes to dealing with education, which is 45% of his workload?

Before going back to the witnesses, I also want to commend Deputy Jim Daly and pay tribute to his resilience in ensuring that we got to debate this measure no matter what. I acknowledge that it is a historic day and it is appropriate that he put it on the record. No matter what the outcome is, if he had not worked on his own Private Members' Bill we would not be discussing the charter today either. Therefore, a lot of good work has been done.

I will go back to the witnesses now. I am glad that Dr. Muldoon is the first contributor but if anyone else would like to indicate, I will bring them back in.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

I would acknowledge that a lot of work has happened in the last three years, which was sparked by Deputy Daly. What is on offer regarding the parent and student charter is a phenomenal change of culture in the way forward for education. We are putting children into the system for the first time. It always irks me when I hear negotiations with the education partners that do not involve children. Therefore we are putting a students' charter in place as well as for parents. In turn, that means we are creating a new system of engagement with the authorities. It will mean that parents should have a much more open and transparent engagement with schools. In that way, principals will know that parents have an opportunity to engage with them on a more regular basis.

The charter will allow parents and children to highlight what they want from their school, and it will be the terms of reference for the school to work to. It will also have a set of principles which are clear and concise, and which will refer to matters such as children's rights. It will allow the child to be heard, which is an article of the UNCRC, as well as allowing the child's views to be listened to and followed up on. In addition, it will allow the child not to be discriminated against. This will not only concern students' councils, but will need to engage with all children across the board. It will also have to encompass children with special needs, and education and welfare difficulties. It is creating a whole new culture.

While there will be changes, the most important one is the ability to get a directive from the Minister. That is what changes the concerns we had. Deputy Daly cited the example of a pregnant teenager who is not allowed to go to school. Even when the child was born, the mother was still not allowed to attend that school. That could have been avoided if my office had the power to seek a ministerial directive. It would probably have changed the way in which the principal dealt with us also because he would have known we had that option. That is the greatest achievement coming from today's work and it is something to be proud of. All the negotiations that have occurred so far change the way boards and principals have to look at things.

It is not something that will happen every day. We are talking about a small number. The psychological pressure on parents was mentioned, because essentially one comes to a dead end if boards do not listen to parents. If they come to us and we cannot engage any further with them, that is a dead end. That is what has been happening. My ability to bring the Department of Education and Skills into it in a more realistic manner has changed as a result of this measure.

I want to counter what Deputy Jim Daly said. It is unfair to characterise our office as not dealing with the educational welfare of children. It is an unfair characterisation of our office to say that we only deal with bullying, child protection and beaten children. There are clear examples to the contrary. We have already highlighted the idea of educational welfare for children with special accommodation for the leaving and junior certificates. We worked hard on that issue and created a report for the State Examinations Commission.

We have also commissioned research on children in care in education and the welfare system they require. We have examined designations that will be coming through the Education (Admissions) Bill soon. That provides a designation for children who did not get access to school, as well as for special needs children. We had a long engagement with the Department over those investigations out of which the designations have come.

We have also been involved in investigations concerning preschool children with special needs who could not get special needs assistants and were not able to access the free school year. That has led to the new aims scheme that is now coming on board. We therefore have a huge engagement with education and welfare, and our office does that all the time. Some 45% of our work concerns the education remit.

It was clearly stated that the idea of an education ombudsman is to be solely dedicated to educational welfare. By its nature, however, one cannot engage with other aspects concerning children. We do not need to silo children any further, we need to engage across the remit and we do that continually. Every day of the week we deal with children who have problems getting school transport, as well as those with special needs, including occupational or speech and language therapy.

When we have child protection issues, that concerns Tusla, we engage across all Departments. That allows us to see the whole child and not just the educational aspects. To cement us into one more little silo is to the detriment of schools, parents and children. That is the crucial part for us.

It is important for the message to go out that the overall culture is changing and will allow us to examine the role of school boards and principals in order to do something about that. We can certainly make improvements through the parent and student charter.

