I welcome the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, to the House. Before commencing, I remind Senators that a Senator may speak only once on Report Stage, except the proposer of an amendment who may reply to the discussion on the amendment. On Report Stage, each amendment must be seconded. Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 are related and may be discussed together, by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Education and Training Boards Bill 2012: Report and Final Stages
On Committee Stage I mentioned that there would be consideration of a small number of amendments to the Bill relating to accountability. Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 will essentially ensure that in the transition from VECs to education and training boards, there will be no gap in the obligation to respond to the Committee of Public Accounts on VECs' financial activities. They will require the chief executive of an education and training board to be accountable to the Committee of Public Accounts for matters arising under the watch of the predecessor VEC.
Amendments Nos. 3 and 4 are related and may be discussed together. They are in the names of Senator Power and the Fianna Fáil Senators. Is it agreed to discuss amendments Nos. 3 and 4 together? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 28, line 25, after “subsection (9)” to insert the following:
“, at least two of whom shall be representative of learners”.
The Minister is welcome back. On Committee Stage I raised the need to have two learners on the body. I will not reiterate all the points I made then. Suffice it to say that there are 21 members on the board and there should be two who are directly representative of learners. There are parents' representatives but the needs, views, perspective and feedback of learners is so important at every level of education in terms of quality assurance and ensuring the education being delivered is valued by students that they should have an input. On the last occasion the Minister said he would think about this between Committee Stage and today and I hope he has had an opportunity to do so. This would be a very positive amendment if the Minister could accept it.
I second amendment No. 3. We have had a debate on amendment No. 4 and, like my colleague, I would like to know if the Minister, having reflected on the Committee Stage debate, has anything further to add. I do not want to reiterate the arguments that were put forward. The Minister is fully aware of them. I appreciate also that on Report Stage I have only one opportunity to speak; therefore, I hope I can use the full force of my rhetoric in a short few sentences rather than opening up the debate again. I would be very keen to hear what the Minister has to say about this.
I concede that I am probably coming from a perspective of being somewhat geographically parochial but it applies more acutely to Mayo, Sligo and Leitrim than to any other configuration across the country. From that point of view I am seriously concerned that, because of the population weighting and the geographical spread of the new configuration, my county and County Sligo will both lose out as has happened with every other regional organisation that I have been involved with, been aware of or have noticed in my part of the country. Going way back to the regional tourism organisations, where there is a dominant county, it sucks in everything. It is not something people set out to do or which is laid out in policy but it inevitably happens that the larger county will take over in terms of personnel, policy and a whole range of other things. That is where my main concern lies. I appreciate that the Minister cannot legislate just for Mayo, Sligo and Leitrim but he has already used his considerable intellectual powers and capacity to ensure a level playing pitch in other areas of this legislation, particularly regarding the representation at local authority level. I hope, therefore, he will be able to do a Solomon-like judgment in relation to this.
I support Senator Paschal Mooney 100% in what he has put forward. I ask the Minister to accept amendment No. 4 regarding parental representation on the education and training board. We outlined our argument on Second and Committee Stages. I appreciate the costs involved in the current electoral system to VECs. It is very costly, but all we are asking is that the Minister accept this amendment that the parents will be chosen through a ballot at local level. It is the most democratic way for parents who have children attending schools under the control or governorship of the ETBs. The parents of the young people attending schools under the control of the Cavan and Monaghan education and training board should be afforded the opportunity to pick their own representatives. I appreciate what the Minister is trying to do. All we are asking him to do is to accept this amendment and ensure that some mechanism, with as little cost as possible involved, would be used to give ownership to the parents and give the representatives a mandate to represent them at local level and not to pass it through to the national bodies. We have no difficulty with the national bodies conducting whatever form of election is necessary but we firmly believe that it should be done at local level, democratically and not left to national bodies to decide on nominations put forward to them. That would not be open and transparent.
Debate on these issues has featured, as has been said, on each stage of the Oireachtas consideration of this Bill and I have listened carefully to comments and suggestions about the composition of the new bodies. On Report Stage in the Dáil I introduced a series of amendments in this area. The Bill now provides that the Minister of the day must specify at least one body that is representative of learners and which will have nomination rights to the ETB. It also required ETBs to appoint five members along with the other 16 members, at least one of whom is representative of learners. Where an ETB is centrally focused on adult learning provision, it is free to appoint a second learner representative, but not all VECs will be the same. In establishing the ETBs this is unlikely to change, nor is it desirable that they be shoe-horned into a one-size-fits-all model.
