I welcome the Minister and his officials, Mr. John Dennehy, Mr. Tom Boland, Miss Deirdre O'Keeffe and Mr. Feargal Costello. As Members are aware, we are scheduled to deal with the Bill today and tomorrow. I suggest we continue our consideration of the Bill until 6 p.m. and adjourn between 2 p.m. and 4.15 p.m. as the Minister has an important engagement. Is that agreed? Agreed. I suggest we commence at 10.30 a.m. tomorrow and continue until 4.30 p.m. with a break for lunch between 12.30 p.m. and 2.30 p.m. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Education (No. 2) Bill, 1997: Committee Stage.
On a point of order, why are we taking the amendments to the Title at the end rather than at the beginning? Is there any particular reason for this?
I understand it is usual to take them at the end.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 5, lines 32 to 37, to delete subsection (2).
This amendment deals with the commencement provision in section 1(2). My concern in putting down this amendment is that the Bill's implementation awaits ministerial order. I am not talking in terms of this Minister but whichever Minister is in office at the time the Bill passes into law. My concern is that parts of the Bill might not come into operation for years. Against that background, if we delete section 1(2), the Bill will come into operation immediately.
I have fundamental problems with the Bill. Obviously we all welcome the passing of an education Bill but if important sections are not passed into law for many years, the effect of the Bill and the benefits accruing to students from its provisions could be delayed for an unacceptably long period.
I understand the Deputy's concerns in terms of the swift implementation of the Act. Deputy O'Shea is proposing in amendment No. 1 to delete section 1(2) with the effect that all parts of the Act will come into effect at the same time. It is not the intention of section 1(2) to delay the implementation of the Act but to give some structured approach to the implementation of the Act, particularly as the Act will involve all the partners in education in terms of the implementation. It is simply to allow for a structured and flexible implementation of the Act. It is commonplace in legislation to have a commencement clause such as this. That is the raison d’ètre behind it.
I accept what the Minister says. The only aspect that makes this Bill unusual is that in a number of areas the Minister has used terms such as "following agreement with the partners in education" or "following consultation with this or that body" he will do certain things. Consultations can become extraordinarily lengthy and delayed and the Minister would strengthen his position if he agreed that, in any event, all the measures would come into force in, say, 12 months hence. That would mean the consultation process would not run on indefinitely, and that a stop would be put on some of the issues the Minister rightly believes require further consultation.
Consultation in securing agreement is the price of partnership. We have to be serious about partnership and certain parts of the Bill, in terms of the provision of regulations, refer to agreement with the partners. That is merely to give expression to our commitment to the partnership process in education. That has been part of the process leading up to the publication of the Bill including the White Paper, the Green Paper and the education convention. I am stopping short of putting an imposition on the partners and saying that if they do not agree by a certain date, we will go ahead. I am confident in this regard. I have examined the Bill and the sections which involve agreement by the partners and I do not anticipate that they will pose any significant difficulties. If we are going ahead in the spirit of partnership, which is the essence of the Bill, that is the price we have to pay. There has to be consultation in terms of regulations.
I do not disagree in principle with the idea of a phased implementation. There is logic in that approach but when one examines the Bill, as well as the point raised by Deputy Bruton about resources permitting or as far as is practicable, I am concerned that, because of the looseness of other terminology in the Bill, certain important provisions might not be implemented quickly. I would like the Minister to address that point. I accept the concept of moving forward in terms of agreement but the education system is notoriously slow to change. I am of the view that it may take years to implement certain provisions. What can we do to address that problem?
I will come back to the Deputy in regard to that on Report Stage. I will not promise anything but there are review mechanisms, in terms of the implementation of the Bill, that we can examine which may satisfy the concern of Members. I think I have shown my bona fides in terms of the redrafting of the Bill, its swift publication and my desire to get things moving. Once the Bill is passed through the Oireachtas we intend to move speedily to implement it. I have no difficulty reflecting on this matter to see, without putting impositions on the partners, whether we can put in place certain review mechanisms to ensure certain sections of the Bill see the light of day. If Deputies have concerns in that regard I am anxious to ensure they are addressed.
On the basis of what the Minister has said, I will withdraw the amendment.
Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 in the name of Deputy O'Shea are related.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 5, between lines 37 and 38, to insert the following subsection:
"(3) The Vocational Education Acts, 1930 to 1993 and this Act in so far as it relates to vocational education may be cited together as the Vocational Education Acts, 1930 to 1998, and shall be construed together as one.".
Essentially these are drafting amendments which seek to give a collective citation to both these legislative measures. Basically it is about bringing the Act up to date.
We are taking advice on those amendments. These are technical issues. The amendments will correct errors in the text if they so exist. We have no difficulty doing that. I am taking advice on the matter and we will introduce the necessary amendments on Report Stage.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 5, subsection (1), line 40, after "schools," to insert "as are in operation on the commencement of this Act and".
Section 2 is the definition section and it divides the key terms in the Bill. The list of services set out is not intended to be exhaustive and further services may and will be provided as the Minister deems appropriate. Moreover, in the light of the decision not to proceed with the regional education boards, the Bill now focuses on those services which can be provided most effectively at a central rather than a local level. However, in the light of the discussions which have taken place since the Bill was published, I propose to make a number of amendments. Amendment No. 4 provides for an amendment to the definition of "articles of management". The amended definition makes explicit provision for articles of management already in operation in schools at the commencement of the Act.
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 6, subsection (1), between lines 7 and 8, to insert the following definition:
"centre of education" means a place other than a school or a place providing University or other third level education whether adult or other continuing or vocational education or training is provided and is designated for that purpose under section 10(4);".
This amendment relates to the definition of a centre of education. My concern is that the meaning of a centre of education is clear. Essentially it is, as the amendment states, a place other than a school or a place providing university or other third level education, whether adult or other continuing education or vocational education or training is provided and is designated for that purpose. To the best of my recollection, this amendment was suggested by one of the teacher unions and I agree there is a need for clarity in this respect. I ask the Minister to accept the amendment.
The definition in Deputy O'Shea's amendment is almost identical to the definition I included in page 6, lines four to seven, of the Bill which states that "centre of education" means a place other than school or a place providing university or other third level education, whether adult or continuing education or vocational education or training is provided, and is designated for that purpose by the Minister.
On that basis, I withdraw my amendment.
Amendments Nos. 6, 7, 19, 20, 21, 22, 335, 336, 337 and 338 are related and may be taken together.
I move amendment No. 6:
In page 6, subsection (1), between lines 11 and 12, to insert the following definition:
" 'disability' means
(a) the total or partial loss of a person's bodily or mental functions, including the loss of a part of the person's body, or
(b) the presence in the body of organisms causing, or likely to cause, chronic disease or illness, or
(c) the malfunction, malformation or disfigurement of a part of a person's body, or
(d) a condition or malfunction which results in a person learning differently from a person without the condition or malfunction, or
(e) a condition, illness or disease which affects a person's thought processes, perception of reality, emotions or judgment or which results in disturbed behaviour.".
Amendments Nos. 6, 7, 19, 21, 22, 335, 336, 337 and 338 provide for greater clarity in regard to disability and the needs of students with disabilities. The definition of "disability" in amendment No. 6 is taken from the Employment Equality Bill, 1997. Amendment No. 22 is required to ensure consistency with this. Amendment No. 7, proposed by Deputy O'Shea, is almost identical to No. 6, which encompasses the material in Deputy Bruton's amendment No. 21. In the light of these amendments, I do not propose to accept amendment No. 19, proposed by Deputy Sargent, which is essentially a rewording of the material already in the Bill.
The effect of amendment No. 20 would be to broaden the definition of special education needs to encompass students experiencing educational disadvantage. I am not in favour of including that amendment because it is better that we target in the definition children with special needs associated with learning difficulties or exceptionally able students rather than encompass students experiencing educational disadvantage. We have to be clear on the categories.
The Government's commitment to tackling educational disadvantages is well known and since taking office I have established a number of new initiatives aimed at addressing problems experienced by the disadvantaged. I refer the Deputy to section 33 which provides for a committee with specific responsibility for tackling problems arising from educational disadvantage. While the Long Title specifically refers to the education of children with special education needs, I have tabled amendment No. 337 to make it clear that this will also include children with disabilities. This will reflect the importance of catering for the needs of children with all types of special educational needs and disabilities and ensure we safeguard the rights of all children in the education system.
We are taking a number of amendments in my name together. In amendment No. 21 I seek a redefinition of "special education needs". "Special education" is defined in the Bill as the needs of those with a mental or physical disability and exceptionally able students. It is clear that many people who have difficulties at school do not fall into the category of mental or physical disability. The Minister's definition of "disability" has sought to broaden the common meaning of a "physical or mental malfunction". Under paragraph (d) he suggests that a condition or malfunction which results in a person learning differently from a person without the condition or malfunction would be regarded as having a disability. We may be engaged in debate on semantics, but an ordinary interpretation of "disability" means a physical or mental malfunction. The general perception of "special educational needs" could relate to a malfunction or a condition that developed in the child because of his or her circumstances. I would prefer if the Minister agreed to the definition I set out in section 21 which is taken from the British Bill dealing with special educational needs. That simply defines children with a significantly greater learning difficulty than the majority of children of their age or children who, when assessed, are expected to have above average learning difficulties in a few years' time as children with special educational needs.
This is more than an argument about semantics. My approach is broader and does not force people to be categorised as disabled before qualifying for the category of special educational needs. I believe this accords with the view of the public. Parents do not regard children with dyslexia or attention deficit disorder as disabled. The definition I proposed, which is based on the UK legislation, is more appropriate. What precedent is the Minister using for defining children with special educational needs as being disabled?
Amendment No. 335 proposes that the Bill should not be confined to children. The need to provide adult education is referred to frequently throughout the Bill. For the very first sentence of the Bill to state that it is an Act to make provisions in the interests of the common good for the education of every child in the State is extraordinarily narrow. In any education Bill worth its name we should make provision for every person in the State. Our legislation should reflect the age of lifelong learning.
Amendment No. 336 refers to the fact that there are children with disabilities and others with special educational needs who would not, in common parlance be regarded as having a disability. Therefore, we should make provision for two categories of children, those with disabilities and those with special educational needs.
Amendment No. 7 refers to the definition of disability which is almost identical to amendment No. 6 introduced by the Minister. As I am satisfied with the Minister's amendment, I will withdraw amendment No. 7. I am also satisfied with the Minister's amendment to the Long Title which is similar to the one I tabled. I disagree, however, with the definition of "special educational needs". I do not believe there is any dispute about the difference between children with disabilities, learning difficulties and exceptionally able students, but a large group of disadvantaged children are failing in the system. We have not included a basic definition for "emotional disturbance" which might stem from the home environment
We cannot look at special needs simply in terms of disability. There are undoubtedly areas of great need for children who are emotionally disturbed or who are coming from very disadvantaged backgrounds. They will start behind and stay behind. There are special needs in that area which the State must define and address.
I thank Deputies and I appreciate their concerns.
The Irish Council for People with Disabilities made strong representations to us on this issue and it was in the context of those representations that we included the definition which is in the Employment Equality Bill, 1997, and that we inserted that definition of disability into this Bill. Within that definition, as outlined in amendment No. 6 paragraph (d), it is "a condition or malfunction which results in a person learning differently from a person without the condition or malfunction,". We have to be careful that we do not over-extend definitions to include almost everybody.
There have been traditional definitions which we have used within the system dealing with special needs and disadvantage. In the context of special needs, paragraph (d) can cover conditions such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, attention deficit disorder and so on which result in learning difficulties. Furthermore paragraph (e) outlines " a condition, illness or disease which affects a person's thought processes, perception of reality, emotions or judgment or which results in disturbed behaviour.". To a certain extent that may cover some of the concerns expressed by Deputy O'Shea. Section 33 provides for the setting up a committee on disadvantage.
The view had been that we look at special needs as a particular section and we look at disadvantage separately. Disadvantaged children are educationally disadvantaged for a range of reasons. Predominantly the definition has encompassed socio-economic background, environmental difficulties and family background as contributing to disadvantage for children in school. We need a separate focus from the special needs area for disadvantage as there are different problems and issues presenting themselves which require different responses. We could lose out if we merged both definitions in terms of the spread and how to target particular children.
As I learn more about special needs children and what we need to do it becomes more clear to me that you need a very targeted response. If there is not a targeted response, resources will become dissipated. When we announced the grants stemming from the IT 2000 initiative last week, because of the ring fenced definition of special needs children we had to clearly set out special grant systems for special schools, special classes within mainstream schools and special needs pupils within mainstream schools. There were separate capitation rates for, and grants to, the schools concerned.
We have also created a special fund where every child with a special need will receive a computer or whatever technological aids they may require. If we spread the definition to include disadvantage, which would include up to 350 schools which are designated as disadvantaged at the moment and there are many others which have not been designated in terms of pupils who have not been classified because they are in schools which do not meet the criteria, you could be at this forever and the special needs child could lose out.
I have no difficulty with Deputy Richard Bruton's point in relation to the definition of child versus person and will come back with an appropriate amendment on Report Stage.
The Minister's reply is unclear. While he has drawn this from the Employment Equality Act, the only precedent which I looked up is the British precedent where there is specific legislation for special educational needs. It does not go the route of the Minister, trying to get every special educational need into the classification of disability. The legislation defined special educational need empirically; if a child is not able to cope, they are found to have a special educational need and are entitled to what is attached to children with special educational needs.
The Minister is going a different route, he is trying to determine ab initio in some clinical fashion that a child is disabled and only then will they be entitled to a special education provision. There is a difference in philosophy at work and although the Minister has tried manfully to expand his approach as widely as possible to accommodate other children, I am mystified why he feels the need to hammer every child with a special educational need into a category entitled disabled.
The Minister has talked about targeting resources. I have no problem with that. My deep concern arises from the fact that there is a number of children, some as young as ten or 11 years of age, who are unmanageable in the normal school situation and are on the road to nowhere. These children are fine when it comes to a one to one but they cannot cope in groups. Essentially they are going nowhere and causing problems in terms of the running of the schools.
