Is mór an onóir dom an díospóireacht seo a thosnú ó thaobh an Bhille Oideachais. Tá súil agam go mbeidh díospóireacht shumiúil againn agus go mbeimid in ann roinnt a chur i bhfeidhm.
It gives me great pleasure to introduce the Education (No. 2) Bill, 1997, in the Seanad. The essential purpose of the Bill is to provide a statutory underpinning for the education system at first and second levels and at the same time to set out clearly the rights, roles and responsibilities of all those involved in the education system.
We have a system of education of which we can be justly proud. It is a unique system which has been moulded over the years to respond to the developing needs of emerging generations of students. It is a versatile system which has been adapted over the years to meet the needs of our developing economy and society. Indeed, in recent years the debt we owe as a society to our education system has become clearer than ever as our economy has made such huge strides. The role of education in contributing to this economic growth has been universally acknowledged.
The investment in the education of our young people, particularly since the introduction of the free education scheme in 1967, has yielded a substantial dividend in the form of our highly educated, highly skilled labour force which has been such a crucial ingredient in the development of our economy. In his recent book on the labour force, "Ireland at Work — Economic Growth in the Labour Market, 1987-1997", the distinguished economist, Mr. Paul Tansey, acknowledged the vital role of education in our economic development. He stated:
Continuous improvements in the quantity and quality of the human capital stock, supported by growing State commitment to investment in education, has been the fulcrum on which the economy's growth potential has been levered upwards.
Against the background of an education system which has operated without any statutory basis and which is by any measure an outstanding success, the most obvious question is why the Oireachtas should now seek to legislate for it. The answer lies in the increasing complexity of the education system against the background of constantly changing economic and social circumstances. The structural administration of the current education system at first level derives from a letter written in 1831 by the then Chief Secretary for Ireland, Lord Stanley, to the Duke of Leinster who was to become the chairman of a new board of commissioners for national education. The second level system, outside the vocational education sector, has its origins in legislation enacted in the latter part of the last century.
Much has changed since then. The partners in education, and particularly parents, wish to see their role in the education system and their involvement with the education of their children given formal recognition. More generally, they wish to have a clear statement of their rights, roles and responsibilities in the education system. I welcome this development, as I welcome the increased request by other members of the education community to have their inputs into the system formally recognised.
It is no longer acceptable to me as Minister or to the partners in education that, faced with such complexity and change, the education system should continue to operate without the benefit of statutory underpinning or without a clear statement of the rights, roles and responsibilities of all those involved in the system. This Bill will provide both of these. It will fill the legislative vacuum and complement the constitutional provisions relating to education.
Anybody who has observed the process leading to this Bill will be aware that it has grown not out of the view of any one individual or small group, but from a consideration and distillation of the views of many. The consultation process leading up to the production of the Bill began with the publication of a Green Paper by my predecessor, Deputy O'Rourke. This marked the beginning of a process of widespread consultation leading to the publication of a White Paper and much discussion on how the education system should be reformed to meet modern challenges and the demands placed upon it.
I have continued this process of consolation since taking office in the middle of 1997. Indeed, it would be fair to say that the consultation process carried out by my Department at that time was the most extensive undertaken in the Department, both in advance of the publication of a Bill and following its publication. During this consultation process I sought to address the many issues raised over the last six years in a spirit of inclusive dialogue informed by a simple overriding premise. We need legislation that ensures that the education system is as responsive, effective, efficient and accountable as possible in meeting and responding to the rapidly changing demands for high quality education into the next millennium. At that time the partners in education expressed a wide range of views and a number of concerns to me. I have taken them on board in drafting and amending the Bill now before the House.
As I mentioned, one of the central objectives of the Bill is to promote and give statutory recognition to partnership as a principle which under-pins the operation of the education system. That system cannot be one managed and administered by a small elite. It must be one whose management is open to all stakeholders and which is operated for the benefit of the students.
The principle of partnership is underlined early in the Bill in the long title. It is reinforced in section 6(f), which sets out the objects of the Bill and is to be found repeatedly in the many provisions of the Bill which required the consent of consultation with the education partners. The principle has its loudest resonance in section 14, which established the principle of partnership as a basic principle underpinning the establishment the boards of management in schools.