I talked before in this House on the adaptability and the ready response to emerging need which this sector exhibits. It is one of its best qualities. Local needs are, by definition, different. The better approach here is to ensure that learners are represented while allowing ETBs to tailor other aspects of their representation to the communities they serve. We must also achieve this in such a way that the size of the new boards is not unnecessarily large. We have struck the right balance here and I am not inclined to accept amendment No. 3.
On amendment No. 4, the existing legislation provides that two members of VEC will be elected by parents of students in VEC schools or centres for education. In this Bill I propose that the two parent representatives must be parents of ETB students, something that is not a requirement now. These two people will cease to be members if they no longer have a child as a student in an ETB school. They will be appointed through a nomination process involving the recognised national association of parents. The arguments have already been made around the need for there to be local voice of parents on ETBs, people who genuinely represent the needs and concerns of their community and I agree with this. I see the merit in it. To give life to such a commitment, it is vital that parents' representatives continue to have children in the ETB schools. If the person no longer has a child in an ETB facility, an opportunity should be given to another parent, who has such a child, to serve on the board. This is consistent with the approach taken to ETB members who cease to be local authority members or staff with the ETB.
On the question of elections versus nominations, from experience the reality is that elections for parents' representatives have proved to be cumbersome and costly. The total estimated electorate is more than 100,000 people, each of whom must be written to twice under the current arrangements. Participation rates in elections are not high, with an average turnout of 10%. Some VECs have recorded turnouts as low as 1%. While we are moving to a system of nominations we are strengthening the connection of parents with their education and training board, and the local dimension, by ensuring those appointed are parents of children in that ETB and not merely representative of those parents.
I have been anxious not to be prescriptive about how parents are to be nominated because I recognise that there are different approaches to this. If a national association wishes to engage in an election-type process, it is free to do this. The modalities of this, however, should be left to those recognised bodies and for these reasons I do not propose to accept amendment No. 4 in this primary legislation. We have made provision to have representatives of business and the educational stakeholders and we can specify that in the statutory instruments and if there are changes in the landscape or circumstances, they can be changed. To put this into primary legislation would be too restrictive. If one is no longer a member of a local authority, one can no longer be a member of an ETB board. If one is no longer a staff member and represents the staff section on the board, one can no longer be on an ETB board.
It would be inconsistent, if one's right to be a member was as a parent and one's child was no longer in the school, to be treated differently from either a local authority or staff member. However, there are two free spaces with only three dedicated to business, learners and educational stakeholders. I am sure, therefore, that someone such as the Senator would be able to display not only his rhetorical skills but his lobbying skills with great effect. I have been amazed by the strength of the enormously small population of County Leitrim in persuading larger congregations of thousands to recognise the quality of the representation from the county. I have no doubt the Senator will find his way on to the relevant board in due course.
I support the comments of my colleagues about the need to have local parental involvement. The amendments are not prescriptive because we did not want to use complicated language in primary legislation. They simply provide for a ballot of local people and this allows flexibility for the Minster and the Department to work out the best way of doing that. It does not have to be a complicated or expensive process. One day could be nominated on which people would have to attend to vote with the polls open for a few hours. That is the reason the amendments are general. We do not propose that the Department should run an overly expensive or cumbersome system but, at the same time, there is a need to ensure transparency and there is also a need for parents to feel an involvement in the process and an opportunity to take part and stand for election rather than nominating somebody. That will not take away from the national bodies that do good work and that need more support. Last year the parent's council organised a conference to which it invited its counterparts in Scotland to talk about the work they do. They referred to the emphasis that has been put on parental involvement and education there. We traditionally have not been great in Ireland at getting parents involved as active stakeholders in education. This is one aspect of that and we deliberately did not make the language too detailed. If the Minister accepted the amendments, it would be within his capacity and that of his officials to come up with a system with a local element. It is important to insist on that local element. I acknowledge the Minister's comment that some ETBs might do it this way but others might add an additional learner. When a requirement is provided for, everybody takes it seriously and it would be seen as a signal from the Minister that he wants the boards to make sure that they make an effort to involve parents and that is the spirit in which we tabled the amendments.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 29, line 16, after "parents," to insert the following:
"who have been chosen through a ballot of local parents,".