As the Chairman said, this is a historical step forward from 1998 when section 28 was never even touched. We have constantly asked for the tripod of complaints mechanism - the Teaching Council, section 28 and ourselves - to be in place. We were working on our own for the past 20 years, but now have the Teaching Council and a brand new section 28 through the parent and student charter. That will make a huge difference to those difficult cases that we all want to see being improved.

We want to take away the pain and psychological trauma, both for parents and children, when a board is stubborn, recalcitrant and does not go any further. This represents a huge step forward.

Mr. Peter Tyndall

Deputy Jim Daly was very eloquent in support of the principles he is seeking to have built into the ombudsman system and I have no quarrel with him in that regard. It is clear that issues about educational welfare should be addressed in the context of an ombudsman's scheme. My particular issue with it was whether that could be most quickly and effectively addressed by the extension of powers under and the remit of the existing scheme or whether it was necessary to create a new one.

The issue of recommendations being ignored is one that tends not to affect, as I said, ombudsmen working wholly within the public sector. It is the particular role of schools and school boards which fall outside the power of direction that causes many of the difficulties the Deputy properly identified. As I said, within the private sector it is normal for ombudsmen to have binding powers and for the organisations within their remit to have to comply with their recommendations, unless they take court action. As the Deputy acknowledged, this potentially leads to many judicial reviews, which is not helpful. The proposals to allow the Minister to make binding directions are an excellent compromise, one which balances the traditional ombudsman model and the quasi-independence or independence of boards of governors in a way that would ensure recommendations were not ignored. As the Deputy stated, in all of these matters it is the small minority of cases in which problems arise that consistently provide the work for ombudsman schemes.

Although the Office of the Ombudsman deals with welfare issues, they tend to be student welfare issues within the further and higher education sector or, as Dr. Muldoon described, issues around access to support for leaving certificate students sitting examinations. They are crucial and occupy a considerable amount of time for both offices. The existence of both offices has led to major systemic change in the way this support is provided. This shows the capacity of ombudsmen to take individual complaints and turn them into real and lasting change for a much larger number of people than come to our offices.

While I take the point that some of the work we do is about funding, I must also note that a significant educational welfare issue arises where a student is told midway through the second year of a degree course that his or her funding is about to be withdrawn and, what is more, that all funding received thus far must be repaid. These matters have an impact.

The quickest and most effective way to realise the aspirations the Deputy set out for improvements in access to redress in schools would be to ensure the Ombudsman for Children, in particular, had the necessary changes to powers and resources to enable his office to deliver effective redress in the circumstances about which the Deputy is concerned.

Ms Lorraine Dempsey

Deputy Jim Daly asked what we did about the 2% of schools. Our purpose is not to take the offensive against all schools in the State system; we certainly do not portray a picture of principals running mini-cabals with boards of management. However, the issue is one of deciding what to do about the 0.1%, 2%, 3% or 5% of schools where problems arise. Some boards operate dysfunctional decision-making practices and some principals take issues very personally when a parent raises a difficulty with the provision of special educational needs support for a child or makes a complaint about one of a myriad of other issues in a school. The issue arises when the complaint is compounded by not being addressed, despite the intervention of other agencies.

We know special educational needs organisers, SENOs, who will act as advocates on behalf of a parent and a child. However, it is not within their remit to act in that capacity, yet they will try to act as mediators. I am aware that there are proposals to include this in the remit of SENOs in the new inclusion support service. SENOs do not have any say in the decision a school can make.

With regard to the cohort of people we represent, namely, parents of children with special needs, we interface with health and educational support services all the time, of which there is a severe lack. A therapist may come to a school to enable it to deal with difficulties arising from a child's disability. When this is not taken on board and a situation breaks down, it may lead to a breakdown of the school placement. Despite the parent trying to act as an advocate on behalf of his or her child and work in a collaborative fashion with the school, the interpersonal relationship between the parent and the principal may break down. When trying to navigate a solution, the parent may go through the official complaints procedure which leads to the board of a management which consistently sides with the principal. We have even seen this happen in cases in which an accusation of assault was made against a member of staff or the principal. These cases occurred prior to the Teaching Council being given the power to enforce disciplinary actions. The 2% of schools with which we must deal are those where the board of management shuts down in the face of the problems I described. I have personal experience of such cases. Changing culture for the main school body may bring about a change for the 2% of schools where there may be peer pressure. They may deal with matters in a certain way or perhaps the operation of the boards might need to be examined.

