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Joint Committee on Education and Skills debate -
Thursday, 5 Jul 2018

Employment Equality Act Order: Minister for Education and Skills

The first item on the agenda is engagement with the Minister for Education and Skills on a motion re the proposed approval by Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann of the Employment Equality Act 1998 (section 12) (Reservation of vocational training places) Order 2018. I welcome the Minister.

The purpose of this part of the meeting is to have an engagement with the Minister for Education and Skills on the proposed approval by Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann of the Employment Equality Act 1998 (section 12) (Reservation of vocational training places) Order 2018. On behalf of the committee I would like to welcome the Minister and his officials. I understand that the Minister has to leave for a Cabinet meeting at 10 a.m., so we will try not to delay him unduly. I will invite the Minister to make an opening statement which will be followed by engagement with members of the committee.

I thank the committee for accommodating discussion of this matter. Essentially this arises out of the merger of the colleges of education which took place when the former Church of Ireland College of Education became part of Dublin City University, DCU, along with St. Patrick's College, Drumcondra and the Mater Dei Institute of Education in 2016. Part of that arrangement was that there would be a reservation of places on the bachelor of education programme over the following five academic years to allow Church of Ireland or other schools with a minority reformed Christian ethos to have a flow of primary teachers. A similar arrangement has been put in place and approved by the Oireachtas in 1999, 2003, 2008 and 2013. This is consistent with our desire, as discussed in debates on the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016, to ensure that there is a place in our system for minority church schools and that they can continue to operate. This is an arrangement that was entered into at the time of the merger. The 32 reserved places represent less than 5% of total places in initial teacher education. The measure ensures that these schools, which probably represent about 5% of schools, have a flow of teachers who are committed to teaching with that ethos. It works as a reservation, so the Central Applications Office, CAO, system will still apply, but the places will be treated as though they were on another course.

A limited number of people, perhaps 70 to 100 over the years, have applied for this number of places. The points requirement could be different because they are treated as part of a separate course. However, it is consistent with a policy that has been in place for many years.

I thank the Minister for coming in. I am conscious of time. I understand the need for this measure in the current context. As the Minister will be aware, Sinn Féin has a distinct policy calling for the complete separation of church and State. However, we understand that we cannot start from here, so we support this particular move.

However, I want to ask the Minister about a related matter concerning the Employment Equality Act 1998. I refer to section 37, which allows religious schools to discriminate when selecting teachers. This is something we have managed to get rid of in Northern Ireland. Does the Minister have plans to do something similar down here?

I will take questions from the next two speakers and then go back to the Minister.

I want to express support for the measure. In the written script sent by the Minister, which the committee members received in an email this morning, he acknowledged that the place of religion in education is changing. We all understand that there is a lot of fluidity around this issue at the moment. Views similar to those Senator Gavan has just expressed are growing in this country. In this case, however, I certainly understand the background to it. The merger of the colleges was a significant move at the time, and it is important that we have that kind of integration. In some ways it is historic that colleges like St. Patrick's College, Drumcondra, the Mater Dei Institute of Education and the Church of Ireland College of Education are coming together in a secular university to train teachers in initial education. I do not have a question. I just want to acknowledge that it is the right thing to do at this stage.

I thank the Minister for that presentation. I also support the order. It is important that minority faiths are supported, and without this order the Church of Ireland would have grave difficulty in maintaining the ethos of its schools. On the broader front, in the long term, does the Minister believe that it is the State's place to support the ethos of particular faiths? I ask because there are a number of different minority beliefs out there and there may be more in the future. Regarding the entry requirements, I note that this entry route has a lower CAO points requirement and a lower threshold of leaving certificate results is required. Could the Minister expand on that, or is there any particular reasoning behind it?

Taking the questions in reverse order, there is no preordained reason why the reserved places have lower entry requirements. They are treated as another course. If a lot of people apply for them, there could be a high threshold. There is a competition for this particular segment. It may have historically been somewhat lower.