I second the amendment.
On Committee Stage Senator Ivana Bacik raised a drafting issue. She pointed to a potential inconsistency between two sections. In section 30(1)(c) parents representatives have to be either parents of children under 18 years who are students in schools and centres for education or parents of learners of any age in children detention schools, prisons, etc. However, the Senator felt it was not clear in section 33(1)(c) whether the learner had to be aged under 18. I gave an undertaking to have this matter raised with the Parliamentary Counsel and, having done so, I have tabled this amendment, which ensures this provision is consistent with section 30. It will provide that the learner may be under or over 18 years. I thank the Senator for raising the matter.
I thank the Minister. It was important to clear up that inconsistency in the original draft of the Bill and I am glad that has been clarified. It could have created problems down the line.
The Minister also accepted another amendment of ours on Committee Stage. He was to come back on the "shall" or "may" issue but he did not. Perhaps that might be kept under review by the Minister to ensure the gender balance provision is sufficiently strong. Senator Mary Moran and I were concerned that the Committee Stage amendment was a little weakly worded.
I am grateful for the Minister's earlier remarks in the context of big goods in small parcels. I have reflected on the terminology "parent". What happens where students are looked after by grandparents or guardians? They are responsible for the education of the child and they might wish to be a parents representative. Are they excluded under the legislation?
I will offer an opinion which I will have to confirm. I will outline a common sense answer which may not necessarily be the legal answer. If the students are under the age of 18 years and in school, somebody needs to represent them in the capacity of a guardian. It may be formal or informal. They may be living with their grandparents because their parents may be abroad working. If there ambiguities such as that, we will clarify them in statutory instruments.
Therefore, they would not be excluded.
No, I would not think so.
I thank the Minister.
A parent is defined in the 1998 Act and the definition of "parent" in section 2, the interpretation section, of this Bill is taken from that Act.
Amendments Nos. 6 to 8, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together.
On Committee Stage I indicated that further consideration was needed on the best way to deal with accounting for the current year where part of 2013 will relate to the time of the VECs and the remainder of the year will relate to the new bodies. The purpose of amendment No. 7 is to amend the accounts provision in order that the 1 April date for submission of accounts each year to the Comptroller and Auditor General may be varied by the Minister. This is likely to be of most importance in the first year where an ETB must submit the final accounts of each of the former VECs preceding it not later than the same time as it submits the first set of accounts of the ETB. Given that they may have a number of sets of accounts to file in their first year, this amendment will ease any unnecessary pressure on the new bodies created by a 1 April deadline.
Amendment No. 6 is a drafting amendment and replaces the words "financial year" with "accounting period" to ensure there is consistency throughout section 51.
The purpose of amendment No. 8 is to ensure that education and training boards are required to submit to the Comptroller and Auditor General any accounts that are outstanding at the time a VEC's dissolution. Once those accounts have been audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General, the education and training board will be responsible in presenting them and the auditor's report to the Minister. The Minister then arranges for them to be laid before the Houses in the normal way. This will ensure that there is no gap in the obligation to file and lay accounts which might otherwise occur as a result of the transition from VECs to ETBs.
The Minister will be aware that he and I engaged in intensive discussions about the status of acting CEOs. I think we both agreed that the matter, a somewhat sensitive issue, was being dealt with as best as possible. For the benefit of the House, I understand that there are three permanent full-time CEOs who will be surplus to requirements and who have been reassigned, but also, from my interpretation of the debate, that when any further vacancy arises under the ETBs they will be given priority. Since that debate, I have discovered that there are some 13 acting CEOs across the country, some of whom have been in their positions for in excess of four years. But for a Government embargo - previous Governments introduced embargoes and I am not attempting to score a political point as it is an economic reality that a Government embargo is in place - it is almost certain that all of those 13 would have been given permanent positions. I understand they met recently where the matter and our debate arose in discussion. They are being somewhat badly treated in the sense that the State is not getting good value for money in the manner in which it is adopting its approach. These are staff who have been giving service but who have acquired enormous expertise, far beyond what was in their original positions. Many of them were school principals but have now had two, three, four or in excess of four years' experience as administrative officers controlling significant budgets to a greater or lesser extent depending on from where they come. I think we both agreed that this is not really something that can be dealt with in primary legislation. All I ask is that there should be some reflection on their status and indication given as to how they will be treated if any of them is interested in pursuing any future vacancy and that, at the very least, they would be treated in the same way.
