Education (Welfare) Bill, 1999: Second Stage.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The Bill before the House today represents a significant milestone in Irish education. For the first time in our history a Bill has been drafted and is being discussed which is focused on targeting the underlying causes of non-attendance at school rather than on sanctions for truancy. It represents a new approach to an age old problem and will, I believe, have a major long-term impact.

The challenge of getting young people to achieve a decent standard of education is one of this country's most vital national issues. No matter where one looks, every significant item of evidence shows that education is the great divide in society between opportunity and exclusion. Those who leave school early or without a qualification supply the ranks of the long-term unemployed and are dramatically more likely to be caught in cycles of poverty.

The Bill before the House is designed to get to the hardest part of the problem, the children on the margins for whom mainstream approaches alone will never provide the whole answer. Can we keep them in education and can we make education responsive to their needs? These are the questions which this Bill is designed to answer with a clear and resolute "Yes".

Too many young people leave school early, many without any educational qualification of any sort, tempted by the prospect of a wage – even though the wage is low and the future prospects are very bad. There are those who return to education at a later stage and we are working hard to support and develop a vigorous adult education sector. However, it is not acceptable to continue to tolerate the level of dropping out which exists. It may well be that we have a lower rate than other countries, but we can do much better. One of the essential aspects of this matter is that we need to move away from a rather complacent attitude to what is meant by achieving a minimum education. Traditionally, this involved the acquisition of the basic skills of literacy and numeracy. In the modern world, much more is needed.

The school attendance system is governed by out of date legislation; the main statutory basis for compulsory school attendance is the School Attendance Act, 1926. This legislation is implemented in a haphazard manner, with a poor level of information generally on the scale of non-attendance, a lack of resources and the absence of a properly co-ordinated national strategy. At the same time, the need for a properly functioning school attendance system has probably never been more widely accepted.

The consideration of the need to reform school attendance legislation has been on and off the public policy agenda for three decades. In 1970, the report of the Kennedy committee on industrial and reform schools proposed the complete overhaul and refocusing of the system. The process was given a major push by my colleague the Minister, Deputy O'Rourke, and the subsequent years have seen some movement.

A working group established under the aegis of my Department completed a review of the existing school attendance legislation in 1994. This review included an examination of the roles and responsibilities of the various agencies involved and considered the possibility of updating the legislative provisions. The review involved extensive consultation with the various partners, including representatives of the school attendance officers, the teachers unions, management bodies and voluntary agencies working with children affected by poor school attendance. Other Government bodies and State agencies were also consulted.

The results of this review were published in a truancy report in April 1994 and interested parties were invited to make submissions to the Department on the matters examined in the report. A task force established in 1995, consisting of officials of the Department, considered the submissions received and made recommendations as to future action to address school attendance problems at both first and second levels.

Senators may know that a draft school attendance Bill was prepared by the last Government which I decided not to proceed with. The explanation for this is very simple – I believe it to have been seriously flawed. It was, in essence, a continuation of an enforcement-led approach and did not take an holistic approach to non-attendance. In addition, its administration was based on regional education boards, which we have not proceeded with due to their excessive cost, damaging impact on school autonomy and overly bureaucratic procedures.

It is in the context of a more appropriate and inclusive approach that I present the Education (Welfare) Bill, 1999 for the consideration of this House. The general aim of the Bill is to provide for a comprehensive, national system for ensuring that children of compulsory school-going age attend school or, if they do not attend school, that they receive at least a minimum education.

The specific aims of the Bill are to raise the minimum school leaving age to sixteen years or the completion of three years of junior cycle education, whichever is later; establish a comprehensive legislative and administrative system for dealing with school attendance problems and issues relating to the educational welfare of children generally; and amend and update existing school attendance legislation.

The Bill provides for new structures and procedures to reflect modern thinking on educational and social issues. It puts in place legislative and administrative arrangements which can effectively uphold a child's constitutional right to education.

The Bill will bring effective co-ordination to all services directed at children and families with truancy and poor school attendance records. This will involve integrating early identification and intervention in such cases into the normal work of schools. It is my intention that a co-ordinated attendance system should operate on a number of levels, ranging from general preventative work to more direct enforcement.

As I have said, the Bill shifts the focus of school attendance enforcement from sanctions – although these are retained for certain matters – to addressing some of the underlying causes of truancy, helping children and their families and identifying at an early stage children who may be at risk of developing school attendance problems. While there is a role for sanctions in enforcement of school attendance in the case of some parents, I am strongly of the view that this should be a solution of last resort. Early identification and intervention in these cases, in addition to more general programmes to prevent various problems arising in the first place, should receive much more emphasis. In addition, once a sanction has been sought, an effective means of dealing with the appropriate provision for the child is included.

The Bill imposes a duty on schools to have a more proactive approach to the issues of truancy. Schools and teachers have a crucial role to play in addressing problems relating to school attendance. They are in a key position to identify children with problems and also children who are at risk of developing such problems. While many schools are already very conscious of their role in assisting children with problems, both in school and after school hours, too many rely solely upon disciplinary and exclusionary approaches to students seen as problem children. The Bill seeks to ensure that schools are more alert to their duty towards their students and more proactive in identifying and addressing problems related to school attendance. Central to this is the provision of a local and national framework for the schools to fit into and draw support from.

The Bill has been formulated to take into account not only the concerns expressed to the working group and the task force, but also the very real concerns expressed to me more recently by those involved in administering school attendance and addressing non-school attendance. I have tried, in drafting this legislation, to respond to the concerns expressed and to address them in a meaningful and progressive way.

The process of consultation with the various interest groups is continuing. While officials from my Department met with a number of interested parties as far back as last year, further meetings were held as recently as yesterday. In this, as in all matters, we can profit much from consulting with and listening to the people with the most expertise in the area – those people who are involved in the system on a day-to-day basis. I have listened to them, and I will continue to listen – to them and to Senators – as we progress through the various stages in this House.

This Government has always considered the issue of young people leaving school early and without qualifications as a policy priority. This matter was highlighted in the programme for Government and has been a focus of our attention since we came to Government. To address the issue, we have put in place a variety of initiatives, which range right across the spectrum, from pre-school level to post-leaving certificate level. A major aim of all these initiatives is to ensure children and young people remain in the education system for as long as possible, consistent with their own needs and abilities. A project which addresses the needs of children in the age range eight to 15 years has been in place in a number of areas. I announced last December that I would arrange for every school classified as disadvantaged to have a home-school liaison teacher. I announced last December that I would arrange for every school to have access to the services of a remedial teacher. I am currently in the process of establishing a national educational psychological service which will ultimately expand the educational psychological service to all schools. I will shortly announce an initiative specifically targeted at senior-cycle retention.

These new programmes are in addition to a number of well-established programmes which also have as one of their aims the retention of children and young people within the school system. Diversity of provision in schools is working and I have significantly increased the resources allocated to the leaving certificate applied programme and junior certificate schools programme in the last two years.

This Bill proposes a means of bringing together the full range of interventions, both in-school and out-of-school. The welfare service which it will create will provide the cement to allow us to build a lasting and valuable educational edifice which can include all our children.

The School Attendance Acts, 1926 and 1963, were originally enacted with a view to ensuring that children would attend school. The emphasis of these Acts was to require attendance and to treat those who failed to attend school as delinquent and deserving of punishment.

The Acts were effectively blunt instruments, which may well have achieved their objectives at the time they were enacted. However, given the changing nature of society and the economy and the consequent changing nature of the school attendance issue, together with the increased awareness of the importance of continuation in education for both the individuals concerned and for society as a whole, a more proactive approach to non-school attendance and to early school leaving is now required. New legislation which will give effect to a system that will seek out the causes of school attendance problems and seek ways to remedy them is required now. It is these basic principles which underpin the interventions which the Government has already put in place to tackle non-school attendance and it is these same principles which underpin the Bill.

The Bill, when enacted, will raise the school leaving age from 15 years to 16 years or the completion of three years' post-primary education, whichever is the later. This change is indicative of the changed character of this Bill as against the previous School Attendance Acts and is central to the new way of pproaching the issues of school attendance and early school leaving.

My intention is to create and develop an education system that produces well-educated students, who are developed as individuals, who have the qualifications to become financially independent and who have the necessary personal and other attributes to play their part in the economic and social life of the country. The students who leave our schools must also be capable of adapting to the new economic reality of life-long learning. The concepts of jobs for life and of low-level jobs which meet only the most basic needs of the Irish people are gone. Young people and society are rightly demanding much more from their careers and, by implication, from their education system, which as a result must continue to develop and change.

At the same time, too many young people are leaving school well before the normal school leaving age of 17 or 18 years without obtaining any qualification which would fit them for the world of work or enable them to take their place in society generally. The State must intervene to ensure that these young people receive the education which they need and to which they are fully entitled. While present legislation seeks to ensure that young people remain in school until the age of 15, it does not contain any provision that these young people must obtain some qualification before leaving school. The Education Welfare Bill addresses this deficiency.

As part of the process of consultation, a view was expressed that 18 years would be a more appropriate school leaving age. I agree with the idea that students should remain in school until such time as they complete a senior cycle programme. We should be careful, however, not to be too unrealistic and expect that we can keep all young people in full-time education for the extra two years. Another approach, based on identification of the under-qualified young school leavers and preparation of tailored programmes for them, is the better means of proceeding. I will return to this topic later.

