I wish to announce an amendment to amendment No. 20 — double quotation marks should appear before "(f)". Amendment No. 21 is related and may be taken with amendment No. 20 by agreement.
Education (No. 2) Bill, 1997: Committee Stage (Resumed).
The purpose of this amendment is to highlight in the object section the importance of promoting best practice in teaching methods with regard to the diverse needs of students and the development of the skills and competences of teachers. Although this would have been implicit in the Bill as drafted I am happy to make it explicit through this amendment.
Is the amendment agreed?
Are we discussing amendment No. 21 also?
I would prefer to hear the Opposition's observations on amendment No. 21 before I reply.
I support the Minister's amendment to promote best practice in teaching methods with regard to the diverse needs of students and the development of the skills and competences of teachers. I am delighted that is incorporated in section 6. We had a very long and torrid discussion on section 6 and how it should be implemented, particularly in relation to resources and the "as far as is practicable" clause contained therein. The objects and principles enshrined in this section, where every person who is concerned with the implementation of the Act is at least bound to have regard to them, are welcome. I am glad the Minister has included the provision in relation to teaching methods.
Amendment No. 21 proposes to delete "economy" and substitute "quality". We are moving now to section 7 which deals with the functions of the Minister as opposed to the objects of the Bill which are dealt with in section 6. One of the functions, as outlined in section 7(2)(b), is to monitor and assess the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of the education system provided in the State by recognised schools and centres of education. It seems rigid, mechanistic, almost utilitarian that the Minister feels he should monitor and assess the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of the education system. Surely, the first thing he should monitor and assess is the quality of the education system. I cannot understand why he included the words, “economy, efficiency and effectiveness” while not including “quality”. I would have thought “economy” was covered by “efficiency and effectiveness”. It is unbelievable that the Minister has not given any priority or made any reference to “quality”. Obviously we should provide an “efficient” education system, but I ask the Minister to accept that our first priority should be the provision and delivery of a quality education system.
I am intrigued by the word "economy" in Senator Costello's amendment No. 21. I do not know what it means in the context of this Bill. Obviously, his amendment makes a lot more sense. Can the Minister of State educate us as to what the phrase "the economy of the education system" means? I have not heard the word "economy" used in this context. If the Minister of State means the economic efficiency of the education system, that is fair enough. If he means something else, let us use a different word. I would like to know what the Minister of State understands by the phrase "the economy of the education system".
My interpretation of the word "economy" in legislative terms means value for money and general financial efficiency. It implies that we are obliged to ensure the money being spent on the education system is spent to best purpose and targeted most effectively and that the taxpayer, whose money it is, gets the best possible value for it.
The effect of Senator Costello's amendment, despite his contribution, is not just to substitute the word "quality" but to take out the word "economy" and replace it with "quality". I do not propose to accept this amendment. The combination of effectiveness and efficiency defines quality in the education system. As regards the use of the term "economy", I make no apologies for ensuring, given the growing and competing demands on the education budget, that all spending in this area is done wisely.
The Minister intends to submit the heads of a Bill to Government on the establishment of a teaching council in line with the report of the steering committee on this matter which he recently published. The teaching council, when established, will obviously have a major role to play in overseeing and maintaining standards in the teaching profession.
It is about time we had a teaching council. That idea has been mooted for the last 20 years, although various problems have arisen, not least of which are the legal problems. I do not know when we will get a teaching council.
We are dealing with an education Bill which specifies the functions of the Minister. It is incredible that we should specify these functions without the Minister having regard to the quality of the education system he is delivering. I cannot accept what the Minister of State says. If he has a problem with the wording of my amendment, which seeks to delete the word "economy" and substitute it with "quality", I am willing to adjust it for Report Stage to read, "a function of the Minister is to monitor and assess the quality, economy, efficiency and effectiveness..". That is a reasonable suggestion. If the Minister feels he must retain the word "economy" he should have no objection to accepting the inclusion of the word "quality" before "economy".
The substitution of the word "economy" for "quality" will not make any difference to the functions of the Minister in this regard. It would not serve any purpose to change the word. That would bring a whole new interpretation to this section. The quality of the education system is already specified in the Bill. It does not make sense to insert "quality". One would need to change the effect of subsection 7(2)(b) to achieve the quality to which the Senator is referring. That quality already exists and we are talking about the functions of the Minister. The quality of education has been stated.
I have listened carefully to Senator Costello and I have some sympathy with his approach. I assure him we will consider his amendment sympathetically if he changes it along the lines he suggests.
I thank the Minister of State. I am prepared to change the amendment so that the word "quality" comes before "economy", instead of substituting it.
Amendment No. 21 in the name of Senator Costello has been discussed with amendment No. 20. The Senator indicated that he wishes to withdraw the amendment to give the Minister an opportunity to look at it before Report Stage.
I move amendment No. 22:
In page 12, line 3, after "of," to insert "educational disadvantage,".
I move amendment No. 23:
In page 12, between lines 5 and 6, to insert the following new subsection:
"(5) The Minister shall direct each local authority to establish an education welfare committee with such number of education welfare officers as may be prescribed, to co-ordinate the statutory and other agencies concerned with the welfare of children in their functional area.".
A substantial amount of responsibility for education has been devolved to local authorities. They are responsible for vocational education committees and school attendance in some areas and the Garda is responsible in other areas. Local authorities are also responsible for providing school meals in some instances. The education area has not been developed. It is a Cinderella area in local authorities. When vocational education committees are set up there is no reporting mechanism on how they operate as regards the parent body. The school attendance service is in a dire condition with a mixture of Garda and local authority supervision. The Minister intends to introduce legislation in this respect, but I do not know when that will take place. School meals is another area which operates on an ad hoc basis.
Local authorities are being reformed. New policy committees are being established and it would be appropriate, in terms of these reforms, that their responsibilities should be emphasised. The educational support mechanisms they could provide could be teased out. This amendment suggests that each local authority would establish an education welfare committee with such number of education welfare officers as may be prescribed. This would give elected members a role. It would also allow for the establishment of a welfare committee with education welfare officers. However we wish to describe them, welfare/development officers would know what is going on within the jurisdiction of the local authority.