I have had this matter raised at VEC level where the counter argument is to the effect of why I should raise this because after all they have jobs to go back to. In the current climate where employees are losing work and are finding themselves, to use that awful term, "downsized", those 13 acting CEOs will revert in most cases to the positions they held. I am not familiar with all of them, but my VEC's acting CEO - incidentally, neither he nor any other acting CEO discussed this with me - will revert to school principal. He and the others will not lose their jobs. I have had this raised by colleagues asking why I am complaining and why I should raise this when after all they still have their jobs and they will not lose anything. However, they are losing and the State is also losing. On suggesting that they would go back into the mix and will not be given any sort of acknowledgement of the expertise that they built up, the counter argument was that if there is a group of staff who apply for a future vacancy for a CEO under the ETBs, why should anybody be treated differently, everybody should be treated on their merits and every applicant should be treated on the basis of what he or she brings to the table. I would counter argue that in this instance it is about a particular expertise, and where appointments have been made in the past, inevitably and rightly, their previous experience has been taken into account in appointing them to the particular position, be it a post of responsibility, such as deputy principal or principal, up to CEO. Of course, the person's previous experience has been taken into account in assessing whether he or she is the person most capable of taking on a job. Why should it be any different, particularly with this group of staff?
I do not want to labour the point. The Minister is fully aware of from where I am coming. I do not want to over-egg the pudding other than to say that perhaps there could be some reflection within the Department of Education and Skills in the future, and with the Minister's intervention. We are not patronising each other. The Minister has the intellectual capacity to be able to go beyond what I am raising. I do not have a particular solution for this. All I suggest is that they should not be left swinging in the wind and that, if they are applying for a vacancy of CEO, they should be treated the same as the three CEOs who will be treated differently when these applications come before the relevant selection board.
The Minister half-answered this question on the Bill on the previous occasion. When is it envisaged that all of the ETBs will be established? I note he stated it all will not happen at the one time, which I appreciate. It should not happen until everything is in place and running smoothly. When does he envisage the first ETBs will be established and when does he expect the last one, which I assume to be an amalgamation, to come into existence?
In response to Senator Mooney's understandable compassionate intervention on behalf of acting CEOs, it may seem a little unjust that there are 13 who were acting CEOs but there is a rational explanation for it. The previous Administration embarked on reform and rationalisation of a series of public agencies, including the VECs. It was my predecessor, former Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, who, in the process of anticipating a rationalisation down from 33, prudently, on the advice of civil servants, stated that the Department did not want to create difficulties where a vacancy occurs in a situation as would be normal in the public service and that position was likely to be amalgamated with another one. It made sense to create an acting position rather than, as would have been the norm, a permanent one but they would, presumably, hold permanency in their previous job within the organisation for which they worked.
There were, from memory, in round figures, 20 permanent CEOs for 16 positions. That was finally resolved through a seniority system based on length of service in that position as a CEO and choices were made on how applicants applied for different posts. It took quite a bit of time. There was much effort taken by both the representatives of the CEOs and the assistant secretary in the Department of Education and Skills.
A solution was found for those who took up the posts and for permanent CEOs who did not have the seniority to get what they would have liked. A practical rational arrangement was made in the southern part of the country in anticipation of people retiring, which considered where people would ultimately end up, and in the light of this put them in a particular position for five to seven years. This was done in a very open and transparent way. It was very sensible because if one is in a place for less than 18 months one will have less engagement with it than if one knows one will be there for a longer period of time. All of these decisions were predicated on the basis that we want this fairly massive transformation to be successful and we want those in leadership positions to feel secure, respected and valued for what they can do. Acting and full CEOs are in this leadership capacity. This is a very big change. Senators have seen the size of the legislation and know what they have dealt with, and on the ground its effect is considerable.