I have a list of telephone numbers which I give to parents who do not know how to navigate the system. Some parents contact me to tell me they have been in touch with the Office of the Ombudsman for Children. I tell them to call the Irish Primary Principals Network and provide it with information on what is happening in the school in question. Depending on who answers the telephone, the parent may be directed to a colleague who will offer advice. In such cases the organisation is at least aware of what is happening in the 2% of schools, even though it is not within its capacity to sort out the issue. We direct parents in the direction of the IPPN to ensure it notes that there is a problem in certain schools.

I note that the parent and student charter which would be more appropriately titled the student and parent charter proposes oversight mechanisms where required. It does not appear that it will provide for the strong arm of the Minister in relation to all activities in schools. It deals with the 2% of schools where there are no other avenues of redress for parents and children.

Mr. Martin Hanevy

The parent charter was conceived more than five years ago. The elements of the charter related to the Office of the Ombudsman for Children were included because Deputy Jim Daly, in conversation with the Minister, identified particular aspects of the current operation of the system that could be improved. It was an attempt to make improvements.

The last thing I want is to be insulting. The committee, possibly for the first time, asked the Department to provide a briefing on a Private Members' Bill, not just on its own, which is new and part of new politics and so on. In attempting to do this faithfully the only point I was making was that the Bill did not provide for many exemptions. For example, the terms and conditions of teachers are excluded from the legislation covering the Office of the Ombudsman for Children. This means that since there are no boundaries, everything in a school comes before an ombudsman who will be in a binding space or make absolute determinations. The example I used - there is empathy in this - of the row about the composition of the school table was given because one of my colleagues in the office was telling me about the experience in a primary school outside Athlone where the principal's child was on the team when everyone knew ten other children were ahead of him.

Much of the debate is about what happens at the back end.

What we are really trying to do in the charter is change things at the front end. That came from a piece of research a colleague did for a Master's degree about how public services are delivered. If one listens to the people who experience the service wilfully and openly, one can solve many things because one knows what is bothering people and what are their problems. One then minimises the stuff at the back end. In the detail of charter, we see parent power as being very important. In respect of the reporting that must be done within the guidelines, there will be template guidelines so that they are universal. They will have to explain the complaints they received in any one year. Anonymity would have to apply but the totality of the parent body would be able to see exactly what was dealt with in the course of the year. The reputational damage schools can suffer if they do not operate properly under the charter, for example, if a school feels it is going to be damned in the local newspaper, can often be potent in bringing about change.

Mr. David Ruddy

The role of a school principal is ultimately about the welfare of children. It is about teaching and learning in a school community and we take it very seriously. No school is perfect and we know that as an association because boards of management are not perfect. They were introduced in 1975. As an organisation, we feel that there is significant room for reform there, and I can empathise with the committee's frustration at times. We make significant efforts to encourage the best possible practice. When we talk about 2% or whatever the percentage of schools where there is a difficulty, we feel parents should be able to put their case to a formal body. In fairness to the Ombudsman for Children's office, about which I recently wrote in our magazine and whose powers many of our colleagues were not aware of, it has dealt with over 3,000 complaints. We have 4,000 schools. One complaint related to special needs education where the parents were unhappy with the way the child was being resourced. The Ombudsman for Children's office was not afraid to come in and slap down the school's board of management on the basis that the special educational needs policy was outdated. It advised the school on a new policy. Ultimately, the Ombudsman for Children's office approached it very well and the outcomes were good in the end.

Deputy Jim Daly's Bill has much to commend it but we are not afraid of scrutiny. We have the inspectorate, which is part of the DNA of schools. We have educational welfare officers and the Teaching Council of Ireland and that is all good. Ultimately, if we see another body doing the work the Ombudsman for Children's office can do, why introduce another layer? By all means, everything that happens in a school should be scrutinised. Ultimately, it is the relationship between the primary educators, who are the parents, and the school that drives on things. Every school aspires to the best. There are some good points in the Education (Amendment) Bill but we just do not like the way it will create another layer. If the good parts are taken out of it and given to the Ombudsman for Children's office, we will be happy with that.

