Tá áthas orm a bheith sa Teach Uachtarach chun an píosa reachtaíochta tábhachtach nua seo, sé sin an Bille Oideachais (Cairt Mac Léinn agus Tuismitheoirí) 2019, a thabhairt go dtí an Dara Céim.
It is nice to be back here. While this is normally not done until the end of a debate, when a Bill is successful, I thank the teams of officials in both my Department and the Attorney General's office for the work, effort and industry that has gone into bringing this Bill to Second Stage.
The Government's aim is to use our economic success to build a fair and compassionate society. Few areas are more important to this vision than education. It is therefore critical that the experience of our schools is positive, responsive and as supportive as possible for both students and their parents. I am, therefore, pleased to introduce this Bill, which will constitute an important step towards improving the experience of both students and parents in their engagement with schools. The fundamental aim of this legislation is to improve the level of engagement between schools, students and their parents by inviting feedback, comment and observations from students and parents and by developing a listening culture in schools. As members of this House will know, many schools already do this very well and can attest to the benefits for all of such positive engagement with students and their parents. For these schools, the legislation will help underpin and build on this work. It will also help schools that have not been as strong in this area by providing a clear framework to guide them in establishing and implementing good practice. It will do so by amending the Education Act 1998.
The Education Act 1998 was and still is hugely significant legislation in the education sector and sets out a clear framework for the operation and management of schools in Ireland. While the 1998 Act includes some provisions that can guide and influence the relationship between a school and its students and parents, it does not currently provide any cohesive or strategic approach to enhance how schools engage with students and their parents. Section 28 of the 1998 Act recognises that student and parental grievances do arise. However, that section is narrowly focused on creating procedures to process grievances or appeals once they have arisen. It is concerned with managing the process of responding to a complaint as distinct from contributing in any way to managing issues in a school differently before they give rise to grievances. The alternative approach I am taking in this Bill is to shift away from concentrating on reacting to problems in schools after they give rise to grievances, to an approach which aims to improve the day-to-day experience students and their parents can expect from schools. This will be done by setting out in law a framework that schools will apply in their engagement with students and parents. Under this framework, every school must prepare, publish and implement a student and parent charter and each school's charter must adhere to national charter guidelines developed and published by the Minister, after consultation with the education partners, including organisations representing students and their parents.
The Bill has 11 sections, which I will now outline for the House.
Section 1 of the Bill is a standard definitions section.
Section 2 is the largest section of the Bill as it inserts four new sections, namely, sections 27A to 27D, inclusive, into the Education Act 1998. I will now outline these four important new sections in more detail. A new section 27A provides that a school board of management must prepare, publish and implement a student and parent charter in accordance with the Minister's charter guidelines. In preparing its charter, the board must consult with the patron, school principal, school staff, students, parents, the student council and the parents' association and must prepare the charter in accordance with the charter guidelines. Each school charter must contain a statement that the charter has been prepared by the board in accordance and compliance with the charter guidelines. Section 27A prohibits a school board from including content in its charter that is not in accordance with, provided for or by, the charter guidelines. It also provides that the board must review and amend its charter as required by the Minister's national charter guidelines.
The new section 27B requires the Minister to develop and put in place national charter guidelines. The guidelines must address, inter alia, the following: the content of school charters; the process by which a school board will prepare, publish and implement its charter, including procedures for consultation with stakeholders at school level; the implementation of school charters; the procedures for reviewing and amending a charter; and such other matters as are necessary or appropriate for the purposes of the guidelines.
In developing the charter guidelines, the Minister must consult with the education partners, including bodies representing students and their parents, as well as the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children. I acknowledge the role of the Ombudsman for Children in that regard.
Section 27B also provides that the charter guidelines in respect of the content of charters in school may relate to the following matters: the procedures for consulting with students and their parents on such matters relating to the school as may be specified in the charter guidelines, including by inviting, and responding to, comments and suggestions from students and their parents on any such matter; information on school plans and policies of the school, other than the admission policy, and activities of the school. As the Admissions Act 2018 sets out a separate and comprehensive legal framework for the development, publication and implementation of schools' admission policy, the admission policy is excluded from this provision and similar provisions in the Bill. The section also provides: the procedures, including consultation procedures, for the preparation, review and updating of school plans and policies of the school, other than the admission policy, and the development, review and updating of the activities of the school; the procedures for informing students and their parents of matters relating to the operation and performance of the school; and the procedures for informing students and their parents of the activities of the school.
Other charter content set out in this section include: information on the structures and systems for the management of the school; the information to be provided to students and their parents relating to moneys that the school receives, including voluntary contributions made by parents, and the expenditure of those moneys by the school, and of the form and manner in which that information is to be provided; the information to be provided to students and their parents relating to the school calendar, closures and timetables and of the form and manner in which that information is to be provided; and the procedures for dealing with grievances of students or their parents relating to the school, and details of aggregated and anonymised information to be provided to students and their parents relating to grievances dealt with by the school, which may include the number or type of such grievances and related outcomes, and the form and manner in which that information is to be provided. Section 27B also provides that the guidelines may, where the Minister considers it necessary, include model charters for different categories of schools and contain different provisions for different categories of schools or different categories of students.