Partnership implies that the partners act together through seeking common ground and consensus rather than any one of them seeking to impose a particular view. It implies a process of discussion and negotiation rather than coercion and it encompasses a tolerance, even encouragement, of diversity rather than uniformity. The letter and spirit of this Bill is entirely consistent with the principle of a partnership among equals in matters central to the governance and management of our schools, and indeed of our education system.
One of the most important features of our education system has always been the degree of autonomy enjoyed by schools at first and second levels. Concerns have been expressed to me that any proposals to legislate for the system should not sacrifice this autonomy in the interests of legal certainty and uniformity. I am happy to inform this House that the autonomy of schools is not lessened but rather is enhanced by the Bill.
The Bill gives statutory recognition to the patrons of schools who normally establish schools out of a desire to educate students in a particular tradition and environment. The Bill uses the term "characteristic spirit" to capture these concepts, which may encompass cultural, educational, moral, religious, social, linguistic and spiritual values and traditions and which inform and are characteristic of the objectives and conduct of the school. It gives statutory support to the right of anyone to establish a school according to a particular characteristic spirit and to receive public funds, subject only to meeting certain requirement relating primarily to viability and educational criteria.
Schools must, of course, be entitled to manage their own affairs in accordance with their establishing charters or other similar instruments, some of which represent agreements entered into with parents and teachers, and many of which have served the education system well in the past. The Bill recognises the importance and status of these instruments in sections 7 and 15. Section 7 also requires the Minister to have regard to the practices and traditions related to the organisation of schools or groups of schools which already exist, a further acknowledgement of the traditional autonomy of schools.
I mentioned earlier that section 14 underscores the importance of partnership and consultation in the establishment of boards of management of schools. My objective in this, and in all parts of the Bill, is to avoid prescriptive provisions which limit the autonomy of schools and which rely on coercion rather than consensus for their operation. A fundamental difference between this and the previous Bill is that we have deleted the element of compulsion and of taking grants from schools if they fail to conform to a central uniform norm.
Section 14 provides for patrons to establish boards of management in all schools. There may, of course, be a small number circumstances where it is not possible for patrons to establish boards immediately. In these cases the Bill provides specifically that the patron must inform the Minister and the local partners in education why establishment of a board is not practicable.
It is my intention that every school will have a board of management and that this will be brought about in consultation with the partners in education by consensus, not by coercion. Already at primary level there is clear evidence of the potential for consensus in this matter. Parents, patrons and teachers at primary level have already agreed a model for boards of management which will apply to primary schools without any legislative compulsion or obligation. This took over two years of discussion, arbitration and facilitation, but it is a far better model than endeavouring to force something down people's throats. I was pleased to have been able to help in reaching that consensus late last year and I am happy that the entire process has been successfully implemented on the ground in primary schools.
The position at second level may be more complex because of the diversity of school types. However, I know that the model of co-operation, which works so well at primary level, will work again at second level while retaining the diversity which is a hallmark of those schools. I and my Department will do all we can to assist the partners to reach appropriate agreements. Such is the widespread recognition of the benefits of the involvement of all the stakeholders in the management of schools, I am confident that, within a short time of the enactment of the Bill, the majority of our schools at all levels will voluntarily implement the provisions of section 14.
Those who pay for public services and those who use them are increasingly demanding that the providers of such services be accountable for their actions and that their operations be transparent so that meaningful accountability is ensured. This is a relatively recent development and is probably due in part to the success of the education system in producing more aware and proactive members of society.
The Bill addresses issues of accountability on a number of levels. Schools are required to be accountable to parents, they must keep proper accounts, establish procedures for informing parents of matters relating to the performance of the school, must prepare and circulate the school's plan to parents, must ensure that parents have access to records on their children and they must facilitate and give all reasonable assistance to parents associations. Each board of management is required to be accountable to the patron, on whose behalf it manages the school.
Schools through their boards are accountable to the Minster in respect of financial matters and adherence to the Act and regulations. The Minister in turn must ensure that criteria for funding of schools are transparent. The Minister is accountable to the community through the Oireachtas for the execution of his or her functions under the Act.
