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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 23 Feb 2006

Vol. 182 No. 20

Teaching Council (Amendment) Bill 2006: Second and Subsequent Stages.

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

I am pleased to bring the Teaching Council (Amendment) Bill 2006 to the House on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, who is currently on official business in China. I am aware from talking to the Minister that she would have been keen to have steered the Bill in this House.

As Senators are aware, the Bill passed all of its Stages in Dáil Éireann last week and the Minister is grateful for the time allocated to the Bill at what has been relatively short notice. The Bill is very short and consists of a number of amendments to the Teaching Council Act of 2001. The amendments are of a technical nature, which are designed to cover a legislative lacuna regarding the teaching council. This lacuna became apparent only recently and it is wished to resolve the position as soon as possible.

The legislative lacuna concerns a technical issue relating to the first elections to the council which were held in 2004. Under the Teaching Council Act, 16 of the teaching council's overall membership of 37 were elected directly by teachers, either employed in or qualified to teach in primary or post-primary schools recognised by my Department. Nine of the 16 elected teachers are elected from the primary sector and the remaining seven are elected from the post-primary sector. Of the remaining 21 members, 16 were nominated by the education sector partners — trade unions, school management bodies, parents' organisations and third level institutions. The Minister makes five direct appointments. As is normal practice, all members of the council ultimately hold their appointments from the Minister for Education and Science.

The Teaching Council Act of 2001 provides that the first elections had to be held under regulations made by the Minister for Education and Science. In accordance with the provisions of the legislation, the regulations, which are known as the Teaching Council (First Election of Members) Regulations 2004, SI 916 of 2004, were signed into law on 10 September 2004 by the then Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey. While the elections were held under the required regulations and these regulations were, in turn, made in accordance with the Teaching Council Act, it became apparent recently that the relevant provisions of the Act were not commenced when the regulations were made, thus raising a potential question about the legal basis for the elections. This is the lacuna to which I referred.

The amendments covered by this Bill retrospectively validate the power to make these regulations, thus ensuring there can be no question about whether the elections were held in accordance with the Teaching Council Act. The basis of any regulation is in the parent statute and the relevant provision of the parent statute was not commenced when the regulations were made. Given that the overall membership of the council is closely linked with the elections, these amendments will also ensure there can be no issues in relation to the nominations and appointments to the council. In essence, retrospective validity is sought to be given to the transactions and membership of the council. There can be no question about the lawfulness of the council's membership regardless of whether the members are elected, nominated or appointed.

The legal lacuna addressed by the terms of this Bill does not have any impact upon the work of the teaching council. The Minister launched the Council almost a year ago, on 28 February 2005, in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham unaware of the illusory basis of the existence of the entity. Its members were, therefore, in a position to undertake the necessary preparatory work in advance of its formal establishment. This is normal practice for bodies of this nature which, in effect, have a two tier approach to their commencement, namely, an initial preparatory stage and the actual legal commencement of operations in accordance with their governing legislation.

The Teaching Council Act provides that the council cannot have any legal standing until its formal establishment day, on which it formally and legally commences its operations. After the establishment day the council must be in a position to be able to fully commence its work so there can be no lead-in or transitional period. This is the reason the Minister, in line with the Teaching Council Act, launched the council in February 2005 leaving a significant amount of time for preparation work.

The lack of legal status for the council until establishment day also means its members will have to be reconfirmed in their appointments once the council has been formally established. This process is normal for statutory bodies of this nature, such as the National Council for Special Education, NCSE. Therefore, while the members to the council were elected, nominated and appointed for the launch date of 28 February 2005, they will not become actual legally appointed members until the council's establishment day.

At the launch of the council in February 2005, the Minister for Education and Science indicated her wish that its establishment day should occur in March this year. Having spoken to the Minister, she has informed me that it is her intention, following consultation with the council, to confirm the precise date over the coming weeks. At this stage I am pleased the Minister's deadline will be met.

Although the council does not have a legal status at present, since its launch in February 2005 it has undertaken a great deal of preparatory work in order that it can fully meet its obligations after establishment day. This preparatory work is part of the normal prudential process to ensure State bodies similar to the council are fully able to discharge their statutory functions from day one of their legal existence.

Under the able leadership of its chairperson, Ms Joan Ward, and director, Ms Aine Lawlor, the council has completed most of its initial start-up administrative tasks and has recruited staff and secured an office premises. The three statutory committees and three standing committees of the council have been established on an informal basis and the members of each have been working very hard over the past six months on their respective areas of responsibility in order that their preparatory work will be well advanced prior to the council's legal establishment. On behalf of the Minister, I thank all members of the council and its staff for their efforts in this regard.

One of the three standing committees, the registration committee, is in the final stages of completing the council's procedures for the registration of teachers and the recognition of teaching qualifications in order that the council can begin work on this important area immediately after its establishment day. Senators may be aware that some of this work is already being done by the Registration Council which will cease to exist on establishment day of the Teaching Council. The legislation then provides that this vital work will immediately be taken over by the council and this is why there can be no lead-in period or learning process for this work.

I take this opportunity to thank, on behalf of the Minister for Education and Science, the members of the Registration Council and its staff for the important and very complex work which they have undertaken in this area over the years. I would also pay tribute to the members of the inspectorate in the Department who performed a similar function regarding the primary sector as the Registration Council did for the post-primary sector. This work will also transfer to the Teaching Council on its establishment day.

