I welcome the Minister.
Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016: Second Stage
I thank the Acting Chairman and am delighted to have the opportunity to introduce this Bill. It has been a long time in gestation but, in that time, we have managed to develop elements. There was consensus in the Lower House that an admission Bill was required, specifically on the matter of religion being used in selection and to provide the Minister with the power to intervene and make an order for a special class where an area needed one.
The third issue that was considerably debated in the Lower House was one on which I intend to introduce a Committee Stage amendment, that being, how to prioritise access to Irish-medium schools. There was a Government amendment as well as a number of Opposition amendments. The line we are trying to take is to introduce a provision whereby a child who has a minimum level of fluency that is consistent with normal usage of the language in non-education settings has priority access to the school. Some formulations sought to frame this in terms of exchanges between the child and a parent or speaking Irish from birth, but an assessment showed that these proposals seemed to give rise to problems of discrimination, in that they would be using what the lawyers described as pedigree rather than fluency to be a factor in determining access. I intend to introduce an amendment on Committee Stage that I hope will commend itself to the House.
Many of the Senators will be familiar with the Bill's sections, although the way they are laid out in the index is not easy to read. One must look at the headings.
On a point of order,-----
The Bill has 13 sections. Basically, section-----
I am sorry to interrupt. An bhfuil cóip dá óráid ar fáil dúinn?
I do not have a copy.
The Minister is not required to circulate one.
No, but it is a normal courtesy for us to have it so that we can refer back to the Minister's important words.
The Minister is not underendowed with staff.
He can agree to have it done.
Yes. We will arrange to have a copy provided for Senators.
It is helpful for debates.
The Minister can proceed.
It should be common practice. Copies of statements are always requested.
My common practice is not to use a script. It is only in this instance that I have one.
We would not be asking the Minister for a script if he was not using one. I just want to make that clear.
The reason I have a script is to go through the Bill section by section. It is close to what is contained in the explanatory memorandum, which has become the convention.
If the Minister wants to arrange to have it distributed, that is fine. In the meantime, he can continue with his contribution.
Section 3 updates section 9 of the Education Act 1998, replacing the phrase "maximum accessibility", which was there as a provision of what the school should do to observe the Act. In this Bill, we are moving away from that phraseology to one that deals more comprehensively with admission policy.
Section 4 updates section 10 of the Act. A technical change, it requires a patron to operate in accordance with all regulations that a Minister makes under the Bill as opposed to just under section 33, which was a regulation section. This recognises that regulations can come from other parts of the Bill.
Section 5 updates section 15 of the Act and addresses the functions of the board to align with the wording of the Bill, which reads: "subject to this Act, publish the admission policy of the school". As regards that policy, the principle of inclusion shall be respected in addition to the principles already specified in the Act, for example, equality and respect for the rights of parents. We are also providing that the admission policy must be published whereas the Act allowed the school some discretion over the form in which it was published.
Section 5 also provides for the removal of the requirement on a board to publish a specific policy concerning admission to and participation in the school by students with disabilities or special needs. It tidies up matters. Similarly, it removes the reference to "relating to the expulsion and suspension of students", which is provided for under the code of behaviour elsewhere in the legislation.
They are largely technical amendments. Section 6 mirrors section 4 but on this occasion it applies to the principal as opposed to the patron. In other words, the principal must observe regulations set by the Minister.
Section 7 amends section 29 of the Act, the whole appeals mechanism within the old Education Act 1998 and it remains section 29. Many of these changes relate to operational matters to seek to align the legislation with practice and procedures as they have been developed over the years, to increase the efficiency of the processes. However, there are several changes which relate to policy matters and these include: setting the cumulative number of days on suspension that have to elapse before an appeal can be lodged at 20 days and clarifying that an appeal against a decision to suspend, expel or refuse to admit a child that is not due to oversubscription is an appeal de novo. If the refusal is not due to oversubscription, there is a full hearing of the matters by an appeals committee based on the evidence and materials properly available to the committee. By contrast, if the refusal has to do with oversubscription it is described as an appeal on the record where the evidence and materials properly relied on by the appellate body are the same as those which were before the first instance body of the school. The next item provides that procedures for appeals shall be determined by the Minister including timeframes for appeals. The next element provides for an appeals committee to issue a preliminary decision, in the case where it is not due to oversubscription, giving people a breathing space in which to respond to that before a final decision. In the case where an appeal is made where oversubscription is the issue, the applicant must have requested the board of management to review the decision before going on to an appeal. That is a change in procedure. There is also a provision for a fast track for appeals against a decision to refuse enrolment where a school has places available but for some reason is refusing to offer a place contrary to one of the most fundamental provisions of the admissions Bill. In other words, the Bill provides that every child has to be admitted. That is the general presumption. If there is a place and a child is being refused an appeal can be fast-tracked. That is to ensure there is a quick response should a child need it.
The other element of the appeals process is that it introduces compellability such that where an appeal is allowed the school must readmit the student or adjust the ranking of the student on the waiting list as applicable. There is that power to require a school to make those changes.
We are removing a layer that was in the section 29 appeals, which required the education and training board, ETB, to have had an appeal before it was heard. There had to be a first instance appeal in the ETB before it went on to a section 29 appeal in the Department. That was seen to be a layer too many.