Catering for children with special needs has rightly become a major focus of education policy since the establishment of the special education review committee by my predecessor, Deputy O'Rourke. Most of the core principles are clear and I am very conscious of the level of need and the fact that resources will continue to be the major issue. However, I have already made considerable progress in this area. Most recently, I announced that in future any child with an assessed special need will have his or her educational needs met as a matter of right or automatic entitlement. That was not the position up to now. This is a very significant change which will go a long towards meeting the needs of these children.
The Education Bill provides a statutory framework to underpin the range of services to children with special needs. The Bill includes extensive definitions of disability and special educational needs. Senators might like to note in particular that the definition of disability includes "a condition or malfunction which results in a person learning differently from a person without the condition or malfunction and a condition, illness or disease which affects a person's thought processes, perception of reality, emotions or judgment or which results in disturbed behaviour".
The needs of children with disabilities or special needs find expression throughout the Bill. For example, section 7 provides that the Minister will ensure that each child with a special need or disability will have appropriate education and support services. Section 9, in expressing the functions of a school, refers in particular to children with special needs. Section 13, which deals with the inspectorate, provides that members of the inspectorate will include persons with expertise in the education of children with special needs. Section 15, which covers the functions of boards of management, provides for the needs of children with disabilities or special needs to be recognised in each school's admissions policy.
I was very happy to be able to respond positively to representations from groups representing students communicating through Irish sign language or other sign language by including in the Bill for the first time a reference to sign language. There are many other references to children with disabilities or special needs throughout the remainder of the Bill and a key provision is that the obligation in respect of the provision of resources to children with special needs will rest with the Minister of the day and not with the schools. The ultimate responsibility for the provision of resources and the statutory obligation will rest with the Minister.
I outlined earlier the contribution the education system has made to society and the economy. However, notwithstanding the many achievements of our society, and especially the economic achievements of recent years, there remain significant numbers of our citizens who, because of disadvantage, are marginalised in society or are at risk of being marginalised. There is, therefore, no room for complacency. I am very conscious of the important role which education has to play in tackling disadvantage and, in particular, in breaking the cycle of inter-generational disadvantage. Indeed, my Department currently provides a wide range of programmes targeted across the continuum of educational provision to meet the needs of the educationally and socially disadvantaged.
The Education Bill will, when enacted, provide a statutory framework which will complement the many initiatives already in place in this area. In particular, it provides two very specific measures aimed at disadvantage. Section 12 provides that criteria for funding of schools may allow for the payment of additional moneys to schools having regard to their levels of educational disadvantage. Section 32 provides for the establishment of a committee, the remit of which will be to advise on strategies to be adopted in tackling disadvantage.
The Bill makes it clear that this committee will not be merely an intellectual talk shop. Up to half the members of the committee will be drawn from bodies involved in work relevant to the work of the committee. In this way, the marginalised and those who work closely with them can have a direct input into policy formulation in this crucial area. It is my earnest hope that this disadvantage committee, which underscores the commitment of the Bill generally to tackling disadvantage, will advise me on innovative strategies to tackle educational disadvantage and will oversee their effectiveness.
Given the central importance of State examinations, it is essential that they should be given protection by being placed on a sound statutory basis. Indeed, it is surprising that State examinations do not have statutory underpinning. The examinations involved include, in addition to the junior and leaving certificates, such examinations as the ceard teasteas and technical examinations. Essentially, the Bill provides for the Minister to make regulations in relation to the operation of the examinations for offences in connection with the examinations system and for refusals to access certain information which might lead to the generation of school league tables. This is a very important provision and it is a definitive statement of policy that we do not want the publication of league tables in Irish education. The publication of such tables would be detrimental to education policy generally and certainly to many schools. We will not allow people to access information via examination data and so forth to enable them in a roundabout way to develop league tables which run contrary to our education philosophy and policy.
As far as offences are concerned, given the importance of the State examination system, it is my strong contention that there should be statutory provision for prosecutions for deliberate offences committed against the system. I emphasise that it is not the intention to pursue more minor offences which can often be the unintended consequence of the pressure of the examinations process. Existing procedures in these cases will continue and sanctions will be proportionate and appropriate. As far as the refusal of information is concerned, again I am strongly of the view that the Minister must be in a position to refuse access to information which could lead to the production of school league tables. I emphasise that parents' existing rights to information about their own children or school are not affected by this provision.