In regard to the issue of how the State supports schools of different diverse natures, Ireland is unique in that in primary education we have just ten State schools run by the education and training boards, ETBs. More than 3,100 are private institutions, run by either Educate Together, of which An Foras Pátrúnachta is the patron, or religious denominations. The State has traditionally supported primary education across a range of patrons. Where we introduce new schools now, we allow parents to choose which patron should succeed. We do not say whether it should be a State patron or a non-State patron, but we do seek to ensure that whatever patron succeeds promotes diversity. The de facto situation is that in the past seven years, which is all I can recall or account for, a primary school has never gone to a patron with a denominational ethos. They are all going elsewhere.

However, the State has allowed for considerations of ethos, characteristic and spirit. That is embedded in our legislation. That brings me to Senator Paul Gavan's point. To a degree, the provisions in employment legislation follow on from that. In this case, people who undertake this programme must demonstrate an understanding of and a willingness to support the distinctive ethos of Protestant primary schools. Those are the people who are expected to apply for the places. I know that Sinn Féin has a view that primary schools should be a State provision rather than something provided through private or distinctive institutions of different types. However, the approach in employment law reflects our general approach to educational diversity, rather than trying to be discriminatory. I suspect that trying to change that would be a bit like the ivy root, as they say. We would pull one piece thinking it is distinctive, and then all the rest would follow. I do not know of any proposals to change the provisions to which the Senator refers.

I thank the Minister for the response. I am genuinely disappointed. Alongside colleagues who campaigned in the recent referendum, I came across many teachers on the pro-choice side who expressed concern about the fact that they could be discriminated against because they happened to be working in Catholic schools, because the vast majority of schools are Catholic schools.

That issue must be addressed. It was done in the North and the world did not end. Unfortunately, far too many schools are still attached to the Catholic and Protestant churches. I ask the Department to seriously consider bringing forward legislation in that regard.

There is no intention that there would be discrimination on the basis of people's beliefs or lifestyle. The only issue is whether account may be taken of the suitability of a recruitment candidate in terms of the ethos of the school. It is worth examining whether the provisions are too wide in that regard. I do not know of any test cases to the Workplace Relations Commission involving such discrimination. No such case has come to my attention. I do not know whether the provisions have been tested to ascertain the extent to which such discrimination may be possible under the legislation. I was not prepared for the question-----

That is fair enough.

-----and am trying to answer it off the cuff.

I ask that the Minister and the officials take the point on board and consider it.

We will consider the basis of that provision.

I thank the Minister.

The Minister is very welcome to the committee. I too welcome and support the measure outlined in the documentation with which we have been provided. As the Minister stated, Irish society is changing by the day. We are trying to keep pace with what is happening in society. The theme of the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill, which the Minister discussed yesterday in the Seanad, is followed on in the documentation. There are concerns, some of which were outlined by Senator Gavan, in regard to discrimination and so on.

I am satisfied that the doors of Catholic and other schools are open. As I stated to the Minister in the Seanad, if Damien, a four year old character in the film "The Omen", arrived at the doors of any school, he would be welcomed with open arms. Some 15% of school-going children in north Monaghan, my area, are non-Irish but that is not an issue and, thankfully, they are integrating very well into society. We must keep abreast of the matter but I am satisfied that the current situation is acceptable. However, we must be conscious that the face of Irish society is changing daily.

This is a classic case of "if I were you, I would not start from here" because, although I am against discrimination on the basis of religion, to which this measure amounts, I support minority rights. The requirement for religious discrimination in order to protect minority rights arises from our sectarian school system. Does the Minister agree that this points to the need for a wholesale transformation of how our education is delivered, the separation of church and State and the creation of non-religious public schools? Religions could deliver faith education outside school hours. They are better placed to so do than qualified teachers. This issue highlights the problems inherent in a sectarian education system.

On a related theme, we have been discussing the question of sex education-----

We are very pushed for time as the Minister must attend a Cabinet meeting at 10 a.m. Deputy Paul Murphy should allow him to answer.

Does the Minister agree that we will not be able to guarantee the provision of objective sex education to students unless we deal with the religious ethos exemption in education?

