Adjournment Matter. - School Discipline.

I welcome my colleague from Dún Laoghaire to the House. I do not wish to go into the details of a recent case. However, in light of the decision in that case, widespread concern and representations I have received since, it may be necessary for the Department to review procedures for maintaining discipline in schools. We are concerned that fair procedures are adopted. However, it should not be the case that a school principal, as the person on the ground who knows the position, has not certain remedies open to him or her and cannot make decisions.

While the procedures used in that case may have been technically or legally defective, none of us would like it to be implied that the welfare of pupils and the problem of maintaining discipline, particularly in cases of serious nature, was not important. This was not a case of people talking at the back of the class or being late. Some of the matters raised were serious and there is much concern in certain quarters. I hope the Department will take a sympathetic look at how this matter was handled with particular reference to the legal costs because the principal involved acted in good faith. There has been discussion about how matters were dealt with and the fact that a decision was made and subsequently reversed.

The president of the National Parents Council – post-primary – Ms Marie Danaswamy, said that the person most familiar with the pupil, the school principal, should have certain powers and, except in exceptional circumstances, should be supported by the board. The public relations officer of that council, Ms Barbara Johnson, while declining to comment on the case, said that parents would wonder how children could be protected if school principals were not given the right to take actions they thought necessary and would not like what appears to have happened in this case to happen in any other school.

I am not sure whether I should declare an interest, but having two children at school I would certainly be concerned if the welfare of the pupils in general was not taken into consideration, particularly in relation to very serious matters. I hope that a decision either to expel or suspend would not be taken lightly but only in light of repeated or very serious offences. There may be a need to review the guidelines. People who serve on boards of management do much good work. However, in the end, as the Minister knows from her experience, people look to the teacher of each class and to the principal of the school. They are the people in the front line who have to make the judgment calls. People are not appointed principal of a school without having a reasonable track record.

In light of this case and other matters, perhaps there should be discussions on whether there is a need to review procedures or to provide for further regulations or for an appeals procedure. There is concern about this issue. When I read the newspaper headlines about the court case my reaction was that the decision was technically right. However, taking the broad view and taking account of principles of natural justice, one must try to balance the interests of one child who may have been a trouble maker against those of the school in general.

I hope the Minister will take what I have said on board and that she will agree with much of it.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. It is a matter of concern for all the people involved in the partnership of education, the young people, the parents, the teachers and the principals, and it was again highlighted recently.

The Department has issued guidelines to boards of management to assist them in discharging their obligations in the area of school discipline. These guidelines were drawn up following consultation with representatives of management, teachers and parents, and are sufficiently flexible to allow each school authority to adapt them to suit the particular needs of the school. These guidelines lay considerable stress on the use of suspensions and expulsions only as a last resort.

Each board of management is responsible for formulating, in consultation with parents, a fair and efficient code of behaviour. This code should ensure that the individuality of each child is accommodated while acknowledging the right of each child to education in a relatively disruption free environment. This code should include provision for dealing with serious breaches of discipline and continuously disruptive pupils. Under the rules for national schools, no pupil can be struck off the rolls for breaches of discipline without the prior consent of the patron and unless alternative arrangements are made for the enrolment of the pupil at another suitable school.

In addition, the Department of Education and Science provides assistance in securing placement in individual cases. Typically, this can arise where a pupil has been excluded as a result of disruptive behaviour and where alternative arrangements need to be made. In these circumstances, the Department endeavours through a process of consultation with the schools and through the inspectorate to assist in the reinstatement of the pupil in the school or alternatively his or her placement in another school. In more difficult situations the national educational psychological service is available to assess pupils in order to determine the nature and extent of any special needs with a view to having them addressed in the most appropriate manner.

The Minister for Education and Science has brought forward a comprehensive range of legislative measures in the Education (Welfare) Act to address issues related to school attendance and discipline in schools. The legislation provides for the establishment of a National Educational Welfare Board with responsibility for monitoring school attendance on a countrywide basis. The board will employ educational welfare officers who will be deployed locally to assist all recognised primary and second level schools. The Act will require schools to report suspensions that last at least six days to their local educational welfare officer. The automatic involvement of the educational welfare officer in these situations will provide a key means for the early identification and support of children at risk of dropping out of the school system.

Under section 15(2)(d) of the Education Act, 1998, a board of management of a school, with the agreement of the patron, shall publish and provide the policy of the school concerning expulsion and suspension of students, subject to the proviso that these decisions may be appealed to the Secretary General of the Department of Education and Science under section 29(1)(a) of the Education Act.

The Department is satisfied that the legislative structure and the guidelines are in place. The educational welfare offices and the National Educational Welfare Board will assist in individual cases and in individual schools. However, if issues arise from the court case for schools and for the partnership in education, the Department will certainly examine them.

The Seanad adjourned at 4.55 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 11 December, 2001.