Part IX provides a framework for the establishment of bodies corporate which would carry out functions in respect of the provision of support services. My intention in including this provision is to allow the Minister to establish bodies to carry out executive functions which could more effectively and efficiently be carried out by such bodies than by a Department. The establishment of executive bodies is consistent with the policy approach set out my predecessor, Deputy O'Rourke, in the Green Paper on Education of 1992 which notes that the most efficient way by which these tasks would be performed, while enabling the Department to focus on its broader policy role, would be through a series of executive agencies which would have designated powers and responsibilities within given policy and budgetary frameworks.
The establishment of these executive bodies will offer us a unique opportunity to improve immeasurably the administration of our education system. To give an illustration of the type of bodies about which we are talking, we recently published the steering committee report on the establishment of a national education psychological agency. Through this section we can give effect to the establishment of such an agency to provide a national education psychological service. In keeping with the spirit of the Public Service Management Act and the strategic management initiative, their establishment will enable the Department of Education and Science to maintain a clear focus on the needs and demands of the various partners in the education system in the most efficient and effective manner possible. I emphasise that the development of and decisions on policy will remain the prerogative of the Minister. The agencies established in accordance with Part IX will be accountable to the Minister for carrying out their functions and the Minister will be accountable to the Oireachtas.
A very important aspect of the Education (No. 2) Bill is that it places the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment on a statutory basis for the first time. The NCCA has operated for many years on an ad hoc basis and has done much valuable work in the area of curriculum development. However, its ad hoc nature gave the wrong signal both to the council itself and the education partners. The NCCA has made a considerable contribution to the fundamental area of what we are teaching in our schools. The council is in no sense an optional extra to be retained or removed at the whim of a Minister. Rather it has a vital role to play in ensuring appropriate expertise and objectivity are brought to bear in matters relating to the curriculum in schools. The council can best carry out that mission if placed on a proper statutory footing.
Following the debate in the Dáil I have now included early childhood education in the remit of the NCCA. Development of a curriculum would be an important aspect of the future development of early childhood education and it is clear the NCCA will play an important role in this area. I also provided for the council to advise the Minister on the curriculum and syllabuses for students with a disability or other special educational need.
The Bill provides a statutory basis for education support centres, currently known as education centres, and sets out a framework for the operation of these centres. Education centres have become an important and accepted part of the education landscape, providing valuable support in the area of in-career development, and involvement in the co-ordination of such national programmes as the transition year project, civic, social and political education and relationships and sexuality education. The centres also act as resource centres for teachers and others in the education system. However, in common with much of our education system, these centres have developed without any specific statutory backing. The Bill will redress this issue.
The success of our education system depends fundamentally on the skills and dedication of the more than 40,000 teachers who work in our schools. I believe that we should not only recognise but also celebrate their role. I have, therefore, included specific provisions in the Bill in relation to the roles of principals and teachers: section 22 recognises that teachers are responsible generally for the instruction provided to students and that they contribute to their education and personal development.
The rights of teachers also find expression throughout the Bill: representatives of teachers are entitled to be consulted on a range of issues including, for example, procedures for appointments and appeals procedures, at both school and national levels.
The Bill also recognises the pivotal role of principals and outlines their various areas of responsibility. As Senators may be aware, I have established a working group to consider the role of the primary school principal; the Bill provides a solid framework within which the group will complete its work.
The place of the Irish language in our schools' curricula, its role in our education system and its place in the cultural and social life of our country is often the subject of debate. Although a small minority may fail to see the relevance of the language in modern Ireland, there is, in general, widespread support for the language.
In more recent times there has developed, largely through the gaelscoileanna movement, a more confident and proactive approach on the part of parents and teachers to the teaching of Irish. The level of commitment shown by many parents and teachers is highly commendable and holds the key to the increasing use of the language and its revival as a language in common use.
The Irish language is an essential part of Irish culture and tradition. It is an essential part of what we are as a people. Education is primarily about helping people to develop and grow to the best of their abilities so that they can be fully part of society. As far as education is concerned, the Irish language is of great importance to the personal development of Irish people. For this reason, it holds a special place in the education system.