Ms Áine Lynch

One of the things about which we would be very cautious is that the parent-student charter and the Ombudsman for Children's office are not seen as the answer to all issues relating to school boards of management. We will badly affect the powers of the office of the Ombudsman for Children and the parent-student charter if we try to use both of those mechanisms to fix all of the issues around school boards of management. That is a separate piece of work that needs to be looked and I would caution against that.

I would happily endorse Dr. Muldoon's assertion that it should be the student-parent charter. Parents would very much want the students at the forefront and centre of it and believe that it is their role to support them. It has been outlined how the different layers can be difficult for parents. Other colleagues of mine have recently been involved in looking at the child protection guidelines in schools and how they need to be revised in terms of Children First. In respect of the interplay between the Department of Education and Skills, Tusla and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in trying to make sure all of those things are put in place at the same time, the fact that children's issues are separated out over so many Departments is utterly frustrating and certainly not in the best interests of protecting children. It is really important that children's issues are kept in a cohesive way wherever we currently have them. Trying to pull back in situations where Departments have already separated out children's issues can be very difficult, but to start separating things out when children are clearly under the remit of one ombudsman will lead to further frustration for parents in terms of how they can manage certain situations. Children do not fit into nice packages so a complaint is rarely just an education issue. It often touches other areas of the child's life so it would be very frustrating for parents if they were constantly being knocked from pillar to post within the complaints system at ombudsman level as well because they experience this quite a lot before they even get there. I would caution against that as well.

Ms Róisín Webb

I thank members for all the very specific issues they have raised because it is very interesting for us to get that kind of information and to reflect on it. We would say as an office that the Department of Education and Skills needs to reflect on how boards of management need to improve in terms of best practice. That is something with which we would agree. The IPPN and other organisations would also agree with that. We are not a panacea for all ills. In terms of oversight relating to how schools deal with grievances, the Ombudsman for Children's office thinks that the parent-student charter has significant potential. This is the first building block. As Mr. Hanevy said, when schools have to be more open and transparent in respect of complaints and how they are dealt with, that information is there. Oversight mechanisms within the Department can be further developed and improved.

In respect of the role of our office, we have a broad remit. In respect of educational welfare, we have an amazing power under our Act, particularly section 7, where we not only look at the investigation of complaints, but at the rights and welfare of the child under section 7. We work cross-functionally as a team so that where systemic issues arise that cannot be addressed in respect of the admissibility of a complaint or where a complaint may not meet the threshold of what is required to investigate, we do not just drop these issues. We take them on board. There are massive problems with regard to special educational needs because the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act has not been implemented. There is a right to an assessment but no right to what comes out of that assessment. These are often issues where, with the best will in the world and following through on an investigation, we still end up with a road block so it is just not about schools. There are a range of issues where our office is in a position to advise about how the rights and welfare of children can be improved. We are learning all the time as an office.

I draw attention to the nuances within what is proposed in subsection 16 because what has been drafted by the Department not only relates to recommendations for our office where the complaint has met the threshold for investigation and has gone forward, but it also applies to the large amount of work our office does at the local resolution phase. What is fantastic about the charter is that it is fully reflective of the way our office works and what we want to build upon, which is improving how schools operate at a local level, transparency, accountability and all the frustrations about communicating with parents shutting down. They are issues that the principles of the charter address. This is what we want to see changing.

In respect of suggestions and guidance, the wording of what is proposed is so important because it is not only talking about where an investigation has been conducted, but there are options to lay a report before the Oireachtas. There have been a small number of situations where that has not been possible because we were protecting a child. It also applies to the local resolution phase where a complaint has not met the threshold for investigation because of the criteria relating to the Act but where it is a serious issue. The office works very hard to make suggestions, give encouragement and make recommendations to a school.

