I am pleased to have this opportunity in the Seanad to debate the Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. I believe there will be substantial support for its general purpose and main aim, which is to give effect to a key recommendation of the task force on student behaviour, namely, that section 29 of the Education Act 1998 should be revisited with a view to amending it to stress the rights of the compliant majority to learn while at the same time protecting the rights of the individual student to an education.
I established the task force on student behaviour in early 2005 to examine the issue of disruptive behaviour in our second level schools, to consider effective strategies already employed, to advise on best practice in fostering positive behaviour and to make recommendations on how best to promote an improved climate for teaching and learning in our schools. The report of the task force, School Matters, put forward a number of recommendations to place schools in a stronger position to meet the challenges of motivating and catering for their entire student cohort, including those, "whose troubling behaviour is reflective of a wider societal breakdown of acceptable norms of courtesy and civility". In early 2006, I announced an implementation strategy following publication of the report of the task force, which is now well advanced.
At the core of the task force's recommendations was the putting in place of a national behaviour support service, NBSS. The service is now in place and has already commenced its engagement with schools and intensive work will begin shortly with a number of schools most in need of this intervention. As part of this initial engagement, the NBSS invited schools across the country to formally make application to benefit from its services. As a result, it has completed its consideration of 124 applications that were received from individual schools for support from the service, including the establishment of behaviour support classrooms. The applicant schools are drawn from each of the school sectors and represent a good geographic and gender profile mix.
Based on careful consideration of each application, 50 schools have now been identified to receive support as part of a phased roll-out of activity under the new service. Each of these 50 schools has been notified of their participation in the first phase and a progressive roll-out of services to these schools commenced immediately after the mid-term break with the service's teams conducting in-house briefings with school staff.
The task force report, in its recommendations to schools, also provided valuable insights into strategies and approaches for dealing with disruptive students. It set these in the context of a whole school approach to the issue of discipline and I am sure that the report itself will be a useful tool for schools in developing their responses to this issue. It is inevitable, however, that some students by their behaviour will leave their schools with little option but to use the last resorts of long-term suspension or permanent exclusion. It is vitally important that these sanctions remain avenues of last resort and are not taken lightly.
In such circumstances, the appeal system under section 29 of the Education Act 1998 has, since it commenced in 2001, provided parents and students over the age of 18 with an avenue of independent review when this difficult situation arises. Section 29 of the Education Act provides that an appeal may be made to the Secretary General of the Department of Education and Science against a decision by a school's board of management to permanently exclude a student, suspend a student for more than 20 days cumulative in any school year or refuse to enrol a student.
The task force, in dealing with section 29, outlined the concerns expressed by school representatives regarding their experience with what it termed, "this evolving aspect of the new legislative framework". However, the task force also drew particular attention to the view of the National Educational Welfare Board, "that the advent of the appeals system has been positive for schools [and it] has prompted schools to re-examine and review their policies, and to ensure, as far as possible, that policies and procedures are balanced, fair and transparent".
In this respect I am glad to report that the National Educational Welfare Board is finalising comprehensive guidelines for schools on developing and implementing effective codes of behaviour. The NEWB is currently finalising an implementation and support plan for the roll-out of these guidelines to schools.
The task force recommended that my Department should revisit section 29 of the Education Act 1998 with a view to amending it to stress the rights of the compliant majority to learn while at the same time protecting the rights of the persistently disruptive student to an education. Following a review of the legislation, departmental officials provided briefings for all the education partners on the changes that were being considered to the Education Act 1998 and, in particular, the redefinition of section 29 of the Act. There was general welcome for the proposals, as outlined, and the partners indicated broad support for the proposals at the briefing sessions. I propose, in this Bill, to amend section 29 of the Education Act 1998 to take account of the task force recommendations on the appeals process.
Section 4 of the Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill will require a section 29 appeal committee dealing with an appeal relating to expulsion or long-term suspension to take account of the educational interests of other students in the school, as well as the interests of the student who is the subject of the appeal, when deciding on the case. The Bill sets out a range of factors that an appeals committee will have to consider, in dealing with expulsions and long-term suspensions, including the nature, scale and extent of the student's behaviour that gave rise to the suspension or expulsion, the reasonableness of efforts made by the school to enable the student to participate in and benefit from education, and the educational interests of the student concerned and the desirability and practicality of enabling the student to continue to participate in and benefit from education with his or her peers in the school setting. They will also have to take into account the educational interests of the other students in the school and the maintenance of a classroom environment that is supportive of learning. The safety, health and welfare of teachers, students and staff of the school will be also be among the factors to be considered. The school's code of behaviour and any other relevant policies will also be looked at.