Considerable work has been done by another standing committee, the education committee, on codes of professional conduct and practice for teachers, which are at draft stage and will be subject to a widespread consultation process later this year. The statutory investigating and disciplinary committees have also undertaken a large body of work into what will, undoubtedly, be difficult but important areas for the maintenance of standards for the teaching profession.

The Teaching Council Act sets out three wide-ranging and ambitious objectives for the council. In essence, and it is important that this message gets as wide a coverage as possible, the Teaching Council is concerned with teaching rather than the narrower focus upon teachers. Its objectives cover the regulation of the teaching profession and the professional conduct of teachers, in addition to initial teacher education and training, as well as the continuing education and training and professional development of teachers.

The council will have a strong developmental role in the education and development of teachers to ensure that we continue to maintain the current very good standards of our teachers and schools. Although the council will not merely be concentrating upon the professional conduct or competence of individual teachers, it is recognised that, for a minority of teachers, these may well be issues which need to be addressed. In this regard, the Teaching Council Act sets out the functions and powers of the council very clearly. It is important when dealing with such matters that they are approached with integrity, fairness and balance and I am confident that the council will do this.

Although the Minister is very pleased with the level of preparatory work undertaken in readiness for the full commencement of the council's functions after its establishment day, the council will face a number of challenges as it creates for itself a position of genuine respect and credibility on the Irish education landscape. As the regulatory body for the profession of teaching, the council has the very real potential to secure and enhance the status of this most vital profession in the eyes of people throughout the country. By meeting the challenge of acting as a focus for all that is best in the profession, the council will do much to diminish any concerns about the concept of self-regulation. We have been well served by teachers throughout the generations and it is right and proper that we entrust them now with a much greater say in the regulation of their own profession. I have no doubt that the council will rise to that challenge and, in doing so, ensure that the high standards achieved to date in regard to both teachers and teaching continue into the future. Molaim an Bille don Teach.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I assure him that we will co-operate fully with the speedy passage of this amending legislation. The most important part of the speech we have just heard was when the Minister of State said: "the Teaching Council is concerned with teaching rather than the narrower focus upon teachers". When the Teaching Council was first proposed, fears were expressed about the powers and targets that were supposed to exist. A great disservice was done to the teaching profession by elements of the media which focused on the idea that this was a vehicle through which inefficient teachers would be sacked. The imbalanced debate took a new focus and unfortunately it was negative rather than positive. I regard the Teaching Council as a very positive step forward for the profession and for teaching and I am delighted the Minister of State has included this aspect in his contribution. It should not merely focus on teachers alone, but also on the concept of teaching.

In the past two days newspapers have carried two disturbing reports. One report dealt with teaching and the issue of literacy. It was highlighted that many students graduating at various levels had serious problems with literacy. We all know this is the case for many reasons. The importance of the junior certificate has often been debated in this House and the other House, and by the partners in education. While it also applies at leaving certificate level, in particular the junior certificate examination papers contain multiple-choice questions with an increasing emphasis on students ticking a box to give the correct answer. While this may not apply to such an extent to examinations on the languages, mathematics, history and geography, we are providing an easy option when compared with the traditional format. While I am not a traditionalist in any way, we are providing an option which does not press students to express themselves.

I have not corrected examination papers but I have assessed them up to leaving certificate honours standard in which students are required to structure complete sentences. Opting out of that process will result in many students coming out with an incomplete product. We are not getting the best out of students because of the way we set the papers and test them. That model needs to be changed.

Illiteracy is a problem and it is too convenient for people to stay illiterate. In modern life we have the text language used on phones, which is undoubtedly leading to problems. Compositions by children now contain an element of such language because it is fashionable. With question papers that allow for such composition, we will always have problems with some students. If we want students to perform to the best of their ability they must be examined in a way that searches for their best ability.

Many students are failing leaving certificate pass and junior certificate mathematics examinations and officialdom has responded by proposing changes to increase pass levels, which is fair enough and would give positive sense of achievement for the student. We are talking about high levels of illiteracy from primary to second level, including among junior and leaving certificate students and all those in between who drop out of school. It has been stated in this House that over 1,000 students fail to transfer from primary to second level. The drop-out rate at second level is alarming because those students do not have any qualifications or even adequate literacy skills. Those problems must be tackled. The current format of examination whereby students have to tick boxes is unsatisfactory and a contributory factor to the literacy difficulties at that level.

The increasing problem of unruly behaviour was mentioned earlier. One of the main functions of the Teaching Council will be to suggest a mechanism whereby that problem can be dealt with as a matter of urgency. Statistics indicate that 47% of retiring teachers do so as a result of stress-related factors. That is not good enough. We must have clarification on where the responsibility lies for dealing with unruly behaviour by students because that has been a grey area over the years. It is bad enough if it is having such an effect that 47% of teachers retire because of stress but it is even worse when we see diligent students who want to get on with their work being disrupted in school. Whatever it takes to address the problem must be done by all the partners in education, be it the Teaching Council, the Minister or the boards of management. There must be clarification on the action that can be taken within the law and by whom. It is time this problem was dealt with and grey areas clarified once and for all. We are a well-educated society and if we are to prosper and continue the economic advantages we have currently, it is important our education system produces highly-educated people. Nothing must be allowed to disrupt that process.