It is true that sometimes there are situations where boards do not carry through on that.

This legislation provides an additional stick where we can say there is another power and they should listen to what we are saying. I would highlight that in Section 7 of the Act there is a provision around best practice guidance for schools in regard to the rights and welfare of the child. We are about to publish a golden rules and complaints handling procedure, which the office was working on prior to the current proposals and which places the child at the centre of all of this. There is excellent research on child-friendly complaints mechanisms. We will have that as a resource for schools. We would say that the Department of Education needs to present what is best practice for schools. The parent and student charter is the way forward to improve all of that but it is a process and it is going to take time, it will not change everything overnight. We as an office intend to work with that.

On educational welfare, the amendments will allow the educational charter to fall under the remit of our office. That would broaden what is covered by maladministration. We will look at how schools are implementing the charter. That is a space we have not quite figured out yet but that will broaden what we are looking at. It will still mean that we are not getting involved in adjudicating in the nitty-gritty of everything that goes on in the school, nor should we because that would not be best practice and it would not be practical. However, we do think these proposals have huge potential.

Mr. Seán Cottrell

We came from a conference this morning on the role of the principal and looking at the importance of principals spending more time on the actual business of teaching and learning. There were a lot of good ideas but the common theme was that principals need to be relieved of administrative work. My feeling listening to this is that there are some good ideas but it will cripple principals, it is another added weight to the amount of administration. I also work on a hospital ward and the work of HIQA has crippled nurses. That nurse in question barely gets to see her patients. My feeling is that is what is happening here. We are creating a monster which will gobble up time. The boxes will all be ticked but it will not necessarily mean anything in practice. Let us look at good practice. Any examination based on good practice has to actually work. Remember that two out of every three schools are run by a principal who also teaches full time. If someone is already a full-time operator or administrator in any area and something is added to their workload, something has to give or else there are consequences. It is critical that the people concerned here work together on this Bill or else it will be a dead duck.

Mr. Cottrell is right about that. Principal teachers, and particularly teaching principals, are crippled with the bureaucracy they have to deal with. I will return to the members who have indicated.

I will be very brief but I am heartened again by these latest contributions I compliment Deputy Jim Daly for bringing this forward and that we are able to have this conversation. I think Ms Doyle mentioned earlier in her contribution that there needs to be prevention rather than resolution and that this is key. It is important that we do not lose sight of that. From what I have heard this afternoon, the charter is the vehicle we can work with and develop as we go along in order that we minimise the 2% of difficulties, or maybe lower than that, that we have.

I enjoyed the contribution about boards of management. We as a society owe a great deal to the parents who serve on boards of management. Without them we would be in a much weaker position. When my children were going to school it was very difficult to get parents to go on boards of management and I am interested if it has become any easier in the period since then. I am aware of difficulties in a local rural area where there were problems. Sometimes, for members of boards of management, where issues are not resolved to a satisfactory level for those involved, there can be a historic aspect that goes on in the community where people can be divided, sometimes for a very long time thereafter. That is very unfortunate. It is not for today, but maybe a discussion on boards of management like Ms Dempsey mentioned, would be very worthwhile and is something that needs to be addressed.

I am heartened by the charter. I am happy about Dr. Muldoon's contribution and that in the future the Minister will be able to make a binding decision in regard to any issue. For all involved it is a good thing to have on the table so that everyone knows from the get-go that if the people involved cannot find a resolution then ultimately the Minister can make a direction. That is very helpful and it might focus the minds of all involved from the outset.

I am easy about whether we carry on and extend the office as it is or establish a new office. I would be inclined to work with what we have in the interim to see how that works out. If, over time, we discover that there are still problems, then, perhaps we should look at a designated office solely for that purpose.

Mr. McLoughlin said that the Department will put the flesh on the charter and then it would go to consultation with working groups, which I presume will be students and parents. Then there will be individual charters by school, because obviously there cannot be a one-size fits all as there is huge variation in the make-up of school communities. How will the consultation with parents and students in the individual schools work? In the more disadvantaged areas it can be impossible to get a parent to turn up to a parent-teacher meeting. If it is a student council, often it is the most vulnerable, most needy child that does not put themselves up for election, so how will their voice be heard in that context?