I take the point made by Deputy Bruton that defining these students in terms of a disability is inappropriate. That seemed to be what was emerging as the Minister read the latter part of the definition of disability and said that provided for this group of children. I do not see that as the case. I ask the Minister to look at this group; no one in this room would disagree that they exist. Not alone do they cause havoc in schools but they cause havoc in the community. There is a need for a special provision for them within primary education which reaches out into the community and is co-ordinated with the family support services. We will not succeed in bringing these children to where they have a chance in life unless there is family involvement and the resources available are brought to bear.
Is the Deputy talking about children who are disruptive in school for a variety of environmental reasons?
There are children who, for environmental or social reasons, have a certain dysfunctional behavioural pattern which, if given the proper attention with proper resources and tackled in a family context, can be eliminated over time. This does not come within the definition of disability.
It is not intended that they come within the definition of disability. The background to our amendment on disability arises from the fact that there were considerable representations made after the Bill was published, in particular by parents' associations and the Irish Council for People with Disabilities, expressing their concern that disability was not properly defined within the Bill and that children with special needs, as understood in the Irish context for the last number of years and as far back as the Special Education Review Committee, were not receiving full expression in the Bill, even though there was a definition of special needs within the Bill. They still felt the Bill did not give an adequate definition. We then came forward with amendment No. 6 in terms of the definition of disability.
The group of children referred to by the Deputy is well covered under the Bill, particularly section 33 which deals with disadvantage and sections dealing with support services, the inspectorate, psychological services, etc. One could never adequately define in legislation the group of children to whom the Deputy referred because the range of children who could present a school with difficulties is varied and one must make sure support services are in place to assist them. A national psychological service is needed as well as career guidance and teaching counsellors, home school liaison and remedial teachers at second level. That is where they come into play and the special committee on disadvantage to be set up under the Bill will be able to focus on those issues. It is my intention to include it under the definition of "disability."
Deputy Bruton has introduced a British approach in his amendment which is excessively broad. It is a fine aspiration but in terms of implementation subsequently I am not sure or convinced. Since the special education review committee was set up and submitted its recommendations we have made considerable strides in providing additional resources for children with special needs. A targeted and more focused approach will yield better results in the long-term and will not exclude children with other difficulties.
The Minister is missing the point. These definitions are not academic but will provide the gateway to special education services. We are defining the height of the bar under which people must crawl to take certain special advantages, such as low pupil-teacher ratios and support services. The Minister has chosen an approach where just two categories of people will be included, exceptionally gifted and disabled. We should go for a broad, flexible definition which allows judgment to be brought to bear by people who know whether a child has special education needs that make it appropriate for them to have access to lower pupil-teacher ratios, special support services, etc. Flexibility and lack of clarity is an advantage rather than the Minister saying what the British did is too broad. We should make definitions sufficiently broad so that in a few years people will not be told that they have a special education need, in 1998 the Minister said if they were not disabled then that was too bad.
That is an overly simplistic interpretation of the Bill. Throughout the Bill we provide for the needs of all children. The Deputy's amendments, for example, refer to students who have a significantly greater difficulty in learning but we already cater for that. When children are in need of remedial education we must provide remedial teachers. We have defined "disability" and to suggest all other children are excluded is ridiculous and unsustainable as is evidenced by section 9 while section 6(a) states "to provide that, as far as is practicable and having regard to resources, there is made available to people resident in the State a level and quality of education appropriate to meeting the needs and ability of those people". The Bill encompasses all children and there will always be a variety of needs.
A focused definition for children with disabilities is very important because it will yield better target results. We must be careful about excessive over characterisation of every child in the system and our approach is more targeted and focused in terms of special needs children and it emerged following considerable representations made by all lobbies and groups concerned with children with disabilities. It was on foot of those representations that we decided to amend the Bill. I do not accept the definition excludes other children who have difficulties. A gifted child is included because that is a phenomenon that also exists. We will not have hundreds of children in this category but they need to be catered for within the system and it needs to be flexible to assist those who are gifted in terms of developing within it. We decided to recognise that arising from representations made by the associations concerned.
The Minister is missing the point and if he took time to read the Bill he would see that on several occasions he includes representation from people particularly versed in children with special education needs. He talks about special education needs as ones that warrant attention. Time and again in the Bill the definition of special education need is seen as one that will give people preferential access and representation and the people involved are defined. He cannot say they are trying to cater for everyone because he says there are some people whose needs warrant extra representation and defines it in a narrow and focused way. However, it will not be flexible in the longer term because definitions used in the English speaking world take another approach which is more consistent with what we should be doing.
The Minister is not in tune with what we are saying. There is a group of children well known to the Garda and the education system. They come from backgrounds where they never learn about the constructive side of society or how it is structured. The body language of those in authority who come near them is wrong as it indicates rejection too often. I refer to a specific group that is relatively easily identifiable. In some cases the children are suspended from schools and may have roll-over suspensions which means they do not attend school; in other instances they may even be expelled.
The basic problem is that where parents fail through incompetence or neglect, no one is responsible for those children. There are many services but they are not co-ordinated and are not brought to bear in the children's interest because there is no desk where the buck stops. For example, 1,000 children do not make the transition from primary to secondary education and they need intensive attention. There is a need for them to develop socially, to learn about their environment and its structure and to meet people who care about them, will take responsibility for them and see everything out.
We can talk about definitions in terms of disability and special education needs but that can be provided in the school with little other support. However, these children need something much bigger. There is a great prize at the end of the day because their problems can be dealt with in many cases and they could have worthwhile lifestyles and aspire to a decent quality of life. This would be in their interests and it would help other children in the education system.
Schools do not talk about this a great deal because if schools make known their problems it can result, for instance, in parents losing confidence in the school. Therefore, the extent of this problem is not sufficiently known. With this Bill we are turning our backs on these children and on including a provision stating that this group requires targeted and focused resources.
I am not satisfied with the Minister's answers. He is missing the point to a large extent against the background of the implementation of the Bill. It is today's problem for this group of children. It is a growing problem. It is allowing children to go through their early years going nowhere and not aspiring to any kind of a worthwhile lifestyle. If the parents are failing, the bottom line is that somebody must be responsible. The existing services are adequate but are not being co-ordinated to back-up services outside the school where many of these children's problems exist.
I am not in disagreement with 99 per cent of what Deputy O'Shea said. We share the desire to help children who come from a disadvantaged background. The basic difference here is whether we include those children under the definition of special needs. To date we have not done that within the system and I do not think it is the correct approach. In a separate section we are setting up a committee on education disadvantage which will focus specifically on the area of education and disadvantage. That is the context in which I think this should be dealt with, but it should also be dealt with across the range of services available to schools.
The problems are different. The issues which present themselves in the context of a special needs child, as we have understood that definition to date within the education world in Ireland, are much different to the type of needs and issues which the Deputy articulated. They require a different approach for the individual children concerned and a broad common strategy. For example, there is already in place the designated disadvantages system where schools are so designated; there is breaking the cycle scheme and there is a variety of inputs from the system to deal with children who present with a range of educational disadvantage. It would be unfair to state that this section, because it defines children with special needs in this way, somehow excludes those children from the ambit of the Bill; it does not. We are arguing about whether they should be included in a particular definition.
At this stage, we must agree to disagree, but I would not want anybody to be of the view that there is a lack of commitment to dealing with those issues. It is the number one priority. The number one social obligation on Government is to make sure that those who have been left behind because of socio-economic disadvantage within the education system are brought up and that sufficient appropriate programmes are made available so that they can participate fully within the education system.
There is a range of provisions for that already and we intend to do more. There is a pilot project on early school leaving for those between the ages of eight to 15 for which submissions are being received, a range of Youthreach programmes for those between the ages of 15 and 18, the designated disadvantaged scheme, the breaking the cycle scheme and the appointment of more home/school liaison teachers. Their approaches are quite different from what is required in the special education area to which we must add and the Bill provides for all of that. It provides the enabling framework to take action in all those areas. I must agree to disagree at this stage with the Deputies.
I do not disagree in some sense with what the Minister said but a later amendment which I tabled on special needs children involves the setting up at an early stage of a plan on the identified needs of the child. That plan would reach beyond the school into other agencies, as I stated already, regarding the necessary parental supports. I put it to the Minister that such a provision will not be made for these children under the Bill.
We will talk about it when we come to that section.
The bottom line is that there is no obligation on boards of management to do it.
I move amendment No. 8:
In page 6, subsection (1), line 24, to delete "on a national basis" and substitute "throughout the State".
This relates to the part of the interpretation section which deals with "national associations of parents". The Bill makes reference to an association which is established and organised "on a national basis". I contend that that wording is not appropriate and that "throughout the State" would be a more appropriate wording here.
Could the Deputy elaborate further? The Deputy wants to replace the wording "on a national basis" with "throughout the State" in the definition of "national association of parents". Our aim in this definition is to recognise as national associations of parents only those associations which are organised on a national basis and representative of parents nationally. These national associations would be consulted by the Minister in regard to the development of education policy on an ongoing basis.
The intention is not to include in the definition parents associations in individual schools. Such associations, which have an equally important function at individual school level and which are likely to be affiliated to a national association, are also defined in section 2 under the heading "parents' association" and are later the subject of an entire section, section 26.
There is general agreement on this. Basically, there are the national partners, the National Parents Council — Primary and the National Parents Council (Post Primary) Limited, with which we deal on an ongoing basis.
My basic aim is to avoid having national associations which are primarily based in Dublin or some of the larger centres. I seek to insert this terminology so that there is a comprehensive geographic spread of representation on national associations. On a national basis, one could end up with an organisation which essentially would represent Dublin.
The Deputy is appealing to my Cork loyalties. The term "national" is meant to encompass "throughout the country". To be truly national means one must have bodies throughout the country affiliated to a national body.
I think "on a national basis" is more nebulous than "throughout the State".
Can we leave that until Report Stage? If one accepted Deputy O'Shea's wording, I would be slightly worried that one could end up with a plethora if organisations and that we might be going down Brendan Behan scenario, that is the split. There could be many groups and all they would have to say is that they had bodies throughout the country. Hence, there would be a number of national associations presenting themselves.
This is a definition which satisfies the National Parents Council — Primary and the National Parents Council (Post Primary) Limited. I accept the Deputy's bona fides in terms of his anxiety to make sure Dublin does not rule over everybody else. Having said that, I would be slow to change the definition. We need to be careful about definitions and that there is not a plethora of associations emerging and calling themselves national associations. There is merit in the national association. The Bill then defines and gives recognition to parents' associations attached to schools. There is a section dealing with their rights within the school community, etc. It is a good model and I would prefer to stick with it. If we insert "throughout the State", it could dilute what is a good model.
It is bad enough having all the counties in the GAA ganging up on Dublin but they should not gang up on us in Education too.
In the nature of things, these organisations tend to meet in the capital. Participation for people outside the capital is more difficult because they must travel to Dublin. There should be a model which will encourage people from all over the country to participate.
The Bill defines what the national association of parents means and goes on to say:
(a) established and organised on a national basis and has a membership distributed over a substantial part of the State, and
(b) for the time being recognised by the Minister for the purposes of this Act, including the National Parents Council -Primary and the National Parents Council (Post Primary) Limited, being bodies for the time being so recognised;
This year the post-primary parents council had their convention in Tralee while the primary parents council had its convention in Portlaoise. My experience of the conference trail is that they are held all over the country. It means a great deal of travel for the Minister.
I am not referring to national conferences but to the ordinary meetings held throughout the year.
The primary parents' council has strong county executives. I attended one recently and over 100 parents turned up. There is a system in place but perhaps it needs to be strengthened.
I sympathise with the Deputy's concern that these groups can become elites if they are not truly nationally representative. The Bill endeavours to ensure, particularly within the school community, that a parents' association is established and the boards are expected to ensure that they are established. The association will then be in a position to advise the board of management and to be involved in all aspects of the school's environment and activities.
The Bill creates a framework on which we can build. I accept the Deputy's point that we must be careful not to end up with a coterie of people under the umbrella of the national association who have not been at the general meetings of the parents involved. That is not the case at present. The councils are quite representative but they need help. However, it must be remembered that parents are involved in these associations in a voluntary capacity. Many are involved in a range of subcommittees and although they find it difficult to participate to that degree they continue to do it.
I sympathise with my colleague's anxiety to avoid centralisation. Equally, the Minister has a point about the word "national". It does appear to designate a body as legitimate on a national basis.
The increasing use of tele-conferencing facilities has facilitated people throughout the country participating in regular meetings without having to travel. Perhaps this could be taken on board by groups to ensure they are more truly national in terms of their regional representation. It is important to bear in mind that the technology exists to allow organisations to be more decentralised in their membership.
Inclusiveness is essential for parents' organisations and it is vital that parents, particularly parents from disadvantaged backgrounds, feel a sense of ownership of these organisations. That is the reason for the amendment.
Something can be deemed to be established on a national basis but it might only represent a few places in practice. The words "throughout the State" strengthen the provision in terms of the obligation to have parents' representation throughout the country feeding into national associations. Ultimately, education will benefit from the involvement of all parents, particularly if the structure entices parents from disadvantaged areas to take part in the education system in a meaningful way. That is probably the best result we can achieve in this area.
Does the Deputy not accept that the wording in the Bill achieves that? Does not the phrase "membership distributed over a substantial part of the State" cover what is meant by "throughout the State"?
Substantial parts of the State is not throughout the State.
That could mean one in every county. It could also mean ten counties have so many associations and other counties have none. It might not achieve what the Deputy seeks. I accept the Deputy's comments and we will examine ways of helping the national association of parents to be truly national. The Bill will give great impetus to this because even the establishment of the boards of management following the conclusion of the agreement before Christmas is helping in that regard. That has even shown up some areas where parents are not as well organised as they should be.
I wish to clarify one point. The Minister said a plethora of organisations could be established if my amendment were accepted. The phrase "established and organised throughout the State" is the phrase I am seeking.
I accept that. However, I cannot accept the amendment.
The wording in the Bill is facilitative rather than restrictive and there is a likelihood that organisations might be given the opportunity to grow outwards. If the amendment were to be adopted, the reverse might occur.
I withdraw the amendment and keep open the option to submit it on Report Stage. I accept the Minister's bona fides with regard to examining it before Report Stage.