It is unfortunate that many commentators outside the area of education have pointed the finger at bad teachers. It is unfair and unacceptable that the morale of teachers would be undermined by outsiders without any justification. Where it is justified it must be addressed but where there is no justification it is important that somebody steps in. It is the responsibility of the Minister and the Department to put in place a process for people in the profession who are experiencing difficulties.

I ask the Minister of State to request the Minister, now that the council is in place, to consider delivering education in the best possible environment, for which she will have the full support of this side of the House. People who cause disruption to that process must be dealt with in a positive way by the powers that be, and somebody must clear away the grey area that existed in the past.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I welcome this short Bill. The Minister explained the necessity for the Bill, which relates to a legal lacuna which could result in a challenge to the constitutionality or legality of the council. This Bill was needed to remove that lacuna which will be done by way of amendments. The Bill is important because it regularises the entire operation in the build up to the establishment of the council next month.

In that regard I welcome the Minister of State's statement that the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, has informed him that the establishment day for the council will be at the end of next month. On establishment day, the council is formally operational. It can begin to perform all its functions with full legal authority under the Act that set it up three or four years ago. I did not have the opportunity at that time to discuss that legislation and I will make some comments now about the teaching profession that I might have made at the time.

It is important to point out that the existence of the technical lacuna did not in any way inhibit the progress of the development of the structures needed under the Act. It was heartening to hear the Minister of State say that the council is in place, albeit informally. I understand from what he said that the various committees are in place, staffed and ready to go. It was also heartening to hear that much preparatory work has been done and that the committees are ready to perform all the functions required of them once they are made aware of the establishment day when they will be given formal legal status.

The fact that an additional Bill had to be brought forward is not a serious issue, although it would have been better if it had not been necessary. The three statutory committees and the standing committees are up and running, as are the registration committee, the education committee and the investigation and disciplinary committee. All the progress I referred to has taken place prior to the establishment day, which we welcome. I understand the chairman, Ms Ward, has been appointed, although I cannot say when, as has the director, Áine Lawlor. The council has obtained a premises and recruited staff. In terms of the overall umbrella organisation of the council, therefore, it is ready to go, which is to be welcomed.

It is easy to understate the importance of this Teaching Council. It is an important milestone on the road to the ongoing professional development of teachers but it is equally important for our students and the country as a whole. Through the Department of Education and Science, standards, policy, qualifications, programmes, development and so on have been progressed. The council will now establish standards, policies and procedures for the education and training of teachers, and it will include a professional code of conduct.

I agree with Senator Burke that there has been far too much emphasis in the media and among commentators about the issue of a code of conduct. The code of conduct is vital but it is not the only area at the heart of this issue. Issues such as standards, qualifications and training are also important.

When a regulatory council is being set up for professionals, the question is whether it is to be regulated from within, without or from both angles. There is a large degree of self-regulation and professional autonomy at the heart of the Teaching Council. The Teaching Council which is being established next month will enhance the status and morale of teachers. Teachers' morale has been battered quite significantly in recent years because of much unjustified criticism of them.

Just as the council will help teachers it will equally help parents. It will help reassure parents that the teachers into whose care they are placing their children will not alone meet the highest standards of qualification, professionalism and competence but will be seen to meet those high standards. Parents will know the council has a clear course of action if a teacher is found to be failing in his or her profession. There have been isolated cases where teachers have failed to meet the highest standards in fulfilling the obligations, duties and functions of the profession. Sometimes there has been a justifiable degree of concern among parents about the uncertainty of dealing with such issues. That there is now a clear set of procedures and policy available to the council in its dealings with the Department of Education and Science on such issues is reassuring for parents.

I pay tribute to our teachers, not only for the past ten, 15 or 20 years but going back over the generations. They have played a very important role and made an incalculable contribution to the development of the country economically and socially. We have had enormous challenges in both spheres. In general, they provided an excellent standard of teaching. They have helped to inculcate the highest values of personal integrity among students from primary to second level education. They have promoted civil and social responsibility among students which are even more important than ever given all the challenges of drug abuse, alcohol addiction and so on. Down through the decades and the generations many teachers have been models of community leadership. They have shown example to children not alone through the school structure but out in the community. They have also played a very important role in building community structures, and promoting sport and youth activities.

I am not trying to be a male chauvinist, but there has been a decline in recent years in the promotion of some outdoor competitive physical sports activities because of the low number of male teachers. That is not casting an aspersion on female teachers who are extremely good and many of whom are well known to me and give great leadership. Nevertheless we should use the opportunity to encourage teachers, through the council, to rebuild the spirit of promotion of sport and youth activities through schools. There is no doubt they have been the basis for the high standards achieved in competitive sport and we have to salute our teachers for that enormous contribution.

Like all other professions, teachers have come to recognise and accept the need for a structure, such as the Teaching Council, to meet the ever-increasing demands on their professionalism and the challenges to their competence and responsibilities as educators in the maintenance of educational standards and quality. It is reassuring to learn of their co-operation and input into the steering committee and the various developments that have brought us to this point.