One of the problems we have experienced is the inability to deal with people who are failed by the system. People fall through the system. They drop out of school, mitch, end up in trouble, perhaps in prison, and their education is lost. We have not devised a mechanism to solve this problem. We got rid of regional boards but have not replaced them with local boards or any other structure. We have a stand alone school system. Why should local authorities not have this remit? They have a remit in education, but it has not been developed. Should we not now establish a local structure? Why not utilise that structure and set up the committees?
Many committees are established by local authorities. Why should they not have an education welfare committee which would also deal with educational disadvantage and provide a support mechanism? These committees would identify the problems. Councillors are knowledgeable about everything going on in their areas and they are well able to provide information which could be fed to a local welfare committee. This would be a valuable mechanism. It would be worthwhile considering this issue now that we are reforming the local authority system. The Minister for the Environment and Local Government will introduce such legislation before the local elections. Why not make an input at this stage so he can consider how to reform local authorities? We should give a boost to the educational aspect of the remit of local authorities.
I understand Senator Costello's wish to involve local authorities. However, I am not sure we should introduce education welfare officers in this context. Such a measure should be within the remit of the Department of Education and Children which, perhaps, should have a co-ordinating function. School attendance legislation will be brought before the House in the coming months. In that context there is a role for welfare officers. In whatever mechanism we come up with, I am sure there will be a role for the homeschool link and the support services which are a part of this Bill. However, I am not sure we should spread it out. We have been down that road too many times and it gets so splintered that people in the education system do not know with whom they should make contact. I believe in keeping matters tight and under one umbrella. This is the only way to make the system work.
I support Senator Costello's idea. Many local authorities set up local traveller accommodation committees. My council did so yesterday. It is a duty of all councils to provide halting sites for travellers. This type of committee would be helpful in that area. We already have a number of successful training centres for travellers at senior and junior level. Many operate successfully in my county. I am not specifically referring to travellers, but if we are to integrate travellers we must go down the road of training and education. Perhaps this is what Senator Costello is getting at. If this issue was examined in depth we might be able to include situations in which social workers and travellers could be represented on these committees. That would be beneficial and worth considering.
Section 7(1)(c) already provides for the co-ordination of educational support services. Subsection 7(4)(a)(ii) makes reference to services provided by other State agencies and, more generally, in the State. Further provision is made in section 33(j). It would be difficult to accept any proposal the effect of which, whatever the intention, would be to establish another layer of planning and co-ordination.
I share the view expressed by the Minister that local education bodies similar to education boards would be an expensive and unnecessary imposition on the education system. Senator Costello's education welfare committees could, with the best will in the world, turn out to be regional education boards in another guise. I agree with Senator Costello that there is a need for the co-ordination of local services. The school attendance Bill which is being drafted and will come before the other House early in the new year will provide for an education welfare service to do the sort of work at local level which is referred to by the Senator. However, it will be done in a different way in that the education welfare service will be a national body with local subcommittees. While I accept that the work described by Senator Costello needs to be done, I believe there is a more efficient way of doing it. That will be provided for by the school attendance legislation. Despite the logic of what Senator Costello says I cannot accept his amendment.
The reference to the "economy. of the education system" represents one of the worst pieces of drafting I have ever seen. I have no idea what it means and it is an appalling use of the English language. It is particularly regrettable that it comes from the Department of Education and Science, of all places. I appeal to the Minister to find out from the parliamentary draftspeople what they meant by this term and to clarify it on Report Stage. The phrase "the economy. of the education system" means nothing.
Senator, you made that point when we discussed amendment No. 21.
It is, nevertheless, a sloppy piece of drafting. I have not mentioned section 7(3). It says "The Minister shall have all such powers as are necessary or expedient for the purpose of performing his or her functions". What does that mean?
I already indicated to Senator Costello that I would consider improving Section 7(2)(b) if he submitted an appropriate amendment on Report Stage. That remains the case.
With regard to section 7(3), the Minister's functions are laid out. I take it that we are agreed that the Minister should have those functions. Some Members of the Opposition have proposed giving the Minister more functions. If someone is given functions, that person must be given the power to carry them out. Section 7(3) is intended to ensure that no one can find a legal impediment to the Minister's carrying out his functions. For example, section 7(2)(c) states that the Minister has power "to lease land or buildings to any person or body of persons for the purpose of establishing a school." One might imagine a difficulty in a title which might prevent the granting of a lease. I presume that if such a difficulty existed, the Minister's powers as stated in section 7(3) would override it. That is my understanding of the subsection. If Senator Ryan requires more clarification I will speak to officials in the Department and communicate with him. The Minister has been given certain duties and we must ensure that he has the legal powers to carry them out.
The Minister is saying that in case we missed something when drawing up the Minister's powers, we are giving him a catch-all provision to cover all eventualities.
Such provisions are very dangerous and are often more trouble than they are worth. If the powers are too broad and are not clearly defined, the courts will declare them unconstitutional. If a power cannot be defined it cannot be constrained. The Attorney General's office is inclined to include a phrase such as this when future problems are foreseen. I do not propose to argue further but I do not like it.
I do not like it either. It could be deleted. The Minister for Education and Science has functions by virtue of that position and section 7(3) is not necessary. Section 7(2), more appropriately, sets out the duties rather than the powers of the Minister. The Minister's function, in relation to this Bill, is "to do all such acts and things as may be necessary to further the objects for which the Act is enacted". Section 7(3) neither adds nor subtracts from the role of the Minister and could well be deleted.
I am disappointed that while this section makes reference to a wide variety of areas and needs including, students with disabilities, support services, the economy of the system, the efficiency of the school and support for the Irish language, there is no reference to educational disadvantage. It is disappointing that the major function of the Minister, to provide for the elimination of educational disadvantage, is not specified. The Minister is accepting responsibility for many other areas but this vital function is missing.
Senator Costello refers to a subsection which neither adds to nor subtracts from the Bill. An amendment on the subject of educational disadvantage would not subtract from the legislation but it certainly would not add to it. Provision for educational disadvantage runs throughout the legislation. There is even provision for a committee to advise the Minister on monitoring progress.
I can assure Senator Ryan that the Constitution is quite safe. No matter what we put in legislation, the Constitution is paramount and cannot be overriden.
I know that. I am worried about the legislation, not the Constitution.
The Constitution will be there to protect the Senator if the legislation is found to be contrary to it.
I am very glad it is there.
It was put there by Eamon de Valera in 1937.
