Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016: Second Stage (Resumed)

I thank the Minister for bring the Bill to the House. I look forward to debating it and progressing it as expeditiously as possible because, as other Members have stated, it has been a long time in the making and undertaken a significant journey to get to this point.

There is much to welcome in the Bill. I particularly welcome the recognition of the importance of access for all to education and to schools in terms of the provision of special needs classrooms and supports and the fact that the State may make orders in that regard, although I will not speak on it to the same length as Senator Kelleher, who has a strong background in that area. My one concern on that section regards the question of resourcing, which has been very clearly highlighted. Provision has been made in terms of fair dialogue in respect of the resources that may be needed in terms of property but, as was described, there are other resources and resource needs that come with an order. Those resources should be strengthened and there should be a commitment to their provision, although it may not be necessary to stipulate that in the Bill. The Bill currently refers to additional provision as the Minister deems necessary but more dialogue may be needed in that regard.

For me, a fundamental and important part of the Bill regards finally beginning to bring our education and school system in line with the true spirit of the Equal Status Act 2000. People were greatly concerned about that omission at the time of that Act's enactment. Bringing our education system closer to the spirit of the Equal Status Act is crucial in terms of religion and also sends a stronger message of equality in respect of the other categories listed and which must be outlined in admission statements, including sexual orientation, disability, membership of the Traveller community and race. Although provision had previously been made in that regard, those categories being very clearly set out in admission statements sends a strong message of equality and invitation to the entire community, as should be done by every school.

I slightly disagree with Senator Ó Domhnaill in regard to the baptism barrier. We have been told that it is not often used. I attended the Joint Committee on Education and Skills although I am not a member of it while this issue was being debated because I have a strong interest in it. While it is interesting that the baptism barrier is only sometimes used, it was made very clear at the committee that in many cases it is not a measure to protect the ethos of a school but, rather, to discriminate or discern or indicate preferences. The fact that it was not uniformly applied reinforces that message somewhat.

I very much welcome the removal of the baptism requirement and slightly disagree with Senator Ó Domhnaill who stated that, as a result of certain students no longer being denied a place due to the baptism barrier, other students would lose out. He stated that no one student will be better off. I would argue that students are better off, as are schools as a whole, because the removal of the baptism barrier signals a clear ethos of equality in schools and also ensures that schools, including those in which there is pressure on resources and places, will accurately reflect the diversity of the community in which they are located and the children in that community. Part of the function of schools is to play a key role in bringing the children of our communities and the next generation of communities in contact and into engagement with each other.

In that regard, other Members have highlighted that there are areas on which the Bill could be stronger. I concur with some of the exemptions provided for, such as in regard to gender. There are potential concerns in respect of provision for minority religions. I believe that diversity within our schools is a positive thing. I recognise that the Minister has brought forward what he believes can now be put into effect.

I urge that the removal of the baptism barrier and clarity on equality within admission statements not be seen as a substitute for the shift in patronage which is required in our schools system. Perhaps the Minister will assure us that none of the urgency in regard to changes in patronage will be lost as a result of the enactment of the Bill.

A seven-year waiting list for an Educate Together school was referred to. The campaign for an Educate Together school in Galway began when I was about five years of age and the primary school finally opened while I was finishing college. I am now 43 and they are still campaigning for a secondary school, so there has been a long battle. There is a very clear impetus and there has been too much delay. The Minister is aware of the key concern in regard to scaling up within Educate Together schools, for example.

On Gaelscoileanna, which have been mentioned, I am very happy to work with the Minister on how he wishes to bring that forward and ensure the right to attend a Gaelscoil is addressed. It is a right of choice. Some people wish to have their child educated through Irish in a multidenominational school and that overlap must be considered.

I thank the Minister and look forward to the next Stage of the Bill.

I call the Minister. I do not wish to put him under pressure but the House is due to finish at 7 p.m.

At 7 p.m. Three minutes is very little time to do this debate justice .

I have no doubt that the Minister can do so.

I ask the Acting Chairman to tell me when my time has elapsed.