The setting up of the Teaching Council goes back to the 1991 OECD review of Irish education and the 1992 Green Paper, Education for a Changing World, both of which strongly recommended the setting up of such a council. Therefore, it has not come out of the blue, it has been evolving for a period and is all the better for that. With that evolution came many important inputs which will make it an effective and successful council.

Nurses have An Bord Altranais, doctors have the Medical Council and solicitors have the Incorporated Law Society. Teachers will now have their own council because the regulation of any profession is essential to maintain and enhance the highest possible standards. It is high time the State gave recognition to teachers for the role they can play in such a council. I commend the manner in which this is being done through the Teaching Council.

The issue of self-regulation has been raised from time to time and not always for positive reasons. There are, perhaps, one or two professions that have come under the spotlight because the public perception has been that their self-regulation has not always been successful. There is a challenge to the notion that teachers should be self-regulated. I would offer a counter challenge for a number of reasons. The Teaching Council will allow teachers to have a large degree of input into the spectrum of educational matters relating to teaching and education from primary through the continuum of education. It is high time, given the tremendous record of teachers in the history of education, we entrusted to them a far greater say in the running of their activities and in the evolution and development of the profession in terms of standards, quality, entry, their work, the environment in which they work and the difficulties that pertain to their work.

Even more important, in terms of the challenges for teachers and school principals in recent years, is the increase in needs, such as the National Council for Special Education, and all that means in terms of extra commitments and responsibilities in schools. There are significant challenges for teachers resulting from self-regulation but there are also significant gains. I have no doubt given my knowledge of teachers, their commitment and the sense of vocation shown down through the years, that they will embrace these challenges with enthusiasm.

Sometimes the issue of self-regulation comes under the spotlight for negative reasons. Reference has been made to the fact that teachers and teaching unions in general come in for much criticism because of the perception that teachers who fail to meet certain standards are not always dealt with effectively. One of the challenges for the Teaching Council will be to win public support and the genuine respect and credibility of all the partners in education. To do that it will have to secure and enhance the status of teachers and teaching in the eyes of the public. I have every confidence it is capable of doing that as I know of teachers' record and commitment to the vocation of teaching.

Teachers have much to gain from the new council and will be consulting it to develop their profession. Ongoing professional development is perhaps more essential for teachers than members of many other professions in that there is a central dependance on teachers for their contribution to social and community development and, of equal importance, economic development. The Government, as with previous Governments, has brought education to the centre of economic development and has clearly acknowledged the contribution it can and must make to our economic future.

Teachers have a key role to play and face considerable challenges and opportunities. I have no doubt they will use the council as their voice to enhance the perception of their work and the appreciation of the challenges they face. They will also use it to enhance the need for co-operation by parents and all other partners in education. I commend the Minister of State on the announcement to establish the council next month. I look forward to its very successful operation.

Fáiltím roimh an Aire Stáit. Tá an reachtaíocht thar a bheith tábhachtach. Gan amhras, níl i gceist anseo ach botún a rinneamar b'fhéidir anuraidh nó dhá bhliain ó shin a cheartú. Níl sé sin ró-thábhachtach. Rud atá an-tábhachtach ná féachaint ar conas atá an feachtas seo ag dul ar aghaidh, agus an tábhacht a bhaineann leis sin. Níl rud ar bith níos tábhachtaí in aon chuid den saol ná oideachas a chur ar fáil do dhaoine.

Let me begin by making a point to the cynics, the people who do not consider the worth of education but look beyond it. My first lecture in economics began with the statement that the basis of a good economy is a healthy, educated young population. This is the basis of everything else. This is not to say that teachers take all the credit for the Celtic tiger, it is not that simple. It is a question of society, in all its aspects, advancing through education.

The most crucial point, which was touched upon by my colleagues and the Minister of State, is that the campaign to establish the Teaching Council was driven by teachers. To those who say teachers are worried about accountability, I reply that they have always wanted their profession to be regulated properly. Teachers at all levels have been seeking this initiative for many years and welcome it, although many would say it will put them under the cosh now and again. Nonetheless, the teaching profession has reached out to make itself accountable. Other professions have been much slower in this regard. We are still trying to get some professions to agree to some form of oversight or regulation.

People will argue that a lot of money has been paid for benchmarking in the public sector and they will ask what they get back. I could go through all the areas of the public sector and state what communities have received back but I want to consider education and teachers specifically. In the past year, teachers and their unions have bought into the concept of whole school evaluation and published reports in this regard. Teachers say they have nothing to hide and are proud of what they do, and the evaluations demonstrate what they do. They have also bought into the idea of a teaching council as an oversight body to monitor their work. Will the Minister of State mention this to any of the cynics, doubters, anti-public service types and anti-teacher types who ask what they get back?

Through the aforementioned steps alone — there are many more — we have, over the past two years, got back from primary and post-primary teachers more than we could have dreamt of. This is the reality and we should be proud of it. Teachers have rightly argued over the detail and no doubt will do so again, because this is what negotiation is all about, but the fact is that there has been delivery and the teaching profession can be proud of what it has done.