It is a good Fianna Fáil Constitution.
In relation to the earlier point raised by the Senator, the Minister has certain functions under this Bill and everyone agrees that he must and should have those functions. If he has those functions he must have the power to carry out those functions. That is the raison d'e tre of subsection (3).
Why do we need school patrons? What is their function?
If you talk to people within the education system, both the providers and the people working in the education area, you will discover that school patrons are part of a long established convention. Since no one has queried it before tonight, I must assume that it is well accepted and that there is a very good reason for it.
Cuireadh brú ar na gaelscoileanna sin nach raibh faoi choimirce na hEaglaise bord patrúnachta a chur le chéile. They were compelled to set up a bord patrúnacha not because they wanted one or needed one but because they had to fit into a structure which involved patrons. As far as I can see from talking to people involved in the gaelscoileanna, they still do not know why they require patrons other than the fact that other schools with another ethos and different religious backgrounds decided to have patrons. I am still at a loss as to why we have patrons. I think it is an historical anachronism and we could do without it where we do not need it. Denominational schools want patrons but not everyone should have to have a patron, whether it is a saint or a bishop.
This legislation was discussed at great length. The Minister and his predecessor had extensive consultations with all the partners in education. The reason for the consultation was that the then Government intended to put the education system on a statutory basis and everyone agreed it was a good thing to do. The school patron is part of the system. I assume if there was an objection to school patrons it would have come out in the consultation process. My understanding is that it did not, so we are putting the system of school patrons on a statutory footing.
I move amendment No. 24:
In page 12, paragraph (a), line 45, after "with" to insert "educational disadvantage.".
I move amendment No. 25:
In page 13, paragraph (d), lines 10 and 11, to delete "having regard to the characteristic spirit of the school".
Amendment No. 25 has some bearing to the issue raised by Senator Ryan, that is, school patrons. The reason the system of school patrons has never been questioned is that it has been in existence for a very long time and people have taken it for granted. The system of providing a patron for every school both primary and secondary is very unusual and I presume it is not replicated anywhere else in the world.
I wish to refer to the term "having regard to the characteristic spirit of the school". What does the "characteristic spirit of a school" mean? There are almost 3,000 primary schools and 800 post-primary schools, almost 4,000 in total. Are we talking about a characteristic spirit of each individual school? It seems strange for us to legislate for that type of mixed group because we are talking about almost 4,000 different characteristic spirits. How can they be characteristic if they are all individual schools and they develop their own spirit? It is a mind boggling concept. The definition in section 9 (d) is to "promote the moral, spiritual, social and personal development of students and provide health education for them, in consultation with their parents, having regard to the characteristic spirit of the school". It would make sense if the definition referred to the spirit or the ethos of a denominational school but are we talking about individual stand alone schools having a characteristic spirit? Does it refer to Belvedere College in Dublin or Clongowes or any new school that might be set up tomorrow, for instance, the North Inner City Community College? Where does a school get its characteristic spirit? It is built up over the years. Is a "characteristic spirit" a good thing? There is no definition of "characteristic spirit". I failed to find one in the interpretation section. Can the Minister clarify what is meant by the elusive characteristic spirit of a school and how it is created? What is it?
Senator Costello should read the whole paragraph which states:
to promote the moral, spiritual, social and personal development of students and provide health education for them in consultation with their parents, having regard to the characteristic spirit of the school.
It refers to the ethos of the school. There are not 4,000 different types of ethos here but there are various religious undertakings and we have to reflect their views. The parents also expect us to reflect their views; this will come under the phrase "consultation with their parents". I have no difficulty with that paragraph.
We went to great length during the debate on the Employment Equality Act to define the term "ethos". In section 2(b) of this Bill there is a description of the characteristic spirit of the school which states: "as determined by cultural, educational, moral, religious, social, linguistic and spiritual values and traditions which inform and are characteristic of the objectives and conduct of the school". That is a stab at defining it but I cannot find anywhere in the Bill where it is required that anyone has to write down and describe the characteristic spirit of the school.
I agree that people must have regard to the characteristic spirit of the school as long as they know what it is. Is there a requirement in the Bill that the teachers, the pupils or the board of management of the school have to be informed of the characteristic spirit of the school in an intelligible fashion so that it is not something that can be defined to suit the convenience of the patron when they do not like something the school wants to do? I do not want to get rid of it but the definition of a school's characteristic spirit should be written down somewhere.
In my brief perusal of the Bill I have not found it either but we will search more assiduously later tonight. We are talking about a school ethos. We have to use some expression where we all know what we are talking about. It is a matter of finding an appropriate expression to put into legislation. It might not be the best definition; perhaps there is a better one. My note which forms part of the background to the discussions on the drafting of the legislation states that the characteristic spirit of a school is the intangible character of the school which encompasses the purposes for which the school was established and the collective attitudes, beliefs, values, traditions, aspirations and goals of the school community.
While the expression itself is often associated with religion, the reality is that ethos encompasses much more than that. It is as much a concern for gaelscoileanna and multi-denominational schools as it is for denominational schools. To convey this wider sense of ethos, the Bill uses the expression "characteristic spirit" rather than the more limiting term "ethos".
Regarding amendment No. 25, it is the view of the Minister and of the Department that promotion of the moral, spiritual, social and personal development of students and the provision of health education can only be done having regard to the characteristic spirit of the school. We are supported in this by local school committees, communities, parents, teachers and management authorities. It would take from the effect of the section to remove the reference to "characteristic spirit". Therefore, the amendment cannot be accepted. However, I will take account of what Senator Ryan said and pass on his comments to the Minister.
What Senator Ryan identified in relation to paragraph 15(2)(b) needs to be stated clearly. My amendment does not so much disagree with the phrase "characteristic spirit" as to attempt to find out what it is about. We are discussing the moral, spiritual, social and personal development of students which are important parts of their learning and education. The undefined characteristic spirit seems to vary from school to school. It would be appropriate for its definition to be included in the interpretation section of the Bill so that it is understood. I am sure the Minister would have no problem providing for that. However, the fact that he began his description with the word "intangible" makes it very difficult to define.