That said, I have not forgotten the educational needs of those 16 and 17 year olds who, despite all our encouragement and initiatives, leave school prior to the completion of the leaving certificate. I will return to this issue shortly.

Bunreacht na hÉireann provides that "The State shall . . . require . . . that the children receive a certain minimum education, moral, intellectual and social". The Constitution does not specify what is meant by a "minimum education". Moreover, the existing school attendance legislation has not provided any statutory guidance on this matter. This is a matter which has been commented on by the courts and must be dealt with.

It is vital to safeguard the constitutional entitlement of all children to a minimum education and to ensure that by so doing they receive an education sufficient to prepare them for later life. The Bill will address this deficiency by enabling the Minister to prescribe what constitutes a minimum education. It would not be appropriate to prescribe in detail in legislation the minimum education appropriate to each different group and category of children. I have provided, therefore, that the Minister can prescribe the precise details by regulation. Obviously, this will be done within reason but it will be centrally informed by an approach which takes account of the world young people will be going out into and goes beyond the simple acquisition of basic skills. This approach is in accord with both the spirit and letter of Bunreacht na hÉireann.

The Bill retains the statutory duty on parents to ensure their children attend a recognised school. There is, however, a change in focus on this matter. The existing school attendance legislation is concerned with compulsion and the emphasis is on reverting to the courts when the statutory obligation on parents to ensure their children attend a recognised school is not met. The Bill shifts the focus of school attendance enforcement from sanctions to addressing some of the underlying causes of truancy, helping children and their families and identifying at an early stage children who may be at risk of developing school attendance problems.

Inevitably, there will be instances where all the interventions and assistance aimed at helping families and their children to address their school attendance problems will not succeed. In these increasingly exceptional cases, the new Bill provides for the possibility of sanctions for certain offences. I do not want to see legislation enacted that will routinely oblige non-compliant parents to appear before the courts, thus adding further burdens to already difficult lives and clogging the courts system. I must give due consideration, however, to the overriding right of each child to a minimum education. Accordingly, the Bill strikes an appropriate balance between assistance for those suffering school attendance problems and legal sanctions for those unwilling to accept that assistance.

Our education system provides for a wide range of choice to meet the varying needs and abilities of students. Notwithstanding that, some parents choose to exercise their constitutional right to educate their own children either at home or through an alternative education system. They are fully entitled to do this. However, the children in question are also fully entitled to receive an adequate education.

In order to safeguard these rights, I am making provision in the Bill for measures to guarantee the quality of education these children are receiving. Thus, following enactment, every child who is educated other than in the State funded system will be entitled to receive a quality education, and all those responsible for educating such children will have to be registered for that purpose. Assessment of the education received by the children will be an intrinsic element of the registration system. The aim is to ensure that, in all cases, children receive their constitutional right to an education.

This provision is dictated by the overriding need for balance. On the one hand, parents have the right to educate their own children. On the other, children have an inalienable right to be educated. As children are, by definition, less able to defend their own rights in this area, the Government has an obligation to ensure these rights are vindicated.

As I have already mentioned, and as I have stated publicly on numerous recent occasions, I am gravely concerned about the tendency for young people as young as 16 and 17 years of age to leave school to take up low-paid employment with poor future prospects. The lure of a pay packet, as opposed to completion of schooling, is strong for some young people. The current economic boom is feeding the problem. I do not seek to oblige young people to remain in school until the age of 18 years. At that age, compulsion is unlikely to succeed. It is important, however, that those who choose to exercise their right to leave school early understand the implications of that decision. It is also imperative that they comprehend the value that can be obtained from continuing their education on either a full-time or a part-time basis.

Under the current procedures, young people who leave school at age 15 or over are effectively outside the system. My Department ceases to have any knowledge of their whereabouts or their activity, whether this be work, education or whatever else. In these circumstances, there are no opportunities to help these young people to obtain the maximum benefit from education. There is no mechanism through which to advise them of the continuing education options available to them, both full-time and part-time. If we do not know who they are or where they are, we cannot work with them.

The proposals contained in the Bill are a radical step to remedy this problem. Upon commencement of the Bill, 16 and 17 year olds leaving school early will be offered the opportunity to register, and proof of registration will be required if they wish to take up employment. Registration will provide tangible benefits to these young people as they will then be assisted, through the preparation of a plan, in conjunction with their parents and employers, to avail of further educational and training opportunities of direct relevance to them.

This proposal is the product of consultation with a range of people and organisations. It is a radical proposal, although, I would argue, a necessary one. I would be particularly grateful to hear the views and inputs of Members on this proposal and any further suggestions or recommendations they may have to offer in the area. The young people who leave our education system early, many without qualifications, have an equal right to our ingenuity and energy in assisting them to make the most of the opportunities available to them as their colleagues who choose to continue in the mainstream education system.

The Bill marks a continuation of Government policy, as outlined in the Education Act, 1998, to establish bodies on a statutory basis to implement specific aspects of education policy. Under the Bill, I propose to establish a national educational welfare board to be responsible for the implementation and operation of school attendance policies and activities.

At present, school attendance policy and legislation are implemented by school attendance committees in the largest urban areas and by the Garda everywhere else. While this system has worked well in the past – we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to all the school attendance officers in the main boroughs which have a school attendance system – the service has been due to their phenomenal work and effort. The time has now come, however, for a centralised board which can implement the new Act and policies on a consistent basis throughout the country.

The national educational welfare board will have overall responsibility, subject to policy, for the implementation and operation of the Bill once enacted. The functions of the board will be advisory and research functions and direct involvement in enforcing school attendance. An important feature of the board is that it will have a national remit and will appoint education and welfare officers for each school or group of schools, who will have responsibility at school and community levels for implementing the Act.

The board will have a wide range of functions. While it will be responsible, generally, for the implementation of the Act and of school attendance policies, more specifically it will be responsible for maintaining the register of children who are being educated outside of the recognised school system; advising the Government on school attendance strategies and policies; liaising with the relevant authorities on matters related to school attendance; ensuring that all children receive at least a minimum education, and devising, in conjunction with young people, a programme of continuing education and training for all 16 and 17 year olds who have left school early to take up employment.

The Education (Welfare) Bill is important legislation dealing with issues we know to be central to the way our education system responds to the challenge of being inclusive and effective for all young people. It builds on a string of policy initiatives and proposes a new framework for dealing comprehensively with the problem of under-qualification and early school leaving.

I am pleased to introduce another Bill in the Seanad and I look forward to the constructive debate which takes place in this House. I will be open to Members' suggestions for improving the achievement of the important objectives of the Bill. I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the Minister to the House to discuss this important legislation. The foundations of the Bill are the outdated School Attendance Acts, 1926 and 1963. The Bill was a long time coming but it is doubly welcome.

I agree with the Minister that the reporting system set out in the previous Acts was haphazard for a number of reasons. Some schools did not have enough time to report the figures and, quite often, they did not bother reporting them as they wished to keep their attendance records high for a variety of reasons. I am not suggesting that this applied to every school but I know of one or two cases.

The real emphasis of the Bill is to ensure that young people receive an adequate education so that they will not find themselves moving from one low paid job to another. The Bill is important at a time when vast changes to the education system are being mooted. We are also endeavouring to respond to the recently published Green Paper which will ultimately lead to a White Paper.

There is a serious literacy problem and calls are being made for the Government to respond more generously and to put in place a service which will eliminate illiteracy and create a well-educated workforce. This Bill is intended to provide that every child will be educated to a minimum standard and, for that purpose, provides for the registration of children receiving education in places other than recognised schools. I agree with the Minister that parents are entitled to educate their children. However, we must ensure that such children receive a full education. I would like to tease out how this can be addressed in terms of setting specific standards, how such standards will be measured and whether they will have to equal leaving certificate standard, in which case people might as well send their children to school. Perhaps the Minister would respond to these issues later in the debate.

The Bill also endeavours to establish the compulsory attendance of certain children at recognised schools; to establish the national educational welfare board and to make that board accountable; to identify the causes of truancy and to provide for the adoption of measures to prevent it; to repeal the School Attendance Acts, 1926 and 1967; to permit the supply of data relating to a person's education history to relevant others; and to provide for the amendment of the Protection of Young Persons (Employment) Act, 1996. All of these matters need to be teased out in great detail before being written into law.

I welcome the establishment of the national educational welfare board which will increase accountability on the part of schools with regard to children at risk of becoming early school leavers. This measure will enable the Department of Education and Science to track children and their progress through the system and to ensure that they receive a minimum standard of education. It is vital to achieve a gender balance in the establishment of this board.

I regard the board's functions as being to foster and promote an appreciation of the benefits of education; to foster a school environment which encourages children to attend and participate; to commission research into reasons for truancy and launch strategies for its prevention; to assess the adequacy of training and guidance provided to teachers on matters of school attendance; and to advise the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment regarding aspects of the curriculum. Welfare officers will act on behalf of the board.

In principle, all of this sounds positive but my concern relates to the implementation of the Bill. There is a strong emphasis in the Bill on the importance of obtaining the written agreement of parents of children who are poor school attenders before action is taken. Many of these parents are themselves products of a system which failed them and would be incapable of reading written communication. Truancy among the travelling community will continue unless there is a more pastoral approach – they will continue to go into hiding. Enforcing educational laws through penalties and fines is not a recipe for success. I agree with the Minister that provisions based solely on penalties will not work and have not worked in the past.