The aim of the Bill is to provide a clearly stated statutory framework within which an appeals committee must determine an appeal and provide for a balancing of rights between the educational interests of the student who is taking an appeal and the educational interests of the school community as a whole. In so doing, the Bill sets out a delicate balance of factors, each of which an appeals committee must take into consideration, and which must be weighed, one against the other, in examining the particular circumstances surrounding the decision under appeal. The proposals set out here do not constitute a menu of independent choices to be selected from at will. Instead, it constitutes an array of interconnecting factors to which an appeals committee must have regard in considering the rights of both the individual student and the wider school community.
The task force also recommended that a protocol should be provided to assist school boards in the preparation for an appeal. This recommendation will be given effect in the revision of the procedures for hearing and determining an appeal. These procedures, currently required and in place under the Act, provide the administrative framework within which appeals are dealt with. The procedures will be revised and expanded to reflect a level of detail that would not be appropriate to the primary legislation but that will be of practical assistance to all parties to an appeal. Consideration will also be given to putting the procedures into the more formally structured framework of a statutory instrument. Further consultations with all the education partners will inform this process. The Bill will allow the Minister to regulate for the suspension of the time limit for hearing an appeal during periods of school closures such as school holiday periods. This was also a specific recommendation of the task force. Appeals are dealt with on a year-round basis and this provision will be expanded in the proposed revision of the procedures for hearing and determining an appeal.
The Bill allows for a section 29 appeals committee to refuse to hear an appeal, or to continue with an appeal, which may be frivolous, vexatious or an abuse of process and to draw inferences from the failure of a party to an appeal to comply with requirements made of it such as requests for information or clarity of a position. This may arise in particular in respect of refusals to enrol where a dispute arises as to whether a formal application was made or a definitive decision was taken on an application.
Specifically with regard to refusals to enrol, the Bill will extend the application of section 29(1)(c) to situations where a child is refused enrolment to an all-Irish division of a school. This addresses an anomaly which exists at present in respect of a school which contains a separate all-Irish division or aonad. At present, a child could be refused enrolment to the aonad but would not have a right of appeal if offered a place in the English language stream within the school. This provision will now permit an appeal, in its own right, in respect of a refused enrolment to an all-Irish division of a school.
The Bill also ensures that a section 29 appeals committee does not hear an appeal which is being or has been dealt with under the appellate functions provided under section 10 of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 and vice versa. However, the Bill ensures the National Council for Special Education, like the National Educational Welfare Board, will be able to make submissions, as it considers appropriate, to an appeals committee dealing with an appeal under section 29.
A number of minor amendments to other parts of the Education Act 1998 are contained in the Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. Section 53 of the Education Act permits the Minister to restrict access to information which would enable the compilation of school league tables based on students' academic performance and to information relating to the identity of examiners involved in the State examinations. As the State Examinations Commission, SEC, has operational responsibility for the conduct of State examinations, the Bill will extend section 53 to the SEC.
The Bill will address procedural matters relating to the functions of the chief inspector and will change some of the functions of the inspectorate under section 13 of the Education Act. Certain functions of the inspectorate in respect of examinations and psychological assessments are now performed by the State Examinations Commission, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and the National Educational Psychological Service, respectively, and the Bill will amend the inspectorate's functions to reflect this. The Bill also amends section 13 of the Education Act 1998 to allow the chief inspector to delegate his or her functions to another inspector and permit the Minister to appoint an acting chief inspector in the event of illness or incapacity of the chief inspector.
The Bill will also give effect to the Government decision to establish the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork as a national cultural institution within the remit of the Minister for Arts, Sports and Tourism. In this regard, the Bill provides that the Minister can order the transfer of the lands and property of the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork from the City of Cork Vocational Education Committee to the Office of Public Works.
I sincerely hope Senators will agree with me regarding the positive benefits of this Bill and I look forward to listening to and debating the various provisions with the Members of this House. I commend the Bill to the House.