That is not relevant to the matter under discussion.

I hope the Minister takes my point on board.

That matter will be dealt with in the second part of our meeting.

I welcome the support of Senator Gallagher for the measure. Education is a very fluid and changing environment. Deputy Paul Murphy is correct that an education system being designed today would not be 95% composed of denominational schools. The question is whether such system would have no denominational schools, which the Deputy puts forward as the optimum situation. The wishes of parents must be taken into account in this matter. Parents are the primary educators. It is a strength of society that people wish to bring up their children in their ethos and faith. However, that must not make others feel small or not valued, etc. There is undoubtedly an imbalance in our education system. We are trying to change the system to reflect the changing Ireland without losing some of its strengths. The transfer of schools from religious to non-religious patrons must occur far more quickly. That is urgently needed and I have recently initiated a new approach to try to drive it forward.

Deputy Paul Murphy also raised the issue of whether ethos should be taken out of other areas, specifically relationship and sexuality education. Again, there are different views on that matter. Come what may, the proper, factual educational content must be delivered to every student, regardless of school ethos. In light of the concerns of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution and our inspectorate, we initiated a timely review of the delivery of relationship and sexuality education. The law has changed, as have many other matters. Deputy Paul Murphy brought forward the Provision of Objective Sex Education Bill 2018, which has passed First Stage. As I stated on Second Stage of the Bill, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, must undertake a broad consultation on the curriculum in order to gather expert views on the content of programmes and how they are delivered. Although I acknowledge the principle behind the legislation, stipulating curriculum content in primary legislation such that curricular evolution would require amendment of that legislation would probably not be ideal. However, we must get the view of the NCCA on this matter and allow education stakeholders an input into the discussion in order to be able to make decisions based on the best expertise because it is vital that we get this right. The NCCA is proceeding with all possible haste in that regard. It realises the urgency the Oireachtas attaches to the issue but it will do a thorough job. We have a robust system for the development of curricular change. It is an evolving space and we must consider how to ensure that religious ethos does not prevent proper progress. That is a challenge which we must meet.

Deputy Naughton and I were members of the all-party Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. It met departmental officials on the ancillary recommendations it was considering. One of the big concerns raised was the fact that school patrons and management have the ultimate say in terms of implementation. I share that concern, although I welcome the Minister's comments on factual information and so forth. The next session of this committee will involve discussion of these issues with patrons or joint managerial bodies. However, the lingering concern is that, because of the manner in which the patronage and management system works, schools would be able to implement this requirement as they see fit in spite of the good intentions of all present to ensure that it is factually based.

That concern is explicitly referenced in the mandate of the NCCA. The existing arrangement allows for a policy statement along with the delivery of the programme.

As the Deputy said, the programme must still be delivered. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, must examine it. There are concerns about whether it is being delivered to the standard we want. Apart from the ethos question, there are concerns about it being outsourced to groups in that we do not know what their programme is. It is not teacher led. There are concerns about the educational standards in this area generally as well as the ethos, but all those issues are being examined. While there is an urgency about this matter, and the committee's work will be a valuable input into this, we have to get it right also. I appreciate the work the committee is doing by having consultations. It will clearly inform the NCCA in the way it develops a new specification. It will also deal with the issue that the committee raised.

I should have mentioned that Senator Gavan was a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Eight Amendment of the Constitution as well as Deputy Naughton and myself.

We are going into our fourth session today on this matter and we will be making recommendations to the Minister and the Department quite soon, possibly by the end of the summer. We look forward to getting his response to that also.

I thank the Minister for attending this meeting and allowing us as a committee the opportunity to comment and pose questions on this matter. We all have to acknowledge that the place of religion in education is changing throughout the country and, against that backdrop, it is important we protect minorities, including minority religions.

We have completed our consideration of the motion. In accordance with Standing Orders, the joint committee will report back to the Dáil and Seanad to the effect that it has completed its consideration of the motion. I thank the Minister and his officials for their attendance. We are ensuring he will be just out in time for the Cabinet meeting.