This needs to be defined because one man's or woman's intangible characteristic spirit may not be another's. This could result in a huge variety of characteristic spirits which may well be uncharacteristic in terms of all schools of which there are almost 4,000. While it is a better expression than the word "ethos", I am not sure it should not be defined; the phrase "stated characteristic spirit of the school" or something else which ties it down might be suitable. A definition in the interpretation section may not be possible but the phrase merits something more tangible. The Minister might examine this to see if it can be tied down to some extent.
I recall a similar debate some months ago on the Employment Equality Act. It was the last occasion views were exchanged on terms such as "ethos" and "characteristic spirit". There was a reasonable consensus at the time that such terms could not be pinned down. When I suggested that attempting to find the term which best describes mercury as being perhaps most akin to attempting to describe "ethos" or "characteristic spirit", I was criticised on the basis that it only confirmed what certain Members found to be a cause for alarm — that schools or school boards could, at a whim, change the characteristic spirit or ethos to suit themselves. It was suggested that churches should be called upon to define the ethos and characteristic spirit of their schools.
Ethos has historically served us well. The Minister has sought to broaden it by referring in the Bill to the "characteristic spirit of the school" and that is as broad as he can go in the circumstances given that ethos cannot be defined. Ethos means one thing for me and something else for other Members. For a school, it is the totality of the values it has and we should not be any more limiting than that.
I know this has been discussed at length before but a number of issues arise. One is that the ethos of schools is referred to in the Employment Equality Act. Does the Minister have legal advice about the relationship between the word "ethos" and the phrase "characteristic spirit of the school"? It is important because people can be sacked from schools for reasons of ethos. Can they be sacked for reasons to do with the characteristic spirit of the school?
I am a believer in denominational education and am in a small minority on the political Left who do. Does each individual Catholic school have the right to define for itself a separate characteristic spirit? This could mean a conservative parish priest in one area having one definition of characteristic spirit and a liberal parish priest in another area having a different definition. Senator O'Toole has spoken of the experiences of national teachers in this regard — that there was nothing like a uniform understanding of the ethos or of the characteristic spirit of a school. This is why I ask if schools can be encouraged to describe but not to define in writing their characteristic spirit to give some protection to people involved.
The term "characteristic spirit" emerged from a two year process. I referred earlier to a two year process which led to the deeds of variation being agreed at primary level. Given the diversity of provision, especially for those who do not fall within the denominational variety of provision such as the multi-denominational schools and the gaelscoileanna, the term "characteristic spirit", with which the facilitator came up, was one which found greatest agreement. All agreed to the phrase rather than what was perceived to be the more limiting word "ethos".
It embraces a wide area and there are different emphases in certain schools and different characteristic spirits inform them. There is an argument whether we should aim for uniformity or diversity. Should we accept that diversity exists? The provision in the Bill and its terminology accepts it exists. While I do not wish to be facetious, given that it took two years to devise the term "characteristic spirit", I am not sure what would happen if schools were directed to state what it meant for each of them. Getting the school community to agree to that in the first instance could be a long process. However, it would not be in some cases. The gaelscoil movement has a clear view as does the multi-denominational movement.
Characteristic spirit can embrace a sporting or cultural ethos or a range of areas for which schools have a reputation or in which they have developed a record or proud tradition. I see this travelling around the country to various schools. Drama is a defining characteristic in one, traditional music in another and sport in another. It varies from school to school and that is healthy. Broadly speaking, the INTO has always accepted the position that teachers would never do anything to undermine the ethos or characteristic spirit of a school.
Provided they know what it is.
Generally, there are no problems with this.
Well done, Minister.
We all agree with everything the Minister has said. One could have virtually 4,000 different characteristics. One could also have an individual patron who, as Senator Ryan said, can be quite different from another patron in terms of views and input. Some patrons have a hands on approach, particularly in primary schools, while others do not. Since one can have a collective patron as with the vocational education committees, is one talking about the characteristic spirit of an individual school in that case? Is one talking about the collective spirit that the VEC, as patron, is responsible for or is one talking about each individual school within a VEC system of education that will have its own individual characteristic spirit?
On the other hand, one could be talking about a single owner who is the single patron of a school and who can go about his or her merry way. Under the legislation they do not even have to have a board of management. There may be problems getting a board of management in such cases.
There should be ground rules for a characteristic spirit, despite the difficulty involved in defining it. There is some attempt to define what a characteristic spirit is in section 15(2)(b). In terms of equality legislation and issues that may have a bearing on the dismissal of a teacher, it would be very valuable if the characteristic spirit, which is now replacing ethos, would have some recognition or stated format in which at least the key elements are prescribed or laid down, even though they may vary in intensity and emphasis from patron to patron or from school to school. Nevertheless, there should be some collective parameters in relation to characteristic spirit that could not be breached by a particular school. There may be others which might be deficient as regards the rounded characteristic spirit, or rounded ethos in the old language, but we are looking for something a bit more tangible than is in the section and which could give some indication of a certain unity of principle in relation to characteristic spirit.
I do not think it is possible to specifically provide a uniform definition of "characteristic spirit" in the sense that Deputy Costello has put forward. In terms of ethos, the Equality Bill deals with the rights both of patrons and those who work in institutions, be they in the health or education area. As the Senator knows, much work went into that and during the reign of the last Government there was much input both from Deputies and Senators.
The "characteristic spirit" would embrace the term "ethos". It would fall within the broad term "characteristic spirit" and, therefore, there is a relationship between this Act and the equality legislation.
I move amendment No. 27:
In page 13, between lines 22 and 23, to insert the following new paragraph:
"(g) ensure that the language/cultural needs of minority groups such as refugees are identified and provided for,".
This is a clear and simple amendment. Whether we like it or not, people from other cultures are settling here and we have a responsibility to cater for their needs. Other countries are doing it, so why not Ireland? For example, in Britain, our near neighbour, Asian and Arabic schools cater for the specific cultural needs of settlers there. This area will grow sooner rather than later and we must face up to it. The Bill contains no provision to cater for these people but one should be included. I would like to hear the Minister's views.
We are committed to dealing with the educational needs of children of refugees or, indeed, of children who seek asylum within the State. We do not discriminate and under UN resolutions we have obligations to provide education for all children in the State, irrespective of their background, creed or denomination. Even in the case of children of asylum seekers who have no legal residence, we do not turn them away — we provide for them in schools. A designated inspector in the Department is dedicated to drawing up proposals and making provision for the children of refugees, particularly with regard to language requirements. One of the basic necessities for any such groups that comes into the country is to provide for competency in the English language to facilitate their children to communicate within the country.