Amendment Nos. 12 and 13 are related to amendment No. 9. Amendments Nos. 9, 12 and 13 will be discussed together. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 9:
In page 6, subsection (1), line 34, after "includes" to insert "a foster parent,".
The amendment provides for a revised definition of parent to include a foster parent where appropriate. In a number of cases responsibility for a student might rest with a foster parent. Amendments Nos. 12 and 13 have the same effect.
The definitions in the amendments have different terms. "Foster parent" is a specific term. Amendments Nos. 12 and 13 seek to insert definitions which do not solely require a fostering relationship. In many cases grandparents act in loco parentis and they should have the same rights of consultation, even if they are not technically foster parents. Perhaps there are legal difficulties in so far as one must pin a title on the definition. However, even the inclusion of foster parent might not be sufficiently comprehensive.
I will examine it further in the context of Report Stage. We must be careful that the definitions are based on legal definitions and are not too general. In certain cases they can be dangerous if they are too general. I accept the Deputy's objective in using the term "temporary responsibility" but we must be careful that we do not facilitate difficulties arising in the future in terms of custody of children, who is the correct guardian of a child and so forth.
We are trying to be helpful rather than dangerous. We should tease out how expansive the Minister's amendment is and how unnecessary the other two amendments are. How does the phrase "foster parent" cover my and Deputy Bruton's concerns? A grandparent might be involved but would not be seen in the conventional sense as a foster parent. Likewise, a child who is taken into care on a temporary basis would not be said to be in the care of a foster parent. I wish to ensure that the words "foster parent" do not leave loopholes which might also be dangerous and that we are neither too restrictive nor too expansive.
How far does the definition of "foster parent" extend to cover the concerns expressed in our amendments?
The Deputy is correct that it is not a broad definition. We received representations that foster parent should be included and we agreed with that on reflection. A foster parent is a parent who has a specific legal relationship with the child. In loco parentis is a broad definition. Teachers have traditionally been regarded as being in loco parentis. I will look at the custody element in the context of the Child Care Act, 1991. Health boards sometimes take children into custody. Perhaps we could include a slightly broader definition which is still ringfenced within legal definitions and has a legal base and status. The parent includes a guardian appointed under the Guardianship of Infants Act, 1964, and, in the case of a child who has been adopted, under the Adoption Acts, 1952 to 1991. If the child has been adopted outside the State, that means the adopter or surviving adopter and is already within the definition in the Bill. I will look at this to see if we can broaden it a little more in the context of the Child Care Act, 1991.
Amendments Nos. 10, 11, 16 and 182 form a composite proposal and may be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 10:
In page 6, subsection (1), lines 34 and 35, to delete "Guardianship of Infants Act, 1964" and substitute "Guardianship of Children Acts, 1964 to 1997".
Amendments Nos. 10 and 11 are technical amendments which seek to correct an error in the Bill and to update it. The Minister only saw them this morning so I will be happy if he responds on Report Stage.
We will clear them with the draftsman's office and table appropriate amendments on Report Stage.
I move amendment No. 14:
In page 6, subsection (1), line 42, to delete "prescribe" and substitute "prescribed".
This is another drafting amendment. I suggest the word to be defined is "prescribed" not "prescribe".
We will accept the amendment. I appreciate the Deputy's minute attention to the detail of the Bill.
I move amendment No. 15:
In page 7, subsection (1), line 17, to delete "but does not include".
This deals with the definition of a school and what a school means. What is excluded from the definition is a school or institution established in accordance with the Children Acts, 1908 to 1957, or a school or institution established and maintained by a health board in accordance with the Health Acts, 1947 to 1996, or the Child Care Act, 1991. I tabled this amendment to clarify why the Minister regards it as being in the educational interests of children to exclude these particular schools or institutions from the provisions of the Bill.
I do not propose to accept Deputy O'Shea's amendment to include schools or institutions established in accordance with the Children Acts, 1908 to 1957, the Health Acts, 1947 to 1996, or the Child Care Act, 1991, in the remit of this Bill. The schools concerned are covered by separate legislation. While the Department currently provides a service to the schools and will continue to do so following the enactment of this legislation, it would not be appropriate for the schools to come within the remit of two separate pieces of legislation. This Bill imposes a comprehensive range of obligations on school boards of management and it would be inappropriate to impose those on schools governed under separate Acts and in separate areas of jurisdiction.
The Minister's reply is not convincing. He dictates educational policy. If we are making provision to establish good practice in education I cannot understand why we would decide that certain schools should not have the advantages associated with this. Perhaps the Minister would list the schools he has in mind and outline why he thinks the Minister for Health and Children or the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform would be better placed to determine educational policy in relation to these schools.
We are talking about industrial schools and special centres established by health boards for children who are particularly disruptive where the health boards are defined operators, managers and controllers of those particular schools. We provide an educational service to those centres but they are not in the ownership of the Department. One could argue that this is an age old division in terms of responsibilities and management under the Children Acts, 1908 to 1957, the Health Acts, 1947 to 1996, and the Child Care Act, 1991. It would be wrong to impose on the health boards' competency in terms of the division of responsibility. The Acts we mentioned were passed by the Oireachtas after much discussion. It would be a fundamental reorganisation of how things are done if we uprooted all that and brought those particular centres within the remit of this Bill. This Bill sets out its own obligations on boards of management. We are anxious to cover the areas under the remit of the Department of Education and Science. That is not the case with these particular centres as we only provide a service.
I accept the Minister's comments about legislation from other Departments. However, I am concerned that pre-schools for pupils with disabilities are set up with health board funding. I have seen excellent work done on a shoestring because funding was not forthcoming. Other issues include the dovetailing of pre-school provisions with the formal school system at a later date. We are creating an artificial barrier in this regard. The Minister mentioned pre-schools in disadvantaged areas. This provision is welcome but it would be in the best interests of the children if such schools were brought into the mainstream education system. They would be better resourced and co-ordinated in the long-term. Pre-schools for disadvantaged people or those with disabilities are set up outside the education system which is too haphazard and random. There are provisions in one area but none in another.
We should show we are serious about the needs of pre-school children — for example, those with autism; I know the Minister has a particular commitment to them and I welcome that. The sooner children with autism are brought into the formal school system the better. I have seen this done in the US, for example, as part of the pre-school education system. Distinctions are not in the interests of children, but that is not to minimise the excellent work being done in existing pre-schools.
I accept what Deputy O'Shea has said but I would go further. The Minister is providing for the development of psychological services and curricula and the specification of syllabi along with other services. These should be available to all schools, regardless of whether they cater for ordinary or disruptive children. Expertise accumulated in psychological assessments or in developing syllabi in the education system should be available. Rather than give the Minister an impossible task on Report Stage of assuming responsibility for all such schools, perhaps he could obtain agreement from the Ministers for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Health and Children that certain provisions in the Bill for the development of support or curriculum services would apply to industrial schools.
The Deputy is looking at the resource element of the Bill but there is also an element of obligation. How would the grievance procedure in the Bill be facilitated in the case of Trinity House or Oberstown? How would the appeals procedure be facilitated in the case of Trinity House? It would not be practical.
They are specialised institutions. They are not schools in the ordinary sense of the word. We must be realistic about the process involved. The set-up is much different and they are better resourced in terms of one to one attention, psychological and other services. A range of resources are available on a smaller scale than in the normal school system.
Regarding the autism issue raised by Deputy O'Shea, we are not precluded from providing for autism or schools for autistic children. I agree with him that providing adequately for autism will require a holistic approach which should begin at an early age. All evidence suggests that the earlier autism is identified in a child, the more positive intervention can be. Some health boards take into care young children who are either out of control or whose parents have great difficulty controlling them. They are in health board centres which are not defined as schools but my Department provides teachers to these centres when required to do so. The health boards have an array of services available to those children in the form of clinical psychologists, language therapists and a range of other services. It would be wrong to place on such centres the obligations contained in the Bill for national and second level schools.
I accept Deputy O'Shea's point about the need for more active co-ordination and links between these services. We are working on that in terms of special education, for example. Not only are the health boards and the Department of Education and Science involved, but service providers are also involved who draw on different State agencies. Some special schools were set up by an order or a group of parents and they, over time, drew on the services of the health boards and the Department. Hence there is often a tug of war between the Departments of Health and Children, Education and Science and Justice, Equality and Law Reform as regards some of these schools.
As regards the pre-school issue in general, there was the early education forum and Professor Coolahan is reporting on the issue the Deputy raised. By and large health boards do not have pre-schools, they fund or give a grant to community playgroups established by communities or by a group of parents in a given location. In the case of the majority of IPPA pre-schools, for example, health boards give a grant. They are not recognised by either the Department of Health and Children or Education and Science. That matter will be examined in the context of the report and White Paper on early education.
I accept the Minister's point about how these pre-schools are established in the first place and how they are run. In certain cases, basic funding will come from section 65 grants. That places a huge onus on parents and management to raise funds. I know of a pre-school operated by the same religious order which operates special schools and it is very much the poor relation in terms of funding. This is an artificial division which is not in the interests of the children. Some excellent innovative work has been done but funds must be raised for any innovation.
While I accept that the forum has taken place and that the Minister is examining the area, I am concerned that this group of children, who have either a disability or are prone to some form of emotionally disturbed behaviour, will end up not being cared for. I take it that, if the recommendations of the forum include the establishment of interdepartmental committees or ministerial groups to formulate the relevant legislation to streamline the area to provide the required services, the Minister would have no problem with them and would enthusiastically pursue that course.
That is so. However, we must make absolutely certain that resources are not lost when everything is harmonised. Different Departments have expertise in specialised areas which they can offer, so I have no difficulty with the concept.
I am not happy with the Minister's explanation for what this amendment is seeking to remove. Between now and Report Stage could we have a statement in writing from the Minister indicating the schools being excluded and the justification for that? I am not in a position to argue at length now but it does not seem right that certain schools should be excluded from the benefits available. Rather than discuss it at length, will the Minister give a letter of explanation instead?
I will do that. The Oireachtas will also deal with the Children Bill which will involve issues relating to industrial schools, reformatory schools and health board institutions. It is a complex area and I do not believe it would be practicable to apply the obligations in the Bill to industrial schools.
Amendments Nos. 129 and 241 are cognate on amendment No. 17 and amendment No. 242 is an alternative to amendment No. 241. Amendments Nos. 17, 129, 241 and 242 may be discussed together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 17:
In page 7, subsection (1), lines 18 and 19, to delete "established and maintained" and substitute "established or maintained".
Amendments Nos. 17, 129 and 241 correct errors in the text. In light of these, amendment No. 242 is unnecessary. We have all come across textual errors in the Bill and these amendments correct them.
Amendment No. 242 is in my name. The word "established" in that context is an issue that has been raised by the TUI. It seems to be an anomaly that a school could be administered by the VEC but not actually be established by it. Is that something that arises or is it being looked at? Is it an unfounded fear? This issue has been raised with me. Amendment No. 242 seeks to delete the words "established and" to try to get over the possible anomaly that a school that is being maintained by the VEC was not established by it.
That can happen, yes. I covered that in amendment No. 241. It covers the same point as the Deputy's amendment.
The Minister has the same wording, yes. I just wanted to clear up that point.
I move amendment No. 18:
In page 7, subsection (1), line 27, after "Minister" to insert "following agreement with recognised trade unions".
This amendment relates to the definition in the interpretation section of a school year. The definition as it stands states: "School year means such 12 month period commencing on a day that falls between the first day of July and the first day of October in any year as may be prescribed from time to time by the Minister, either generally or in respect of any school or class of school". I am seeking after the word "Minister" to insert "following agreement with recognised trade unions". In other words, I am seeking to avoid a situation where arbitrary decisions are reached without consultation with the legitimate representatives of the staff involved in a school or schools.
The Deputy's amendment is that the definition of the school year should be amended to include provision for agreement with the trade unions. In line with the principle of partnership, which has underpinned everything I have done so far, section 25 provides for consultation with all the partners in education, including teachers. I think that is sufficient in this regard.
In essence, agreement — in the week that is in it, I do not want to use this language — could entail veto by one group. In terms of the school year, one basically has to consult with all the partners in education. That is satisfactory in section 25. I am not predisposed to accept the amendment.
The Minister is saying there is provision to consult but there is no actual provision to consult in this particular definition. He is saying there is a generalised obligation to consult but can he state categorically that that applies in the context of this particular definition?
Consultation will and would take place?
Absolutely, but I have seen previous experiences attempted and they failed disastrously. One would have to consult with all the partners in education on this matter. Section 25 states that:
The Minister may, from time to time, following consultation with patrons, national associations of parents, recognised school management organisations and recognised trade unions and staff associations representing teachers, prescribe—
(a) the minimum number of days in a school year during which a school shall be open to receive students and provide them with instruction,
(b) the minimum number of hours of instruction in a school day or in a school week, and
(c) any matters related to the length of the school year, the school week or the school day and the organisation and structure of such year, week or day.
The section clearly and categorically provides for consultation.
It does in terms of the minimum number of days, but this amendment relates to the commencement of the school year.
But paragraph (c) refers to "any matters related to the length of the school year" which would deal with commencement.
I beg to suggest that length is not commencement. While one may start on a specific day, the length is a different matter.
We will insert the word "commencement" somewhere along the line?
Is the Deputy happy with that?
We will put that in as an amendment.
I move amendment No. 21:
In page 7, line 29, after "students" to insert "who have a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of children of the same age,".
Is the Deputy pressing the amendment?
I move amendment No. 22:
In page 7, subsection (1), line 30, to delete "mental or physical".
I move amendment no. 23:
In page 7, subsection (1), line 37, to delete "any or all of".
This amendment relates to the interpretation section and the definition of support services. There are other amendments following on which I will have a chance to speak later. Support services, as per this definition, mean services "which the Minister provides to students or their parents, schools or centres of education in accordance with section 7 and shall include any or all of the following. . . ".
The inclusion of the words "any or all of" is superfluous. In fact, they could be interpreted as being restrictive because they put an onus on the Minister to provide any of the services if he so desires. I would have thought that all the services included there are ones the Minister can provide. Those words do not add to the section in any way. In fact, the word "any" makes it restrictive.
I do not agree. In this section it is not my intention to be overly prescriptive in the services which the Minister may provide to schools. It is entirely possible that some schools may wish to provide some services or additional services themselves.