Section 8 is the section under which the Minister, on the advice of the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, can compel a school to open a special class within a mainstream school. There are several steps in this process, the NCSE must identify the need for such provision within the area, the Minister has a chance to review that case and the exercise of power by the Minister is preceded by several steps that allow engagement between the NCSE, the board of management and the patron of the school. This is to allow people make comments, for those to be considered at different levels and there is also a provision that if agreement is not reached on property arrangements – the Minister would normally be providing supports to the school to open the unit – the Minister may refer the matter to arbitration in accordance with the Arbitration Act 2010. If there is a question of whether the Minister is making adequate provision to allow the school to open this special unit which is being required that can be arbitrated on. The power is required to ensure that where there is a gap in provision for the education of children with special needs as identified by the NCSE and no school is willing to make such a provision available, the gap can be addressed effectively by issuing a direction by the Minister to the school. As a note for information in that context, in 2011 there were 548 such units, there are now 1,304. They are expanding very rapidly. While we are putting in this provision that is not to say that the majority of schools are resisting the opening of special units. That would not be the case. We see quite a degree of desire to open such units. There can be areas where there are difficulties. This power is something that the Lower House believed was important. It complements other powers later in the Bill.
Section 9 is the main part of the Bill, the admission to schools in the Education Act 1998. It provides for the inclusion of several sections in the 1998 Act, from sections 60 to 70. Section 61 includes the provision for single sex and certain denominational schools to reflect in their admission policy the exemption applicable to such schools under equality legislation. It requires the admission policy of a school to include an admission statement confirming that the school shall not discriminate in its admission of a student to the school on the following grounds: gender, civil status, family status, sexual orientation, religion, disability, race, Traveller community ground and special educational needs of the student or of the person who has applied on behalf of the student. This is the general provision of non-discrimination in the admission policy.
Section 62 deals with the drawing up of the admission policy and sets out mandatory elements that must be contained in the policy, they include that it must set out the characteristic spirit of the school, include an admission statement, provide details of the school's arrangements for students who do not wish to attend religious instruction, provide that the school shall enrol each student seeking admission, other than where the school is oversubscribed, where the parent of a student fails to confirm in writing that the code of behaviour of the school is acceptable to them, and that they should make all reasonable efforts to ensure compliance with such a code by the student or in accordance with the relevant exemptions in the Equal Status Act 2004 or in the case of a student seeking admission to a special school or a special class in a school where the student does not have the category of special educational need specified by the Minister in respect of the special school or class. Sometimes we open a special class that seeks to cater for a particular profile of disability and this provision allows that such a unit would not have to accept a child that did not have those specifications. For example, if we want to have a special unit for children on the autistic spectrum, that unit cannot accept children who have other special needs but not of that type. We have made sure that it is the Minister, not the school, who decides what is the specification, requirement or competence of that unit. If we set up an autistic spectrum disorder, ASD, unit we do not want it filled with children with a different type of need and others not getting the special support for which it was designed.
The policy must also set out the selection criteria that will apply where the school is oversubscribed. It provides that schools shall not consider or take into account any of the following when deciding on the application for admission: prior attendance at a preschool, payment of fees, the student's academic ability, the occupation or status of the parents, a requirement that the student, or his or her parents, attend an interview - with an exception for admission to a residential placement in a boarding school or to a post-leaving certificate, PLC, college or further education and training course - and the date on which an application for admission was received by the school.
At the moment, all denominational schools, which currently account for 19 of every 20 schools, can use religion as a selection criterion where they are oversubscribed. This was unfair because it led to children living a considerable distance from a school being selected ahead of children living in the local area. It also created pressure to baptise children. We have removed the use of religion as a selection criterion from 19 in every 20 schools or 95% of schools, namely, all non-denominational, multi-denominational and Catholic schools. We have, however, protected the right to use religion as a selection criterion in cases involving children of a minority religion who will only have access to one in every 20 schools. These schools will be able to continue to give priority to a child of the minority religion who wishes to be admitted. Failure to provide for this would effectively result in Protestant schools disappearing as a distinctive cohort because they would be swamped by parents of a different ethos. On the other hand, Catholics are well provided for and have a considerable range of choice available to them because the Catholic Church is the patron of 18 of every 20 schools. It should be noted, however, that most Catholic schools go out of their way to ensure that children of all persuasions and religious denominations are welcomed and supported in their school. The use of religion as a criterion needs to be removed, which was the thinking behind this provision.
With the introduction of this provision, I have sought to be fair to all parents, while recognising the right of all schools to have their distinctive ethos. As a result of these changes, children of minority religions will be able to access schools of their own religion, Catholic families will continue to be able to enrol children in 90% of schools and non-denominational families will find that for more than 95% of primary schools they will be treated the same as all other families in their primary school.
Section 12 is a standard provision providing for the repeal of a number of existing legislative provisions. Section 13 is a standard provision providing for the Short Title, collective citations of the Bill and the further commencement of the Bill. I apologise for my lengthy contribution. To summarise, the purpose of the Bill is to make admission fairer, more transparent and simpler. I commend it to the House and look forward to hearing the views of Senators.
I will take speakers in the order in which they appear on the list. I call Senator Robbie Gallagher.
I welcome the Minister to the House this evening and I thank him for outlining the different sections of the Bill in great detail. The Fianna Fáil Party is pleased to support the Bill, which brings clarity to the issue of admissions for parents, teachers, schools, children and everyone else involved. As the Minister stated, the legislation is long overdue. It is good that we have finally reached this point.