We are talking about the provision of an education system which will have a pull rather than a push effect. Children looking at the current economic climate feel they will find work easily. However, if there is a downturn in the economy they will find themselves out of work with no route back into the workforce. The pull factor must come from the education system. We must make curricula relevant to children so they can relate to them and appreciate that they have some value for them.

An appreciation of the benefits of education cannot be grasped by someone who has, or who is experiencing, bad feelings about school. Neither can it be appreciated by people who have gone through the system and failed to learn to read or write. If someone goes through the education system and fails to obtain basic literacy skills, one can only suppose that there is a lack of appropriate resources that foster cognitive development; that they were ignored in the classroom or were given work which did not assist learning or that the teacher ignored them because of bad behaviour. Irregular attendance is another factor as children do not appreciate that work is relevant to them and, therefore, are poorly motivated.

The current school curriculum is too driven by the points system to allow for the education of all children. In some instances, schools are in competition for pupils and cannot afford to risk being labelled as a school which is not producing enough points. Alternative curriculum models, such as the NCVA and the leaving certificate applied programmes, are excellent but are difficult to implement because of restricted staffing resources and because young people who choose this route become labelled. It is unfortunate that such labelling occurs. There is a need for a fundamental change in education to overcome these difficulties.

The Department of Education and Science invests millions of pounds in many educational sideshows which are more or less effective. It is time to assess the productivity of the system. In spite of great efforts, literacy skills are low and schools lack resources. It is time for the Department to examine and identify good practices outside the mainstream education system and find ways to combine the two. Rather than imposing penalties on parents who have already been penalised by the education system, perhaps the board should impose penalties on schools which ignore the responsibility to educate all children after being given the resources to do so.

As a result of the Protection of Young Persons (Employment) Act, 1996, it is to be welcomed that young people of school age can no longer wander from school to the workplace without an authorising certificate. Statistics show that young people who leave school without the necessary qualifications move from job to job. It is to be welcomed that the onus is on the employer to provide the young person with ongoing education and training. In order for this measure to be effective, the board will need to identify the aims and objectives of such training as well as identify recommended places where such courses are on offer. The Bill also deals with the financial accountability of board members and stipulates details regarding appointments to the board and its general business.

This is an intricate and detailed Bill which I welcome. However, before the Bill becomes law there is a need for more discussion which will lead to a very strong and well assembled Bill.

It is important to understand that one of the aims of the Bill is to assess the causes of truancy. People have a general idea of what these causes are. Deputy Richard Bruton and I, on behalf of the education committee, produced a report on the factors involved in early school leaving . Truancy eventually leads to early school leaving – they generally go hand in hand. While compiling that report I came across research carried out by Bolt in 1994 which suggests that usually there is an event which leads students to decide that they no longer wish to participate in school or which results in a pupil being expelled or having a poor attendance record. Included in the decision as to whether to remain in school are such issues as poor study facilities at home, inadequate or poor housing and health issues. The influence of peers is an important factor which is very often under-estimated. It has been pointed out that the strong bond in the community and in the person's group often makes it socially unacceptable to deviate from these community standards. In other words, a person coming from a poor and impoverished background, where the standard of education is low, would find it easier to ride along with the community's expectations rather than break that bond. How to do this will not be found in the legislation but must be found through a myriad of ways in the different Departments. In 1979 Routers proposed that children exposed to only one risk factor do as well as those exposed to no risk factor, thus children can do well in school if they are only exposed to one risk factor. He pointed out that children exposed to two risk factors are more likely to have either high truancy or high absenteeism to such a degree that they drop out of school. What he meant is that if the risk factor is in either the home environment or the community environment the pupil is likely to be adequately educated to the same standard as anyone else and be at less risk of dropping out. However, the risk arises in the school where the curriculum does not seem to be relevant or where a teacher takes no interest in the child. The two risk factors combined are more likely to lead to the child having high truancy and being more likely to drop out of school.

I am pleased the Minister did not accept the Bill proposed by the last Government. That Bill was dependent on the regional educational boards and I never believed they were the way to go forward. While I will probably be slapped on the wrist for saying this, nevertheless I have held that view for a long time.

Many of the Deputy's colleagues felt the same.

I recommend the Bill to the House and I thank the Minister for introducing it. I know he has a great commitment to education. This can be perceived in his workload and in the increase in the number of remedial teachers and so on. I look forward to the Green Paper.

I welcome the Minister and thank him for initiating the Bill in this House.

I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate given my background in dealing with the whole area of truancy and disadvantage for the last 15 years. I have been at the coalface of education and I pay tribute to the Minister for his in-depth contribution and knowledge in the matter. The Minister's statement brings new thinking on how to deal with people who drop out of society. Before introducing the Bill, he put in place a variety of initiatives. This had to be done, otherwise the Bill would not get off the ground. These initiatives include access to home-school liaison, remedial teachers, psychological assessment and retaining teachers in schools to deal with those children who cannot be contained in the classroom.

I welcome the approach taken to the Bill. This was lacking in previous legislation dating back to 1926 which was administered in anad hoc way. I dealt with this at the coalface and I never knew whom to contact or how it worked. The structure was so fragmented that many of the professionals wasted time running around in circles trying to deal with the drop outs in society.

This legislation is very welcome and I hope there will be plenty of opportunity on Committee Stage to tease out the implementation of the various sections. Section 10 puts on a statutory basis the setting up of the national education welfare board. This is to be welcomed because to date there has been no accountability on the part of those who worked the system. The function of the board will be to consider strategies and policies, create an environment whereby our children will not drop out of society, look at the causes of truancy and advise the various bodies on how to implement a programme which will work. This is a great responsibility because it is vital to have the correct people at the top to administer the system.

Up to now the system has been very fragmented. There have been case studies involving teachers, guidance counsellors, education psychologists, school attendance officers, the local health board and the JLO. These were good and worthy people in their own right, each dealing with the particular problem at any given time, but in isolation. This resulted in the duplication of programmes which never got off the ground. If the proposed system is to work, there needs to be a well researched plan. A lot of research has been done in the past and I compliment the city of Dublin VEC on the work it has done in 13 schools to deal with the problem of truancy, drop-outs and early school leavers. The only way this can be achieved is through an integrated plan which is referred to in section 12. This plan would have to look at the family, the child, the personality of the child, the type of family and the school involved or otherwise. It would also have to involve the Departments of Health and Children, Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Social, Community and Family Affairs, the National Youth Council, FÁS and so on. I sometimes think that there are too many bodies dealing with the issue and I wonder if they can be reduced. Perhaps it could be reduced to three or four bodies.

This type of programme must be introduced when the child is three or four years of age and in primary school. There is not much point dealing with these problems during the transition stage from primary to second level when every year three or four children from disadvantaged areas will not have attended primary school. This amounts to 16 young boys or girls over a three or four year period in a particular locality who will never have attended school. Because of their low educational attainment these young people become involved in criminal activity. A core group will exist over three or four years in every locality which is subjected to large scale unemployment and disadvantage. Measures must be introduced in primary school because by the time children reach secondary school it is too late. Assessments of 4 to 5 year old children will identify those at risk of developing school attendance problems. Attendance officers are under the aegis of the local authority or the Garda Síochána and while everyone is doing good work, the system is very loose. The national educational welfare board will create a new structure which will mean everyone will be more accountable.

In referring to registration and recognising the wishes of those who do not want to attend the recognised schools, the Minister suggests they should have the opportunity of being educated outside the schools. I do not know how that will work in practice and I would like the Minister to tease it out further.

The new approach is proactive, dealing holistically with truancy. We have exhausted all the options to try to get young children to come to school, measures such as taking children from the class, having a retainer in the school to deal with the problem, suspensions and liaising with the parents. The national education welfare board will deal with the problem of truancy and I wonder how it will work in practice.

It is important that the school attendance officer will liaise with guidance counsellors and school principals on a regular basis. This does not happen at present. The proposed integrated approach is a new model, with a link person in each VEC and health board. It should help young people that everybody will be working closely together.

Some young people are lured from school by the prospect of a job without having the basic educational attainments. Section 29 provides a framework which will ensure that employers of such young people will register them with the national educational welfare board which will assist them to access part-time education.

The Bill has great potential but it will only be as good as the people who implement it – the school principals and the link personnel in the various areas. I understand that FÁS does not take on young people under 16 years of age. The educational welfare officer is the person who will realise that a particular young person is not attending school and he will have to liaise with the school. Will there be a teacher with a designated post to deal with the educational welfare officer or will it be an additional job for the home-school liaison teacher? A great deal of time would be required to carry out research even on one student.

This Bill provides the framework to address truancy and the risk of dropping out of society, and if we achieve this we will reduce criminal activity. I look forward to teasing out the issues on Committee Stage.

I am delighted that after many decades we finally have a Bill on school attendance. From memory, the last serious attempt by the State to deal with this issue was in 1942 when Archbishop John Charles McQuaid and others of his ilk ensured the State was not able to pass legislation and it has lain fallow ever since. The issue on which the constitutional challenge in 1942 failed has not been addressed in this Bill, that is, the attempt to prescribe minimum standards of education – perhaps for good reason.

The Bill gives authority to the Minister on the basis that he "may" prescribe minimum standards of education. I think the Constitution makes that an imperative, in that the State has a duty to see that children receive a minimum standard of education. I cannot see how the State can implement that constitutional imperative without ensuring that people know what constitutes a minimum standard. I welcome the recognition in the Bill that minimum standards of education must relate to a child's potential and that the different capacities of children will be taken into account. This is an issue to which we may have to return. I do not have the answer to it but it must be addressed.