I refer to Mr. Cotrell's remarks. Will it be the principal who will drive the individual charter in the school, as secretary to the board of management? I wholeheartedly agree that principals and senior management, due to the moratorium, are under serious work overload. I am aware of someone in a DEIS school who works as the principal, the assistant principal - which in this case is the year-head where there are huge pastoral care issues because it is a DEIS school - and is also now the student council teacher because they cannot get the B post replaced. When we talk about the welfare of students, there are huge issues that need to be addressed, and not just dealt with in the parent and student charter.

Ms Dempsey raised an interesting point that the balance of power is often with the board of management. That is problematic when there is a perception that it is swayed by principals. Has the Department considered re-examining the make-up of boards of management? The reality is that some of the membership there hinges on which party wins in a local election because there would be public representatives on a lot of the boards of management.

Mr. Martin Hanevy

Not in primary schools.

No, in secondary schools.

Mr. Martin Hanevy

In the A to B schools.

That needs to be addressed too and should be brought into the open. Public representatives and community activists may be involved in other schools too. I do not know if that is necessarily a good thing for the student or the parents, for interviewing teachers. This is something that needs to be brought into the open.

If we are talking about students, is it time to seriously consider putting students at second level on boards of management? Naturally, they would be recused for confidential matters. Some schools will have student councils address boards of management once or twice a year but these do not have a real or serious input into decision making.

Before we go back, there were some specific questions for the Department.

I thank everyone for their second round of contributions. It is clear that we are all trying to get to the same place but we have some differing views and some very similar views of how we do that. I have tossed this around in my head for a long time and I have couple of brief points to make.

I accept what the Ombudsman for Children states, that having a separate ombudsman for education can introduce another layer of bureaucracy dealing specifically with education whereas the Ombudsman for Children would like to be able to deal with education, as well as Tusla, the HSE and all of the agencies. My response to that viewpoint, is that there is a Department and a Minister with responsibility for Education and Skills and a Department and Minister with responsibility for Health. That is the way we organise our administration. It would not be the worst idea to have an ombudsman, who would be independent, to have oversight of a Department of Education and Skills with a budget of €8 billion.

I would like to hear the officials comment on educational welfare. I see evidence of the acknowledgement of educational welfare along with physical, spiritual and emotional welfare. Ultimately I am trying to achieve recognition of educational welfare. I have tabled a parliamentary question on the number of complaints from schools on an annual basis. Many parents would not know about the role of the Ombudsman for Children and would not think to make a complaint about a problem in school to the Ombudsman. I would appreciate if the witnesses would provide the committee with the figures for the number of complaints.

I accept the IPPN has a contention about another layer of administration, in addition to the Teaching Council and the National Education Welfare Board. I understand there is no layer dealing with boards of management and I accept if the Minister can take responsibility for boards of management through the Ombudsman for Children, we are bridging that gap. To broaden the focus of the role of an ombudsman for education, it would not be just about complaints and grievances, it is only because I respect the work of both Mr. Peter Tyndall, Ombudsman and Information Commissioner and Dr. Niall Muldoon, Ombudsman for Children and their respective offices, that I have such high regard and a strong desire to see an ombudsman specifically dedicated to education. It is not a negative reflection on their offices.

I see the role of an ombudsman as being far greater than dealing with grievances. The crucial role of an ombudsman is to lobby and to hold Government to account and to write reports on aspects of failings in the system and putting it up to Government to come forward. School principals have an extraordinary workload. I was a school principal and it was the most thankless job I ever did. The job I am doing now is not hugely rewarding but I would never be a teaching principal. I would not recommend being one in its current format. I would like to see an education ombudsman who would be responsible solely for issues of education tackling that kind of issue. It needs to be highlighted for Government that what is expected of teaching principals is grossly irresponsible. I would see an ombudsman as a strength in dealing with this and other such issues. The need for an ombudsman for education is a debate for another day.