I listened to the debate in the Dáil and found it discouraging, painful and extraordinarily negative. I do not know from where it came. The teaching profession is setting up a teaching council that will deal with all the relevant issues, including qualifications and the pre-training and postgraduate training of teachers. This represents a bonus to society. Consideration is being given to the following: continuing professional development and its benefits to teachers, pupils and society; ethics and codes of conduct, including the question of how teachers should behave; the checks and balances that exist; and new international developments so we can ensure we are leaders in terms of global best practice. As part of the establishment of the Teaching Council, we are also considering the present and future recognition of teachers and how they fit within the school structures. All these positive initiatives are being taken and the community is being given confidence in the teaching profession, yet all I heard in the other House was Members asking how teachers could be sacked.

There is one simple answer — one sacks a teacher as one sacks anybody else. If teachers do not do their work they can be put out the door following due process. That is the end of that discussion. The Teaching Council will withdraw recognition, where required, in a proper and balanced way. I have not the slightest doubt that the members of the council will do their job professionally, responsibly and equitably and that there will be full accountability. This council represents a very important step in terms of what we should be seeking for the future.

The council has 37 members. We have spoken about their commitment and, in this regard, they are meeting every six weeks. They are trying to reach out to the communities in which they meet, outlining their role and plans and inviting questions. The president of the council, Joan Ward, a former colleague of mine, and the director, Áine Lawlor, are people of quality. I do not know all the members on the council but know many of them, some of whom are past presidents of the INTO, the ASTI and the TUI. The members are all committed to getting the arrangement right and know that when they are negotiating teachers' salaries, they will be able to say teachers deserve more money, better rewards and greater appreciation because they do as good, if not a better, job than members of the teaching profession anywhere else in the world. We can match them anywhere.

It is very often forgotten that in terms of the selection process and staff numbers, there is a greater intellectual investment in the teaching profession than in any other profession of which I know. I do not want to sound superior in saying this. Using a crude measure, a significant part of the national intelligence is invested in the teaching profession. It is right that this be the case and that it be recognised. Given this intellectual investment, it is also right that we make demands of our teachers, and that is why we can do what we are doing today with confidence. We are considering setting up new educational structures for people who are dealing with extraordinary societal change, as politicians know better than most. Society has been turned over in the past ten years and teachers are dealing with the consequent difficulties every day as they arise in the classroom. They have to deal with the increased levels of violence and crime in the community about which politicians hear in clinics and by telephone. They have to cope with problems which result from drug use, abuse and misuse. Every problem that is found in the community arrives in the classroom on Monday mornings. The Minister for Education and Science made that point to me when I was talking to her last week about her visit to a school in a disadvantaged area. She told me that a child approached her as she was leaving, at the end of a lovely day of presentations, etc., and asked to be allowed to sleep in the school that night. We should think about what prompts a child to ask such a question. We can be proud of the manner in which teachers are dealing with such issues on a daily basis. We know about the changes in family structures they are dealing with — perhaps we helped to bring such changes about. There has been a movement away from the extended old-fashioned family structures we were used to. Parents are now involved in different kinds of relationships. They might be involved in second relationships following divorces or separations, for example. Children might have to live in different homes because their parents are living apart.

Not only are teachers trying to come to terms with such changes in society, but they are also moving forward in other ways, for example by introducing the changes in the new curriculum. I would like to mention a third result of benchmarking, which is evident when the Minister for Education and Science attends EU ministerial meetings. Ireland is the only country in western Europe to have introduced a new curriculum on two occasions without any problems. I accept that hard negotiations were necessary, but the process was completed without any strikes, industrial action or withdrawal of support. Demands were made and all sorts of conditions were attached — I make no excuses for that because teachers are entitled to put safeguards in place — but the new curriculum was successfully implemented. When I spoke to a French education Minister two years ago, he said that he wished a similar deal could have been reached in France. He could not understand how teachers, parents, the Department, the inspectorate and groups like IBEC and ICTU were able to negotiate the new curriculum in a spirit of co-operation and in the best interests of children. Given that new curriculums in other countries are written in offices and imposed on the teaching profession, is it any wonder that rows take place? The successful operation of the Teaching Council is part of the great deal we have gained from the partnership process.

I am leading up to the major point I would like to make about the Teaching Council. Demands are being made of the Minister of State and his officials. My colleagues on all sides of the House recognise that the Teaching Council will be a successful body. As politicians, the Minister of State and I are aware that when such bodies are doing really well, politicians bask in the reflected glory as part of the establishment that put them in place. Such bodies are suddenly on their own, however, when they have to take difficult decisions and make hard choices — when they have to recommend things that people in their professions will not applaud. Can the Minister of State press a button in the Department of Education and Science to ensure that the Teaching Council will be allowed to act as an independent body? We should invest our trust in the council by allowing it to do as it sees fit. I accept that over-arching controls should be in place, but there is no need for the council to have to seek the approval of the Minister at every hand's turn, as it has to do at present.

That is the big issue.

It will bring the work of the Teaching Council to a halt. It has not created a problem to date, but it certainly will in the future. We need to give the council the freedom to show us how well it can do its job. If there are problems with its work, we can rein it in, but we should let it off for the time being. The people involved in the council have enthusiasm, energy, knowledge, professionalism and commitment. They can make it work. They are providing great leadership. The best of people are involved in the council. We should give them their head by allowing them to do what they have to do. We should trust them to deliver an even better teaching profession than the great teaching profession we have at the moment.