The previous speaker said that issues must be teased out. In contrast to the development of the Education Act, on which there was a great deal of consultation and discussion, there has not been discussion with the education partners on significant sections of this Bill. I am aware of the consultation that has taken place on the issue of truancy but there was no discussion, as far as I know, on the provisions relating to discipline which are central to the Bill. The section dealing with discipline is appallingly deficient and will lead to fundamental problems at school level.

There are simple elements in the Bill that will irritate school authorities, for example, section 23(4) provides that a principal, on registering a child as a student at a school, will " . . . provide the parents of such child with a copy of the code of discipline in respect of the school concerned". I believe that before one joins a club one must know the rules. People should commit themselves to the school's code of discipline before they register their child for the school. They should at least know what the code of discipline is and, thus, they knowingly register their child on that basis. I would expect a lot more because the school authorities may feel they are left in the lurch.

As a teacher, will the Minister explain the provision in section 23(2):

code of discipline shall specify–

(a)the types of behaviour on the part of a student that may require disciplinary measures to be taken in relation to him or her;

I do not know what that means. This is the area of sanctions and we need to be absolutely clear that a code of discipline will include sanctions. It must also relate to more than that. Approximately ten years ago, the Department issued a document which took a balanced, though insufficient, approach to this, saying that one must be positive in addition to considering sanctions. However sanctions must exist. If schools are to cope with discipline problems, they must begin on the day a parent goes to register a child in the school. When parents say they would like to register their child in the school, the principal should give them a copy of the school's code of discipline to read and ask if they have any difficulties with it. Then, if a problem arises a few years later, a judge in court will understand the parents knew the rules.

In terms of moving forward, authority must be given to school authorities in this legislation to enforce a code of discipline. If a school's code of discipline states that if a child is difficult and causing problems, the school will want to speak to the child's parents, it should be possible to implement that. It should be required under the Act. That is no more difficult than the requirement under the Act that a parent gives a reason for a child's absence within three days. If the school requires a discussion with parents about a difficulty with discipline, they should be required to go to the school.

To put this in context, we are talking about 2 per cent of parents. If there is the slightest difficulty with a child in school, the vast majority of parents would be at the school immediately and worried until the problem is sorted out. I am not talking about those people. I am talking about the person who takes on the system and does not accept the code of discipline. The code of discipline is put together excruciatingly slowly at school level. The staff, principal and the board must be happy with it and the parents must accept it. It is put together following consultation. As the Department stated – and I agree with this – we cannot have one code of discipline for every school in the country. There are different demands in different parts of the country.

When the code of discipline is adopted 90 per cent of parents will subscribe to it, understand how it is going to work and agree with the approach taken of positive enforcement and sanctions where that does not work. That is all part of it. Otherwise we are left without any support. For example, if a school has detention in its code of discipline, the detention must be agreed by the parents. Otherwise a school may not hold a child in detention. It is improper and unlawful imprisonment, to put it at its most lurid and sensational. If parents agree to it, it can be part of a system. If they do not agree, it cannot be implemented, the school's code of discipline is scuttled and they are left without authority. That starts an erosion of authority within the school. I appeal to the Minister not to leave this out. Schools cannot operate on that basis.

On the register of those leaving school at an early age, I recognise what the Minister is trying to do and I welcome it. This longitudinal check on how people go through the system and come out at the other end has been wanted for a long time.

Huge constitutional issues are involved in the registration, under section 15, of children being educated at home. I do not pretend to know the answer but I would like to hear more ideas teased out in the Minister's response regarding where we find the balance between the common good by which a child needs to be educated to a minimum standard – as provided in the Constitution – and a parent's decision.

Let me give a current example. Those who prescribe the curriculum for schools – currently the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment – include the areas of health and sex education. Are parents entitled to decide they do not want their child to receive sex education? I maintain the Constitution is very clear in that we must have regard at all times to the fundamental rights of the child. The child's right to a minimum edu cation takes precedence over the parent's right as prime educator.

This is a significant issue but it is complicated by the fact that the section of the Constitution which spells out minimum levels of education excludes the word "physical" which is contained in the earlier part of the section outlining education. I do not know the answer, but cases are before the courts and a case has gone to the Supreme Court. There is very little case law but it will emerge. There could be problems with section 15. I have a significant problem with minimum education standards. We need to consider this.

I also have a problem with the reference to the section in the Education Act, 1998, which allows people to make decisions regarding the ethos and characteristic spirit of schools. It appears under section 19 of this Bill that a person could be refused admission under the section of the Education Act which refers to characteristic spirit and ethos. I presume this means a church-run school could decide not to take a child of another religion. I have a fundamental difficulty with this as, I believe, does the Minister. We should not give any comfort in this area. We must revisit this.

I am appalled by my most significant difficulty with the Bill and cannot believe it crossed the Minister's desk. Surely the establishment of a national education and welfare board should be welcomed by the partners in education as a positive move. The functions of the board, outlined in section 10, include ensuring the provision of minimum education, promoting and fostering benefits to be derived from education, promoting and fostering a particular environment in schools, assisting recognised schools to meet their obligations under the Act, assessing the adequacy of training and guidance provided to teachers and advising the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. These are all hugely important. However, I asked myself who will do all this?

I do not believe anybody spoke to the Minister about the structure of this board. It will hijack the whole Bill. I cannot see how the partners in education will agree to members of the board being appointed by the Minister – there is no problem with that bit – after consultation with the Ministers for Health and Children, Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Social, Community and Family Affairs, Enterprise, Trade and Employment, and Tourism, Sport and Recreation, but no mention of the partners in education and no representative of teachers, parents or management. That cannot be right. I appeal to the Minister to consider this. There is no way such a board can win the trust, confidence and co-operation of the partners in education, no matter how well motivated it might be. Neither is it good enough to appoint people who have a "special interest and expertise in matters relating to the functions of the Board". "Interest" is not enough; one has to have expertise in this area if this is to work. We are talking about fundamental issues in education.

The Minister may say that I have not referred to aspects of the board's functions. He may say that functions such as conducting and commissioning research into reasons for truancy or disseminating to recognised schools the findings of research on truancy do not necessarily require input from the partners of education. I disagree but I see it could be argued strongly. We can deal with this in one of two ways. The professional and education functions should be separated from the issues of truancy, attendance and legal matters. Huge difficulties will arise if the board is not representative of parents, teachers and management. These three groups must be formally represented. There must also be a recognition of the difference between primary and post primary level.

These functions are fundamental and intrinsic to the nature and provision of education and I ask the Minister to respond. It is unthinkable that a board of the type envisaged could ever win the respect and confidence of teachers and parents, rather it is more likely that co-operation would decline. The Minister should bear these points in mind. Somebody somewhere made a mistake with this proposal. As far as I am aware there was no discussion with the core groups involved.

The Minister said he wished to hear more on this issue and that he was prepared to welcome change. I welcome this. The Bill can be improved and the issues I have identified as a problem can be addressed. I do not believe that parents, managers and teaches are aware of these issues. The Bill was published last week and I have not heard any discussion on it. I did not get the opportunity to consider its provisions until last night and this morning and I have not, therefore, considered it in detail. I asked specialists in my office to consider it and, following their first reading of the Bill, they indicated the kinds of problem I have outlined.

There are serious difficulties with this legislation. While they do not require that the Bill be abandoned, fundamental changes will be required to the proposals dealing with the structure of the board and discipline. In addition, the provisions regarding the minimum standard of education need to be expanded.

The proposal regarding the appointment of educational welfare officers will be welcomed. However, how will this work? To whom will they be responsible? Will they be part and parcel of the school service or of another service? Will they be a national group or will there be a local element to their appointment, registration and affiliation? Will they be appointed to a school or to serve an area or a number of schools? These issues must be considered.

The section dealing with discipline will cause chaos at school level. It requires a board of management, having taken action against a pupil and having found that it cannot continue to allow the pupil to attend the school to protect the right of his fellow pupils to receive an education, to place the child elsewhere. A number of issues arise here. First, the child who has been expelled from the school has, under the Constitution, a right to a minimum standard of education. Second, it is not clear whose responsibility it is to provide that. Third, it is unacceptable, unfair and mean to direct that the board of management of a school must place the child elsewhere. How is it to start looking for an alternative and where is it to get the expertise to proceed on that basis?

The Bill imposes a huge level of extra work on teacher principals. They will have additional responsibilities with regard to school attendance, keeping notes of the reasons for failures to attend and the compilation of an annual report. The board of management will also be required to compile such a report. Much greater effort will have to be made with regard to holding records on reasons for absences.

These requirements will put a huge onus on already overworked teaching principals. One need only consider a teaching principal of a 200 pupil school having to keep such records, even allowing for the normal absentee rate of 5 or 10 per cent. If, say, 20 pupils out of 220 are absent in a given day the principal teacher, who will have full class responsibilities, will have to write down the reasons for the absence of each and keep a full record. That, and the requirement to compile an annual report, is unacceptable.

These tasks can be done only if administrative time and space is given to the school authorities, especially the principal teachers. This means that administrative principals must be appointed to schools of a certain size and that teaching principals must be allocated a certain number of hours per week to deal with this kind of work.