I thank Deputy Daly. He makes the point very well that the role of an ombudsman is also advocacy as well as dealing with all the complaints that come to its office. The role is to identify where there are problems and advocating for the change. I call Mr. Hanevy, who will have the last word.

Mr. Martin Hanevy

I hope I do not forget some of Deputy Martin's questions. We strayed, rightfully, into the issue of boards of management, their composition and how they are structured at present. There is definitely work to be done in that area. The boards of management of the 3,200 primary schools changed in the past year. The model for the composition of boards has been in place since 1998, but an issue that was raised as a possible change when the Department was working with the partners this year was changing the role of the school principal from being a voting member of the board to attending the board. That would mean the board could make its decisions without the principal being present. That is good governance in most places. The only partner that supported the Department in the working group was the National Parents Council Primary. All the other partners, unions, the IPPN and the management bodies were not having it. That is not to say we will not continue to persevere for it. There is an issue about how the boards of small schools are serviced and how they can be serviced. Even the IPPN has done work in the past about the division of the governance.

In regard to the charter, we are working with our partners on the child protection area at present because we know the safeguarding statements that will have to be provided when the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs commences the Children First legislation. We will be creating a template. There will be a great many common requirements in the charter, in terms of information for parents, the type of complaints procedure and how you engage people. We will have a standard part but equally I take the Deputy's point about the disadvantaged. We are quite seized about how the charter may have to be tapered. The beauty of guidelines as distinct from regulations is that one can more readily taper the components to the needs of a special school for example.

There will be a lot of spoon-feeding because we want these things done. I hear Mr. Seán Cottrell's point. Certainly, if the Oireachtas enacts this legislation, when we lead the work with the partners to take the flesh that is in the principles it and create the living charter, schools will be following that template. I do not want to see that as bureaucracy, I want to see the purpose, which is a changed attitude. I do see where there is extra work in simply asking people how they feel the school is going, inviting feedback in a simple questionnaire or simply at the end of the day setting out the number and type of complaints so that the entire parent body gets that type of information. In the primary schools where the pupils must do 183 days, one time the Department used to police that, and we would receive letters that a school only did 180 days because a boiler burst. That is a simple piece of information that should be included when the school reports to its parents at the end of the year. How many of the 183 days did it make and, when it did not meet the 183 school days, to report the reason. I do not see why anybody should be afraid to report that to the parent body. There are charges that I do not think will involve extra work, but will be a change of mindset.

I thank Mr. Hanevy. I wish to endorse Deputy Martin's suggestion about having the possibility, particularly in a secondary school, of having a student member on a board of management.

Mr. Martin Hanevy

That is live as an option. We will probably deal with it in the context of the work on the charter. Some patrons are very interested in that. The point the Department would have made is that it must be common across schools at second level. There may be issues about whether the student would be a full member or an associate member, but that is for discussion. It is in our thoughts.

Deputy Martin is ahead of herself, not for the first time in terms of good ideas.

I would certainly welcome that initiative. I now volunteer with Special Olympics and I worked with them. In the Special Olympics, every board and at every level of the organisation, be it at a local club level, regional, country or global level it is the policy that an athlete is a member of the board and has the supports around them in terms of speaking for their peers. It is a principle that we should adhere to generally across education. I know many primary school pupils, as I am sure members do also, who would love to have a chance to speak at a board of management level and tell everybody how they thought of the way the school was run.

This has been a very interesting gathering. The thoughts, observations and insights have led to a greater understanding for all of us. The message that should come from today's meeting is that we are looking at a culture of change. We are looking for more transparency in terms of how schools do their work and the interaction between the students, the parents, and the teachers. Nobody should be lost in any of that. With all stakeholders working collaboratively, we should be able to achieve better outcomes for everybody involved in the process.

This is the first day of the engagement on this issue. We will be having a second day of engagement with the unions, the INTO, the TUI, the ASTI, the ETBI and the students secondary school network. We will be back in contact with the witnesses then.

May I thank everybody for giving us their time this afternoon. It was very worthwhile. I thank our witnesses and members.

The joint committee adjourned at 6.20 p.m. until 4 p.m. on Tuesday, 21 March 2017.