The Bill before the House, which has been introduced in the interests of all our futures, represents a great step forward. I compliment the Minister, the Members on all sides of the House and the officials outside the House who were involved in the production of the Bill and the 2001 Act. This is a good day for education. We can rely on the Teaching Council to deliver all we require of it and to meet all the demands we make of it. This Bill will allow it to ensure that the teaching profession at primary and post-primary levels will continue to be a shining example and a gem among the educational structures of Europe.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, to the House. Like Senator O'Toole, I was disappointed when I heard some of the comments made in the Lower House. Having listened to the debate in that House, I feel that some Deputies need to be reminded of the need to get on with this amending legislation. The Deputies in question did not address the core reasons for the establishment of the Teaching Council. This amending legislation relates to a small part of the council's operations.

We need to talk about the Teaching Council. When I told some of my former teaching colleagues last weekend that the Seanad was to have a debate on the Teaching Council during the week, they did not know what I was talking about. While a great deal of preparatory work has been done since the Teaching Council Act 2001 was passed, it seems that this Bill is necessary, unfortunately, because a legislative lacuna has been uncovered. I have a problem with the word "lacuna" in this context — I have to get my head around it. It seems that a commencement order will have to be made if the council is to be established by the end of March. This amending Bill is necessary to give a legal basis to the regulations which were signed into law in 2004, thereby allow the Teaching Council to become a statutory body and get on with its work.

The Teaching Council has not been the subject of any publicity. It is a shame that teachers do not seem to know anything about the council. God knows that teachers have received bad press in recent years. Everyone outside the profession seems to think that teachers have it all because they get three months of holidays, they are finished every day by 2.30 p.m. or 3.30 p.m. and they work just 22 hours per week.

I hope the Senator reminds such people of the truth of the matter.

Such people do not talk about the stresses and strains faced by teachers. Senator Ulick Burke rightly highlighted this issue at length on the Order of Business this morning. There is a great deal of stress involved in teaching. The case of a little girl who wanted to stay in school rather than go home, which was raised earlier today, says it all. As someone who taught in a disadvantaged area for many years, I could write a script on the basis of my observations in the classroom every day of the week. I know of excellent teachers who were pushed beyond their capacity to deal with the problems they faced.

I welcome the establishment of the Teaching Council, which is a great step forward. The social status of the teaching profession has been eroded over the years. Teachers have been classed almost as second class citizens by people who think teachers have a doss job. I am glad the Teaching Council will restore the status of the profession by supporting teachers as they try to fulfil their aspirations and expectations and to provide the appropriate standard and quality of education. It has already been acknowledged that similar councils are in place in the medical and legal professions. Given that teachers are professionals, it is right that a Teaching Council of 37 members has been established. The council will be self-regulatory; in other words, it is mostly teachers who will run the show. That is terribly important.

I will spell out the purposes and objectives of the Teaching Council. I understand that it will have three committees, one of which will have responsibility for the registration of qualifications. I do not really understand what that means. The Department of Education and Science used to have responsibility for such matters, but I understand that will no longer be the case. Will the Teaching Council be involved in the harmonisation of qualifications? This issue was raised this morning in another context. If the council is to assess teachers' qualifications, it will have to liaise with the teacher training colleges. Will it have an involvement in the content of courses? This is an important issue. Some teacher training colleges need to reinvent themselves because some of their courses are outdated. This matter also needs to be considered as part of the brief of some educational institutions which are not officially recognised as teacher training colleges. This part states that they will now analyse, assess and monitor "fitness to practise". I hate that phrase. It leads me to think that they are now looking at the teacher. This Teaching Council is about the teaching profession rather than the teacher and I would be worried that it would be misinterpreted. How does one assess fitness to practise? How will it be monitored? It is difficult role to observe whether a teacher is doing his or her work properly. It could be influenced by many factors, such as a particular class having very disruptive children. Fitness to practise will question whether the teacher is capable, yet in another set of circumstances, that teacher could be excellent. In that respect, evaluation of fitness to practise is a huge responsibility. Does evaluating suitability to teach include the vetting of teachers before they are appointed? This is currently happening with PE teachers. Does the vetting of teachers come under the role of the Teaching Council, or is it still under the Department of Education and Science? There are a lot of grey areas between these bodies in respect of which body does what. This needs to be clarified.

I welcome the concept of the Teaching Council and I am glad that it is up and running. I look forward to working with it and with the Department in trying to move forward. It will enhance the profession and it is well overdue.

This is a technical Bill and I will not go too far into its background, but as it deals with something retrospectively and ensures that something is not invalidated, as described in the memorandum, then I worry whether the Bill will be legally sound. I presume the Minister obtained full legal advice about it. People who are not experts about this can never know for sure and we are not experts in the Seanad on the level of technical, legal detail involved. I wonder why the relevant sections were not commenced when they should have been. That is the sort of thing we should ensure does not happen in the future. There is always a worry that legislation such as this cannot be challenged. With what it thought was sound legal advice, the Government has tried previously to do things retrospectively but has not succeeded.