Senator Ó Domhnaill and other Senators raised the issue of the religion barrier being related to a shortage of schools and stated that other children will lose out. I refer them to Senator Higgins's comments in that regard. It is important that we have a fair system of access to whatever places are available but I strongly dispute that the religion barrier relates to a shortage of places. There will always be popular schools which many wish to attend and we must have fair rules for access to such schools. I can bring Senator Ó Domhnaill to a number of schools in my constituency that many students want to attend. There must be a rule governing access to such schools but that cannot be based on the religion of the child. It is unacceptable for a child living many miles from a school to be given priority over one living near the school. We will never be able to provide enough schools such that everyone gets their first preference. That is the reality. Some schools will have to make decisions on admissions. The important thing is that that is done in a fair way. I welcome the support for many other aspects of the Bill and recognise the contribution that Senator Ó Domhnaill's party made to some of those elements.

I do not agree with Senator Mullen that this is about resources and that the opening of autism spectrum disorder, ASD, units is an unfair imposition on schools. In most such cases we provide state-of-the-art facilities and a pupil-teacher ratio of 6:1 in addition to two special needs assistants, SNAs. We also provide favourable access to having a "walking principal", one who does not have teaching duties. Our new resource teaching model is putting more resources into schools which are taking on special education provision, so I do not think it fair to portray this as an issue of resources. We increased resources for special needs children by 42% right through the crash. It is remarkable that we have stuck with that and it is fair to have done so.

On the issue of abusive parents, we are developing a parents' and students' charter which will detail rights and responsibilities. I recognise that parents may overstep the mark and we must try to manage that at local level through a charter. I hope to publish legislation in that regard in the coming weeks.

Senator Byrne rightly stated that improvements are needed in regard to section 29 appeals. A quicker and easier process is required and I think we are making the right changes in that regard.

The Gaelscoil issue will always be there and it is tricky because, as I said in my opening remarks, while we want to ensure a child of a family in which Irish is the normal spoken word has access to a Gaelscoil and a Gaelcholáiste, we cannot create something that is seen as another form of discrimination. Someone who is of immigrant parents, a broken home or a non-traditional home is discriminated by the provision, and we cannot do that. I hope we will be able to accommodate the aim.

I welcome the support of Senator Warfield on behalf of his party. I note that Senator Warfield said he would prefer not to see religion in State schools. To be honest, parents are the primary educators under our Constitution and the State has an obligation to recognise what parents want. What I am trying to do is recognise that the views of parents are changing, but some parents still want a religious ethos for their children. I do not think it is right that we should seek to impose uniformity. This Bill represents diversity and having different denominations. We do not have enough diversity but I do not think we should go to the other extreme and suggest that the system should be non-religious or a one-size view or approach. I do not agree with Senator Warfield in that regard.

Senators Higgins and Richmond referred to patronage and diversification. We need to accelerate the process. We are introducing a new approach that is currently under way. Each of the education and training boards is now picking one area and surveying parents. We are hoping to move to a system that would accelerate patronage. As Senator Mullen has said, there is a great deal of support from the church for this but it is a matter of creating the reality as opposed to simply the support. I hope it will work.

I do not agree with Senator Richmond's view that we should prescribe it and that every one of the 42 schools should be something. It is right to have a parental role. However, I have enshrined that the new patron must add to the diversity of offering within the area. It is rare but not impossible for a Catholic school to be successful. At second level one such school was successful. Of 61 new schools, one was Catholic. Anyway, I do not believe we should exclude the possibility of a religious denomination emerging as preferred.

I hear what Senator Ó Ríordáin has said about a citizens' assembly. I would be interested to debate the matter. There is no doubt that we are changing. What I am trying to do is move with the change. The Senator says he does not want gender or religion in schools. I respect the views of parents on this. We have to balance some ivory tower view of what is right versus what parents want, and that is what I am trying to do. I believe it is right that children of parents should have a certain quota. We are introducing a cap on that, but school communities are welcome and where there is a tradition of parents having gone to a school and sending their children there, that is to be welcomed. Many schools do that.

I will leave it at that. I have over-stepped the mark. I thank Senators for their contributions, which were, as always, very thoughtful and well-articulated. I look forward to the Committee Stage debate.

Thank you, Minister. You got in a good deal in a few minutes.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 19 June 2018.

When is it proposed to sit again?

Maidin amárach ar 10.30.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.05 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 14 June 2018.