To reply to Senator Wilson, we envisage that all change will happen on one day and that when VEC X closes on a Friday, ETB X will open on Monday. The telephones and banking systems will continue and nothing is disrupted. The service to the public must be maintained. A working group is actively examining these matters. Of the existing VECs, eight have the same computer system. Logically we want all of them to have the same computer system so they can talk to each other. We are trying to transition from where we are today to a point some time in the future when this will happen. The super-CEOs, if I can call them that, those who will become the CEOs of the new ETBs will only assume their legal powers once the legislation is activated. Until now a location may have a sitting CEO and an acting CEO, with the new CEO coming from a different territory with no powers as such, other than persuasion and good manners, with regard to what is happening.
In these difficult times, when many in the public service feel unsure about where they are because of what has been discussed in recent times, I am conscious it is in everybody's interest to have the most accommodating and flexible type of response to the changes that will occur. We are interested in success. We have a vested interest collectively that this transformation is successful. Those to whom the Senator referred are among those in key positions; they are not the only people in such positions but they are among them. I have spoken at some length with the senior official involved and the Secretary General about the fact that we must make this transition and transfer seamlessly without disruption to the citizens deriving the service, the schools being managed through VECs and the staff themselves.
To answer Senator Wilson's question, it is my intention to commission the 16 new ETBs prior to the end of June, sooner if possible. It will be predicated on whether the single ETB will work on the Monday as the separate VECs had worked on the previous Friday, in whatever shape or form this was. It sounds easy to say but much must be done.
With regard to the statutory instruments, we will examine whether we can accommodate the spirit of what was clearly articulated in the House on reconciling practical representation of local parents with the logistics I have outlined. I will also consult the national parents' associations on the best way to do this. As Senator Power stated, we need active parental engagement in this regard. I support what she stated with regard to Scotland.
I thank the Minister for the debate on the legislation and his final comments on parental representation. In general, the Minister is very good at listening to suggestions from this side of the House and trying to accommodate them when he can which is very much appreciated. This legislation is very important. The VECs have provided a very important service for decades, but it is important to have a system which is fit for the 21st century and that it is streamlined and reformed in order that we have the structures required to provide the best possible education and the best co-ordination of services throughout the country. I welcome the legislation and thank the Minister for the debate we have had.
I wish to react very briefly to what has been said by Senator Power. I express my personal thanks to the Minister. As Senator Power stated, he has been accommodating and has reflected on what has been said. On a number of important issues he has taken on board what has been said on both sides of the House which, to me, is the mark of not just a good Minister but a great one, to paraphrase Eamon Dunphy.
Ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a dhéanamh leis an Aire as ucht an Bille seo a thabhairt isteach. In my humble opinion it is probably one of the most important pieces of legislation, if not the most important, which has come through the Seanad in recent times. It will be an excellent development with regard to education and training in the country, not only for our children but for everybody. I say, "Well done," to the Minister.
I echo the sentiments of my colleagues and the mutual admiration between Senator Mooney and the Minister today.
Our cover is blown.
We all recognise and share Senator Mooney's sentiment that this is a great day for education in the country. The Bill contains far-reaching measures. I referred to the fact that when studying for the H.Dip I learned off by heart the VEC legislation. I look forward to future H.Dip students learning all about the ETBs and this Bill. I thank the Minister for accepting the two amendments Senator Bacik and I tabled. I reiterate the sentiments she expressed on the importance of examining the inclusion of the word "shall" rather than "may" in the section.
I echo what Senator Moran stated. I thank the Minister very much for accepting the two amendments and I commend him for the Bill and being open to accepting amendments from both sides of the House. This is important and we appreciate his input in the Seanad.
I am prompted to respond since I have been showered with flattery and appreciation. We seldom pay tribute to those who do the work, and this massive Bill involved nine primary pieces of legislation and at least 640 statutory instruments. The person who did all of this work, Mr. Dalton Tattan, is sitting behind me and I would like to record to show that we, as legislators, are indebted to his drafting.
When is it proposed to sit again?
At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.