I hope the Minister will consider some of the issues I have raised. While I am negative about a number of proposals in the Bill, it contains nothing which is not subject to remedy. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply and to the introduction of amendments on Committee Stage and Report Stage.

One of the first jobs I applied for after finishing college was that of school attendance officer. Thank goodness I did not get the job. I was dumbstruck to find that there were approximately 50 people in attendance at my final interview. I recall that just before the interview I spoke to officials involved and they told me they wanted, in addition, a school welfare officer, somebody who was concerned with the real issues within education and who would act as a proper liaison officer, etc. That was approximately 20 years ago, yet it has taken until now for these to come to fruition in the form of this Bill. For that reason I welcome it although it contains proposals with which I have difficulty.

The success of our economy has not been accidental. Its essential foundation has been the level of educational attainment. Our rising educational achievement has given us a critical edge in supplying qualified people to knowledge-based industries. This is essential. The size of the work force is expanding and the rate of job creation is outstripping that in any other country in Europe.

Despite this there are many problems requiring attention and they are now getting attention. These include early school leaving, truancy, technology in schools, inclusiveness in education and the delivery of consistent quality education, which is something we need to examine on occasion. At least it can be said that we are now seeing the type of investment in education we need.

We must accept that the policies that have brought us to this point are not necessarily the ones that will help in getting us to where we want to be. That poses a specific problem for the education system. While education has helped to deliver prosperity, it can also help to reinforce disadvantage. If education is to be inclusive we must follow an agenda of change. We cannot follow a one size fits all approach.

The great divide in our society is also based on the level of education attainment. The overwhelming majority of the long-term unemployed have no qualifications and the lack of qualifications is the most common feature of households living in poverty. Jobs involving few or no skills are coming under increasing pressure from low pay economies. There is little chance of any resurgence in demand for this kind of job. Greater participation in the education system is the key to limiting many of the problems that currently exist in Ireland.

Our aim must be to get the majority or all children participating in education. Government resources should be used to provide access to pre-school education for every three year old because there has to be early intervention. It must be recognised that we are becoming more culturally diverse and it is only through inclusiveness in education, with ethnic minorities attending second level schools, that we can promote co-operation and understanding between different cultures.

The flow of unqualified school leavers to the labour force must be stemmed. At a time when the economy is so prosperous, it is even easier for some pupils to drop out of school to the lure of their first job. It is not acceptable to have over 10,000 teenagers a year leaving full-time education without completing the senior cycle. Those that go into apprenticeships or other full-time courses are on the right track because they are developing skills which will give them a real chance of getting and keeping a good job. We must be concerned about pupils who are finding school difficult or who are in danger of drifting or opting out. Experience shows that those who are attracted by low-skill low-pay jobs run a very high risk of ending up in long-term poverty. It is irresponsible to let 16 to 18 year olds leave education without any qualification due to a short-term need to fill certain types of jobs. We face a future where knowledge and adaptable skills will become increasingly important in the labour market, presenting a significant challenge to the edu cation system. Education must at all levels be the key to employment opportunity if marginalised groups are to participate in our growing prosperity.

We have to identify and assist children with special educational needs and provide a range of curriculum provision. We must address the forces which encourage early school leaving and broaden access to further and third level education. This Bill is a milestone on the way. I welcome its focus on targeting the underlying causes of non-school attendance rather than on sanctions for truancy. Slipping through the education network creates life-long dangers for young people. I have often praised our education system. By and large is an excellent one but any good system will look after the achievers. We must concentrate on the less able and the disadvantaged by keeping them within the system and making it work for them.

I was a guidance counsellor for a few years and I recognise that truancy is often the first sign that something is wrong with children who most need education and who opt out of the system. Remedial services have now improved. Children who fall behind in class have a hard time and because of this many opt out. Disconnected young people who have no sense of control over their lives then become dangerous to themselves and others. One third of all crime is committed by teenagers. A cursory examination of the background of teenagers who fall foul of the system shows that they are underachievers educationally, often coming from troubled family backgrounds. The system must intervene to equalise their chances. I welcome many of the matters dealt with in the Bill such as the raising of the school leaving age to 16 years or the completion of the three years post primary, also the retention of the duty imposed on parents to send their children to a recognised school. I would like to hear more in the Minister's reply and at committee stage about the minimum standards of education that he will be prescribing. These standards can be problematic. They may work for some but others may fall between the cracks. How will the registration of children who are educated in such a way work? It is important that there is the capacity to provide the minimum standard of education and it is unthinkable that some children should find themselves isolated in a society because they do not meet those standards.

There are very high levels of adult illiteracy about which I know the Minister is concerned. This cycle will continue unless we ensure that minimum standards are met. I welcome the idea of the national educational welfare board. I have listened to the comments of Senator O'Toole. I served my time on the Opposition benches with the Minister, when he was spokesperson on education for Fianna Fáil. I was struck by how his understanding of what needed to be done, which has been demonstrated by his strategy over the last couple of years as Minister. He values the role of the partners in education and there is no effort to exclude them. I would like to know more about the composition of the board because the participation and co-operation of the partners in education is essential.

Section 22 provides statutory obligations on schools to actively consider issues relating to school attendance with a view to ensuring that schools are alerted to children with problems as early as possible and that they engage in a proactive way with these children. How will the educational welfare officer operate? We have been waiting for legislation on truancy since the last legislation of the 1920s. I hope the practicalities involved in this legislation will not in any way detract from its essence. I am compiling a code of behaviour in respect of the children registered at school. I will outline what happens to it and how a code of discipline will be enforced. Everyone is aware that there can be a clash between the Department of Education and Science and teachers with regard a code of behaviour. We must understand what is practicable and what will work. From that point of view I would like to return to these issues on Committee Stage. We must listen to teachers because they are actively involved in education and provide the education service. We must also consider the children and what will work for them.

The theory behind this Bill is good. I want to see something that will work. The Minister is extremely open and we know he listens to people. The stark contrast between the Minister and his predecessor is that he listens to people, he acts reasonably and he has a good motive for doing anything. He has a great understanding of the education system. I know he will listen to our comments as he has indicated.

Section 24 provides additional safeguards for children of school-going age by making it an offence for an employer to employ a child during school hours. I welcome the fact that this section has been beefed up.

I have two children, both of whom will be sitting exams this summer. My daughter will be sitting her leaving certificate exam. Parents face an ongoing battle at this time. On the one hand, we try not to put too much pressure on our children when they are preparing for exams. On the other hand, we try to ensure our children do a sufficient amount of work to reach their maximum potential. I have worked in deprived areas and I know that there are children who, of financial necessity, have to work or be in gainful employment. However, it is detrimental to their welfare if they are working within school hours. The legislation which restricts the number of hours children can work needs to be implemented. It is important that these sanctions are implemented because education is the key to success. What type of State is this if we cannot ensure that all of its children are nurtured? We must ensure that children who have so little going for them get more opportunities and receive greater nurturing. These children are our future just as much as children with every advantage.

I welcome the Bill and look forward to debating it further on Committee Stage. I know the Minister will respond to the issues that have been raised.

Mr. Ryan

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Ag ullmhú don díospóireacht seo ar maidin bhí an Páipéar Glas a chuir an tAire amach le déanaí maidir le hoideachas do dhaoine fásta á léamh agam. Tá píosa maith oibre déanta aige ansin agus molaim é dá bharr. Tá súil agam go n-éiríonn leis pé rud atá molta ann a chur le chéile.

We are bedevilled in this State because there is a fundamental problem with education. The Department of Finance is the dominant Department in this State and it is profoundly equivocal about education. Until recently it classified expenditure on education as social or non-productive expenditure. Now it says it is made up of social and productive expenditure. It is time someone told the Department of Finance that every penny spent on education is productive. We can talk about efficiency of usage of resources but that can be applied to money spent by the IDA, FÁS or for road construction which the Department would accept as productive expenditure. The fundamental fact is that money spent on education is inherently and profoundly productive. As one of the thousands of people involved in education, I am sick of the Department of Finance classifying education as a social service. It is not a social service. It may have been one at some stage but it is now the most fundamental engine of economic development. We should never confuse this with growth. We have had a lot of growth in our economy but I am not sure about our development.

Education is a productive investment and, therefore, it is never wasted. In times of hardship it should be one of last sectors where cutbacks are implemented. One of the great achievements of the 1980s – a large part of it by the trade unions and society – was a refusal to allow the education system to be taken apart in a time of economic crisis. We persisted with our level of education, expanded participation in third level education and continued to invest in third level education even though the consensus of economic commentary was that we were training people for export. We did train people for export but they went abroad to learn higher skills and brought them home with them. That is something previous generations did not do. The reason we have had ten years of unprecedented economic expansion without any of the usual concerns is that we had a huge pool of skilled labour to draw from. Let no one ever say again that education is anything other than productive investment.

We should pay tribute to education providers, particularly those in the State sector. I am increasingly concerned about the pretensions of the small minority of fee paying second level schools and the even smaller minority of fee paying primary schools. I am interested to hear what steps the Department will take to ensure proper standards are met in fee paying primary schools. Most of the teachers in these schools are badly paid and many of them employ teachers who are not qualified to teach in the State sector. We are obliged when dealing with parents who choose to educate their children at home and those who are foolish enough to put their children through a private fee paying primary school system to ensure that we are satisfied the children have reached adequate standards by the end of this stage of education.