Thankfully, the problem the Bill addresses does not affect the vast majority of schools. It could be legitimately argued that the principal issue here is a lack of resources. A small number of schools in urban areas such as Dublin and a few other pockets have a difficulty in that the infrastructure of the school simply will not accommodate the number of children seeking enrolment. The Department should be more cognisant of this problem and engage in better forward planning to project where population increases will take place. Perhaps the Minister will advance forward planning to enable us to look into a crystal ball, as it were, identify areas where the population is increasing above normal rates and ensure the physical infrastructure of schools can keep abreast of population increases. If that had been done previously, this legislation may not have been necessary. That being said, we have a problem for which the Bill probably a quick-fix solution. From that point of view, it is to be welcomed.
In my experience, the issue facing schools in my constituency is the opposite of the issue facing schools in urban areas. When schools open their doors for admissions every year they place public advertisements for students, as opposed to closing their doors to some students, which is very welcome. Every child, regardless of religion or nationality, is welcomed with open arms and there is open competition among the schools to attract children. One school principal told me that if Damien, the character from the film, "The Omen", arrived at his school at the age of four, he would be welcomed with open arms. It is a completely different picture from the position in certain oversubscribed schools. Thankfully, the issue arises in only a small number of schools but I appreciate that it must be dealt with.
It could be argued that if more classrooms were available to accommodate children in oversubscribed schools, the Minister and I would not be having this conversation. Once the legislation is passed, we should keep an eye on whether bringing children who are currently at the back of the queue to the front of the queue results in other children losing out. It will be interesting to see how that develops.
The Minister also noted he will have the power to designate a school place for a child with a special need, as defined by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, and Tusla. This change is very welcome and I compliment all those involved in bringing forward the measure. It is important that the children concerned are accommodated in schools and it will be interesting to see how this develops.
The Minister referred to the minority of children from families of no faith. Everyone agrees that the Bill's proposals to provide for these children are to be welcomed.
The Gaelscoileanna are a work in progress, as the Minister outlined. I know the Minister had discussions with different Members of the Lower House with a view to trying to find a sensible consensus on that issue. I hope we will see a draft of his final proposals in that area on Committee Stage. It is important that a common sense attitude is adopted to selection in this area to ensure parents and children are not subjected to an excessively onerous procedure to classify their level of the cúpla focail.
The legislation will create an additional burden for schools. It is important that schools draw up admission policies and do so correctly. All of the work in this area must be done properly and in that regard I expect additional resources will be required from the Department to ensure school principals and boards of management are properly resourced and have the wherewithal to implement these provisions in a proper fashion. I hope the Minister will not be found wanting in circumstances where schools need additional resources of whatever kind. I am interested in hearing his views on that.
I thank the Minister for outlining the detail of this welcome Bill. Something needs to be done, especially for schools that are oversubscribed. Catholic schools, particularly in areas where schools are not oversubscribed, have always opened their doors to children and continue to do so.
That is a point worth noting. For those schools that do have a problem, however, it is important that children are accommodated. It is to be hoped this legislation will ensure that is the case, but we must keep a watchful eye on it because once this legislation is implemented, the child who is at the back of the queue will go to the front of the queue and some other child will be pushed to the back. We must keep an eye on that because we cannot get away from the fact if school accommodation was able to keep pace with the growth in population in the areas concerned, we would not need this Bill and we would not be having this conversation. It is important that we monitor this and continue to resource schools, particularly those in areas with large populations that need additional accommodation. It is important that such schools are signposted in good time and sufficient financial resources are allocated to them to enable them to build on and accommodate all children, regardless of where they come from or what they believe in.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. The Minister is very welcome. I am sorry for being awkward earlier on the subject of scripts, but everything that the Minister had to say was very interesting and there were points in his speech that I would have liked to have been able to refer to, word for word, but cannot. I would make the point again that it is very useful to have Ministers' scripts. We are listening intently and there are things we would like to pick up on or ask a question about and it is very useful to have the precise words before us.
Most of the public and media attention on this Bill has focused on the role of religion in admissions. Indeed, religion has received a crazy amount of attention when one considers the net effect of the changes being made. There are other very important changes within the Bill which need to be highlighted and properly debated. As the chairperson of a board of management of a small rural primary school, I would argue that the power in this Bill to compel a school to open a special class or classes where the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, has identified a need for such provision within an area is not as necessary in the primary sector. I listened very carefully to everything the Minister said in terms of such a power only being used as a last resort, if at all. I also listened very carefully to the limitations to that power as described by the Minister and the conditions attached to its use.
It is generally acknowledged by principals of mainstream schools with special classes that these classes have a positive impact on inclusion within their schools. A number of valid concerns have been raised by school principals, however, regarding the provision of training, the management of challenging behaviour, difficulties accessing external support and an increased workload on principals. Addressing these legitimate concerns would encourage more schools to open special classes willingly and would preferable to ordering the unwilling to do so. This argument was recently put succinctly by an experienced teaching principal who said the following:
I believe our school is a very good example of how pupils with ASD are successfully included holistically in school life. In 31 years of teaching, I believe setting up this unit was my greatest achievement. I am very proud of our school in its entirety and I believe we have all benefited enormously from becoming a school that has an ASD unit. Our school community agrees. However, it created a huge body of work for me that has overwhelmed me more than once. The workload is not sustainable and the personal toll it takes on the principal is, at best, unfair. I believe schools like ours, who agree to open special classes, should be better supported and more schools would subsequently opt in as a result.
The challenge for principals is to manage what are, in effect, two separate schools with very different needs, challenges and expectations under the one roof and to make them gel together to make one successful educational facility. To make this situation even more challenging, our teaching principals engage in these activities while also teaching full time. The role of a teaching principal is a very challenging one. It is one of the most challenging roles in Irish education, and adding the challenge of a special class to the burden of administration borne by all principals, combined with the full-time teaching responsibility of teaching principals, is asking the impossible.
