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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 9 Oct 2019

Vol. 267 No. 9

Free Education (Prohibition of Fees and Charges) Bill 2018: Committee Stage

Sections 1 and 2 agreed to.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported without amendment.

When is it proposed to take Report Stage?

Next Tuesday, 15 October 2019.

Report Stage ordered for Tuesday, 15 October 2019.

That concludes the matter. Does anyone wish to speak on it?

I appreciate the Minister's presence and that the Government is not opposing the Bill. I will again outline the motivations behind it. We are not trying to limit the funding available to schools but to pressure the State and the Department to increase capitation funding so that voluntary contributions will no longer be necessary. Arising from the passage of this Bill through the previous Stage, I had a meeting with some principals in Ballymun who were concerned that we were trying to take away an avenue of funding that they greatly need without providing replacement funding. It is important to state that we are not able to include elements of replacement funding in an Opposition Bill because it would then be ruled out of order. The Labour Party's pre-budget submission does speak about the need for the return of pre-crash levels of capitation, which would cost €25 million. We have spoken about a 50% increase in capitation for DEIS schools, which would cost €23 million and benefit these schools in Ballymun. We have also spoken about a school books scheme, which would cost approximately €40 million.

We are trying - and I know the Minister appreciates this - to make the relationship between parents and schools one based on education rather than on money. Parents who are being asked for a voluntary contribution or for book rental scheme money and who are struggling are less likely to engage in school life. They just are. They are less likely to turn up to parent-teacher meetings, to hang around the school gate, or to come to school events. We can work on this together. We can have a process, but let us have a vision of free education which means that people never feel that money is a barrier between them and a proper conversation about their child's development or about their child's growing in the school environment. That is all we are trying to achieve here.

While many schools will say they need voluntary contributions to survive, it is unreasonable to suggest they would not be able to do so. This Bill prohibits the connection between a voluntary contribution and the provision of a school service. It does not prohibit fundraising or anything else of that sort. It strikes me that parents' associations feel as if they are just fundraising bodies. It is all about money all the time. We are losing the capacity and goodwill in the school community to talk about education, child development, beauty, love, poetry, and all of the other things education should be about.

I appreciate that the Minister is not opposing the Bill. I acknowledge hard questions will be asked about where the money is coming from but I have outlined the ethic we are coming from. We are coming from a genuinely good place. Since the Government is not opposing the Bill, we have the capacity to work on it together and achieve something. Obviously, replacement funding is needed. There is disappointment over the capitation announcement made by the Government yesterday but let us not dwell on that. Let us dwell on what we could achieve. This Bill comes from a good place, a decent place, a place that is trying to maximise the educational relationship between students, parents and schools. With that, I would appreciate the Minister's comments.

The Minister is welcome back to the House this afternoon. I compliment my colleagues opposite on introducing this legislation. Fianna Fáil believes it will require a number of amendments to strengthen it but that is for another day. We are happy to acknowledge the intent of the Bill. As Senator Ó Ríordáin outlined, there is some way to travel in this regard. If there were a cut-off tomorrow morning, schools effectively would not function. The intent of the Bill is very positive, however, and we are happy to support it. It will require a large increase in the capitation grant for the desired objective to be met but that is a conversation for another day. The Bill is a good start. I welcome the legislation and compliment the Senators on introducing it.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Joe McHugh, to the House. I echo what Senator Ó Ríordáin said about our motivation as Labour Party Senators in introducing this Bill. It is in keeping with our ethical view and belief that education should be free and that schools should not have a need for voluntary contributions in the way described. We are very anxious to work with colleagues across the House and the Minister to ensure the Bill can be strengthened and passed in a way that everyone can support. I thank Senator Gallagher for his words of support from the other side of the House. I hope we can achieve full cross-party support on this.

The Labour Party was very keen to support the No Child 2020 goals of improving educational outcomes for all our children and, in particular, pushing for initiatives such as the schoolbook scheme. I realise a move was made in the budget on that. There should also be a push for hot meals for every child during the school day. We need to do a lot more in this country to ensure educational opportunities are equalised for all children. This Bill is in that spirit.

I thank the Minister for not opposing the Bill today and I thank colleagues for their support. We look forward to working with all colleagues to try to ensure this Bill passes. I commend Senator Ó Ríordáin, who has driven this Bill from the very start. It arises from his commitment as a former teacher and school principal.

On behalf of Civil Engagement, I wish to speak formally in favour of the Bill. We support it. Senator Ruane, a member of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills, has been vocal in supporting it. It is very much in the spirit of No Child 2020. I join Senator Bacik in commending the Government on the hot meals and books schemes. I hope such schemes scale up from pilot schemes very rapidly. I am sure the Minister will tell us how it is intended to scale them up to ensure they become good practice. It is about recognising that we need to invest collectively in the education of every child and realise no child should feel his or her engagement in education or any of the experiences that make up education is conditional on his or her family being able to contribute fees or pay extra charges, which can result in great anxiety among families at the start of the school term.

I commend Senator Ó Ríordáin, whom I know has been consistently strong in advocating educational equality in all its forms. This is another really strong Bill. We look forward to engaging with our Labour Party colleagues on it.