Many of the Bill's details and its stated objectives are welcome. However, I must take issue with the Minister's statement at the beginning of his contribution that education is the great divide in our society between opportunity and exclusion. He is wrong. Poverty is the great divide in our society between opportunity and exclusion. Education and its divisions is a symptom of that division, not the division. The division is caused by the inequality in access to income and services – among them education – which is caused by poverty. One third of our children – the second highest proportion in Europe – live in poor households. I welcome everything in this Bill, including the interventions. Unfortunately, any primary schoolteacher can tell us that many children arrive at school hungry and remain hungry when they go home because basic things that everyone else takes for granted are not available. As long as this situation continues whatever changes we make to the education system, while necessary and welcome, will not close the gap. Our society has undoubtedly got richer on average, but the distribution of income has, over the past seven or eight years, become increasingly skewed in the direction of the already well off at the expense of the already poor. The gap between the highest and the lowest 10 per cent of income earners in this State is the highest in the OECD. Much of the present Government's taxation policy has made that worse. We are frittering away resources that should be used to deal with the issues addressed by the Minister in this Bill and in much of his rhetoric.

If we are to persuade families that it is worthwhile for their children to stay in education, we must address issues such as child benefit, the low wage economy, the low level of social welfare rates, the dreadful public transport with which many people in deprived areas must live and the appalling quality of health care. We cannot deal with the gap by simply improving the education system, although that is a necessary part of it.

Many of the children to whom the Minister referred are doomed before they arrive in the primary school system. Intervention at junior infants level is too late because those children have already fallen behind in terms of learning, attitude and aspirations. They are already doomed, in many cases, to be losers. Unless we change that from the moment they are born by supporting their families, they will never be able to take advantage of the provisions in this Bill.

There is much to be welcomed in the Bill. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Minister has an almost Bonapartist commitment to centralism. The idea that a national welfare education board, based in Dublin presumably, is the most appropriate structure to deal with issues is quite extraordinary. It contrasts with the Minister of State's proposal for local adult education boards to, as he said, among other matters establish the level of adult education and training needs in their region, develop an integrated action plan at local level to meet these needs, identify the fact that different needs will exist in different areas, promote a comprehensive service, be responsible for the co-ordination of work at local level and facilitate the targeting of resources on area priorities.

These are all matters which one would have thought an education welfare service would need to do. However, for some reason, what is regarded as appropriate for an important area of intervention, that is, adult education, is not regarded as important in the area of education welfare. That does not make sense.

The Minister dressed it up in his speech by a reference to his predecessor and by saying that the regional education boards were bureaucratic, expensive, etc. That was a fiction which the Minister thought up at the time; he hung himself on it and he stuck with it, but it is wrong. I will discuss aspects of this legislation later and point out how wrong it is and the inherent contradictions in the idea of providing something nationally which should have a great deal of local sensitivity.

I have already spoken about the problem of centralisation. For example, section 27 states the board has a duty to make reasonable efforts to ensure certain children receive prescribed minimum education. What sort of complicated chain of command will be involved when, for example, a child in the school which my children attended, St. Patrick's national school in Cork, is excluded from the school for disciplinary or other reasons? The welfare board based in Dublin, with no local structure other than employees, will have a duty to ensure a proper standard of education is provided in Gardiner's Hill in Cork city. That is a nonsense. It is the Bonapartist idea that a standardised system, applying everywhere, is the best way to go. The French eventually got over that 100 or 150 years after Bonaparte – it is time we got over it too. The system will be spoiled by centralisation and it is time we moved on from it.

Extraordinary responsibilities are being imposed on boards of management under section 22, which deals with school attendance strategies. In common with many Members of this House, I was a member of a school board of management. The section states:

The board of management of a recognised school shall, after consultation with the principal of, teachers teaching at, parents. . . . prepare and submit to the Board a statement of the strategies and measures it proposes to adopt for the purposes of fostering an appreciation of learning among students attending that school and encouraging regular attendance at school on the part of such students.

It goes on to say that the statement of strategy shall provide for "the rewarding of students who have good school attendance records", "the identification at an early stage of students who are at risk", "the establishment of closer contacts", etc.

Senator O'Toole informed me there are over 3,000 primary schools and about 700 secondary schools in the State. That is a rough total of about 4,000 schools, each of which is to produce a strategy, all of which are to go to one board. That is meaningless because that board will never be able to deal with 4,000 schools. It is precisely what the Minister was complaining about in that it is bureaucratic and inflexible.

This applies, as Senator O'Toole said, to schools of up to 200 pupils where the principal is not full time, most of which do not have proper secretarial assistance and many of which do not have caretakers. Their boards of management are comprised of people who are almost entirely part-time, with the exception of the principal and perhaps one teacher. It is a contradiction of the aspiration of the Bill to expect schools to do that without resources or support.

I know Opposition spokespersons always talk about resources. However, it is important not to put aspirations in the Bill which expect people to produce proposals to which no response is required. If the Minister is really in earnest about this, he will require the board to produce a response approving strategies within a maximum period of three months, for example. If that is not done and if paper simply flies off to yet another Government body in Dublin, it will simply demoralise boards of management. Departments are very good at demanding that local bodies feed them material but they never impose on themselves a condition that they must respond to that material within a reasonable time.

If we are to make this work, we must produce a dialogue. The best way to do that is through a local education structure. If we cannot have that, we must impose requirements on the board to respond within a reasonable period; otherwise it will become meaningless.

I am happy with the principle of increasing the school leaving age. However, we must be careful not to turn our schools into prisons which will simply keep our children in. There must be more to it than that. I know the Minister has aspirations and has made commitments to do more. However, it is very difficult for schools to keep children of 15 years who do not want to be there, and it is even more difficult to keep 16 year olds there. The recognition in section 24 of the problem caused by the temptation to go to work is to be welcomed as far as it goes. However, as I said, if family income, child benefit and family housing circumstances are inadequate, people, especially unscrupulous employers, will find a way around this. It must apply to all levels of education. It is ridiculous to have the majority of third level students engaged in part-time work because of the lack of a proper grants scheme. It affects educational performance and I can testify to that fact from experience. If we want people to focus on education, the resources must be made available.

I am intrigued by the provisions dealing with children who are to be educated outside the State sector. I am unsure how this will tie in with recognised fee-paying primary schools. I am also concerned the provisions seem extraordinarily detailed. Section 15(4) provides that, where a parent wishes to educate a child outside a recognised school, an authorised person may:

(a)enter the place at which the child is being educated [with the consent of the parent] and observe the child receiving such instruction . . .

(b)inspect such premises, equipment and materials as are used . . . and

(c)carry out an assessment of the child concerned as to his or her intellectual, emotional and physical development, which shall include an assessment of his or her knowledge and understanding of such subjects, and proficiency in such exercises and disciplines, as the authorised person considers appropriate,

One would think the country was in a state of profound anarchy and that millions of children were being withheld from the State education system. There is a sense about it of using a sledge hammer to crack a nut. Not every child who attends a State school will have his intellectual, emotional and physical development assessed. It is only the children of non-conformist parents who will be assessed. I suspect this is an attempt to reduce the inclination of parents to educate their children themselves and it is unnecessary.

The idea that schools may not refuse admission to anyone, except those not covered by their admissions policy, is a farcical aspiration because one contradicts the other. I agree with Senator O'Toole on the discipline issue; it is an incomplete section. He is correct about the composition of the board. To exclude parents and teachers from such a fundamental area of education welfare is an extraordinary omission and one which, if persisted with, will bring the system to a standstill. I cannot see parents or teachers collaborating or co-operating, be it through boards of management or other structures, with a board which has such influence and significance and upon which they are not represented.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea, to the House and thank the Minister, Deputy Martin, for introducing the Bill. It sets out to chart a comprehensive national system to ensure children in the compulsory age group attend school and, if not, receive a basic, accessible, minimum level of education. The Bill also seeks to ascertain the causes of truancy and to identify at the earliest possible time any difficulties, personal or environmental, which might militate against a child's educational interests in the short, medium or long-term. Binding the Bill together is the imposition of statutory obligations on schools to take a much more proactive role in understanding, assessing, intervening and determining outcomes and working closely and in full consultation with parents and all agencies whose remit impacts on pupils' quality of life.

I welcome the fact that the minimum school leaving age is being raised from 15 to 16 years of age or the completion of three years' post-primary education, whichever comes later. I also welcome the establishment of the national education welfare board which will have overall responsibility for the implementation and operation of the Bill when enacted. The board's functions, which combine advisory and research functions and direct involvement in enforcing school attendance, will, given sufficient and appropriate resources, both financial and personnel, have a profound bearing on two of the most worrying aspects of the school system – the proper assessment of pupils and the high drop-out rate of students from certain communities, especially inner city communities. It is one of the blots on an otherwise praiseworthy and excellent education system that we have for too long neglected to introduce proper psychological assessment in schools. That was until the Minister, Deputy Martin, stuck to his pre-election promise and set about providing that essential service some time ago.

I often wonder how teachers working with parents managed to work out a learning programme for a child with a learning difficulty when they knew little of the extent of the difficulty the child had or, worse still, how to remedy it. I welcome the work the Minister has done in this regard. It is sad that children have fallen through the net in the past. Had this comprehensive package and the assessment qualities now present in the psychological area been available to them, would they have fallen through the net or would they have completed their schooling?