Behaviour management issues, for example, can be more challenging in special classes and principals are regularly called to become involved. This means that teaching principals can be regularly called out of class to become involved in managing behaviour issues. There is a significant amount of management and time spent by principals dealing with professionals who work with pupils in special classes, including special educational needs officers, SENOS, occupational therapists, psychologists, speech therapists, psychiatrists, play therapists and staff of child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS.
Principals are also managing a much larger staff than that illustrated on the official designation from the Department of Education and Skills. All of the extra ancillary staff associated with a special class, including special needs assistants, SNAs and bus escorts, for example, must be managed by the principal. Dealing with appointments, sudden absences, planned leave, replacement staff, Garda vetting and so on for these extra staff all falls to the principal. Managing transport to and from the special class is especially demanding for principals, particularly at the start of the new school year as new routes are being established.
The primary school system has been very open to setting up special classes. It is equally true to say that were adequate resources to be provided, even more schools would be willing to do so. Our teaching principals deserve not only the one principal release day per week for which they are campaigning but also additional supports to manage the challenges posed by a special class. Teaching principals are the unsung heroes of Irish education. They do a wonderful job with grossly inadequate resources. What they need is not a Big Brother telling them what to do but a Big Brother who provides them with the support they need to do their job. There is real enthusiasm and commitment to inclusion among the teaching community in Ireland. We must ensure that we foster that enthusiasm by providing the supports that teachers need and pupils deserve.
I refer to the points made by the Minister around the changes being introduced in terms of admissions and the non-permissibility of religion as a principle for determining priority where school places are in short supply. I welcome the fact that the Minister acknowledged that most Catholic schools are inclusive although he could probably go further and say that all Catholic schools are such unless and until we hear evidence to the contrary. The problem here has always been a shortage of places, as the Minister's words clearly imply. Once there is a shortage of places, the problem is that shortage, and Senator Gallagher expressed this eloquently in the closing part of his speech when he said that not one student is better off as a result of this particular change. I do not object to it, in particular, because I also take on board what the Minister said about the fact that the vast majority of schools are Catholic.
It is clear from what the Minister said that he accepts that parents are entitled to send their children to a school that reflects their own ethos and beliefs. The Minister stressed that entitlement very strongly. We are facing into an era where the Catholic Church needs and wants to be, and in some ways already is, a persuader for greater diversity in our school system in terms of ethos and patronage. We are in a situation where we have to be fair here and acknowledge that schools were funded by the State but established by the sacrifices, in harsher times, of members of faith communities. They did so with a clear understanding that they were not just providing a school but one which was within the framework of their faith and values.
We also have to bear in mind the different and equal aspirations of people who do not share the values of the majority faith or tradition. Are we approaching a crisis here where a new majority will impose its will on a new minority? Should we think creatively and inclusively here? Is it time to start talking about a concordat, for example, where we would acknowledge the new diversity so that both the State and the majority Church would commit to a greater diversity in educational patronage?
Can it also be made very clear and practical in terms of guaranteeing to faith-based schools their right to educate according to their values? Increasingly we see that those values diverge from what is either mandated or, more generally, facilitated or enshrined in the law of the land. Will there be tolerance in terms of allowing schools to educate according to their values where those values differ from the spirit now enshrined in the law of the land, on life and death issues, for example? I hope there will not be the heavy hand that characterised the past, when the shoe was on the other foot, but a new inclusivity and a genuine tolerance and openness to different styles, values and beliefs in education.
I wish to raise an issue which has not arisen in my school and which came to mind while listening to the Minister's speech. What happens when parents, arising out of a disciplinary matter, are abusive to the teachers and staff of a school, come in with a heavy-handed approach and behave in a manner and conduct which borders on threatening? I wish to stress that this does not happen in a school with which I am involved. Is the Minister satisfied that there is enough protection for schools in managing that situation so as not to deprive a child of an education while at the same time ensuring a safe and confident environment for teachers who may be somewhat in fear of bullies among parents who perhaps reject or resent legitimate disciplinary decisions arising out of the behaviour of their children in schools? I would like to hear the thoughts of the Minister on whether the issue is being addressed within the Department. Some people are of the view that something needs to be done in this area.
I welcome the Minister and the Bill. I have been involved in schools for many years. People have lost out on places or have not been able to get a place because a school is oversubscribed. The Bill is very open and transparent. I highlighted two phrases in the Minister's speech, "transparency" and "fairness". The Bill is very much geared towards those terms.
Many schools have been oversubscribed while others have been undersubscribed. People end up getting places in schools which are not on their doorstep. The Bill will be very helpful in addressing that issue. I note that the Bill requires that everyone applies on the same day for primary school places. In the past people were putting down their children's names just after they had been born and waiting lists were formed. I know of a family where the main breadwinner's job was moved. The family had five or six children, but could not get places in a local school and instead ended up in a school on the other side of town, which did not help them to settle in the area. The allocation of places as set out in the Bill will be good in dealing with such situations in that there is fairness for everybody.
I have sat on many section 29 boards in secondary schools. People often raise section 29 appeals for valid reasons, which are important to them. While in many cases boards have made rulings in respect of appeals, the Bill's proposal is a fairer way to deal with appeals where people feel they have not been accepted. The term "minority" is to the forefront of the Bill. People from minority religions felt they did not get into schools because they were predominantly Catholic schools or whatever. The fact that religion is, in most cases, being left out of the process creates a fairer applications and acceptance process for everybody.
