Education (Welfare) (Amendment) Bill 2017: Report and Final Stages

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Zappone, to the House.

Before we commence, 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 it. On Report Stage, each amendment must be seconded. Is it agreed that amendments Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 6 to 8, inclusive can be discussed together? Agreed.

Government amendment No. 1:
In page 3, lines 5 to 9, to delete all words from and including "provide" in line 5 down to and including "to" where it firstly occurs in line 9.

I reiterate my support for the objective of the Private Members' Bill. Its purpose is to bring within the remit of the 2000 Act any parent or parents who choose to enroll their child in a recognised school before the child reaches the compulsory school-going age of six. This means that the education welfare service of Tusla would be able to engage with all parents of children registered in a school rather than just those who have reached the school-going age.

As indicated on Committee Stage, I wish to bring a number of amendments to this Bill. These amendments seek to correct a number of technical inaccuracies and also clarify matters so as to minimise any potential unintended consequences that may occur arising from enactment of this Bill.

My officials have engaged with counterparts in the Department of Education and Skills and the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel in considering the same. I propose to group the amendments into two parts, the first comprehending the technical and drafting amendments, including amendments Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 6 to 8, inclusive. These amendments seek to clarify and update the titles, the definition and references. They reflect the fact that the national educational welfare board is no longer in existence and that its functions, as from January 2014, have transferred to the Tusla education and welfare service under the remit of my Department.

Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 2:
In page 3, to delete lines 14 and 15 and substitute the following:
“ “Act of 2000” means the Education (Welfare) Act 2000.”.
Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 3:
In page 3, to delete lines 17 to 27 and substitute the following:
“2. Section 2 of the Act of 2000 is amended in subsection (1) by the substitution of the following definition for the definition of “child”:
“ ‘child’ means a person resident in the State—
(a) who has reached the age of 6 years and who—
(i) has not reached the age of 16 years, or
(ii) has not completed 3 years of post-primary education, whichever occurs later, but shall not include a person who has reached the age of 18 years,
or
(b) who has not reached the age of 6 years and who—
(i) for the time being is registered in a register maintained under section 20 in respect of a recognised school, and
(ii) is in receipt of primary education in the school referred to in subparagraph (i);”.”.

I refer to amendments Nos. 3 and 5. These amendments will address issues that may emerge in changing the definition of a "child" and the impact it may have on the operation of the Education (Welfare) Act 2000. I propose an amendment to section 2 to ensure that only children registered in schools in receipt of primary education fall within the scope of the Act. I want to ensure that children in receipt of preschool provision who are attached to and registered in a recognised school are not brought within the scope of this legislation. I do not want a situation where the powers of the EWS are applicable to any child in the preschool setting.

With regard to section 20 of the Education (Welfare) Act, the situation as it currently stands is that a parent cannot remove their child from the register of a school unless the child concerned is registered in another school or the parent intends to educate their child outside a recognised school as per section 14 of the Act. In practical terms, the change in definition may impact on the decision of a parent to remove their child from school for a valid reason, such as where a parent of a four year old child subsequently believes the child is not ready for school after a period of attendance at that school. School readiness is a key issue as regards young children making this transition and we need to allow for the fact that, in some instances, a child might not be school-ready. Therefore, I want to empower parents to make decisions they feel are in the best interests of their child. In such cases, where a four or five year old child is not ready for school I want to ensure the parent has the power to remove the child from the register of a recognised school if they believe it is in the best interests of the child to do so. Before such a decision is made, however, a parent will consult with the school principal to ask if he or she believes that is appropriate and this will ensure parents have sufficient information to make an informed choice in the best interests of the child.

Neither the Bill itself or any of the amendments I have proposed will interfere with the compulsory school age of six and all powers and obligations in the 2000 Act in respect of school attendance will continue to apply to children who reach this age. The amendments will ensure a supportive and proportionate approach is taken to the needs of four year old and five year old children who are registered in a recognised primary school. This is a critical time when children engage in one of the most important learning and development journeys of their lives.

Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 4:
In page 3, to delete lines 28 and 29, and in page 4, to delete lines 1 to 4.
Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 5:
In page 4, to delete lines 5 and 6 and substitute the following:
“Amendment of section 20 of Act of 2000
4. Section 20 of the Act of 2000 is amended—
(a) by the insertion of the following subsection after subsection (2):
“(2A) For the purposes of subsection (2), before a name is entered on the register in accordance with that subsection, a reference to a child is a reference to—
(a) a child referred to in paragraph (a) of the definition of ‘child’, or
(b) a person who has not reached the age of 6 years and whose attendance is for the purpose of receiving primary education.”,
(b) by the insertion of the following subsections after subsection (5):
“(5A) A parent of a child referred to in paragraph (b) of the definition of ‘child’ may, by notice in writing, apply to the principal of the recognised school at which the child is registered to remove the name of the child from the register maintained under this section in respect of that school.
(5B) The principal referred to in subsection (5A), on receipt of a notification under that subsection from the parent of the child to whom the notification relates, shall, as soon as practicable, inform the parent of the child concerned in writing of his or her opinion as to whether the removal of the name of the child from the register is in the best interests of that child.
(5C) Where a parent, having had regard to the opinion of the principal referred to in subsection (5B), is satisfied that the name of the child be removed from the register, the parent shall confirm that fact in writing to the principal and he or she shall, on receipt of the confirmation, remove the name of that child from the register.”,
(c) in subsection (6)—
(i) in paragraph (a), by the deletion of “or”, and
(ii) by the insertion of the following paragraph after paragraph (a):
“(aa) under subsection (5C), or”,
and
(d) by the insertion of the following subsection after subsection (6):
“(7) Where the name of a child is removed under subsection (5C) from the register of a recognised school and subsequently he or she—
(a) being a child referred to in paragraph (a) of the definition of ‘child’, attends the same school, or
(b) not having reached the age of 6 years, attends the same school for the purpose of receiving primary education, then for the purposes of subsection (2), the attendance referred to in paragraph (a) or (b), as the case may be, at that school, shall be treated as if it were the first such attendance at that school.”.”.
Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 6:
In page 4, to delete lines 7 to 10.
Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 7:
In page 4, line 14, to delete “Minister” and substitute “Minister for Children and Youth Affairs”.
Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 8:
In page 4, to delete lines 17 and 18 and substitute the following:
“(3) The Education (Welfare) Act 2000 and this Act may be cited together as the Education (Welfare) Acts 2000 and 2018.”.
Amendment agreed to.
Bill, as amended, received for final consideration.
Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."

I thank the Minister and her officials for engaging with me and the Labour Party in facilitating the passing of this legislation. I thank all Members for supporting it. I do not want to make value judgments or blame anyone but there may be a five year old in a school whose parents are not empowered to, or are going through circumstances where they cannot, attend to the child's educational needs. They may love their children deeply but circumstances can sometimes get in the way. With the passing of this Bill, however, the State and Tusla can encourage those parents and engage with the family to ensure the educational rights of a child under six are upheld. It is fundamentally important that every child gets the best start, and poor attendance patterns which start when a child is aged five can last a lifetime. We are not trying to impinge on families or hurt them but we have to uphold the education rights of children. Their attendance at school is important and we cannot wait until they are six to address these issues.

I thank the Minister on a personal and political level. She understands, instinctively, the power of education and she has a vision of the five year old in her mind, as well as knowledge of what an education can do for them. That is what this Bill is trying to achieve. The State can now intervene in a compassionate and empowering fashion with the child and the parents to ensure the child can have his or her education rights upheld. I appreciate what the Minister and her officials have done and I accept that her amendments had to be made to achieve what we want. I look forward to it being passed into law by both Houses so that five year olds and younger children in our education system can be protected.

I welcome the Minister back to the House. I commend my colleague, Senator Ó Ríordáin, on bringing forward this commonsense legislation. As he said in an earlier debate, this is about the carrot and not the stick. I commend the Minister on being on board with it and not opposing it. I look forward to it being enacted as soon as possible.

Question put and agreed to.