The Education Bill contains a number of provisions which are designed to contribute to the realisation of national goals relating to the Irish language.
Schools in general will have a duty to promote the development of the Irish language and Irish traditions, literature, arts and Irish culture generally.
I look forward to resolving one issue during the course of the debate in this House, that is, the establishment of a body to provide resources and materials for those involved in the teaching of Irish. Until now the gaelscoileanna and schools in the Gaeltacht have argued that they lacked curriculum and general research resources in terms of teaching through the medium of Irish. With that in mind we agreed to set up a body to organise that for all who teach through Irish. In addition bodies involved in the Irish language movement, but not directly with gaelscoileanna, believe that such a body should have a relevance to the teaching of Irish generally. We have to reconcile that issue in the course of this Bill and I will bring forward amendments to reflect both strands of opinion on Committee Stage. It is a matter of regret to me that there is not unanimity in the language movement on this issue. It is in the interests of the language that all those involved endeavour to arrive at a consensus. If that does not happen I will make a recommendation to the House as to the best route to follow. No one, however, should doubt our commitment or the motivation behind this section — the enhancement of the Irish language and its teaching in gaelscoileanna and throughout the system.
Because of the level of debate over the last few years on the establishmentof regional education boards, I would like at this stage to refer briefly to them.
This Education Bill does not provide for the establishment of regional boards, a move which has been welcomed by most groups. Many inflated claims were made for the boards, about how they would solve problems in a range of areas and would somehow bring education closer to communities. I believe that the concept of these boards was fundamentally flawed on a number of levels, but most importantly, educationally and financially.
We should get very clear what these boards would have done: they would have been the vehicle for the massive extension of State control of schools and would have greatly increased levels of bureaucracy. Rather than devolving power from the Minister, they represented a vehicle for making it more comprehensive. In nearly every area, the proposal made clear that decisions would be made centrally by the Minister, with the boards acting merely as clearing houses. This model has been discredited in country after country and it would be extraordinary if we were to move towards it at the very time others are trying to discard it.
Some of the great stereotypes of departmental control are out of date. In recent years, the Department has been proactive in devolving functions to local level. An important example of this is the boards of management which provide for local management of schools. Another example is found in the primary capital area, where primary schools arrange for expenditure on minor capital projects at their own discretion, subject to proper accounting.
I accept the need for reforms and am committed to further practical action, but this must build on, and not undermine, the strengths of our system.
I am not interested in extending my control of the system. I am interested in working in partnership with all those involved in education. As a result I have not included in the Bill a range of new powers which it was proposed, in the Bill proposed by the previous Government, should be given to the Minister.
Leaving aside the fact that the proposed boards would have extended bureaucracy and have made little or no educational contribution, their cost would have been unjustifiable. I spent many months in Opposition attempting to get the last Government to tell the House what the boards would cost, but to no avail. I have since discovered that a 1995 estimate stated that they could cost up to £40 million a year to run and that there was no credible plan drawn up for their establishment. I can think of no circumstance where the expenditure of £40 million on creating a new layer of bureaucracy should take precedence over using scarce resources where they are needed — in the classroom.
The approach outlined in this Bill directly fulfils promises contained in both our election manifesto and the Programme for Government. The matter was discussed at length in the Dáil and I hope we can now move on and spend the time available in more fruitful discussion of other aspects of the Bill.
As I said at the outset, we have an education system of which we can be proud, an education system that has made a huge contribution to the development of our society and our economy. This Bill seeks to copperfasten those achievements, protect the integrity of the system and provide a framework for its future development based on the idea of partnership. This Bill will not of itself remove the deficiencies from our system of education but it is a crucial element in its development.
As we now undertake Second Stage of the Bill, I look forward to hearing the contributions of all Senators. During the Dáil debate I accepted a considerable number of Opposition amendments. I hope this will be a constructive debate which focuses on how to provide for the future development of our education system for the good of its students and our society. For my part, I assure the House that I will constructively respond to the points raised.
This is an important Bill, which deserves widespread support. I commend it to the House.