Most schools being built nowadays have an autism spectrum disorder, ASD, unit. I visited a new Educate Together school which was recently built in Limerick. The ASD unit there is second to none. The school experienced an increase in the number of application for admissions to the unit. The Minister has recognised that there is a need to provide such education in some areas where schools are not in a position to do so at present. Schools can be instructed to accept applications from people who need places, which is very helpful. The Minister will have the power to intervene when necessary. In some cases schools may say there are resource issues or may provide different reasons for not taking a pupil but it is good that the Minister can intervene as an independent person. It is very important that the Minister be given such powers.
People send their children to Irish-speaking primary schools but are then unable to access second level education. It is very important that priority be given to such children. The Minister intends to bring proposals forward to address this on Committee Stage. If somebody attends an Irish-speaking primary school it is very important that he or she has the right to continue his or her education as Gaeilge. Sometimes it boils down to school places or the admissions policies of schools, which will only take a certain number of pupils who speak Irish and then offer a certain number of places to schools which teach through English. I am on the board of management of a Gaelcholáiste and I understand 80% of our student intake is from Irish-speaking schools, but there are 12 such schools in the area from which children apply for entry. The Minister needs to examine the issue carefully when drafting proposals on Committee Stage.
The Bill will also help people who feel they might be discriminated against because of their race, background or whatever. The Bill will provide fairness for everybody. Education is all about setting people up and educating them for the future. The level of education children receive in school is about setting them up for the future, job planning and so on. It starts at a very young age. It is very important that people do not feel discriminated against and that there is fairness for everybody. As I said, that is addressed in the Bill.
In the past some people felt they were discriminated against because of where they came from, they were part of an ethnic minority or schools were not inclusive. The Bill will address situations where people feel they are in a minority and are not receiving the same level of education as everybody else. I compliment the Minister and wish the Bill a very safe passage through the House. It is very important that we try to pull together in order to reach a successful conclusion sooner rather than later.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I also congratulate him, his Department and all of those involved in progressing this important Bill. Almost two years on from its publication in 2016, we are seeing the beginning of the reform of schools admission policies and access to education for all in Ireland. The Bill will provide a new framework that is designed to ensure fairness, greater clarity, more transparency and legitimacy in the admissions policy of our schools and takes a major step forward in ensuring equity in our education system.
I particularly welcome measures in the Bill which ensure that schools are made available for all students, including those with special educational needs or disabilities. Under the Bill, a school is required to include a statement in its admissions policy that it will not discriminate in the admission of a student on the grounds of disability. It will be good to see that written down in black and white. I would be interested to know what sanctions the Minister proposes in the Bill for schools which flout those requirements. From a reading of the relevant section, I am not clear about the provisions. That is a separate matter.
The Bill provides for a situation whereby when a child with special needs or otherwise cannot find a school place, the National Council for Special Education or Tusla can designate a school place for that child. The Bill enables the Minister for Education and Skills, once set procedures and processes are followed, to require a scheme to open a special class. While in most cases schools have been open to providing additional special classes, this welcome provision simply eliminates a scenario where schools can and sometimes do refuse to admit children.
I thank Mr. Graham Manning, a concerned teacher from Cork, who sought to ensure such provisions would be made in the Bill for children with autism, in particular, and also Deputy Thomas Byrne who worked to that end when the Bill was going through the Dáil. We had a meeting in Cork and over 200 parents turned up. They were all parents of children in primary school who were really worried about where they would go come September.
The Bill moves to eliminate the baptism barrier in the majority of cases. I know that my colleague, Senator Lynn Ruane, as well as Senator Alice-Mary Higgins and I, are passionate about this element of the Bill and have worked with Mr. Michael Barron of EQUATE to see the baptism barrier removed from school admissions policies in 98% of cases. Section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act 2000 allows State-funded schools to discriminate against children on religious grounds. In practice, this means that children who have been baptised get priority in enrolment over children who are not. Refusing a child a place in his or her State-funded local school because of his or her family's religion or beliefs is a denial of his or her rights and should not be acceptable in a modern democracy. While a minority of schools will be able to use religion as a criterion for admission where school places are in limited supply, the Bill will be effective in the great majority of cases and keep such scenarios to a minimum.
The new Education (Admission to Schools) Bill makes it clear that schools are open and welcoming of all pupils. It is hoped its provisions in respect of children with special educational needs will address and remove impediments to accessing education for such children, including children with autism, particularly in accessing second level education. While I do not know if more recent statistics are available, in 2014 only 23% of students with autism were in a special class, with many going without the required support. From information provided for me, in the whole of County Cork, there are 81 classrooms at primary level and just 41 at second level, a difference of about 234 places. In Cork city only one boy was offered a place in a secondary school with an autism spectrum disorder, ASD, classroom in 2016 and 2017. Hundreds of children are missing out. There an autism education gap in Cork and other places as children transition from primary to secondary school, in particular. It is hoped the provisions in the Bill will eliminate the gap and schools' veto.
While the Bill takes some very welcome steps towards equalising access to education and schools, there are some elements that could be strengthened further. The Bill needs to give special education needs organisers, SENOs, through the National Council for Special Education and the Minister's office, the authority to compel a school to establish a special class where there is a clear need for one. In that regard, I would prefer if the word "shall" rather than "may" was used. There should be as few steps as is necessary in the process. The timeframe for such a process must be as short as possible in order that it will not have an undue impact on and delay the education of the child or children while we wrangle about whether we have all of the information from the stakeholder consultation process and this, that and the other and all the while the child remains without a school place. The process needs to be transparent. The reasons a special class is to be established need to be put in writing. We also need to avoid a scenario where a school will propose to set up too many special classes because that will cause different problems.
