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The school attendance system is governed by out of date legislation; the main statutory basis for compulsory school attendance is the School Attendance Act, 1926.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.