The new section 27C provides that the Minister, in preparing the charter guidelines, must have regard to certain matters that are specified in this section. These matters align with the core principles that were set out in the general scheme of the Bill. There are ten such matters listed from (a) to (j). These are the need for a school to: (a) seek to achieve, as far as practicable and subject to the resources available, the best possible outcomes for students in relation to their education and personal development; (b) foster and promote the relationship and a spirit of partnership between the school and students and their parents; (c) foster and promote mutual respect in communications between the school and students and their parents; (d) ensure, as appropriate, confidentiality in communications between the school and students and their parents; (e) promote the role and participation of parents in the education and personal development of students; (f) consult with, and encourage the participation and engagement of students, to the extent appropriate to their age and experience, and their parents, and respond as appropriate, to comments and suggestions made by students and their parents, in respect of the development, review and updating of school plans and policies of the school, other than the admission policy and the activities of the school; (g) monitor and review the provision of education by the school to students, including by consulting with, and responding, as appropriate, to comments and suggestions made by students, to the extent appropriate to their age and experience, and their parents, for the purposes of assessing and improving such provision on an ongoing basis; (h) foster and promote equality of access for students to, and participation by students in, education by seeking, as far as practicable, to reduce the costs to parents and students of such participation; (i) address and resolve concerns of students or their parents relating to the school, as far as possible, at an early stage, and; (j) ensure that grievances of students or their parents relating to the school are dealt with efficiently, effectively and fairly and, as far as possible, in an informal manner consistent with the principles of fair procedures.
The fourth new section, 27D, provides the Minister with a discretionary power to give a board of management a direction where he or she is of the opinion that the board has failed or is failing in whole or in part, to comply with its obligation to prepare, publish and implement a charter. Before issuing a direction, the Minister must give the board and school patron notice of his or her intention to give a direction, setting out the reasons and the proposed remedial action. The notice must offer the board and the patron, or both, an opportunity to make representations on the proposed direction and provide the board and patron at least 14 days to do so. The board and the patron therefore have an opportunity to rectify the matter before a direction issues or to make representations on the proposed direction.
The Minister must, in deciding whether or not to give a direction, consider any representations. Where the Minister proceeds to issue a direction, the board must comply with that direction. The Minister is also required to publish the direction on the Department's website not later than 14 days from the date of issue. The board must confirm in writing to the Minister when it has complied with the direction and the Minister, on being satisfied that a direction has been complied with, must publish a notice to that effect on the Department's website. The Minister must also give notice in writing to the board and the patron that the Minister is satisfied that the direction has been complied with.
I will move now to the other sections of the Bill. Section 3 provides for the amendment of section 2 of the Act of 1998 by inserting definitions for "charter" and "charter guidelines". Section 4 provides for the amendment of section 9 of the Act of 1998. Section 9 of the Act of 1998 sets out the various statutory functions of a school. In line with the purpose and aims of this Bill, two new important functions of a school are being inserted by section 4. These are to promote the involvement of students and their parents in the provision of education to students, and to ensure the implementation of the charter.
Section 5 provides for the amendment of section 20 of the Act of 1998. Section 20 currently refers to procedures for informing parents, but not students, of matters relating to the operation and performance of the school. It is being amended to link those procedures to the charter guidelines and to provide that both students and parents are referred to in section 20.
Similar to section 5, section 6 provides for the amendment of section 21 of the Act of 1998. Section 21 of the Education Act 1998 concerns the school plan and is being amended to ensure that the arrangements for the preparation of a school plan referred to in that section must comply with any applicable charter guidelines in respect of same.
Section 7 provides for the amendment of section 27 of the Act of 1998. Section 27(1) requires schools to have procedures for informing students about the activities of the school. It is being amended to ensure those procedures comply with any charter guidelines in respect of same and to provide that both students and parents are referred to in this provision. Section 27(1) currently refers to procedures for informing students, but not parents, about activities of the school.
Section 7 also amends section 27(4) which concerns the role of a student council. The amendment changes the requirement on a student council from one of promoting the interest of the school to a requirement to promote the interest of the students of the school having regard to the characteristic spirit and policies of the school and the charter.
Section 8 provides for replacement of the existing section 28 of the Act of 1998. The existing section 28 of the Education Act 1998 is replaced with a new section 28. The new section 28 is designed to work in tandem with the other charter-related provisions in the Bill. Together, these provisions will ensure that all schools will be required to have and to implement standardised grievance procedures that will be set out in the national charter guidelines following consultation with the education partners. This new section 28 provides that these grievance procedures must provide for matters such as: the requirements to be complied with by the school and the student or parent concerned in relation to the grievance process; the investigation of grievances in a manner appropriate to the nature of the grievance, whether by informal or formal means or both; the resolution of grievances, formally or informally; the giving of reasons for its decisions on grievances; and the implementation of decisions and any remedial action required.
Section 9 is a technical amendment and provides for the amendment of section 42 of the Teaching Council Act 2001 to update an existing cross reference in that Act to section 28 of the Education Act 1998, replacing it with reference to the grievance procedures provided for under this Bill.
Similar to section 9, section 10 provides for a technical amendment of section 9 of the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002 to update an existing cross reference in that Act to section 28 of the Education Act 1998.
The final section of the Bill, section 11, is a standard provision to provide for the Short Title, commencement and collective citation of the Education Acts. The Bill is important legislation to improve radically the experiences of students and parents in their engagement with schools. I look forward to hearing the views of Members on this important Bill, which I commend to the House.