Another issue the Minister might consider is the need for language to be clear and concise to guarantee the best possible results from the legislation. We should specifically refer to "special classes" rather than "additional provision of education for children with special educational needs". The areas mentioned in the Bill need to be clearly defined. I intend to study the Bill more to see how best we can strengthen it and may submit further amendments on the next Stage. I understand the National Council for Special Education is meeting later today to discuss the Bill. I will be consulting it and other further.
Another measure that could strengthen the Bill is an undertaking to review the Bill after a period of time to assess if it has achieved its goals of providing for equity and better access to education for children, including for children with autism. I am conscious that the capitation grants are different for children in primary schools which receive an extra €682 extra per student per year. That money does not follow through into secondary schools with special units. Will the Minister comment on this?
In general, I welcome the Bill which addresses some long-standing and thorny issues related to admissions policies in schools. First and foremost, admissions policies in schools have to be about the children and their right to an education, not any issue that might arise for management boards and teachers. All of these things can be worked through. The Bill introduces enforceable measures to ensure all children, regardless of religion, can access education and additional mechanisms to ensure schools are for everyone, including children with disabilities, autism or special educational needs, and that all children will receive an education, to which they have a right. That said, I am prepared to table amendments to sharpen key elements of the Bill to ensure it will be as effective as possible. I thank the Minister for bringing us this far. I also thank the Acting Chairman and look forward to having the opportunity to debate the Bill further.
I welcome the Minister. I broadly commend the overall objectives of the Bill. Sinn Féin is of the view that the proposed legislation takes a number of progressive steps towards the removal of discriminatory practices between children in the school enrolment process. For that reason, we will support the Bill on Second Stage.
Sinn Féin very much welcomes the important specific provisions made by the Minister for the admission to school of children with special educational needs. We particularly support the proposal that agencies such as the National Council for Special Education and Tusla have the power to designate a school place for a child who is having difficulty in securing admission to school. We agree that schools should, where necessary, be compelled to establish ASD units. The evidence on the ground indicates that many schools are creating soft barriers to the enrolment of children with special educational needs and turning such students away, forcing them to go elsewhere. In some circumstances, the next school could be 30 minutes away and the child could be forced to attend a different school from their siblings. This is entirely unfair both on the child and his or her parents. This discriminatory practice is entirely unacceptable and it is welcome that Bill seeks to address it.
We must point out that the reasoning many schools offer when they refuse to enrol a child with special educational needs is that they simply do not have the required funding or resources available to accommodate the child. This goes to the heart of many problems within the education sector which are legitimately down to historical under-investment in the sector. If we are in agreement that a State school should be compelled to enrol students with special educational needs, we should also be in agreement that they must be adequately funded to do so, otherwise this section of the Bill will be ineffective.
Sinn Féin gives its support to the Bill's proposal to prohibit the practice of seeking fees and contributions for the enrolment or continued enrolment of a child at school. This will come as welcome news to many families across the State and perhaps our attention should next be drawn to dealing with the growing phenomenon of seeking voluntary contributions from parents which is becoming prominent across Ireland.
The Bill provides for a much greater level of transparency on each school's admissions policy. Sinn Féin welcomes the fact that, from now on, schools will have to publish their admissions policies. This will provide for a much more balanced playing field for parents in looking to enrol their child in a particular State school and mean that they will no longer necessarily need to be in the know regarding what will give their child a fair chance of enrolment.
We would have liked to have seen the Bill go a little further in this section. For instance, the Bill does not prescribe what each school's admissions policy should or should not include. It is left entirely to the discretion of the school to decide. The view of Sinn Féin is that the State should look at having a level playing field or playing some role, rather than simply outsourcing the responsibility to the patron or whichever board is in charge. This is where Sinn Féin begins to see issues with the legislation as drafted. If the big picture is eliminating all barriers and discrimination between children in the enrolment process, we argue that the Bill falls some way short of that objective. As things stand, section 7(3)(a) will still allow State-funded schools to discriminate against a child based on his or her parents' religious background if a school can prove that acceptance of the child is essential to maintaining the ethos of the school. The wording is quite vague and we should call out the section for what it is - a fudge. As others have said, it is an Irish solution to an Irish problem.
We have to discuss whether it is a good idea to continue to segregate children as young as four and five years based simply on their parents' faith, particularly children from minority faith backgrounds.
Arguably, this section would be in contrast to many of the principles on which we would like our education system to be built in the first place. Education is a fundamental cornerstone of our society. Our publicly-funded education system must be governed by the principles of equality. Our schools should be inclusive places. They should welcome diversity irrespective of background. There should be an emphasis on children from all different backgrounds coming together to learn together in a secular environment. Their religious needs can be met at the end of the school day or after school. This is what happens in the small number of multidenominational and Educate Together schools at present. By fudging the baptism barrier issue, we are going to create further problems down the line. For instance, how do we define what is meant by maintaining the ethos of a school? How does a school make the case that it needs to discriminate to protect its ethos? It is possible that this section will allow minority schools to continue to discriminate on the grounds of faith even when the school is undersubscribed, simply because the proportion of the favoured faith falls below a certain percentage which is not prescribed in the legislation.