I would like to come back to this issue on Report Stage. I do not want to interfere too much in the admission policies of individual schools, but I want to check the background to the legal obligations on us as regards providing for the children of refugees. At the moment, the obligation rests upon the State and to a large extent we are doing it, although some schools argue that they need more resources particularly since the recent growth in the numbers of those seeking asylum.
If the Senator does not mind, I will come back to this matter on Report Stage with an alternative wording to capture the spirit of what he wants included in the Bill.
Taking cognisance of what the Minister has said, I am reasonably happy that something will be done on Report Stage. I accept what he said and I will not be pressing the amendment.
I want to endorse to some degree what the Minister said and I hope the Minister will amplify his thinking in this area. Although language and culture have always been intertwined, parents who come to live in this country are insistent that their children, who do not speak English, should be given every opportunity to learn it because it is the language of communication here. However, cultural needs are a separate issue in the educational context. When he reexamines this matter, the Minister should amplify his thinking in this area.
To place an obligation on individual schools to provide for such cultural needs could be difficult given the resources of individual schools around the country. If we were to place a strict obligation that schools had to provide some African languages, for example, where the school does not have any competency in that area, it could pose a difficulty. The State, however, must try to help in a general sense by providing resource centres or other bases for assisting children in this situation. An example of what we have done is the specific provision for Bosnian refugees. I do not know how one would enshrine that in legislation. This question did not arise in the Lower House.
As I was dealing with Private Members' business in the Dáil, I did not get a chance to check this matter. I may rephrase it on Report Stage so that we can reflect Senators' sentiments in the Bill. However, I suspect that the obligation should be on the State as opposed to the schools.
I am delighted Senator McDonagh put down this amendment. It will address an aspect of school attendance that is currently operated on an ad hoc basis.
In my constituency, up to 10 per cent of enrolments at a number of primary schools are children of refugees or asylum seekers. Their parents do not arrive on a structured basis but at any time during the year. The children go to the local primary schools. The Minister will be aware that schools where enrolments were declining are now increasing due to a concentration of refugees and asylum seekers in the area.
The majority of these children do not speak English and the language barrier is a problem when attempting to integrate into the education system. I am not aware of the Department putting any extra resources into dealing with the mixture of language, cultural and educational problems these youngsters will experience in adjusting to their new environment. It is appropriate that there should be a responsibility in this area on the school or on the Minister. It certainly should be an objective of the Bill that this aspect of education and the needs of such children should be addressed. If it were included in the section dealing with the objectives of the legislation, there would be a responsibility on all those involved in the implementation of the objectives to fulfil it.
There are difficulties in fulfilling that objective. How does one address cultural needs in the school context? One child might be from Africa while another might be from Romania. The children bring a mixed set of cultural experiences to the school as well as being faced with the Irish cultural experience. The language barrier is a major issue and substantial support mechanisms are necessary to deal with it, certainly in the short term, so that youngsters do not lose out in fulfilment of their early educational needs simply because they have difficulty learning the language or coming to terms with the education system.
The amendment is worthwhile and I hope the Minister finds a means of addressing it.
Unlike many of my colleagues, I was an emigrant and I still have strong links with the Irish diaspora. I cannot help but reflect on the polyglot nature of American society. On one occasion it was suggested that German rather than English should be used in a school. There was even a referendum on the matter. In recent years the question of language arose again and it resulted in a definitive statement being made by the people.
If Ireland is moving towards becoming a multicultural society, I welcome that. That is why I strongly support many of the views expressed by my colleagues on this issue in other debates. However, in this context I am concerned that the needs of the parents are taken into consideration. The heavy hand of the Department should not be involved in giving legislative effect to something which, perhaps, the parents of the children might not want or like. That is why I am curious to know the Minister's thoughts on the issue. It requires original thinking.
Families arrive in Ireland in much the same way as the Irish arrived in England and America. Irish emigrants integrated and were assisted in that integration. At the same time, however, they had support services which were provided not by the State but by their fellow emigrants. There are many such societies in England and America which have been visited by the Minister and by other public representatives.
I am concerned about legislating on such a complex area. I do not have the answer to this problem, but when people make a conscious decision to come and live in a country such as Ireland, England or America whose societies have certain mores, it means they must decide to integrate into or segregate from that society. There are also other pressures such as attitudes and so forth. I can anticipate the thoughts forming in the minds of Senators Costello and Ryan, but that is not what I mean.
I am referring to the position of families who decide to live in this country. They accept the structure of the society, but the issue is to balance their needs with the obvious points that have been raised about language and culture. A balance must be struck and I am concerned that the Minister might be pushed into introducing legislation which, in practical terms, might be more of a hindrance than a help. I do not have the solution to this problem and I am curious to hear the Minister's views.
There is no question of a heavy handed approach. Obviously, one would have to work with the various cultural minority groups. What we are discussing is an educational provision that would recognise the cultural rights of minority groups who are refugees or have refugee status. We should not put in place obligations that cannot be met in practical terms. There is no point including something in the legislation in order to look good.
There are practical problems involved, particularly at school level. Obligations in many instances rest with the communities or the parents who are often responsible for maintaining the cultural identity of their children. Only a few weeks ago the British Government included the Irish language in its national curriculum even though Irish community groups throughout England were engaged in cultural and language provision. Some schools were teaching the Irish language, but without State resources. They welcome the fact that they have received recognition.
Senator Costello might have pointed the way in suggesting that this provision be included in the section that deals with objects. I am willing to articulate the issue in the Bill to show that the State understands it has an obligation in this regard, albeit there are practical problems in providing certain things. That would be a welcome step forward.
I move amendment No. 28:
In page 13, paragraph (m), line 36, after "policy" to insert "which does not involve entrance examinations and".
The amendment proposes that where an admissions policy to schools is established, it should not involve entrance examinations. While the Minister of State said the established policy in a school should provide for maximum accessibility, it should be enshrined in the legislation that entrance examinations should not be permitted as part of that policy.
Aptitude testing for the allocation of classes and so forth is not a problem, but an admissions policy that depends on entrance examinations has been shown in the past to be discriminatory and to have been used as a mechanism to exclude children who are not wanted for certain reasons. If such a policy were to operate, it could give rise to enormous dangers. Some schools still persist in using it.