I would like to raise a number of issues that relate to teaching in general, the first of which is absenteeism among pupils. The Minister of State's party colleague, Deputy Curran, put down a question about levels of absenteeism in the Clondalkin area. A total of 1,276 students in the area were absent for 20 days or more in the school year, which seemed a very high proportion of students in the area. It involved 847 primary school students and 429 post-primary students. Through my work as a public representative, I have found out about pupils who seem to have fallen through the gaps in the education system. They have been expelled from or left particular schools, but no alternative has been put in place for them. I am not apportioning blame to anyone, but some of these students might be out of the system for months. That does not augur well for their prospects of completing school. Very often, the child may have special needs or the child may experience domestic problems. The Government needs to do much more to tackle that problem.

I recently read a reply given by the Minister of State about the National Educational Welfare Board. A total of 61 education welfare officers and 12 senior education welfare officers have been employed. That is nowhere near the full complement of educational welfare officers. There is a great problem with absenteeism and much more needs to be done about that. There must be a more proactive approach to students who are falling out of the system. I dealt with such an issue in the last few days. Somebody unrelated to a particular child, but who was worried about the child, wanted to know what to do to get the child back into the school system. No one was available to ensure that the child was back in school.

A number of efforts have been made to provide alternative syllabi for the leaving certificate, such as the applied leaving certificate and other schemes. However, more needs to be done to provide flexible options for people who are at risk of dropping out at junior certificate or leaving certificate level. I am aware that the Traveller community has a problem in this respect. They need to be able to study for the junior certificate, but they may have to do it part-time so that they can work as well. However, to ensure that they keep a foot in the education system, we need to support them in a structured way. The classes should be provided for them during the day on a part-time basis and they could be given a training allowance to attend.

I thank Senators for the broad welcome they gave to this measure and for the quality of the debate. For a while I believed that this truly was a vocational Chamber until Senator Tuffy spoke, because every Member who spoke before her was also a member of the teaching profession. As someone who is not a teacher, I have always been lost in admiration for the very high standard our teachers have set in our schools and for the excellent education system they have provided in this country. There was very little discussion on the point at issue in the legislation, the lacuna in which Senator Ormonde attempted to explore. The lacuna was that the Minister does not commence the section which should have been commenced in order for him or her to make the regulations under it. The present Minister rightly took the view, given the amount of work done already at the Teaching Council, that it was important to ensure that the work would be validated retrospectively and that no doubt would ever be cast on the appointment of the original members of the council. It would have been possible simply to reissue new regulations, but that would be to treat the work that has already been done as somewhat of a hiatus. It is a measure of the respect the Minister has for the work that has already been undertaken by the council that she has decided to embark on this course of a full legislative change to give solidity to what has already been embarked upon, albeit that the establishment date is just a few weeks away.

Senators naturally and properly took the opportunity of the debate to canvass wider issues in the educational system which relate to the functions of the Teaching Council. Senator Ulick Burke raised the issue of illiteracy. His contribution was interesting. He made the point that there is a distinction between illiteracy simpliciter, if one can categorise it as such, and the standards of spoken and written language which currently obtain. He was right to advert to the impact technology has had, although technology should offer opportunities for improvement as well as disimprovement. However, it is an important issue relating to the work of the council because one of the functions of the council is to set the educational standard for teachers not just in terms of initial qualification but also in the area of continuing education, which is so important in our rapidly changing world.

Senator Burke then referred to the issue of unruly behaviour. This is a major difficulty for the teaching profession. There has been a radical change of approach in teaching over the generations. I am descended from a line of teachers and I have seen that radical change. As Minister of State with responsibility for children I am aware of the huge advantage and enjoyment many children derive from their participation in school now compared to previous generations but I am also aware of the pressure this places on teachers. The Minister established a group to examine the issue of discipline in schools and that group will report within the next few weeks. I look forward to receiving the recommendations of the group because it is important this issue is tackled and addressed.

Senator Fitzgerald traced the genesis of this legislation and the importance of the council setting proper professional standards for teachers. Senator O'Toole mentioned that the teachers had requested that this legislation be enacted. I agree with Senator O'Toole that we have had a constructive relationship with the teaching profession, which is very much to be praised. Senator Fitzgerald also raised the issue of the under-performance of teachers. That is not an issue, in the first instance, for the Teaching Council. It should be addressed as part of the normal management of a school. That is the reason there are boards of management and principals. They have a particular function in that regard.

Senator Ormonde touched on this when she asked about the basis of the fitness to practise and disciplinary provisions of the legislation. It is clearly set out that this relates to breaches of legislation or to the violation of a professional code prescribed by the council for teachers. We are public figures in public life so we might advise the teachers to be careful in the formulation of their code. Once it is formulated, however, it will become the basis for activating the disciplinary provisions. Fraudulent or inaccurate registration is another ground. A number of grounds are set out in the legislation. Some Senators were unhappy with comments made in the Lower House about under-performance by teachers. The first port of call with this issue must be the board of management and the principal of the school in question. Clearly, disciplinary questions might arise from that but that is how the issue should be tackled in the first instance.

Senator O'Toole mentioned the autonomy of the council. The council has substantial autonomy under the legislation. The Senator was concerned that there would be a dead hand from the Department on the council but a great deal of work has already been done in the various committees dealing with education, registration, discipline and fitness to practise, so the council can act in an autonomous way. This is part of the constructive relationship the Government and the Department are anxious to have with the teaching profession. On foot of benchmarking we have initiated the whole school evaluation process as well as the Teaching Council and this was also mentioned by Senator O'Toole.