The list of services set out, even including those which I am proposing to add through amendments, is not intended to be exhaustive. Further services may and will be provided as the Minister deems appropriate. Moreover, in the light of my decision not to proceed with the regional education boards, the Bill now focuses on those services which can be provided more effectively at a central rather than at a local level. For those reasons I do not propose to accept the amendment.
This section is meant to be illustrative of the type of services that are being, will and may be provided. They can, of course, be added to. I have a series of amendments adding to those services arising from the debate on Second Stage in the House when a number of Deputies focused on this particular section.
I am still not clear if the section deals with the support services which the Minister provides. If the section read "and shall include the following", what makes the wording "and shall include any or all of the following" superior?
In certain circumstances some may be provided and some may not. One cannot be overly uniformly prescriptive throughout the system.
But if the Minister was to delete those four words, all the section would state is "shall include".
That is right. That is why we are not doing it.
I got the answer the second time.
Deputy O'Shea is a good teacher.
The Deputy and I must agree to disagree. The section is not prescriptive. The full range of services which are listed in the Bill and which are being added to in the light of the Second Stage debate are being provided at the moment. The argument about the extent, scale and efficiency of the provision of these services is ongoing.
It strikes me that Deputy O'Shea's amendment would mean there would be a legal obligation on the Minister to provide all those services in any school which requested them. My sympathies lie with the Minister who cannot realistically be held under such an obligation.
I take the view that the range of services is one that any school would require. I do not understand why a mechanism for exclusion must be included in the Bill. If a service is legitimately required the Minister can, if this wording stands, refuse that service.
Every Minister is governed by resources. That has always been the case and will continue to be so. The services outlined in the Bill are provided to the education system; more services are provided to some schools than to others. We have a State aided system of education. Some schools provide some of these services out of their own resources. We are not in a position to agree to Deputy O'Shea's amendment. I understand his motivation in proposing it but we are not in a position to accept it.
Am I correct in saying that a psychological service could be refused to a school where it is badly needed if the Minister does not have adequate resources?
At present we do not have a comprehensive national psychological service. We are trying, through initiatives I have taken, to establish one but that requires resources. At the moment children are waiting too long for psychological services. That is a reality which any Minister for Education and Science must encounter. There is no legislative panacea for that. It would be wrong to pretend that by putting certain words in a Bill we can achieve objectives overnight. It is not our intention to refuse services to children. We are anxious to provide these services and we are doing so. In some areas we need to do more.
Amendments Nos. 24 to 27, inclusive, are out of order because they would involve a potential charge on the Revenue.
I move amendment No. 28:
In page 7, subsection (1), line 41, after "equipment" to insert ",including means of access to schools and transport,".
This is an addition to the sports services provided focusing particularly on the needs of students with special needs.
For the life of me I cannot see why amendment No. 26 is out of order and this amendment is in order. They both involve a potential charge on the Exchequer. Has the Minister some certificate which accompanies his amendments.
The Minister may table amendments. He may tell us more about that when he replies.
The Chairman decides which amendments are in order. I do not decide that. My understanding is that the Minister is entitled to table amendments if he has clearance from Government to do so. I have that clearance.
I presume there is some system of certification of amendments. I understand that an amendment cannot be tabled which imposes a charge on the Exchequer unless it is done with certification from the Minister for Finance.
That has been done in this case.
I certainly do not want to take the part of the Minster for Finance.
Amendments Nos. 29 and 30 are out of order because they involve a potential charge on the Revenue.
Before we move to amendment No. 31 may I refer to your interpretation of amendment No. 29? Could adaptations to facilitate access to the school be interpreted as a definition of technical aid and equipment — an explanation of what is meant in the Bill by the words technical aid and equipment? It would not therefore involve a particular charge but is merely an interpretation. This comes under paragraph (c) in the list of support services. Would the Minister not see that adaptations to facilitate access to the school are in fact technical aid for students with special needs and thereby include them?
I have no difficulty with what Deputy Bruton is proposing. He is speaking of the adaptation of facilities to provide access to schools. If Deputy Bruton is agreeable I will table an amendment to that effect on Report Stage.
Amendments Nos. 31, 57, 67, 71, 144, 161,177 and 178 are related. Amendments Nos. 71 and 72 are cognate. These amendments may be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 31:
In page 7, subsection (1), between lines 42 and 43, to insert the following:
"(d) provision for students learning through Irish sign language or other sign language;".
Amendment No. 31 makes provision for students learning through Irish sign language or other sign language. Amendment No. 57, proposed by Deputy Sargent, makes provision for additional objectives to be added to section 6. The purpose of section 6 is to set out some over-arching objectives or principles to provide the basis for the more detailed provisions in the Bill. Section 6 does not aim to provide detail of particular aspects of the education system. It is my view that the level of detail proposed in amendment No. 57 is not appropriate to this section's objective. The matters set out in this amendment find expression in other parts of the Bill. It is for these reasons I do not propose to accept amendment No. 57. Amendments Nos. 67, 71 and 72 also concern Irish sign language. Given my proposed amendment No. 31, I do not consider these amendments are necessary.
Amendment No. 144 would provide as a function of schools that they promote the development of Irish sign language and Irish deaf culture. I do not consider it would be appropriate to impose this as a function on all schools. There is nothing in section 9 which would prevent schools carrying out this function but making this an obligation on all schools would run counter to the principles of consultation and choice which underpin all aspects of this Bill.
Amendment No. 161 provides for the Minister to appoint to the inspectorate persons who have expertise, including expertise in relation to the education of children with special educational needs. This will ensure that the Minister is in a position to appoint to the inspectorate such individuals as he deems are appropriate for advising on the entire range of educational needs throughout the education system.
Amendment No. 177 which covers the matters set out in amendment No. 178 proposed by Deputy Sargent follows on from this and provides for inspectors to advise the Minister on any matter relating to the linguistic needs of deaf children.
Finally, amendment No. 282 would have the effect of including linguistic disadvantage in the remit of the committee. Given the need to concentrate our efforts specifically on disadvantage rather than to dilute the functions of the committee, and given that the needs of children with linguistic or other special needs are given specific expression throughout the Bill, I am not convinced it is appropriate to accept Deputy Sargent's amendment.
I do not pretend to have any particular expertise in sign language but it is important to take on board the views of those who do. I understand the Irish Deaf Society met with the Department and spoke to the Minister and other officials. The society still appears to have reservations about the lack of legal recognition for Irish sign language and wonders whether this Bill is going far enough or satisfying the need for legal recognition. I take the word of the society when it points out that there are ten sign languages and that the effect of so general a reference will be to encourage such diversity of sign languages that the community of deaf people will have more difficulties communicating. Is it possible to take a hands on approach to ensure a standardised sign language, which Irish sign language seems to be from the society's point of view? I am not sure whether the Minister is doing them a service or disservice by having such a breadth of possibilities with other sign languages.
I like to think I am doing a significant service. This was raised with the Irish Deaf Society. The issue of recognising Irish sign language seemed to be a central concern of the society and we are doing that in the Bill. We have included the additional words, "and other sign language" because we must realise there is diversity and that we could not impose one sign language on the entire community. We must be mindful that there may be other parents and deaf children who have alternative approaches and may not be using Irish sign language. This is why the language in the Bill fully reflects what is happening. It is a major step forward to have Irish sign language recognised in the Bill in this manner. We are trying to meet the concerns of all those involved; this is the motivation behind the wording.
I welcome the Minister's amendment. I had the opportunity of addressing the Irish Deaf Society during a very impressive conference. The society quoted extensively from Swedish experience where the approach to this matter has been extremely successful. Now that the Minister is recognising it as a support service, will he consider sending a representative group to examine what is being done in Sweden so that we can bring to bear on the Irish system the best experience? Perhaps he will give some practical expression to the amendment to show he is going to develop this area.
Amendment No. 67 which I tabled was far more explicit than that which the Minister is now making which — and this is relevant to the point made by Deputy O'Shea — is effectively just defining a set of support services that could be provided. However, if the Minister wants to give serious recognition to Irish sign language I contend my amendment, which says the Minister shall have as one of his functions the promotion of Irish sign language, is much more explicit as it outlines what the Minister will do rather than defining possible support services. From the point of view of the Irish Deaf Society, it would be much more explicit if such provision was inserted in section 7, as the Minister is planning to do, than inserting it in the section 2 which deals with definitions and where there is much less clarity regarding the commitment being made. If we want to give serious recognition, it is better to do so by way of an amendment to section 7 along the lines of my amendment. I would like to hear the practical measures the Minister hopes to take to give expression to this new recognition.
Section 7 states:
Each of the following shall be a function of the Minister under this Act:
(a) to determine national education policy, and
(b) to plan and co-ordinate—
(i) the provision of education in recognised schools and centres for education, and
(ii) support services.
If my amendment is inserted, opportunities for children to learn through Irish and other sign languages are included. All support services provided for in this section are covered under section 7. I accept the point made by the Deputy and will arrange for a delegation of officials to travel to Sweden to examine experiences there. I met with the Irish Deaf Society and we have already undertaken a number of commitments in relation to advancing certain proposals the society made to us in terms of a centre for deaf studies, etc., which we are keen to promote. We will be proactive in this area. I was very impressed by the meeting and think we can make progress. The Deputy's amendment is covered in the sense that all support services are covered under section 7.
I recognise that the Minister has sought to meet this agenda. I too met with the Irish Deaf Society and like Deputy Sargent confess that I have no particular expertise in this area. Certainly the people I met indicated that the teaching vehicle of Irish sign language brings about considerable gains as against the more conventional methods. My colleague, Deputy Shortall, has much more expertise and I have discussed this matter with her at some length.
Amendments Nos. 70, 71 and 72 which I have tabled are to the section which deals with the functions of the Minister, in particular section 7(2)(d) which reads: "to provide support services through Irish to recognised schools which provide teaching through Irish and to any other recognised school which requests such provision". I very strongly argue that the Irish language is part of our collective heritage, but Irish sign language is equally an important part of the heritage of deaf people. It is a fundamental vehicle of communication and, in many case, a basic medium of education. It is the means by which deaf people absorb knowledge and become aware of the literary sphere of culture. Irish deaf people have just as much right to have the same provision for their language as have the rest of us in terms of our native language.
I do not wish to be pedantic about the section dealing with definitions. However, my interpretation is that the Minister may provide any or all of these support services. He is under no obligation to provide them all. I understand there cannot be an obligation on the Minister to provide every school or student with Irish sign language because many schools would not be interested in it. The Minister is leaving himself the option of not developing anything in this area. Support services are defined in a "may" category. The Minister is not obliged to develop psychological services, although I understand he will do so. It would be more appropriate if recognition was dealt with in section 7, where the Minister effectively states his duties and intentions rather than under a definition of support services which includes an opt-out clause.
I welcome the idea of sending people to Sweden to see what is happening there; I understand there have been exciting developments there. The Minister should not just send officials but people who work in this sphere and who would be able to avail of this opportunity.
Section 7 is included to promote support services. If we choose one particular area, questions will be asked why we did not choose other areas, particularly those related to special needs. One could start picking and choosing areas across the board in terms of what should be included under section 7. The provision to promote and advance support services, which is a predominant function of the Minister as defined in the Bill, is not included for decoration but is something we can actively follow.
Perhaps we need to look again at the definition. I see a distinction between what the Minister should provide in terms of psychological services and what he might not make available to every school. However, there is no such distinction in the definition. He either provides or denies it to everyone. The Minister should state that he will develop such services because they are important, but that does not necessarily mean he will provide them for every school.
I will look at the issue of sign language again on Report Stage to see if we can make further provisions. We went through this in great detail when drafting these amendments. There are different schools of thought in this area. I am broadly sympathetic to the presentation made to me on Irish sign language and its impact but I am mindful that others have different views and approaches and use different programmes. I take the Deputy's point and we will look at it to see if we can meet his concerns.
Perhaps the Minister could respond to amendments Nos. 71 and 72.
The Deputy suggests that a school should provide all its services through Irish sign language.
This deals with the provision of support services.
Section 9(2)(d) states: "to provide support services through Irish to recognised schools which provide teaching through Irish and to any other recognised school which requests such provision". The Deputy is saying that support services should be provided through Irish and Irish sign language to recognised schools which provide teaching through Irish sign language.
We must take on board the fact the Deputy is talking about the full range of services. It is clear that, as things stand, competency does not exist in terms of providing the full range of support services in Irish sign language. I have tabled an amendment in the context of the inspectorate to ensure that cognisance is taken of the need for linguistic speciality in the appointment of a specialist so that inspectorates are qualified and competent to provide a psychological service and a full range of duties to children learning through Irish sign language. Competency does not yet exist in the system in terms of providing the full range of services. Perhaps I am being honest and acknowledging the deficit in the system.
This is an issue of principle. We are talking about recognised schools which provide teaching through Irish sign language and those which request such provision. We are not talking about an enormous number of people. As a matter of principle and as an issue of rights, if the Irish language is given special provision under this Bill, surely the same provision should be made for Irish sign language.
Deputy O'Shea is right. The Minister must deal with recognition in section 7, which is where he is setting out his stall, otherwise it is too vague. Deputy O'Shea's amendment suggests one way to do it. Perhaps the Minister could suggest another way of doing it on Report Stage. It has taken too long to address this issue. We need a meaningful commitment to address it rather than a statement that the resources are not available, which we recognise. Perhaps the Minister could look at it between now and Report Stage.
I will look at it again on Report Stage.
The Minister would need to do so. I am happy with Deputy O'Shea's proposal.
I am conscious of the genuine linguistic issue which was brought to my attention in the representations made to me. This is a language of people just as Irish and English are languages of people. I will look at this again on Report Stage to see if we can accommodate the Deputies' concerns.
I agree with the Minister that it is a question of language. It is also a question of equal treatment in the education system. The Irish Deaf Society points out that its experience has not been good in that inspectors have not been able to deal with it through sign language and that it has difficulty getting interpretative services. It approaches this issue in the same way that gaelscoileanna look for texts and resources. Its view is informed by its experience of inadequate services. I appreciate the Minister's efforts in including this issue in the Bill. I hope we fully accept what the Irish Deaf Society wants. Irish sign language and support services need to be recognised and Deputy O'Shea's amendments go a long way in that regard. If we have one without the other, we will be back to where we started.