When providing for the functions of a school, the legislation should make it clear that entrance examinations should not be part of the admissions policy.
I have great sympathy with many of the points made by Senator Costello. Everyone has come across cases of serious allegations of discrimination against aspiring entrants to particular schools but it can never be categorically stated whether such discrimination took place. However, the deaneries, with whose work I am most familiar, in consultation with the Department and successive Ministers have succeeded in breaking down and removing perceptions of discrimination, particularly in the part of the city where I live.
While I am sympathetic with the idea that schools' admission systems should not be open to supporting discrimination of any kind — I strongly support this sentiment — I am equally conscious of the need for schools to have local autonomy in terms of admissions. There are many reasons for this opinion with which Members are au fait. Senator Costello's amendment is too prescriptive and it would limit schools' local autonomy, which must be seen to obtain. Having said that and given that people are concerned about this issue, I know the Minister will be anxious to bring the influence of the Department to bear on individual schools to ensure that the system is as open, transparent, accountable, fair and non-discriminatory as possible. I assume the Minister will support those sentiments. I do not believe Senator Costello's amendment, which recommends the total abolition of schools to hold entrance examinations, is in the interests of local democracy.
I agree with Senator Costello. I am intrigued by the section he is seeking to amend which states that a school must provide "maximum accessibility". I presume this refers to children who can gain entrance to schools on foot of their social background, educational attainment, etc. However, as I understand it, fee paying schools will be recognised schools under the legislation. How will the Minister ensure maximum accessibility to schools which charge fees of £1,000 or more per term?
It cannot be done.
That is the best and easiest way to end the discussion.
Under the Constitution, our system of education is State aided. When drafting the legislation we decided not to be overly prescriptive in terms of schools' admissions policies. However, we are placing obligations on them to clearly set out and publish those policies in order that people can gain access to them. The provisions in admissions policies which form obstacles to certain students gaining access to a school are those which state that a person, even if they do not live in the locality, may gain access to a school if their brother, father or mother were past pupils. That tends to be the major issue in terms of access to second level schools.
There is a rich diversity of institutions offering second level education. I accept that there are fee paying schools but these are in a minority. Some parents continue to believe it is worth paying money for their children's second level education but I do not hold that opinion. Voluntary schools have their own admission policies and these institutions are State aided. The Constitution did not develop a State owned system of education, it provided for a State-aided system and the State has never owned schools. It is constitutionally questionable whether the State, even if it so desired, could in law prescribe that no school should hold entrance examinations.
The Department of Education and Science discourages entrance examinations and the vast majority of schools do not have them. However, some have pre-selection tests to identify the strengths and basic abilities of students before they enter the system. That is not a bad idea because it is important that schools should gain an idea of students' level of education. There are certain legal constraints on what can be done in this area. Given the small number of fee paying and other schools which hold entrance examinations, one could go down a tortuous legal route trying to enforce a regulation to prevent them holding such examinations.
I accept the Minister's comments in respect of fee paying schools. However, I was referring to standard voluntary schools which are not fee paying but which are assisted by the Department of Education and Science. An inordinate number of schools retain admissions policies based to some extent on entrance examinations. The problems attached to this discriminatory mechanism have not been addressed. Those problems might disappear if we determined that funding could be withheld from schools with admissions policies which use entrance examinations as a discriminatory mechanism and which limit students' access to those institutions. That could also be used against the fee paying schools if the Minister so desires because the Department pays the salaries of the teachers who staff these schools.
As far as I can determine there is no entrance examination mechanism for primary schools but one definitely exists in many secondary schools. It does not seem appropriate that the Bill should pass without dealing with that question. Do we want a relatively small number of schools to be allowed to use mechanisms which decide whether a student will be granted entrance on the basis of their ability on leaving primary school or do we want to ensure maximum accessibility so that students can attend the college or school of their choice? How we incorporate that in policy is another matter but students should not be obliged to overcome the hurdle of entrance examinations which can be used by schools in whatever fashion they desire. We should a find of way of asserting that schools should have a maximum accessible admissions policy and that should not include an entrance examination. I do not see any other way to do that than to specify this mechanism which is being used by some schools. Entrance examinations are not used by other schools who are proud to state that. All voluntary schools should be on the same wavelength as regards their admissions policy and an entrance examination should not be one of the means by which they refuse admission.
There may also be implications for school transport in section 9(m), line 37, which provides for maximum accessibility. Perhaps "within a school catchment area" should be inserted there. In rural areas the concept of a school catchment area is usually the bus journey for the collection of students. While I subscribe to the concept of maximum accessibility within the confines of a defined school catchment area, there may be a danger that the concept could be abandoned following this legislation.
There is absolutely no danger of that. I do not want to apply the school bus catchment area to this issue or we will never solve it.
I empathise with Senator Costello but I cannot accept the amendment. We could look at it under the regulations or in terms of the recognition section of the Bill where the Minister has powers to recognise schools or withdraw recognition if their behaviour or conduct is not in keeping with either the objects or functions of the school. Under sections 10 and 11 the Minister can intervene. I am not disposed to including the amendment on a legal basis.
How can we withdraw recognition from schools unless we have a stated policy?
We have general principles because we do not want to be too prescriptive in terms of the admissions policies in schools.
This is the key area of difficulty in the present system and not addressing it is turning a blind eye to the problem. I do not recollect any school for which recognition has been withdrawn on the basis that it has operated a selective policy which would be discriminatory. There is no precedent for that so I am not sure if it will happen. Schools often deny it but effectively it is happening. I do not know if there is a mechanism under which the Minister can establish regulations or issue a circular.
Section 33 gives the Minister power to introduce regulations at any stage.
That is very general — are we going to leave the Bill without addressing this issue?
Yes, because I do not think it can be legislated for. We have a State aided rather than State owned system.
I wish to revisit an issue which is relevant to section 9(a) which ensures that the educational needs of all students, including those with a disability or other special educational needs, are identified and provided for. My colleagues have referred to the initiative undertaken by the Minister some weeks ago. However, I want to express my personal thanks to the Minister on behalf of my daughter who is a special needs child and many of the others who have benefited from this initiative.