The Minister is very welcome. I welcome the sentiments in the Bill and the fact that we are supporting it today. I have reservations about one or two aspects but I believe they could be ironed out. They concern extracurricular activities, such as school trips, or schemes such as the book rental scheme. Will these be affected, or will there be a way to work around the issues? Where there are extra trips, students may have to pay a fee for using the bus. I would not like to see such activities removed because many trips and schemes such as the book rental scheme are of great benefit to students. It is very welcome that there is cross-party support for the Bill. We can all work together to deliver what is best for the students. They are the kernel of this.

I congratulate my colleagues in the Labour Party. I fully support this Bill. I came over from England at a young age and my parents were quite shocked that free education did not really exist in this country. Unfortunately, it still does not really exist. It is important to appreciate the cross-party consensus in this Chamber. The Seanad works at its best when we are not adversarial but try to work together. Let us hope that, in this spirit of co-operation, we can work to advance this Bill. It will be very significant if we can work together to ensure it makes a difference for parents. September and October comprise a really difficult time for parents each year because of the additional costs. I am sure that, with goodwill, we can make further progress. Well done today.

I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. I would like to speak briefly to section 1. I will stick to that section. I know we are not on Second Stage but I would like to put on record just a few points about the section. I hope that is acceptable.

I commend Senator Ó Ríordáin and his colleagues in the Labour Party.

Only general comments are allowed at this stage. The Bill has already passed.

In that case, I apologise. I commend my colleague, Senator Ó Ríordáin, and his colleagues in the Labour Party on introducing the Bill. I support it fully. I have no doubt that it prohibits the charging of fees in regard to admission, enrolment, providing education or specific school activities. I really wanted to speak about section 1 so I apologise. I support my colleagues. I had written a great speech about section 1. Forgive me.

We have spared the Senator that.

There is no doubt but that this is the right thing to do.

There will be an opportunity on Report Stage to make a final speech.

I will be able to make the very brilliant speech I have just written.

We will all await that with bated breath.

All I can say is that I welcome the Bill. I have two grandchildren. I know families who struggle paying the extra fees. I have worked with them down through the years. I welcome the legislation. It is fantastic that there is cross-party support today.

I thank everybody. We are supporting the Bill on this Stage. I take on board the Senators' suggestion that this is the ideal forum to do what we need to do. We are all trying to figure out a way through this. One of the main things I noticed when I got this job, nearly a year ago, was the pressure voluntary boards of management are under with regard to capitation. The budget announcement yesterday is not reflective of where I want to be as a Minister. In fact, I wanted to go further than the 5% increase of last year. The rate of 2.5% is, I hope, indicative of where I want to go and where we need to go. Unfortunately, the budget yesterday was reflective of where we are at a given point in time, a very uncertain time. I do not want to repeat that over and over. The budget is preparing for a scenario that nobody wants.

With regard to the Bill, each school must in its own way deal with activities such as swimming lessons or yoga lessons and with the cost of the bus. Somebody very close to me, an eight year old, took a bus the other day to go to yoga lessons. Obviously, there was a charge for that.

First, we must consider what is the best way to sustain schools in terms of the bread-and-butter issues. I refer to making provision for the move from oil to more sustainable energy. Currently, all the schools that rely on putting oil in tanks face into a winter with increased costs and they are under pressure in the context of capitation.

We must ensure that schools have the flexibility to deal with situations as they emerge. Senator Ó Ríordáin referred to school books. That is a matter I wish to pursue in a way that it is not just a pilot, as suggested by one speaker. I am signalling today a €1 million school book pilot scheme to find if there is a way of providing school books to all young people. The pilot is intended for primary schools. We still have to figure out how many schools can be involved given the allocation is €1 million. We could potentially involve 50 schools. I came across international research which showed that when a free books scheme was introduced in Helsinki, it received a lot of negative feedback from outlying areas because people saw it as a factor in attracting parents to send their children to schools in the city. It is no good having a pilot without there being a prospect of it being rolled out and, likewise, there is no point in a pilot scheme hanging around for a couple of years. We will introduce the pilot in September with the deliberate aim of bringing in school books. However, we must take other issues into account as well, namely, those relating to publishers, the cost of books and the frequency with which new editions emerge. I know times change and information changes but there is much frustration on the part of parents as well due to the frequent appearance of new editions. We must look at all the wider issues within the pilot. I look forward to working with Members on it.

The Education (Admissions to Schools) Act dealt fairly comprehensively with the voluntary contributions. No school can charge parents who want to send a son or daughter to that school, and they cannot charge for extending their period in the school. We must also take into account the fact that many parents gave a contribution of their own volition and they want to do it on a voluntary basis. I know the history of this House. I first came here in 2002 and I watched Bills coming through the Seanad. They started off in one place and ended up in a completely different place, not just with consensus but with good insight and thought-provoking debate. This is the place to do it. I look forward to doing that. We will see where it takes us. I am on the same pathway as Members in terms of the sustainability of schools, equality, fairness and inclusiveness. I hope we can achieve something in due course.

That concludes the business of the day. I ask the Acting Leader to indicate when it is proposed to sit again.

Tomorrow at 10.30 a.m.

The Seanad adjourned at 5.55 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 10 October 2019.