We are not saying we will not provide support services. The inspectorate issue is dealt with later in the Bill. Deputy O'Shea's amendments have farreaching implications across the board if we include support services. Such services are not in place to date and they are urgently required. We are anxious to move on that. Following our meeting with the Irish Deaf Society, we gave commitments on certain areas, particularly in relation to the Centre for Deaf Studies, and we are awaiting further proposals from it. I hope to be in a position to deal not only with the inspectorate but the psychological services as well. It is important to make provisions quickly notwithstanding the provisions in the Bill. However, I will look at it in more detail on Report Stage, if the Deputy is agreeable to that.
Are we dealing with interpreters at some stage on this issue, Minister, or is it a different issue altogether? Deputy Sargent mentioned interpreters. Is that to be dealt with at some stage?
In the support services, yes.
I move amendment No. 32:
In page 7, subsection (1), line 43, to delete "primary or post-primary education" and substitute "primary, post-primary, adult or continuing education".
The aim of amendment No. 32 is to include adult and continuing education outside schools or centres for education among the support services which the Minister may provide. That is something which would have the agreement of all concerned. It is just to make sure that those two areas are covered in the support services also.
The obvious exclusion there is pre-school. The Minister is rightly mending the position in relation to adult and continuing education, but pre-school education is the one which ought to be included here. Through Early Start, there is some pre-school provision. The Minister's definitions should be wide enough to accommodate pre-school support services. Maybe he would include pre-school. I know he will not be providing comprehensive services immediately but his definition should at least accommodate it.
I am anxious not to pre-empt the deliberations of the forum on early education.
Will the Minister be in a position to accommodate it?
I will still be in a position to accommodate pre-school education. At this time I would not like to pre-empt what may emerge because there were a range of people and groups involved in that early education forum. There were other Departments involved also.
But this is not specifying any particular support services. It is just allowing the Minister the capacity to do it when the forum comes up with suggestions.
I have that capacity as it stands.
Then why are we doing this at all?
I would be conscious of the deliberations which took place.
So would I.
We are developing a comprehensive White Paper on early education. Perhaps I am being cautious or overly cautious——
——but the deliberations of the forum, other Departments, voluntary groups, private sector groups, etc., are important.
They will not thank the Minister if, after they produce the report, he states that there must be a new Education Bill to accommodate this.
There are already certain references to early education in the Bill.
Amendment No. 33, which was ruled out of order, is identical to the Minister's amendment except it includes the words "including vocational education or training". Can I take it that the Minister would see his definition as including that?
My definition embraces that.
Is the amendment No. 32 agreed?
To revisit the issue, it is silly not to recognise that pre-school will be developed as part of the Government's programme and not to have the legal vehicle to do it seems silly.
I have no difficulty including it other than I gave commitments that I would not, but I do not think anybody will object too much.
Amendments Nos. 33 to 39, inclusive, are out of order.
I move amendment No. 40:
In page 8, subsection (1), between lines 1 and 2, to insert the following:
"(f) transport services;
(g) library and media services;
(h) school maintenance services;
(i) examinations provided for in Part VIII;".
The aim of amendment No. 40 is to add a number of additional support services to those set out in the Bill as drafted. The support services being added are transport services; library and media services; school maintenance services; and examinations provided for in Part VIII of the Bill.
These areas have been identified as being of particular importance. There was some indication on Second Stage that somehow, because we had not included these services in the Bill, we were reneging on obligations or commitments in respect of these services. That of course was not the case. In any event, to allay any concern we are including them in the Bill.
Amendments Nos. 41 to 47, inclusive, are out of order.
On the section I wanted an opportunity to raise some of the disallowed amendments. Essentially these were attempts to pin down some of the support services which one would expect to see provided. Some of the amendments in my name covered things like specialist teaching resource for students with special needs, care assistance from authorities other than necessarily the Department of Education and Science to support the attendance of a student with special needs, etc. I do not necessarily need to go through them all. However, it seems to me and to many who represent children with special educational needs that to participate successfully in a school, gaining access to the school is one thing but one needs supports, which have not been included in the Minister's definitions and which are available occasionally. These people would believe that the Minister ought to state that somewhere in this Bill he will make provision, for instance, for care assistance necessary to attend with the child with a special need who is to attend the school. I would be interested to hear the Minister's response to the complaint that they have not been listed as support services. Where are the guarantees that the Minister will get the local authority, health board, etc., to provide the back-up? Where is his assurance that there will be specialist teaching provision for children with these needs for additional support?
If one took Deputy Bruton's approach, one could keep writing in clause after clause on support services, extra help and assistance which would be required and one could have it as long as one would wish. Every Minister is confined by the resources available and is always subject to the resources which are made available by Government generally on an annual basis. That is the only brake on resources. We are providing specialist teaching resources for children with special needs and we will continue to provide them, particularly in special schools.
Care assistance from other authorities is an on-going issue between the Department of Health and Children, the Department of Education and Science and health boards. An interdepartmental committee is endeavouring to iron out difficulties which may arise from time to time in relation to the provision of language therapists, in particular, and other forms of therapy to children in special schools.
Psychological services and care assistance in national schools depend on the ongoing provision of resources. The commitment is there to cater for the educational needs of children as per the Constitution. It would be my contention that we are doing that and adding to and expanding the range of the provision.
However, needs change as we move on. For example, there are needs now in the mainstream national school system which did not exist five or ten years ago.
We will probably come to this matter later. I think the Minister has tabled an amendment which states that he is taking on a duty to ensure appropriate education. The point I would make is that for many of these children appropriate education needs appropriate support services also. Perhaps at a later stage we need to look at that. There are things, which are not always in the giving of the Minister, which need to be in place for certain children to participate in appropriate education.
Where do we stop in legislation? Where do we draw the line? Certainly children with special educational needs require specialist help and that is provided across the board.
The Minister's amendment No. 60 will revisit the issue of the appropriate support services. They are not mentioned here where we are defining support services. Perhaps an amendment to amendment No. 60, when we come to it, will be the more appropriate way to debate this issue.
I move amendment No. 48:
In page 8, before section 3, to insert the following new section:
"3.—Without prejudice to the application of that Act to both male and female students, section 6 of the Intermediate Education (Ireland) Act, 1878, is hereby amended by the deletion of subsection (4).".
This amendment relates to a point raised by Senator O'Toole some time ago about the Intermediate Education (Ireland) Act, 1878. This Act can be applied to girls by order and is obviously an outmoded form of doing business. I am taking the opportunity to insert this amendment to get rid of an anomaly that existed in previous legislation.
We will examine this matter on Report Stage in terms of presenting it to the draftsman and getting it clarified. There is no difficulty in that.
Amendment No. 49 is in the name of Deputy O'Shea. Amendments Nos. 58, 69, 132 and 201 are related and will be taken together, by agreement.
I move amendment No. 49:
In page 9, line 2, to delete "have regard to" and substitute "comply with".
The reason for this amendment is to strengthen section 6 which outlines the objectives of the Act. The introductory section, which I want to amend, states that every person concerned in the implementation of this Act shall have regard to the following objectives in pursuance of which the Oireachtas has enacted this Act. I put it to the Minister that the terminology "have regard to" is not sufficiently strong in terms of the objectives of the Act and their implementation. I ask him to agree that the section be amended to read that every person concerned with the implementation of this Act shall comply with the following objectives in pursuance of which the Oireachtas has enacted this Act. That gets us away from people having regard to the objectives and puts an onus on them to comply with the objectives. I want every person concerned with the implementation of the Act to comply with the objectives as outlined in this section.
A number of the amendments I have tabled are of a similar nature in that they variously require the Minister to report annually on the extent to which he believes these objectives are being achieved. The phraseology in this section is quite vague and it does not put a particular duty on anyone. It adds to the focus to revisit them in the actual sections that deal with the functions of the school, the Minister and so on, and when schools are considering their obligations these objectives will be at the core of those considerations. It would be useful if the boards, the schools and the Minister visit this issue on a regular basis and when schools review their policy plans these objectives should be automatically examined to see the extent to which schools are assuring equality of access and participation in education and promoting means whereby students can benefit from that. This is a similar approach to that of Deputy O'Shea but I have amended a series of sections to require them to explicitly examine these issues.
I have also amended section 6 to the effect that in the framing of any plans associated with the development of educational services, such persons shall consider each of these objectives as an explicit part of that planning process. We are merely trying to beef up the role of these objectives which are generally regarded as worthwhile in each area of the service.
In amendment No. 49, Deputy O'Shea is proposing to replace the obligation to have regard to the objectives with an obligation to comply with them. I understand the Deputy's reason for proposing this change but I would find it difficult legally to make the change he is requesting as it is not clear how any person would comply with the objectives. That is the reason "having regard to" is the correct formulation in this context. To say "comply with" would be an enormous legislative burden and imposition and we should also bear in mind that we are laying out the objectives of the education system. They are not meant to be mandatory in one sense; they are objectives we want to achieve as a nation in terms of our education system and it is valid to include those in an education Act.
For many years, people complained that a clear set of objectives in the education system was not articulated anywhere in legislation or in policy and this is worthwhile in that context. The Bill places duties on the Minister and I have tabled an amendment which we have not yet reached which copperfastens that and places particular duties and obligations on the Minister to do certain things. There are also obligations and duties placed on school boards of management and other partners in education in the Bill. In essence, this is a set of guiding principles rather than mandatory requirements which I believe is a better approach.
Deputy Bruton is proposing amendments Nos. 58 and 69 to ensure that the objectives set out should be taken into account as an explicit part of the planning process for education. Given that section 6 refers specifically to the objectives being taken into account by every person concerned with the implementation of the Bill, Deputy Bruton's amendments are probably unnecessary in that they are already catered for.
Deputy Bruton is also proposing amendments Nos. 132 and 201 which would have the effect of linking sections 9 and 15 to section 6 to ensure that schools and boards of management would pursue the objectives set out in section 6. I assure the Deputy that such linkages are not necessary. Section 6 states specifically that every person concerned with the implementation of the Act must have regard to the objectives listed in section 6, and this includes schools and boards of management. I would have no difficulty putting in a clause allowing for the regular review of the objectives and the degree to which they are being implemented.
It strikes me that if the Minister does not do something of that nature at a level more devolved from his own office, these objectives will become dead letters a week after the Bill is passed. People will genuflect to them but there will not be an obligation on schools to question whether they are promoting equality of access or providing opportunities to adults to participate in education, or what they are doing about parental rights. If we do not build these objectives into the planning processes of schools or the functions of a board at some point in the Bill, other than in this rather vague and aspirational section, they may not be achieved.
I am of the view we have adequately catered for that but I am not averse to including a section to take cognisance of the objectives.
I would be satisfied with that.
I do not have any difficulty with doing that on Report Stage.
The objectives are fine but they are aspirational. People concerned with the implementation of the Bill only have to have regard to the objectives. That is weak. I accept the Minister's argument to some extent that the language "comply with" may be too strong.
It is appropriate language for the Opposition. I would concur with it myself if I were on the other side.
I will not give the Minister any more concessions. The Minister should examine the area with a view to strengthening it without involving the himself in legal problems which he believes could arise from my use of language. I want to place more responsibility on people in terms of the implementation of the objectives.
We have agreed to examine, first, the position of people as regards the functions of a school and their obligations under the objects of the Bill and, second, the concept of a review, a useful mechanism which could be introduced. We could examine to see how it could be ensured that people were in a position to implement these objectives. Having had discussions with all the partners in education, I am of the view that these are not just objectives of the Minister but of all involved in education, both the boards of management and the partners. They are objects the boards of management and the schools would be anxious to implement. I am not that concerned that there would be attempts in the system to prevent their implementation. I understand from where the Deputy is coming and, in the context of the two issues I mentioned, I will investigate if some modification can be made to allay some of his concerns.
On that basis, I withdraw my amendment.
Amendments Nos. 60, 65, 66, 136, 231, 270, 288 and 323 are related to amendment No. 50. Amendments Nos. 289 and 290 are alternatives to amendment No. 288. Amendments Nos. 50, 60, 65, 66, 136, 231, 270, 288, 289, 290 and 323 may be discussed together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 50:
In page 9, between lines 3 and 4, to insert the following:
"(a) to give practical effect to the constitutional rights of children, including children who have a disability or who have other special educational needs, as they relate to education;".
Section 6 provides for the general objects of the Education Bill. The section provides an overarching statement of principles which will apply to all persons concerned in the implementation of the Bill. This reflects the partnership approach which characterises the Bill. This is a progressive and far-sighted approach and offers the most solid foundation for the administration of the education system.
Concern has been expressed by a number of groups that the Bill, as drafted, seeks to undermine the constitutional rights of children in regard to education. I emphasise that the Bill does not and could not affect the constitutional rights of any person. Rather, when enacted as the first legislation to have a general application to the education system, it will build on the rights relating to education set down in the Constitution.
However, to clarify the situation, I have tabled amendment No. 50 which sets the Bill firmly in the context of the constitutional rights of children in regard to education. The amendment makes clear that the Bill is based on these constitutional provisions and in no sense contradicts or nullifies these rights. By making clear that the Bill is designed to cater for the needs of all students, the amendment further emphasises my commitment and that of the Government, as set out in An Action Programme for the Millennium, to meet the needs of children with disabilities and other special education needs.
Section 7 sets out the functions of the Minister. In general terms, the Minister is responsible for the determination of national education policy and for the planning and co-ordination of the education service. The section also provides for more specific functions of the Minister, including the provision of funding for support services, the monitoring and assessment of the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of the system, leasing land or buildings for the purposes of establishing a school and the provision of support services through Irish.
I am conscious that concerns have been expressed that the Bill does not appear to place a direct obligation on the Minister in respect of the education of people, but rather that the Minister's obligation appears in this regard to be shifted to schools. This is not my intention, but since the matter is raising concerns, I am happy to address them through an amendment to the Bill. Moreover, while resource qualifications are a standard part of all legislation and while schools can only cater for special needs pupils in the context of the resources provided by the State, it is not the aim of the Bill to transfer the State's obligations to schools through this section. The purpose of amendment No. 60 is to fully clarify this issue. However, it is precisely because resource qualifications are a standard part of all legislation that I am not in a position to accept paragraph (d) of Deputy Bruton's amendment No. 66. As regards paragraph (c) of Deputy Bruton's amendment, I refer the Deputy to my amendments to section 2 and my proposed amendment No. 288.