If Catholic schools in certain parts of the country begin to see their numbers dwindle ten or 15 years from now, they may begin to believe their characteristic ethos is under threat. At this point, they could turn to this section to seek respite. This Bill gives us a chance to put this issue to bed for good, but we are missing that chance. Equality is an unambiguous concept that does not need to be qualified, but that is exactly what this Bill seeks to do. It attempts to qualify equality with exceptions. The Equal Status Act 2000 does the exact same thing. The United Nations, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the Office of the Ombudsman for Children have recommended that the 2000 Act should be amended to give effect to the principle that no child should be given preferential access to a publicly funded school on the basis of his or her religion. The Government refused to deal with the 2000 Act on Committee Stage. It is about to compound that error by instilling the same discriminatory proposal in this legislation.
Sinn Féin will support the Bill on Second Stage today because it represents progress in several areas. A conversation still needs to be had regarding the baptism barrier because the legislation as it is currently drafted leaves a number of questions to be answered.
I welcome the Minister and thank him for laying out this Bill, which is welcome, overdue and progressive. I would like to focus on one section of the Bill. Much of what I will say will be in contrast to what the previous speaker said. It is important to put things in the context of where we are before we speak about where we want to get to. I recognise that the role of religious institutions in our schools is completely oversubscribed and over-reliant. At a time in our history when the State was unable to fulfil its obligations in many areas, including education, we relied on the various churches to fill the gap. It would be disingenuous and perhaps ill-thought-out to remove them in one fell sweep. It is a fact that 89% of national schools in the State are under the patronage of the Roman Catholic Church. Another 6% are under the patronage of some other single religion, such as the Church of Ireland. There are 23 Presbyterian schools, one Methodist school, one Jewish school and two Muslim schools. Another 5% of schools are run on a multidenominational, Educate Together or secular basis, which is entirely positive. I think we need to see more of those schools.
I welcome the proposal in the legislation before the House to remove the barrier from 89% of national schools. It is important that we are seeking to increase the level of choice for parents in providing national school education to their children or to children for whom they are acting as guardians. Where does choice begin? As I said, 89% of schools are under the ethos of the Roman Catholic Church. We have a responsibility to respect choice, minority faith and parents who want their children to receive minority faith education. Ultimately, when 89% of schools are under the ethos of a particular church, choice is not provided. We will not remove the basis until we start to look at the patronage as well.
The divestment of our schools from the Roman Catholic Church, in particular, is not covered in this Bill. We need to see accelerated progress in this wider area. We need to see more schools come into the secular fold, the non-religious fold or the multidenominational fold. Throughout my time as a public representative, I have championed the development of three new Educate Together schools - two national schools and one secondary school - in my area. I was delighted, after much campaigning, to receive the details of where the secondary school's permanent location will be. I was at the first meeting in 2010. The Minister has announced approximately 40 new schools in recent months. Regardless of the consultations and the surveys, I think there is merit in prescribing, if feasible, that these new schools will not have any religious ethos or alternatively will be multidenominational, secular or Educate Together schools. I think that is where we will achieve real progress.
The Bill before the House is welcome as part of the overall modernisation and progression of our national school system. I believe that if we rush from A to B without acknowledging where exactly we are, this legislation will be ill-thought-out. Therefore, it is wholly appropriate that exceptions are being made for minority faith schools in order to protect rich communities that have given so much to this State historically. Ultimately, they cannot be mistakenly overwashed by this well-meaning overall initiative. I commend the Minister, the Department and the officials on their work in this regard. I look forward to this Bill going through all Stages swiftly and being enacted in due course.
I welcome the Minister to the House. While I broadly welcome the Bill, I would like to make some comments on it. When we are making provisions that relate to religion, I always think the constitutional reality we have means we can do no more than tinker with the issue. That is why the Labour Party is arguing that the Citizens' Assembly should reconvene to discuss the relationship between the church and the State when it comes to the provision of education in Ireland. It makes absolutely no sense whatever to me, on any level, that we should separate children on the basis of gender or religion. I do not think it stands up to any examination as being good for children. Unfortunately, what is best for children is the last thing to be considered when education policy is being drawn up. We look at what is best for patrons and sometimes look at what is best for teacher unions, but we rarely look at what is best for children. We hope the Minister will advocate for the Citizens' Assembly to discuss this matter.
I would like to speak about enrolment fees. We have proposed a Bill that would ban voluntary contributions. We will have an opportunity to discuss this issue at greater length at some time in the future.
I commend what the Minister is doing with regard to the baptism barrier. There are restrictions on how much he can achieve in this space. As others have said, this is the best possible effort that can be made in the current circumstances. The Labour Party will support the Minister in this endeavour.
I have a serious grievance with one area of the Bill. It appears that the fee-paying school sector has an open door at Cabinet level. The proposed new section 62(9) of the Education Act 1998, as set out in section 9 of this Bill, will provide that "Subsection (7)(e)(vi) shall not apply to selection criteria based on a student’s connection to the school by virtue of .... a parent or grandparent of the student concerned having previously attended the school, provided the maximum number of places filled pursuant to that criterion does not exceed 25 per cent of the available places as set out in the school's annual admission notice for the school year concerned". I know the Minister will say that the relevant figure has been 100% up to now. This legislation was delayed under the previous Government because of a row about this provision. The then Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, provided that the figure should be 0%. The Fine Gael response was that it should be 25%.
We need to be perfectly clear about what we are saying here. This Bill proposes that all schools should be allowed to provide a certain number of places to the children of parents or grandparents of past pupils. This automatically means that a child whose parents, or potentially grandparents, did not go to secondary school - by the way, I am one of those people - will be at a disadvantage where a school is oversubscribed. In my opinion, this is elitist tripe. It potentially overrides the rights of vulnerable and marginalised groups.