Living in rural Ireland, the fight to get a special class in a small rural national school was not easy. However, having got it, to retain and resource it was an uphill battle. I know Ministers make decisions and take initiatives and a cynical public, and perhaps even more cynical politicians, will question his motives. However, the fact that the Minister has taken this initiative will have enormous trickle down benefits for parents of children with special needs. This will be a legacy the Minister will look back on proudly, no matter how long he stays in this Ministry or whatever other one he may go to.
It is a special area and I hope that, as a follow on to the initiative, the resources will be put in place and that what the Minister has outlined will happen. I have no doubt it will but it is important we keep the pressure on and that this happens by the provision of psychologists, speech therapists and especially teaching assistants, who are a wonderful addition. I hope the initiative will be implemented quickly. I know the Minister has made the decision and then bureaucracy will take over.
My second point relates to the area of arts and culture and section 9(f). As a member of the Leitrim VEC, I am also a member of an organisation called the Sligo-Leitrim Arts Committee which was set up by the Sligo VEC with a contribution from the Leitrim VEC. There are only a small number of arts officers employed in this context across the country. The arts officer responsible to the joint vocational education committees operates in the two counties by providing accessible arts programmes in the vocational sector. He encourages those of an artistic bent in a variety of areas, including music and painting, to go into vocational schools to teach for a number of hours.
It seems that the origins of this arts officer's employment goes back 25 years. He is unique as there are only two or three others similarly employed.
With the vocational education committees?
Yes. This gentleman and his colleagues are in an anomalous situation. I did not give the Minister any warning of this question although I briefly discussed the matter with his officials. I do not expect him to answer the specifics. However, I wish to put in context the general request. It is fine to say a school will have this function but will the Minister now look at the possibility of arts officers being appointed across primary and second level? There should be more arts on an extra curricular basis or in the school curriculum.
We are paying lip service to the arts. I accept this is all to do with resources. The officer, Leo Regan, is doing outstanding work with very limited resources in a rural part of the country. The examples he has highlighted on the committee indicates that schoolchildren in all secondary school sectors would benefit from a refocusing on the arts. Left to their own devices schools will not necessarily do it. Some vocational education committees have had enough hours in their quota to appoint music teachers, etc. However, this is very haphazard across the country. In stating that, the function of the school under section 9(f) is to promote the development of language, the arts and other cultural matters and, notwithstanding the opt-out regarding when resources allow, I would be grateful if the Minister would indicate his thinking in this area from an education point of view.
I thank the Deputy for his comments on the special needs initiative. We are determined to provide the necessary resources. We are putting in place automatic entitlements in terms of a staffing schedule for children with special needs. In other words, they will not have to await the crumbs of any future dividend; the provision is there as a matter of right.
The Senator outlined a unique situation in terms of arts and culture. Every VEC does not have an arts officer, but obviously many would like one. We would need to discuss the expansion of that system with the local authorities who have increasingly appointed arts officers. If a VEC arts officer and a local authority arts officer operated in the same area, there would be significant duplication. This would not be desirable. I am committed to expanding the arts in schools. This can be done in a number of ways. The artist in residence programme which the Arts Council, in conjunction with the Department, has developed is a good initiative. Under this programme, an artist resides in the school for a particular period. The fruits of that work has had a dramatic impact on certain schools. There is no difficulty in schools where there are good arts teachers. In some second level schools there are two kilns and pottery craft and so on is very successful. In others there is not a painting in sight. The programme is patchy to that extent. However, provision is increasing. In second level schools the change in the arts syllabus is having a significant impact on participation. Generally speaking, more music tuition needs to be provided for at primary school level.
I pay tribute to the many national bodies who are collaborating with us. The National Gallery has many good school initiatives in place. The Hugh Lane Gallery has very good education initiatives and works with the schools. The Arc Centre in Dublin has an extraordinary impact and has an enormous schools programme. I hope other regional arts centres will replicate what is happening in Dublin in terms of the outstanding service being provided to schools in the field of the arts. I would like arts centres throughout the country to do the same. However, they are increasingly appointing education officers. That may be the route to go in some areas.
The Minister put his finger on the need for co-ordination. As he was speaking I was thinking of Mr. Regan and the fact that local authorities have been given financial resources by the Arts Council to appoint arts officers. At the Estimates meeting yesterday, we were informed that such resources have been provided and that a new arts officer for the entire county has been provided. Heretofore, it was a joint effort between Longford and Leitrim. The incumbent was snatched by our Longford friends and we were left without anyone. The resources are now being provided and the area partnership boards are also appointing arts officers. In County Leitrim there is a Sligo-Leitrim arts officer who operates between the two counties, an arts officer who is funded through the area partnership boards and there will now be a new arts officer appointed by the council. The situation is similar in many parts of the country. The area partnership boards are increasingly appointing arts officers to develop the arts at local and community level.
In light of the Minister's remarks, perhaps his officials would consider co-ordinating this resource and directing it into the educational area. I know I am talking to the converted, but it is vital for a well rounded education that young people in primary and second level have an awareness of the arts. I am not talking about the arts only in the context of painting and music, I am concerned about the creeping globalisation, particularly in the area of music. Children of six and seven years of age are now mouthing lyrics by international pop acts that would have been severely censored when I was growing up. It is an old story that if children are not exposed to a wider artistic environment they will grow up with a great lack in their education. This is a very serious issue in the context of the function of schools. I hope the Minister will bring the same commitment to this area as he has brought to many other areas.
I have visited many schools throughout the country. There is a high standard of music and a lot happening in many primary schools.
From the music point of view, students in the North are at a great advantage in that they can purchase musical instruments at very low cost if they wish to play music.
On a point of order, in terms of the Order of Business, the Government Whip agreed with Senators Costello, McDonagh and myself that we would finish at 9 p.m. As it is now 9.05 p.m., I do not know whether we are supposed to be here or not. I apologise if this was changed and I did not hear about it, but that is my understanding of how business would be conducted tonight.
Section 9 must be agreed. Following that, the time to conclude will be a matter for the House. Is section 9 agreed?
No, it is not.
Senator Cassidy on section 9.
Every young person in the North is offered a tin whistle or other low cost instrument in primary school if they wish to learn music and participate in their local communities. Playing Irish music is a great way of getting young people to play a part in their communities and to be proud of their villages and schools. It does not matter what type of music it is. Music is a very uplifting experience. People go out in the evenings to places where music is played because they find it uplifting. It enhances the evening's entertainment, even for those who do not drink.