The proposed national educational welfare board has a wide range of functions prescribed to it. It must draw up a prescribed minimum education for each child, whether in the education system or outside it. It has the wider authority to assist in the formulation and implementation of Government policies and objectives concerning the education of each child, the public education role of promoting and fostering a true understanding and appreciation of education as well as the specific role of working with schools to draw up tailored programmes of activity. It will also assist in designing programmes, monitoring and assessing their effects, helping schools and parents in a practical way and advising the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and the Minister. The national education welfare board has its work cut out. I note with interest the board is expected to liaise with the relevant bodies – Departments, health boards, the Garda, vocational education committees and the National Youth Work Advisory Committee. How can all this work be undertaken unless there is a clear indication from where the personnel and the necessary finance will come to provide for the large number of positions required? I agree with the proposal for registration and the various suggestions regarding home liaison and the important code of behaviour. Overall, the high profile the Bill gives to the rights of parents and their obligations is long overdue.

As a parent and public representative, it is a mistake that the Bill omits one of the four partners, namely teachers. While we are blessed with teachers of a high standard, there are many occasions where management, parents and pupils have been discommoded by the absence of a teacher from a classroom. We must be open and transparent about this real issue. It appears the Bill will be incomplete if it does not address this key issue within the classroom. The presence of a teacher and what happens when the teacher is missing, for whatever reason, needs to be addressed. Many Senators are or have been members of that distinguished profession and I know they will accept my point in the positive spirit in which it is meant.

There can be no valid excuse for a child leaving school illiterate or innumerate; 3,000 students leave school without attaining the junior certificate and 8,000 children leave school without having completed the leaving certificate. It is up to all of us – the Government, the education authorities, parents and teachers – to stop this human haemorrhage. It is an outflow of national talent and it is also a terrible waste of potential. This Bill begins to tackle that task in a meaningful way. There is a long way to go and probably not a moment to lose.

If a business closed down with the loss of 1,000 jobs, there would be a national outcry, yet that is the number of children who finish primary education but go no further. If 2,000 parents were told tomorrow that their children could not sit the leaving certificate examinations or get a place in second level education, to take the comparison further, it would be described as a national scandal. If the residents of a medium sized town like Tullamore, Naas or Ballina were told that nobody in the town could sit the leaving certificate examinations, there would be blue murder, yet that is the number of students who do not sit those examinations in any given year. This is totally unacceptable. It is a situation which we must remedy immediately.

It is also unacceptable that as we approach the third millennium less than 5 or 10 per cent of students from certain areas in the capital city go on to third level education while the suburbs can boast a third level take-up rate as high as 90 per cent. Already some universities and private institutions have initiated projects to help induct students from positions of disadvantage into col lege but surely it is the responsibility of the Houses of the Oireachtas and not individuals to determine the structural discrimination in society. We should be seeking at all times to do something practical about this. I urge the Minister to map out a comprehensive programme to put this right. No doubt he is doing it with this Bill but, as I said earlier, much more needs to be done. I am confident that this Minister is the one to do the job. I urge the House as well as the Minister to tackle this massive national task with all speed and diligence. Otherwise none of us can say we are fulfilling the imperative enjoined on us by those who wrote the Easter Proclamation to cherish all the children of the nation.

I welcome the chance to contribute to this debate and I welcome the Bill. I was impressed not just by the Bill but by the contribution of the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Martin. I was relieved by a number of matters he covered and particularly by the direction he is taking. He spoke of how we need to seek out the causes of truancy and the ways to remedy them. That is the overriding thrust of the Bill and, from that point of view, I welcome it.

I was also most impressed with his attention to the senior cycle as against the traditional academic leaving certificate. In particular, I was impressed that his contribution concentrated on life-long learning, the belief that it is possible to help those who have finished school early to register for further education and not to assume in the following couple of years that one's education is finished just because one has finished school. These are aspects of the Bill which I had not noted until I heard the Minister's speech.

Anything which keeps a higher proportion of our young people at school to the point where they can leave with a qualification is clearly desirable. It is good to hear so many people support that aspect of the Bill. It is important that the State sends out a strong message that it takes seriously compulsory school attendance and that it will do all in its power to prevent truancy.

That is where the interests of society and the individual coincide precisely. Society has an interest in having young people complete school because of the almost inevitable consequences which follow from non-attendance. The consequences of non-attendance are that one's future life is almost certainly already determined in the worst possible way. It is a certain road to long-term unemployment and possibly to crime and other social ills. Whenever that happens it is bad for society. It is costly for society to have to cope with such a person in later life. If there is a significant number of young people in that position, collectively they can pose a threat to the fabric of society. That is altogether apart from the sheer waste of human potential that is involved.

If that is true of society, it is even more true of the individual. The real tragedy of truancy is that the young person usually does not realise the damage he or she is doing to his or her future life. They do not realise that every day they do not attend school they are slamming shut another door on their future. If ever there was an instance where people needed to be protected from themselves, this is it. On a number of occasions I have spoken in this House about whether we need to introduce legislation to protect people against themselves because sometimes we go too far in that direction, but this is certainly an example of where we must do so.

The Minister touched on the fact that getting people to attend school involves the use of the carrot and not just the stick. That use of the carrot depends on a number of people other than the student and it certainly applies to the teacher. If the teacher can create an atmosphere which encourages youngsters to go to school and get a sense of fulfilment, then they are much more likely to succeed. The stick is there in case that does not happen but the onus is on the teacher to provide that sense of fulfilment from education so that youngsters will want to go to school.

There is also a responsibility on employers. For instance, the parent of a 16 year old who had a job asked me to convince the youngster that it was worthwhile to finish school even though the employer said that there was no need to do so. Employers should guard against coaxing people away from school too early. That is why I am happy to see the minimum school leaving age raised in the Bill.

It had not occurred to me until it was suggested to me recently that there is also a responsibility on parents which does not really relate to truancy but which is relevant. I gather there is a problem where, because it is cheaper to go on holidays in June than in July, parents are tempted to take children away from school. It is not truancy but it means that the value of education is lost on those children. A balance must be set but exceptions can be made.

Getting people to go to school is only half the battle. If a young person is not engaged in the education process, whether he or she is there does not matter much. Indeed, a young person who has no interest in school may be very disruptive and may interfere with the education of others. As we attack truancy, it is important that we recall the available research which shows that a high proportion of young people who complete school do not consider it a satisfactory or rewarding experience. We will not win the battle if we succeed in getting people to attend school but lose the battle for their hearts and minds.

There are many reasons why young people become turned off the education system. One of them, which goes to the heart of the manner in which we allocate resources in the system, is that our approach is structured on the assumption that most people will get most things right the first time. That is a serious error. Irish education is a merciless juggernaut and if one falls off it at any stage, it is virtually impossible to get back on again.

Our system is fundamentally flawed in this respect because most people have learning problems with one subject or other. For me, the subject was calculus; I did not pay attention on one occasion and never caught up again. The same applies to many young people. We all know people who were turned off a particular subject because they did not succeed in grasping the basics the first time around and who, from that point on, were always behind. If that happens with a subject such as a language, it can result in permanent problems being experienced with that subject forever. However, if it happens with something more fundamental, like reading or writing, people are left with a learning disability which will determine totally how much they will get out of education in the future and, indeed, may determine the future course of their lives.

People say we do not have sufficient remedial teachers and of course that is true. However, their mindsets still view remedial teaching as something unusual and removed from the normal. That is not the case. We should structure teaching on the assumption that most people will fail to get something right at some stage in their school careers and that this is perfectly normal and natural. It is something we should anticipate and address through the mainstream system, rather than as an exception to it. We must ensure we do not sow the seeds of future truancy by causing children to fail and by not providing them with an opportunity to have another go.

We must also ensure that what we teach and the manner in which it is taught is interesting and relevant to young people. It is important to realise how much things have changed. The world is a very different place now to what it was when I was at school. The lives schoolchildren lead nowadays are also very different. Children are accustomed to being fed information in a particular way, a way which we might not like but which is an undeniable reality. Children obtain a tremendous amount of information through television, videos and, increasingly, via the Internet. Yesterday, I read the annual competitiveness report which was published by the National Competitiveness Council last week. The figures outlined on Internet accessibility and usage in Ireland are quite startling. In the US, some 80 per cent of people have access to the Internet while the figure is only 10 per cent in Europe. In terms of exposure to the Internet, Ireland comes 16th out of 29 countries. How far away can we be? Children find it easier to learn through this medium.

The current generation is not inclined, as previous generations were, to take things on trust. I was very enthusiastic about learning Latin and felt it would be useful to me; it is certainly useful for completing crosswords. I also encouraged my own children to learn Latin. I am not entirely sure now that I was right to believe learning Latin would be beneficial. There is an urgent need to constantly update the curriculum at all levels of our education system in order to ensure that what is taught is relevant to young people. If we do not do that, we will sow the seeds of truancy. People will just switch off if they are not interested and when they do, they will be already half way out the door.

Even if we help people back on the fence when they fall off and tailor what we teach and how we teach it to the world young people experience outside the classroom, we will still face a serious difficulty with school attendance in the very last years of school. I refer to the temptation the world of work offers to young people who have passed beyond the legal school-leaving age but who have not finished the senior cycle.