Amendment No. 60 confirms the responsibility of the Minister to ensure as far as is practicable that there is made available to each person resident in the State, including a person with a disability or other special educational needs, a level of quality of education appropriate to meeting the needs and abilities of that person. Deputy O'Shea's amendment No. 65 proposes to include a reference to disabilities and a drawing up of individual education plans in this section. In light of amendment No. 60 and also the amendments to section 2, which provide the definition of disabilities and special educational needs, this is unnecessary. In line with this, Deputy O'Shea's amendments Nos. 136 and 231 and Deputy Sargent's amendment No. 270, which also refer to education plans, are no longer relevant.
Section 33 provides that the Minister may, following consultation with the partners in education, make regulations to give effect to any provisions of the Bill, particularly those relating to the matters in this section. It has been suggested to me that a specific reference to the provision of support services and reasonable accommodation for students with disabilities or special educational needs should be included in this section. As the Bill stands, regulations could be made relating to these matters. However, as the inclusion of the provision would provide a measure of reassurance to people with disabilities that their needs would be addressed, I propose to make amendment No. 288 to this effect.
The amendment provides for the Minister to make regulations relating to the promotion by schools and centres for education of effective liaison and co-operation with other bodies with an interest or involvement in the delivery of education. These include other schools, centres for education, local authorities, health boards and voluntary and other bodies, especially those concerned with the education of students with special educational needs. Through such liaisons, schools can co-operate to provide a more effective education service to all students. This amendment also covers the matter raised by Deputy Bruton in amendment No. 290. Deputy Bruton has proposed amendment No. 289, which would have the effect of inserting inservice provision into the list of areas for which co-operation and liaison is proposed. As far as schools and centres for education are concerned, this is not excluded under section 33. As far as education centres are concerned, I refer the Deputy to my proposal to include education support centres in the Bill. As regards the matters covered in Deputy O'Shea's proposal in amendment No. 323, the matters mentioned are already covered in the Bill as drafted or in my proposed amendments.
I warmly welcome the Minister's amendments because there was a considerable level of confusion and anger at the new phraseology used in the Bill. In several places, qualifications such as "in so far as is practicable" and "as resources may permit" were introduced and many saw this as a step back from his predecessor's Bill. It was also viewed as not being in sympathy with Justice O'Hanlon's judgment in the O'Donoghue case where it was made clear that the State had obligations to provide primary education to every child, regardless of how difficult it was for that child to avail of education. The Minister's amendment No. 50 reassures people who were surprised at what looked to be a step back from the position established in the High Court and confirmed in the Supreme Court instead of the inclusion in the Bill of a judgment on a constitutional issue.
The real meat is in amendment No. 60 and this is particularly welcome. I read it as giving a clear statement that the Minister, under section 7, has the obligation to ensure that "there is made available to each person resident in the State, including a person with a disability or who has other special educational needs, a level and quality of education appropriate to meeting the needs and abilities of that person". That is a welcome outline of the Minister's obligation and a development of the constitutional position. The Constitution refers solely to primary education. This provision is a step forward in that the Minister's function is not confined to that sector.
What does the clause "subject to the provisions of this Act" mean? Having given the Minister fulsome praise for introducing this provision, it would be a pity if those few words undermined it. For many children who have special educational needs, providing the education is only one part of catering to their needs. They must have certain supports in order to participate in education. It would be worthwhile adding to the phrase "a level and quality of education appropriate" a reference to the necessary support services to enable them to participate. Perhaps the Minister would consider that.
My amendment No. 66 spells out in greater detail what we expect of the Minister, that is, to provide for their education "in suitable accommodation with appropriate support services, including where necessary the co-ordination of other bodies in the provision of such support services". That concept could be usefully added to section 6. It makes clear that while the quality of education might exist in special schools, many children will be unable to participate fully if they do not have special supports, some of which might be provided by local authorities or health boards.
Paragraph (d) of that amendment is redundant. It sought to deal with the problem of the Minister appearing to shift his obligations to the schools. He now accepts that the obligation properly rests with him.
Amendments Nos. 289 and 290 appear to be well accommodated in the Minister's amendment, No. 288, so I will withdraw them. I am particularly glad that voluntary organisations, which are referred to in amendment No. 290, are being included in the Minister's amendment. If the Minister introduces regulations to promote co-operation, voluntary organisations, which are really the backbone of provision in many of these areas, should be involved.
Amendment No. 289 deals with co-operation. Many voluntary organisations are providing these services and the Minister should not only promote liaison and co-operation with them, which is rather vague, but should also recognise that they are service providers. In planning the statutory provision the Minister should ensure that it works hand in hand with the voluntary provision and, in a sense, that the two provisions are integrated. I believed that the addition of the words "in service provision" would strengthen the section so that it would not just be a case of having occasional meetings to ensure the voluntary sector was pursuing the same objectives but that where a voluntary organisation had the capacity to deliver a service the school would either buy it in or co-operate with it to ensure it was provided in the school.
Is the Deputy referring to service provision or training?
No. Section 33 provides that the Minister will introduce regulations which will provide procedures for promoting effective liaison and co-operation by schools and centres of education with local authorities. My interpretation of that was that the two bodies would continue to carry out their work but they would have an occasional meeting to ensure they were following similar objectives. If the local authority could provide a service that would enable a child to participate in education, the legislation should be more explicit in providing that the Minister will promote co-operation in service provision rather than offer a broad policy statement.
I will try to incorporate that amendment on Report Stage. I have no difficulty with it.
I am pleased with what the Minister has done but I am anxious to hear his views on amendment No. 60, the wording of which could be improved.
The wording is a little broader in terms of definition than the wording of the Deputy's amendment.
Amendment No. 66 includes not only quality education but suitable accommodation with appropriate support services. That is the distinction.
I believe the Government amendment covers that.
That is not the view of people in the Disability Federation of Ireland. They think——
They want it written with all the i's dotted and t's crossed.
Yes. The other issue is the meaning of the words "subject to the provisions of this Act".
I will try to accommodate the Deputy's first point on Report Stage. The phrase "subject to the provisions of the Act" means subject to the rights and duties of other partners referred to the legislation, the rights of children and the duties of schools, boards of management, patrons and so forth. They have certain rights under the legislation and the provision is subject to those and subsection (4) which deals with resources. The phrase encompasses those considerations.
I also compliment the Minister on putting down these amendments. They meet the concerns of parents and carers of people with disability. However, a number of points require clarification. Amendment No. 50 inserts a new paragraph in the objectives. The next paragraph, currently paragraph (a), states: "to provide that, as far as is practicable and having regard to the resources available. . . ". Could that mean that a child with profound handicap might still have to wait a considerable period before the requisite service would be provided?
Will the Deputy outline his point again?
Is there a conflict between the new insertion and the existing paragraph (a) in that everything is contingent upon available resources and the "as far as is practicable" concept? Could it still be the case that this will do nothing effectively to reduce the waiting period for children who require a wide degree of provision in the context of severe or profound mental handicap? In other words, the aspiration is fine but what is the practical conversion of that provision?
The practical conversion is that the child is provided with the service, particularly in terms of a place in a special school. In terms of the O'Hanlon judgment, for example, a child with a severe or profound disability must be provided with a place with the additional supports as are determined by that judgment. It has been argued that I am responding to requests from parents rather than proactively providing services. I recently answered a number of questions in the Dáil on this subject. My mission is to provide educational services for children with special needs. There was a fear that the Minister was passing the obligation downward. All Bills contain general provisos regarding the practicability of measures and the limits imposed by resources. These are standard in all legislation but, in this context, are not intended to be a brake on the provision of services. The provision of educational services to children with special needs is a constitutional imperative.
I would like the Minister to tell me what practical benefit these measures will have for people who are awaiting service.
This legislation gives an additional statutory right which supports the constitutional right of citizens. This is an advance on the present position and people can rely on this statutory provision in the courts, for example.
I do not want to appear to nit-pick but it appears to me that the Bill may not have improved the situation to any great extent. I have tabled later amendments relating to a plan for each child who has a special need. These amendments are being discussed here collectively. For such a child early assessment is very important. Where in the Minister's amendments is this provided for?
Amendment No. 60 provides for this. This ensures, "subject to the provision of this Act, that there is made available to each person resident in the State, including a person with a disability or who has other special educational needs, a level and quality of education appropriate to meeting the needs and abilities of that person". One must rely on the educator at the local level, the teacher or school principal, to lay out the plans for the children under his or her care. The experience and trend in this country has been towards the needs of individuals as opposed to groups. The philosophy that informs education provision and special education is the same as that which informs the Deputy's amendment, that an individual plan should be drawn up which takes account of the needs of the child concerned. Other countries have tended to take a group approach which I do not agree with. I would like to think that amendment No. 60 is broad enough to encompass the approach articulated in Deputy O'Shea's amendment without being overly or uniformly prescriptive.
I would certainly want to avoid that but I am concerned that we tighten the mechanism and ensure that someone has final responsibility. My amendments also seeks to state clearly that the school principal is responsible for the implementation of the plan. We need to be more proactive in bringing about integration or in providing services for children with severe or profound mental handicap, wherever they are located.
I return to the earlier definition of special educational needs. Amendment No. 60 uses the terminology, "a person who has a disability or who has other special educational needs". That terminology does not quite gel with the definition in section 2, the interpretations section of the Bill. From this we must conclude that the only people included in the term, "other special educational needs" are people of very high ability. I am seeking an explicit provision for emotionally disturbed people whom I described in the earlier part of the debate. I believe this wording is faulty.
Situations such as this arise when one attempts to reassure various groups of people. Some groups involved with children with disability felt that the term "special needs" did not describe them. In order to emphasise disability we included that term. Our original view was that our term, "special educational needs" covered the issue of disability. Not everyone accepted that and so to provide reassurance for those people we included the term "disability". That is the background to the wording. Deputy O'Shea is seeking to include terminology to cover children who suffer from educational disadvantage.
I can be more explicit. The term "emotionally disturbed" is widely used to describe pupils who are displaying, let us say, challenging behaviour in the school situation. It is, in my view, an imprecise term.
It is quite imprecise.
It is nevertheless used.
I will look at this question again on Report Stage.
I am seeking to be constructive. It would reassure teachers and parents if there was a direct focus on dealing with the fallout from these children in the system. I know this may be seen as aspirational but it is important to tie people's rights down firmly.
I understand that the Deputy wishes to give a focus to this issue.
I too am glad to see the Minister's amendments. The concern expressed by many people about the term "special needs" has a considerable history. The O'Donoghue case was one of many examples of differentiation being made between handicap, mental handicap, severe and profound mental handicap and so on. I would like an assurance that the judgment in the O'Donoghue case is being acted upon fully and that there will be no marginalisation of anyone.
Simple equality is not sufficient. There is a need for a certain amount of positive discrimination. References to equality can sometimes hide the lack of positive discrimination and, in effect, continues the inequality. The amendments are good in so far as they go but this reassurance needs to be given.
I am satisfied to give that reassurance. We must implement the O'Hanlon judgment and all that it entails. The Department is working to do that and on new initiatives for children with disabilities and profound disabilities. We are hoping, for example, to set up a number of schools to deal with autism and to develop curriculum guidelines in areas where there has been a deficit.
Amendments Nos. 52 and 53 are alternatives to amendment No. 51. Amendments Nos. 61, 133 and 209 are related. Amendment No. 134 is an alternative to amendment No. 133. Amendments Nos. 210 and 211 are alternatives to amendment No. 209. Amendment No. 212 is consequential on amendment No. 211. It is proposed, therefore, to take amendments Nos. 51, 52, 53, 61, 133, 134, 209, 210, 211 and 212 together.
I move amendment No. 51:
In page 9, paragraph (a), line 4, to delete "as far as is practicable".
I have tabled these amendments to get over a genuine difficulty. Terms like "as far is practicable" or "having regard to available resources" state the obvious. The Minister said earlier that we would have to "get real" in this regard. Is this terminology necessary? Can it be said to have no significance on the one hand and, on the other, be used in the future to thwart worthwhile developments?
My amendments are very much in sympathy with that. Section 6 sets out the objectives of people in the education system. It seems inappropriate to qualify this objective by including the phrase "as far as is practicable, and having regard to the resources available" and not to qualify all of the other objectives in the same way. If it is implicit that everything is subject to the availability of resources, one particular area should not be singled out, namely that of providing for the appropriate level of education. All of these opportunities that we promote for adults are equally bound by the availability of resources. It is not correct that we should have this qualification in just this one objective of the Bill. That relates to my amendment No. 52, dealing with section 6.
In respect of section 7, I am proposing that the Minister's role in the provision of education and support services should include not just planning and co-ordination but the provision of appropriate funding. It is implicit, but it would be right to make it explicit. In respect of support services and particularly psychological services, it is all very well to say that the Minister will plan and co-ordinate them, but he should also provide appropriate funding to make them a reality. It seems strange that this is not included in respect of support services but is included later in respect of individual schools.
My amendment No. 133 is a similar amendment in respect of section 9 of the Bill dealing with the obligations of schools. Again, we are qualifying the school's obligation to provide appropriate education by including the term "in so far as resources permit". It strikes me that the formula should be reversed, that the school should use its available resources to ensure the provision of appropriate education. Putting in the term "as far as resources permit" could provide an escape clause which would allow people to say they do not have the resources. If we say that they must use their resources to ensure that there is appropriate education, it means that every part of their remit has to be addressed and a school cannot say, for example, that it does not provide for children with special education needs because it does not have the resources. If we provide that schools must use their resources to provide for educational needs, that imposes the obligation on every school to look seriously at the full gamut of the educational needs of the people who present themselves. That small change, which is only a slight change in the order of words, could make a world of difference in the way in which schools behave. It would particularly encourage more integration of children with special needs into mainstream schools, which is something the Minister is keen to do.
My amendments Nos. 211 and 212 are similar but relate to section 15, which sets out the duties of boards. Amendment No. 211 provides that they must use their available resources to deliver appropriate education. I cannot recall for the moment the purpose of amendment No. 212, but I will pick it up later.