A former Taoiseach had a novel idea when Minister for Health. He made a toothbrush available to every young person in school who wished to use it. On this occasion the Minister could put some life into rural communities and schools. As one who has benefited from the gift of music, I would like to pass on my experiences to future generations. Music allowed me to see the world and to experience the university of the world through the gift of music. In these days of the Celtic tiger it would be nice if a small allocation of money — perhaps on a pilot scheme basis — could be made available to counties such as Senator Mooney's where there is a great appreciation of music. I agree with most of his views. He has a wide knowledge of the music industry and people like him could progress what I am proposing. Perhaps the Minister would return to this on Report Stage.
Tá dhá cheist agam don Aire, an chéad cheann faoi scoileanna Gaeltachta. Seo rud a mholfainn dó smaoineamh air — nílim ag lorg freagra ar an bpointe.
Ós rud é go bhfuil sé de dhualgas ar scoileanna atá lonnaithe sa Ghaeltacht cabhrú chun an Ghaeilge a chur chun cinn mar bhunteanga cumarsáide, mholfainn dó na rialacha a athrú. Nuair atá ar mhúinteoir atá ag múineadh i scoil Gaeltachta dul ar an bpainéal, ní chóir go gcuirfí brú air nó uirthi an Ghaeltacht a fhágáil chun post a thógáil áit éigin eile. The Minister has a pretty good idea of cén áit atá i gceist agam, ach mar phrionsabal ba chóir go smaoineofaí faoi. Má tá múinteoirí maithe ag múineadh sna Gaeltachtaí, ní chabhróidh sé leis an sprioc atá againn maidir leis an teanga má bhíonn orthu an Ghaeltachta a fhágáil. B'fhéidir nach mbeadh an cumas céanna Gaeilge ag an múinteoir a thiocfadh isteach, ná an sprid ná an coimitmint céanna. Ba chóir go ndéanfaí cordon sanitaire idir an Ghaeltacht agus an Ghalltacht.
My second question deals with a matter about which I am concerned although I agree with it as far as it applies to primary schools, that is, "the quality and effectiveness of teaching in the school, the attainment levels and academic standards of students". This is a requirement on individual schools to maintain systems to assess all these things. Where is the guarantee to parents that there will be comparable ways of doing things between schools?
I am concerned that in an increasingly competitive environment where schools seek pupils, claims can be made which cannot be verified or selective claims will be made. We could end up in the position the Minister is correctly trying to avoid in section 53, but which applies more to State examinations. These would be evaluations conducted within the schools. I am concerned we could have an informal league table or schools making exaggerated claims about the attainment of their pupils. I do not want to go down that route, neither does the Minister.
Individual parents will have access to school records and boards of management must be consulted in relation to the school evaluation pilot project we are currently undertaking with 12 pilot schools; there are 12 more coming on stream. Parents are on boards of management so they will have an input through boards of management in the school evaluation project.
On the issue of schools making exaggerated claims, parents will have access to a range of information which the school publishes or makes available. To a certain extent, parents will inevitably make judgments on the schools to which they send their children. Ireland is different to other systems in that we have diversity in many areas. There are different types of schools even within a town. There can be three different types of second level school. That helps the parent in some respects. Word tends to get around locally about what happens — or does not happen — in schools. There is still a need for general access to information about issues such as which subjects are taught in a school and the result of a whole school evaluation pilot project.
We have to be careful. The issue of league tables is dealt with in section 53. We are anxious not to allow the publication of league tables. It is a question of balancing one against the other.
Maidir le scoileanna na Gaeltachta agus múinteoirí ar an bpainéal, cheap mé nach raibh deacrachtaí ann i ndeireadh na dála. Sa chás speisialta sin bhí sé an-deacair dul thar an Conor Pass. In áiteanna éagsúla ar fud na tíre, tá saghas limistéarú ann ó thaobh an oideachais de. Ach táim sásta machnamh a dhéanamh ar an gceist agus ar an gcóras.
Section 9 gives all the functions of a school. I am disappointed educational disadvantage is not included. I would have thought the Minister would regard this as an area for separate provision in terms of the function of a school. A school should be given responsibility where educational disadvantage is the concern of a number of its pupils and there should be an onus on the school to respond. That provision should be made in relation to the functions of the school.
Other specific areas are mentioned here from the Irish language to arts, literature and special needs, so why not educational disadvantage which, as I stated earlier, is the major problem affecting schools? It is the major problem school management needs to address and correct but there is no reference to it as a specific function of the school.
I would like to see admissions policies reflecting open admission. This was mentioned earlier in the context of entrance examinations. Educational disadvantage is not covered in any of the provisions in section 9. It is a significant and single omission.
I have argued before that in terms of educational disadvantage, the obligation to provide resources has to be on the Minister for Education and Science of the day.
The functions of schools have to apply to all students. The span of educationally disadvantaged students could be quite wide in some areas, narrow in others and hard to define in others. I would argue that it is in the Bill.
It is not there specifically. Special needs, the arts and literature are provided for specifically.
There are specific things we can do with special needs which in some cases schools were not doing before, such as making schools physically accessible. In some instances the Department was being blamed for situations for which it had no responsibility because schools did not even apply for ramps or specific toilet facilities in some instances. We did not receive the applications. The first we heard was when parents rang us. That has happened in the past. We are trying to cover those situations in terms of the functions of schools.
In the context of the educational disadvantage committee, we are making a significant statement in relation to educational disadvantage. We can go back to the tautology approach to everything in the Bill and insert language everywhere. There is a commitment to educational disadvantage in the Bill. However the primary focus for educational disadvantage — and I keep coming back to this — has to be the provision of resources from the State. Legislation on its own will not remedy that.
That is exactly why I am saying we should insert a provision to target educational disadvantage. If it is covered with resources like everything else in terms of the legislation, obviously it should be dealt with in that context. However if a school is specifically told that educational disadvantage is a priority issue, it has to address it and must prepare how to do it as part of its school plan in the same way it would address special needs.
There are no structures to deliver on the educational committee being set up. Perhaps there will be in the future. We should place an onus on boards of management, the Minister and the schools in terms of schools' functions and how to target the resources. The biggest function is in relation to disadvantage and it is not even referred to here.
Is section 10 agreed?