When I was involved with the formulation of the leaving certificate applied programme, I learned that success breeds success. Young people who find they are good at doing a particular thing suddenly gain confidence in doing other things. I am impressed at the direction this Bill takes in regard to the senior cycle. However, the new emphasis being placed on work experience in the leaving certificate applied programme tends to exacerbate the problem. Work experience is included in the programme and sometimes young people are tempted to stay in employment and not sit their exams. There comes a point when a young person can make a choice between staying on at school and completing the leaving certificate or dropping out and getting a job. We must stress the importance of the leaving certificate.

There is no shortage of jobs nowadays. Although they may be badly paid and their long-term prospects may be poor, they can be overwhelmingly attractive to a young person who has little or no pocket money. Even a badly paid job can suddenly make people rich in their own eyes and those of their friends. The money allows them to do things they could not do while at school.

There is often a family dimension to this issue. Many young people are under pressure to leave school because they are a burden to their families until they do so. When they start to earn money, they can contribute to the family purse rather than take from it all the time. This is a very real problem and one which is likely to worsen as we strive to increase the number of people sitting the leaving certificate and as growing prosperity results in a shortage of people to take up jobs. We must face up to the problem, especially if we are intent on addressing the issue of educational disadvantage with the seriousness it deserves. I am not sure what the solution is. Some people have suggested that we pay young people to stay on at school. However, the enormous cost involved in paying the entire cohort of leaving certificate students would seem to be an insurmountable obstacle.

I welcome the Bill and wish it a speedy passage through the Oireachtas. Education is a monster jigsaw in which there are thousands of pieces and this Bill puts another piece of that jigsaw into place. Much more work remains to be done but the Bill is a step in the right direction.

I congratulate the Minister on the publication of this Bill. The Bill proposes a new statutory framework to replace the School Attendance Act, 1926. Its introduction represents a long overdue legislative overhaul which school attendance committees, Departments and officers in Dublin, Cork, Dún Laoghaire and Waterford have sought for almost 30 years.

This Bill is enlightened legislation. Its central proposal is the establishment of a single statutory agency to provide a nationwide service devoted to securing for all children the help they may need and to making them better able to avail of the benefits of an adequate education. The new Bill will set up a national educational welfare service throughout the State which will supersede the older system in which school attendance officers were only appointed in Dublin, Cork, Dún Laoghaire and Waterford, leaving it to the Garda to enforce compulsory school attendance elsewhere, a situation recognised as unsatisfactory by the Garda as long ago as the Conroy report of 1970.

The new Bill proposes to raise the school leaving age to 16 years but only on condition that the young person has completed three years post-primary education. That is a welcome indication of the commitment of the Government and Minister to reduce early school leaving and address the unacceptable situation of young people leaving school without any qualifications.

Two other aspects of the Bill are most welcome. For many years, school attendance officers have insisted that the old framework of legal proceedings against parents leading to the removal into care of their children who failed to attend school was inadequate and inappropriate. Parents and children were being punished for school non-attendance by the children being taken into care when the reality, known only too well to school attendance officers, was that non-attendance was usually a symptom of a deep-seated social malaise, an effect of social and economic disadvantage. They have been calling for a recognition of this poverty-caused side of school non-attendance and for the statutory role of school attendance officers to be developed to include an educational welfare dimension.

The new Bill responds to the calls which have been made since the 1970s. It removes from the courts the power to take children from the custody of parents and commit them to an industrial school for school non-attendance. Instead, under the new Bill, following conviction for failure to ensure school attendance, the child and parents will be referred to the health board which will have to address the underlying school issue and take appropriate steps.

It sets up a comprehensive network of liaison between the national educational welfare board and other agencies involved – the Departments of Health and Children, Social, Community and Family Affairs, Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the Garda Síochána, the health boards, vocational education committees and the National Youth Work Advisory Committee. It is to be hoped that this network of liaison will enable case conferencing on families whose children are experiencing educational, social, behavioural or attendance difficulties to prioritise access to the necessary services and resources without having to go to the courts.

The educational welfare role for which school attendance officers have called for so long to be put on a statutory footing is finally to be recognised and implemented. Under the terms of the Bill, school attendance officers will become educational welfare officers within the national educational welfare board and their role will be focused on providing support and assistance to young people and their families so they may participate and benefit from the appropriate educational opportunities. It is to be hoped that under the Bill, educational welfare officers will be able to facilitate young people from the ages of 15 to 18 years of age, who would otherwise be at risk of leaving school early or without qualification, to find educational courses suited to their educational needs.

I welcome this Bill to the House and look forward to its speedy passage.

I express my appreciation and that of the Minister to all those Senators who contributed to this vital legislation which will revolutionise the school attendance system in this State. It is a long overdue reform, one we have awaited since 1926. The Minister is to be commended for bringing it forward.

Senator Coogan referred to the need for minimum standards and wanted a clearer explanation of what the section dealing with that entails. That will be teased out on Committee Stage. He also expressed concern about gender balance and the fact that the curriculum is too points driven. The House will be aware that one of the first acts undertaken by the Minister on assuming office was to establish a committee to advise on the points system. That committee's report is now available to the Minister and I am certain action will follow.

Senator Ormonde said that we must ensure there is proper linkage and co-ordination between the agencies on the ground and that, while the Bill is welcome, implementation is the key. I agree with that.

Senator O'Toole mentioned the membership of the national educational welfare board. Senator Keogh was also concerned about the absence of the Departments dealing with education from that board. The board will consist of seven members. The chairperson will be appointed by the Minister from amongst persons who have a special interest in and expertise relating to the board's functions. The ordinary members will be appointed by the Minister following consultation with the Ministers for Health and Children, Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Social, Community and Family Affairs, Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Tourism and Sport. In addition the board must appoint an advisory committee comprising experts in certain fields to advise the board on aspects of its functions. Membership of this committee must include at least one person appointed from persons nominated by the National Association of Parents, one person appointed from persons nominated by recognised school management organisations and one person appointed from persons nominated by trade unions and staff associations representing teachers.

Senator O'Toole asked if the code of discipline can be given to students. There is nothing to prevent schools from giving students a copy of their code of discipline prior to registration. The purpose of the provision as currently drafted is to serve the purpose to which the Senator referred. It is to ensure that children registered in a school are made fully aware in advance of the behaviour which will attract disciplinary measures.

Senator O'Toole raised the question of the process of registration of home educated children. Section 15, the relevant section, seeks to strike a balance between the right of parents to educate their children outside the recognised school system and the duty of the State to ensure that children receive a minimum standard of education. It provides an extensive assessment procedure for children educated at home while giving children rights of consultation and appeal.

I reject Senator Ryan's assertion that the purpose of the section is to discourage parents from educating their children outside the school system. The reverse is the case. The section recognises the right of parents to educate their children outside the school system but the Government and Minister must be concerned that those children receive a certain minimum degree of education. It is of necessity, therefore, that the section is long and complex. It is important to get this right.

Senator O'Toole mentioned children who had been expelled from school. Under section 27 of the Bill, where a child has been expelled or suspended, the board established by the Bill is required to make all reasonable efforts to have the child enrolled in another school or, failing this, to make such other arrangements as it considers appropriate to ensure that the child receives the prescribed minimum education.

Senator Ryan referred to what he described as "Bonaparteism" on the part of the Minister in that the board was centrally located. The principle behind the establishment of the board is to put the issue of school attendance in a countrywide context. Provision for the education and welfare of children at local level is provided for by the appointment of education welfare officers and their assignment to particular areas and schools.

Senator Keogh raised the question of the necessity of early intervention at pre-school level. The Government recognises that and the Minister is taking extensive action on it through the forum for pre-school education which he established shortly after taking office. Senator Keogh mentioned also the need to stem the outflow of pupils from the system, particularly in the 16 to 18 year old category. When we took office the retention rate up to the leaving certificate level was approximately 82 per cent. I suspect if a survey were taken now it would indicate that the figure has risen. Our stated objective is to reach a minimum of 90 per cent retention up to and including second cycle before the Government leaves office.

Hear, hear.

We are taking various measures to ensure this legislation, particularly section 24, will play its part, including the focused targeting of expenditure in certain areas, particularly in areas of disadvantage, and the extensive curriculum reforms being undertaken by the Minister for Education and Science. I suspect that a survey of the position now would indicate an improvement.

Senator Keogh wanted section 22 dealt with in more detail. I look forward to an extensive Committee Stage debate on that section when it can be teased out to everybody's satisfaction. If Members on any side of the House have constructive suggestions to make to improve this legislation, the Minister, as always, will be most accommodating.

Senator Ryan made the point that expenditure on education should be seen by the Department of Finance as productive rather than social expenditure. I accept that point. The history of Ireland's economic boom will establish, beyond doubt, that there is a clear link between the foresight of educational planners and the economic upturn. Senator Ryan also believes that Government tax policies have widened the gap between the rich and the poor. I disagree with the Senator and I would like an opportunity to debate that matter with him. Not only is it not the truth but the reverse is the case.

I agree with the point made by Senator Kett that the board will have a massive workload and needs to be supported by finance and personnel. The Minister is conscious of that aspect.

I thank Senators for their constructive contributions, whether critical or otherwise. The Minister and I have taken them on board. The Minister is open, as always, to any constructive suggestions that come from this House. If constructive suggestions are made which improve the Bill, he will be more than happy to accept them. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and declared carried.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Wednesday, 26 May, subject to the agreement of the Whips.

Mr. Ryan

Next Wednesday?

That is the earliest available date.

Committee Stage ordered for Wednesday, 26 May 1999.
Sitting suspended at 2.45 p.m. and resumed at 3 p.m.