My amendment No. 210 relates to the section on boards of management. Is subsection (2) (g) intended to refer to departmental resources? Many boards of management depend to a large extent on voluntary and local funding. One interpretation of the term "within the resources provided" could actually exempt a school from the obligation to make reasonable provision and accommodation for students with special educational needs in respect of a considerable amount of the money being spent in the school, because the section deals with resources from the Department. I wonder whether it would be better not to include that so that schools can administer their local resources and their departmental funding without regarding the resources provided by the Department either as an excuse or as a straitjacket, depending on the point of view. It would be better to delete that phrase, and that is what my amendment is proposing. I take the point made by previous Deputies that it does seem to be a condition on what is a basic right.
I understand where Deputies are coming from. Amendments Nos. 51, 52 and 53 would have the effect of removing the reference in section 6 to the availability of resources. References to resources and the availability of resources are standard and a necessary part of all legislation.
I would draw the attention of Deputies to the amendments I have already proposed in sections 6 and 7 which have the effect of clarifying the Minister's obligations in regard to the education of children. I would also point out that while resource qualifications are a standard part of all legislation and while schools can only care for special needs pupils and indeed all pupils in the context of resources provided by the State, only the Oireachtas can allocate funding in the way that is being suggested. However, I find the language used in Deputy Bruton's amendments interesting. I would like to look at it in greater detail on Report Stage. What Deputy Bruton is suggesting is that instead of saying that schools should make provision subject to available resources we would ask schools to use their available resources. I am not averse to that. I would have to look at the implications to satisfy myself that we could use that form of wording as opposed to the one proposed in the Bill. I do not see great difficulty with it once we are not placing an obligation on schools that they cannot fulfil. Amendments Nos. 133 and 211 are ones that perhaps I can accommodate on Report Stage.
Amendments Nos. 211 and 212 are consequential.
We will come back to that on Report Stage.
I have listened carefully to the Minister. People who have concerns about education provision read this terminology in the context that the State is seeking to retreat from its position. Such fears need to be assuaged. I will withdraw my amendment on the basis that the Minister will look at the language used.
I will look a them in the context of the amendments Deputy Bruton tabled. I take the Deputy's point. There are those who will always read such terminology to mean the State retreating from its obligations. However, this language has been standard in a raft of legislation through the years. This Bill is not different. One could leave out "as far as is practicable" and "within available resources" but where does that lead one in terms of the State's obligations? They could become endless. Generally speaking the Government of the day would see this language as the ultimate safeguard or protector as opposed to an attempt to break out of existing commitments or commitments to additional provisions.
I can understand how groups might have a different perspective and might be anxious to seek an absolutist position. A Bill could be phrased in absolutist terms indicating that the State shall do everything. However, how realistic would that be?
Section 6 sets out eight objectives, yet in only one case has it been decided to include this rider which refers to appropriate education to children who need it. There are many other desirable aspirations which would seem constrained by practicality.
There is a difference with section 6; paragraph (a) uses "provide" which is more directive than "promote" or "contribute".
With regard to amendment 60 I wish to assured that there is no qualification and that the Minister is taking on the task of ensuring that an appropriate level of equality is made available to a person with a disability. We all know there are qualifications and that he cannot work miracles. However, I am pleased that he has not chosen to include the qualifications. If the price of keeping amendment No. 60 intact is to have the qualifications in the objects section I will pay it. However, they should not be in the objects section because I would not have thought objects were actionable in court. However, the subject matter of amendment No. 60 would be contestable.
It will be helpful if the Minister examines the wording to make it clear that the resources will be used for their purposes. I hope he will follow through on this on Report Stage.
With regard to the development of services for disabled people, when I was Minister of State I became aware of the importance of disseminating information about what is happening. People often feel alienated from the system. Legislation states the law but it should be possible to use language which fosters a feeling of inclusiveness, gives a feeling of ownership of the legislation and is not antagonistic to aspirations. That aspect could be usefully addressed, especially in terms of objectives. The language used may be interpreted as indicating that the State is reneging on its obligations. The Minister should take legal advice on whether it is necessary to include the terms "as far as practicable" and "having regard to the resources available".
I tabled an amendment on the functioning of schools and another on the functions of boards of management. The language used should make people feel their concerns are being addressed and that structures and legislation are being put in place to meet them.
I endorse those sentiments. By the time one gets to the draftsman's office the requirements of law can result in the language used not being very user friendly. That is an ongoing issue with legislation. Legislation must be precise and solidly based. It cannot be about sentiment or emotion and there can be a coldness to the precision of legal language which is necessary. I take on board the Deputies concerns and we will re-examine the matter for Report Stage.
I move amendment No. 54:
In page 9, between lines 18 and 19, to insert the following:
"(e) to promote best practice in teaching methods with due regard to the diverse needs of different students, and in the development of the skills and talents of the staff resource in the education system and to promote the highest standards to citizens accessing the education system.".
This amendment returns to the general objectives of the education system which are set out in section 6. What struck me as missing was the idea of promoting best practice in teaching methods with due regard to the diverse needs of different students, and in the development of the skills and talents of the staff resource in the education system and to promote the highest standards to citizens accessing the education system. We should recognise that the system's greatest resource is teachers and one of the founding objectives should be to develop it and to ensure it uses the best methods.
It is strange that the objects in section 6 do not include it. It promotes the highest standards of citizens' access to the education system. This is a basic objective of any public service and I do not see why we should not state categorically that it is expected of service providers that citizens have rights when they access the education system which must be respected, courtesy must be shown and so on. This tees up the later discussion on rights in respect of grievances and so on. People who access education do not see themselves as supplicants coming to their wiser brethren but as citizens availing of a public service to which they are entitled. Phraseology of this nature would be helpful in this early section of the Bill.
I do not have a difficulty with the Deputy's points. My difficulty is that we are preparing the teaching council Bill. This is substantial legislation which has been promised for years. We established a steering committee under which a technical working group was established. Professor Seamus McGuinness chairs both groups. They have made rapid progress. The technical working group completed its study and report two months ago. It is an excellent and comprehensive report vis-à-vis the establishment of a teaching council which involves standards, qualifications and the whole area of teaching practice.
I would be worried that if we inserted this amendment it may be seen as cutting across the efforts of all the partners in the context of the teaching council. So far we have everyone on board the preparations for the teaching council Bill. Would the Deputy mind if we engaged in some consultations between now and Report Stage with the partners to see if there is any difficulty? The idea that we should be promoting best practice in teaching methods is accepted.
I am happy with that proposal. I do not know much about the teaching council. I am working on a need to know basis.
We have published that.
I know there is something out there.
Sorry, we have not published the report but we published the intention to produce a teaching council Bill.
It is all about regulation. I admit that my initial reaction is wrong but I may be totally wrong. As regards self-regulation, the Medical Council has not been very successful. It is not great but that is another day's work. This is only an objective and I would welcome the Minister coming back on Report Stage to see if he can accommodate the amendment.
We are also going to put in train a review of teaching practice at pre-service level. We are close to announcing the composition of a group which will carry out a review of teacher training at pre-service stage within the colleges of education. We are putting a similar group in place to look at the provision of teacher training at H.Dip and post-primary level. We can accommodate the Deputy.
I am happy to withdraw the amendment until Report Stage.
Amendments Nos. 55, 79, 186 and 194 are related and may be taken together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 55:
In page 9, paragraph (e), line 22, after "health boards" to insert "the Irish Council for People with Disabilities".
These amendments have one basic objective which is to promote effective liaisons and consultations between schools, centres of education, teachers, parents, communities served by schools, local authorities, health boards and the Minister. Obviously I would have my own views on this as I believe that there is a need for an intermediary tier between the Minister and the Department and the various bodies mentioned in this section. However that is a different matter.
I am seeking that after "health boards" we would insert "the Irish Council for People with Disabilities" so that there is a formal recognition of disability in the community by having this body represented. I see this body as appropriate for carrying out that function. This inclusion would be a positive signal for parents, carers and the disabled.
Amendments Nos. 55, 79, 186, 194 and 257 would insert specific references to liaison and consultation with the Irish Council for People with Disabilities. In this context I draw the Deputy's attention to an amendment which I propose to make to section 7 which will provide for consultation with persons or groups concerned with the needs of students with special educational needs. In addition, I would advise that specific references to individual groups are undesirable in legislation of this sort. For these reasons I am not able to accept this amendment.
If we go down the road of mentioning individual organisations throughout the Bill we could be in some difficulty. We consult with a variety of groups involved in education on a regular basis. We would meet with the Irish Council for People with Disabilities as well. There are groups and organisations which could potentially feel excluded if we insert the Irish Council for People with Disabilities. That may be taken as excluding all other groups.
I accept that the Minister and the Department consult with groups. However, each group is a particular lobby group dealing with a specific disability. The council has been involved in looking after the whole area of disability and it would be able to take a valuable overview in terms of consultation. It would be an efficient use of the consultation process if the Irish Council for People with Disabilities was included as a named organisation. That does not prevent the Minister from consulting with whoever he likes.
I accept that it does not. However, my amendment No. 81 states:
In page 10, subsection (4)(b), line 41, after "education" to insert ", including persons or groups or persons who have a special interest in, or experience of, the education of students with special educational needs,".
We could also amend that further to include voluntary groups with a specific interest in special needs. We have a difficulty with naming organisations. I could think of ten other organisations who would like to be named in terms of consultation rights. It is not that the Irish Council for People with Disabilities will not be consulted. It will and has been consulted. We have to be careful. Our definition is all embracing and covers the council.
Section 6(e) states that the objects of the Act are to:
promote effective liaison and consultation between schools and centres for education, patrons, teachers, parents, the communities served by schools—
That is a general objective.
It brings it to a very local level if one looks at the terminology.
That is a general objective. We are saying that our objective should be promoting active co-operation, effective liaison and consultations between schools. By definition section 6 is a set of objectives which the education system is setting itself and for which all involved are to have regard. That is why schools, centres, communities, local authorities and health boards are mentioned. Amendment No. 81 states:
In page 10, subsection (4)(b), line 41, after "education" to insert ", including persons or groups or persons who have a special interest in, or experience of, the education of students with special educational needs,".
This covers the Irish Council for People with Disabilities and other organisations.
Could the Minister include the terminology relating to organisations into section 6(e) without naming this specific organisation?
Yes, I can do that.
As it is now 2 o'clock we will suspend the meeting until 4 p.m.
With your permission, Chairman, may I mention the tragic accident which occurred in Strandhill involving three young boys due to sit their leaving certificate examination? One of the boys recovering in hospital was supposed to have done a woodwork test last Monday. Would the Minister consider allowing this boy to resit his leaving certificate? I am sure that he will not be sufficiently recovered to sit his leaving certificate when the time comes. This was a tragedy and I would like to propose that the committee records a vote of sympathy to the parents. It was a terrible tragedy to see young boys like Michael Higgins, Bobby Taylor and Tommy Coyle drowned. Two of these boys attended Ballymote secondary school and one St. Nathy's school, Ballaghaderreen. They were excellent footballers — two of them were on the county minor team. It will be difficult even for their classmates who knew them so well to sit their leaving certificate. Could some concessions be made for these boys?
I join with the vote of sympathy and perhaps the Deputy could talk to the Minister after the meeting.
We were all shocked by this appalling tragedy. I will certainly talk to the Deputy on the issues he has raised to see how we can assist the situation. It is a terrible tragedy that young men should be taken in their prime in that manner and we sympathise with the families and the community on this terrible loss.
At the beginning of today's meeting I omitted to agree the minutes of the last two short Select Committee meetings — item 1 on the agenda. I apologise for overlooking it. Can I take it they are agreed? Agreed.
Amendment No. 56 is in the name of Deputy Brian O'Shea. Amendments Nos. 142, 145 and 174 are related and it is proposed to take them together, by agreement. Agreed.
I move amendment No. 56:
In page 9, between lines 28 and 29, to insert the following:
"(h) to contribute to the maintenance of Irish as the primary community language in Gaeltacht areas;".
This is reasonable amendment. I am referring to primary schools in Gaeltacht areas and to the fact that they should contribute to the maintenance of Irish as the primary community language. Gaeltacht areas are coming under more and more pressure. There is a wide range of English language television available in those areas which has an influence. One of the features I would wish to see on Teilifís na Gaeilge is good quality children's programmes in Irish. A problem exists because of the different dialects in the Gaeltachts. It is reasonable and appropriate that schools should be resourced to assist in maintaining the Irish language as the community language in Gaeltacht areas.
Amendment No. 145 in my name seeks to do something similar in regard to where the functions of the school are set out. Schools located in Gaeltacht areas should contribute to the maintenance of Irish as the primary community language. As there is a need for recognition of this in the Bill I chose to put it into section 9; an alternative is in section 6. One could argue about which is more appropriate but the principle is reasonably accepted.
We have been discussing equality and minority interests. The Irish language has been one of the beacons of hope in our education system given the level of parental involvement. This is another opportunity to recognise that fact and I hope we can do so formally in the Bill.
Amendments Nos. 56, 142 and 145 relate to the maintenance of Irish as a community language in Gaeltacht areas. A much stronger objective appears in section 6 (g) which states that the object of the Act is:
to contribute to the realisation of national policy and objectives in relation to the extension of bi-lingualism in Irish society and in particular the achievement of a greater use of the Irish language;
However, I am disposed towards accepting amendments Nos. 142 and 145 in principle subject to getting the wording right by Report Stage. I do not have a particular difficulty with them. Amendment No. 174 relates to the evaluation of Irish within the education system. I am happy to inform Deputy O'Shea that I do not regard this amendment as necessary because the material contained in it is encompassed within section 13.
Section 6, which applies to the inspectorate as well as to other persons concerned with the implementation of the Act, is also relevant in this regard. Section 13 deals with the inspectorate and its role and function to: evaluate the management of those schools and centres and the quality and effectiveness of education provided in those schools or centres, including the quality of teaching and effectiveness of individual teachers; evaluate the educational standards in such schools or centres; evaluate the quality and effectiveness of the provision of education in the State, including comparison with relevant international practice and conduct research into education. It does not specifically mention the Irish language but it is encompassed by that provision in relation to the inspectorate.