Senator Ormonde referred to the issue of professional standing and the basis upon which discipline should take place. She also raised the vetting issue. We are having discussions with the Teaching Council about this at present. The Garda central vetting unit has been decentralised to Thurles and an increased number of staff have been allocated to it. It is our intention to extend the vetting arrangements to new entrants to the educational system as soon as is practicable. An issue that arises in that context is whether the Teaching Council should have some role in connection with the vetting. A difficulty for the Garda authorities is the large number of employers in the education sector. This issue is under examination in the Department and I hope to be able to make a positive announcement in the near future, to use the immortal phrase.

I was delighted Senator Tuffy raised the problem of absenteeism. It is and was a matter of great concern to this and the previous Government. In fact, the Minister delegated to me responsibility for the administration of the Education (Welfare) Act 2000. One of the points that is not appreciated by Members of the Oireachtas and the public in general is that the responsibilities cast on the Educational Welfare Board under that Act are far more extensive than the simple issue of absenteeism. Indeed, one of the difficulties with the legislation is that it also imposed a wide range of legal obligations on the board relating to the keeping of records by school principals, the return of records to the board and the question of appeals against suspensions and expulsions from schools. A great amount of the welfare officers' time has been consumed in advising parents and students about their rights of appeal against an expulsion or suspension from school.

Senator Tuffy referred to the number of welfare officers. The number of officers engaged is far in excess of the number that were engaged under the old school attendance scheme, although the school attendance officers only had functions in the county boroughs. It remains a sad, incontestable fact that the bulk of the problems exist in the county boroughs and in the new suburban areas around Dublin. That is also where the bulk of the absenteeism occurs. The Senator specifically mentioned the Clondalkin area but there are other areas in the city, Fingal and south Dublin and other borough areas in the State where this difficulty exists.

I am anxious to make headway in tackling this issue but to do so we must consider the different type of child or youngster involved. I have made it clear in my meetings with the board that in primary education we must foster a culture of attendance. The parent must understand that he or she has duties in this respect as well. Since they can procure the attendance of their child at primary school, it is the fundamental duty of a parent to do so. I make no apology for the fact that I have asked the board to embark on prosecutions. No prosecution has taken place under this legislation whereas there was a regular pattern of prosecution under the school attendance legislation. Unfortunately, prosecution is necessary in certain cases to ensure parents comply with their duties. The State cannot physically remove every child and escort him or her to a primary school. Somebody must undertake that obligation.

The argument is made that to bring persons before the courts is a penal measure. However, I have advanced the idea with the board, and the board has considered it, that judges be empowered to refer such parents to a suitable parenting course so they learn to appreciate their responsibilities in that regard. Of course, the problem of attendance at primary school is not as serious as the problem at second level. The fact remains, however, that a certain proportion of children do not attend primary school. That issue must be addressed. We all know primary education is the foundation and that without that foundation we are going nowhere.

Having dealt that way with primary education, I do not see much scope for the big stick when one moves to consideration of second level education. The issues raised by Senator Tuffy relate primarily to students or young persons who do not opt to take second level education. One of the key issues in regard to second level education is the existence of viable alternatives to the formal education system. Some proportion, if not a large proportion of those who are unwilling to participate in second level education, need an alternative approach.

I have asked the board to prepare the necessary regulations under the Act which will provide for recognition of alternative education. Those regulations have been submitted by the board and are under examination at my Department. I hope to clear them soon. Above and beyond that, as Senator Tuffy rightly stated, it is not enough simply to have the regulations in place, although that might clean up our statistics. We need practical systems in place to ensure that students who drop out at second level are linked to these courses. This issue is being considered by the welfare board. I am glad the Senator gave me the opportunity to give some account of my stewardship in that area.

I thank Senators for the welcome they gave the Bill. It is important legislation. As Senators noted, teaching is an important profession. It is set a good standard in this legislation, which was requested for it. The Bill is in no sense, as some legislation concerning professional interests can be, a conspiracy against the public. It is very much concerned with setting proper standards and not just the registration but the education and development of teachers, as well as, in the very extreme cases where it is required, dealing with the question of discipline and fitness to practice. It is good legislation. On behalf of the Minister, I am glad to present it to the House and thank Senators for their welcome for it.

Question put and agreed to.
Bill reported without amendment and received for final consideration.
Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."

I thank the Minister of State and his officials for bringing the Bill before the House.

Given that the council is to be an autonomous body and registration fees are to be its source of finance, if official registrations have not occurred, what has been the source of finance for the council to date?

I thank the Minister of State for facilitating the speedy passage of the Bill. I also thank the Opposition. The Bill will have a significant impact on the future development of teaching and the issue of quality and standards within teaching. Therefore, the primary beneficiaries will be the pupils and students of Ireland.

I thank the Minister of State and his staff.

I thank the Seanad for its welcome for the legislation. With regard to Senator Ulick Burke's question, under the legislation the Minister has the power to fund the council in the next two years. It is her intention to consider that.

Question put and agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 12:55 p.m. and resumed at 1 p.m.