If one is a Traveller child whose parents did not go to secondary school, if one is from a disadvantaged background and one's parents or grandparents did not go to secondary school, if one is not from the local area or if one is not from the country, how can one apply on the same basis? This is a demand of the fee-paying sector, which wants to have a royal blue line of succession running through their schools for fundraising purposes. They want to be in a position to fundraise from the children and grandchildren of past pupils.
As with many things in the case of this Government, when the fee-paying schools sector comes knocking, the door is flung right open. We can talk about the Wesley pitch or the fact that the fee-paying sector is exempt from the provision of special needs classes. While we support elements of the Bill in relation to the baptism barrier, want a further conversation on the Citizens' Assembly and the relationship between church and state, will progress legislation on voluntary contributions and appreciate the mechanisms within the Bill to deal with fees, we oppose this section absolutely. We will oppose it tooth and nail and will call votes on it left, right and centre because it is odious, elitist and wrong. It is only included at the behest of the private fee-paying schools sector, which has been campaigning and lobbying for it for a long time. It is the very reason the last Government did not produce this legislation. There was a row between the parties over this provision.
It is outrageous that a school should be allowed to keep 25% of its student body for children and grandchildren - I repeat "grandchildren" - of past pupils. On all the other measures, the Minister will have our support and we will do our best. I have great sympathy for parents raising their children through the Irish language and who wish to have their children educated through Irish. It is something we have to work on together and we can find solutions. The Minister will have no difficulty finding practical solutions from our end of things. However, this particular provision must be called out for what it is. It is intensive lobbying by a particular elitist sector in Irish society, which always seems to get its way. As the former principal of a DEIS school, I wish we had the same "in" for the most disadvantaged students in the country which the fee-paying sector seems to have. They always seem to get what they want. In terms of this section, the Minister will get no agreement from the Labour Party. We will ensure that there is vote after vote on this and I encourage other Members of the House to support me and my party in that.
I welcome the Minister. I welcome very much the fact that after two years, we are bringing the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016 before the Seanad. When the Bill becomes law, it will place an obligation on schools to put together admissions policy statements which do not discriminate on a specific ground and allow the Minister to make regulations on the content of those policies. It is also important to recognise that this Minister has one overarching objective, namely, to ensure that we have a fair and transparent policy on admission to schools.
Senator Ó Ríordáin made some good points in his contribution. I spent 16 years in the classroom, taught a variety of subjects and was very much of the view that it was not a one-size-fits-all curriculum or a matter of the leaving certificate "plus plus". It was about the leaving certificate applied and other parts of the curriculum which brought people together, including the old VEC Youthreach, in which the Cathaoirleach was involved himself. It is not a case that one size fits all. I disagree with Senator Ó Ríordáin on one particular point, however. We all have an "in" regarding education as stakeholders, whether we are parents, educators or legislators. It is wrong to focus on elite fee-paying schools. I did not attend one but I support the right of people to attend schools and I support all students. My record as a public representative and as an educator has been about providing access to education. I was a director of adult education myself and I believe firmly in the power of education and its empowering and transformative potential.
As we speak, we are coming to the tail-end of the leaving and junior certificate examinations and that is probably the most harrowing time of anyone's life as a student or parent. Senator McFadden has probably done the leaving certificate again herself this week. I hope it is going well for her. The Minister has been very committed to ensuring that our schools welcome every person, regardless of religion, colour, disability or ability. That is the point he has been making repeatedly and it is why I have been impressed by him as a Minister. He has an overarching philosophy and a warm, embracing ability to reach out and bring people with him. I commend him for his approach. The Government is committed to diversity in education, which must include all faiths and none. That is the key point. It is a further continuation of a policy change which has been coming for a while. I am also of the view that the education system must be about different forms of patronage. I say that as someone who was educated in a seminary, who taught in a comprehensive and community school and who recognises the value of Educate Together as an example. The last Government and this one have had a commitment to education, which has been very important in allowing Educate Together to maintain a differing viewpoint. In that regard, I note that I see my very good friend, Councillor Brendan Weld, in the Gallery. I welcome him and pay tribute to him for his work in VECs and ETBs in the past. It is critical that we recognise in the context of the Bill also the role the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland have played in education. We must also recognise Gaelscoileanna and the growth of the Gaelscoil movement and its ability to change the mindset around the education of our young people through the medium of Irish.
I welcome the amendments the Minister made in the Dáil on ending the baptismal barrier. He was right when he told the Dáil that it was a very unfair practice. Those of us who were baptised and reared as Catholics recognise the importance of that, but it is bizarre to have children being baptised by parents who feel they must do it. That is no longer the case. I might be in a minority of one in that regard, but I believe it should be changed. The Government is also proposing that oversubscribed schools, which are Catholic in the main, will no longer be able to favour prospective pupils on the grounds of religious adherence, which is right. It is important to look after the minority faiths, in particular that of the Church of Ireland. I speak as someone who recognises the contribution of Church of Ireland schools in Cork where they have a fundamental and clear role.
I welcome the Minister's commitment to consider, following representations, the appropriate time period for phasing out school waiting lists. It is a good move on the Minister's part to have a grace period. I welcome the fact that admissions fees will be banned and that schools will only be allowed to set aside a maximum of 25% of places for past pupils. That is important too. It is clear that the Minister has given this considerable consideration, building on the work of the Oireachtas committee. I commend the Minister on his stewardship of the Bill, which has been a long time in gestation. There was a very good debate on Committee Stage and in the Dáil generally. I commend the Bill to the House.