With regard to amendment No. 56, the Minister drew our attention to the objective set out in section 6(g) to extend bi-lingualism in Irish society and the achievement of greater use of the Irish language. This is fine. However, this amendment seeks to preserve the use of the Irish language where it is a truly living language.
I accept that.
Would the Minister reconsider his decision in the light of that fact?
The objectives in that section are more general than local. This is a particular objective in the context of an overall set of objectives given that it is in the context of the Irish language which has a certain constitutional status. Irish is the main means of communication within Gaeltacht areas. The Deputy is attempting to reflect that in the objects of the Act. I will accept that.
Amendment No. 58 has already been discussed with amendment No. 49.
I withdraw this amendment with leave to reintroduce it on Report Stage if necessary pending the Minister's Report Stage amendments where he has indicated he is willing to insert a more explicit requirement to take these objectives into account.
Amendments Nos. 59 and 278 are related. Amendments Nos. 280, 281, 282, and 283 are alternatives to amendment No. 278. These amendments may be taken together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 58:
In page 9, between lines 31 and 32, to insert the following:
"In the framing of any plans associated with the development of educational services, such persons shall consider each of these objectives as an explicit part of that planning process.".
I am coming back to arguments I advanced this morning. I am seeking to ensure that one of the objectives of the Bill will be to provide an education system directed towards the goal that every student, having regard to his or her needs and abilities, is best equipped for full inclusion in the social, economic and cultural life of the nation and aimed at countering inherited educational disadvantage. There are those born into situations in which from the very beginning their chances of progressing through the education system, which is the key to people escaping the poverty trap, are limited to say the least. There are measures in the education system which have contributed to assisting in this area but we need to make a solid and definitive reference to this group. Their disadvantages may be social in the first instance. This can result from communities suffering a high level of unemployment and crime curtailing childrens' ability to develop independently. Social problems for children can affect the entire community and do not necessarily always exist in the less well off areas.
There is also the economic situation in which there is a high level of unemployment. In such situations basic items such as newspapers and books are not available in the home. There is also a cultural dimension in which children from a certain background have great difficulty accessing cultural activities outside the school setting. There should be a direct reference to and focus on an objective in the Bill to counter inherited educational disadvantage. This is possibly the greatest restriction affecting a young person. From the very beginning such young people have to run to catch up. There are basic issues involved.
I acknowledge and welcome the fact that the Minister is addressing early education. However, this problem is growing in the education system. We must focus on it and do something about it. The best advice I received as a teacher was that the first thing one writes down is cospoir an cheachta — in other words, one decides what one wants the children to learn. One can teach like hell but people may not have learned a lot by the end of it. This objective should be clearly stated in the Bill. It would be welcomed by many teachers who are under pressure and would indicate that there is a statutory commitment to address this problem.
Deputy O'Shea makes a valid point that there should be some explicit reference in the Bill to educational advantage. The present formulation has this code where it refers to promoting equality of access and participation in education and means whereby students may benefit from education. This is geared towards those who experience educational disadvantage. The Deputy is attempting to amplify this and there is a justifiable case for looking sympathetically at what he is trying to do. Perhaps more eloquent language is possible, but the principle is accepted and I am, therefore, disposed to supporting the Deputy's amendment.
Amendment No. 278 in the name of the Minister is the key one which has been linked with this one. In it the Minister seeks to amend his position in relation to the committee on education and disadvantage. Several features of the revised version will be seen as an improvement. He certainly is clearly indicating that he shall establish the committee and is not leaving it open to chance or using the word "may" as in the original text. He has made clear that half the membership will come from voluntary bodies and that there will be resources available to support the work of the committee. However, missing from the section is a definition of the functions of the committee. As things stand it simply has an advisory role. We have long moved past the phase where Ministers had closet committees advising them which were not a matter of public interest or open to public participation. The phraseology of the amendment is not in tune with more modern thinking about the work of such committees. In an amendment, which was unfortunately disallowed, I set out a broader remit which would be very valuable for the committee to take on, including evaluating programmes which are in place to examine the extent to which they are overcoming educational disadvantage.
It is extraordinary that relatively small sums from EU budgets are rigorously monitored by committees with rigorous evaluation and reporting requirements while much larger expenditure by Departments is not monitored in a similar fashion. The Department does not have nearly sufficient resources devoted to educational disadvantage, but the committee should have the role of evaluating the success of the early start and other programmes in an open and public manner. It should also have the ability to undertake or promote the undertaking of pilot initiatives to address educational disadvantage. Part of what is most exciting in the context of dealing with education and disadvantage is not coming from the mainstream education sector but from spin-offs, including community groups and groups loosely attached to schools which are often doing very interesting things which will have long-term value. If we are to establish a committee on disadvantage, it should actively promote such initiatives.
A committee of this nature should also have some role in proofing legislation and policy being introduced to examine its impact on educational disadvantage. It should be actively involved in public debate on issues around educational disadvantage if we are to seriously get to grips with it. Such committees should publish their reports together with advice tendered to the Minister, have power to commission research within a reasonable budget and be in a position to strenuously take on the role of championing reform to overcome educational disadvantage.
The Minister has given us half a loaf which is better than nothing, but with a little development the committee could be more meaningful. I am not suggesting it go as far as the Combat Poverty Agency, but there is much within the remit of that agency which we could learn from. Its functions and approach, as set out in the legislation establishing it, could be transferred to this committee. This is what I have attempted to do in a short form in the amendment which was disallowed. It is appropriate to raise these issues in the context of the Minister's amendment.
Amendment No. 280 in my name is redundant. Amendment No. 283 could perhaps be considered nit picking, but I notice it is repeated in the Minister's definition of educational disadvantage. Section 32 refers to "impediments to education arising from social or economic disadvantage which prevent students from deriving appropriate benefit from education in schools.". I do not know why "in schools" is tacked on. It suggests there are some realms of educational disadvantage in which we are not particularly interested outside the school setting. This does not seem appropriate. A definition of educational disadvantage should not be confined to schooling. I do not know how many Members are familiar with Ivan Illich's very interesting book, Deschooling society, in which the author sets out the thesis that schools are killing education, which is defined as the notion of developing a person’s latent abilities. Schools tended to narrow a person’s abilities beyond the extent to which they ought to. I still recall some of his writings and react to the use of the phrase “in schools” which should not be included.
Originally the Bill was very deficient in that it did not seem to address educational disadvantage, which is probably the biggest issue we will face over the next two decades. Between one-fifth and one-quarter of our children are leaving school without adequate qualifications to cope in the modern world. There is a very high level of reading problems in schools as demonstrated in recent reports on literacy. There are high levels of functional difficulty in coping with the most ordinary tasks in everyday life among the adult population. People expect educational disadvantage to be at the heart of a Bill dealing with education. Instead, we have a welcome but rather half-hearted attempt in section 32 to address this issue. I hope the Minister will agree to a more fulsome approach and to Deputy O'Shea's proposal that it should be one of the fundamental objectives of the Bill.
I am glad the amendment which changes "may" to "shall" is now redundant with "shall" being included in the Minister's more substantial amendment. However, I accept the point made by others that it seems as though it is being tagged on. The general economic thrust of the country will ensure a growing disparity between different areas. Sometimes this has to do with salary and financial well being and other times with the drift from rural to urban areas with low school population in some areas and overcrowding in others. These issues must be addressed by the proposed committee so that it can forecast difficulties, try to pre-empt them and inform policy makers on the unforeseen effects of otherwise successful policy decisions.
Similarly, property prices are giving rise to growing disadvantage in that parental care is being lessened as both partners have to go out to earn money to pay mortgages. The role of parenting should be broadly included in the remit of the committee on disadvantage. In many cases the problem of educational disadvantage arises from the fact that parents are so stressed and are unable to give the basic care which would ensure these problems do not become exacerbated as time passes, manifesting themselves as difficulties with literacy and social adjustment.
It is hopeful that there is provision for this committee in the Minister's amendment but it needs to go much further and play a more central role in the Bill and in the education system generally. The problems are growing, ironically on account of economic success, and in some areas education has become a symptom of the widening gap between rich and poor which is part of that economic development. The Minister should take that into account when framing the terms of the Bill.
Overcoming educational disadvantage is the cornerstone of our education policy. I do not accept that the Bill, as framed, downplayed that. We have to be careful that the Minister and the Department remain central to tackling disadvantage in whatever structures or committees which we establish, that the clear focus from the Department and the Minister of the day is on educational disadvantage. Measures other than legislation will always be necessary to counter disadvantage, educational or otherwise. Provision of resources, budgetary policy and estimates are critical in dealing with educational disadvantage. That is a fact we must consider when legislating.
Section 6 (a), "to provide that, as far as is practicable and having regard to the resources available, there is made available to people resident in the State a level and quality of education appropriate to meeting the needs and abilities of those people;", and (b) "to promote equality of access to and participation in education and to promote the means whereby students may benefit from education" encompass disadvantage. Deputy O'Shea, in amendment No. 59, is anxious that we be more explicit by mentioning disadvantage. I will accommodate that on Report Stage in the set of objects to ensure there is no doubt about our commitment to this.
Section 32 is a comprehensive section dealing with disadvantage. Before Committee Stage of the Bill we inserted this committee which displayed our bona fides in terms of the disadvantage issue. We are strengthening it even further with the amendments. Some people were concerned about the word "may" as opposed to the word "shall" so we put in the word "shall" to ensure that there was no doubt. When I saw that, I said to insert the word "shall" because we will set up this committee. Not only are we establishing the committee but we are making provision in section 32 to give it a broad remit, to provide funding and secretarial assistance to make sure it is a committee which has teeth. It is not a committee which will hide somewhere providing private advice to the Minister, it will be in the public domain. The committee will involve all of the partners in education and the voluntary sector. Those nominated to the committee are not those who will keep quiet to keep a particular Minister happy. The committee should be a strong advocate for proactive policies in relation to tackling educational disadvantage and should also commission research concerning best practice and new approaches to disadvantage.
Amendment No. 278 is a Government amendment which effectively extends the powers of the educational disadvantage committee. Amendment No. 280 is the "shall" amendment with which we have dealt. Amendment No. 281 deals with the Irish Council of People with Disabilities. I am reluctant to name individual organisations so I am not disposed to accept that.
The Minister agreed this morning to another amendment in which he would specifically mention organisations dealing with the disabled without having to name any particular organisation.
This section deals with disadvantage. As I said earlier, I want to maintain a clear demarcation between special needs and disadvantage because a different set of issues arise in terms of the committee, the approach, input and resources.
Special needs in the context of disability are present in this group also. There are people in this area in the same proportion as, or perhaps higher than, in the population in general.
There could be, although we know, having talked to the teachers involved and having visited some of the schools which we currently designate disadvantaged, it would not be the case that the term "special needs" applies to those children. The educational performance of those children has suffered as a result of economic and social deprivation. The inputs and intervention programmes required to deal with those are often radically different to the approaches which would be introduced for children with special needs in respect of disability.
For a similar reason I am not inclined to accept amendment No. 282. I accept there are positive points to be made in favour of this, it is a linguistic issue. I am concentrating on the disadvantage arising out of socio-economic deprivation and background.
I will accept amendment No. 283. It is not the intention of that section to restrict disadvantage to within schools. I will accept the deletion of the phrase "in schools". I will do that on Report Stage to ensure the wording is correct.
I acknowledge the Minister's constructive approach to amendment No. 59, but in relation to the inclusion of a term in the context of disability, there are situations where there are disabled traveller children with additional educational difficulties. There are difficulties in terms of education within the community and those are greatly amplified when the children are disabled. That is what I mean when I talk about disadvantage and disability going together.
We will examine that on Report Stage. Is that the context in which you are putting the issue?
I am disappointed with the Minister's unwillingness to look at amendment No. 284. He is not willing to take on board the changes which I think are necessary and which I set out in the amendment. It was disallowed but it had the support of a number of groups who are active in this area. They see weaknesses in this area and have probably already presented their cases to the Minister — that a committee of this nature should be far more explicit in setting out the functions and remit it is to have.
The committee should have at the very minimum a role in evaluating pilot initiatives and in proofing policy measures against disadvantage that are not included in the Minister's statement on the role of this committee. I know the Minister will produce an order to accord with a section agreed earlier. But our best chance of influencing the type of committee to be established is through this committee where we are examining the terms of reference. They are extremely limited as they just advise the Minister on policy and strategy. The amendments are not aimed at usurping the Minister's power but allow for a much more active group to look at policy in a more critical way, with more resources and the capacity to innovate and promote pilot initiatives. That approach was taken in the past with the Combat Poverty Agency, a very successful group which pushed out the boat on a broader range of poverty issues. In the area of education and disadvantage we should be willing to embrace a more active role for a committee of this nature.
It is strange that we will have a committee on disadvantage which will not deal with special education and we will not have a committee or advisory group looking at special education. These are the two areas where problems arise in the system and it is not fair that we set up a group where the Minister rightly says we must exclude people representing those with special education needs because disadvantage is not about special education, but when one looks elsewhere there is no suggestion of establishing policy in this area. We have had occasional committees, such as the special education committee in 1993, although any implementation group under that lapsed into disuse. This is an opportune time, if we make statutory provision for an ongoing committee looking at educational disadvantage, to do the same for special education needs. Unfortunately, a similar amendment was not allowed because it would result in a cost to the Exchequer.
The Minister has made a commitment in this area but I wish to see policy in the Department radically shaken up. Over the years remedial teaching was developed as a partial response to educational disadvantage. The jury is out on the breaking the cycle scheme, but there is no sign it will be radically expanded. There was also the early start programme, and I know this pre-school group is looking at it. But all of this is desultory compared to the fact that this is the greatest problem facing the education system. Even at the expense of having a ginger group sitting on the Minister's tail, I wish the committee to be given power and authority and to be properly resourced with more capability than the advisory role planned for it in the Bill. The Minister could look at the Combat Poverty Agency legislation to see the more proactive role that can be given to such a group to tackle disadvantage head on. It would be uncomfortable for all of us, for many of the schools, which perhaps would be found wanting, and for the Department. That price should be paid because tackling educational disadvantage is at the heart of what our system should be about, as the Minister correctly said. We cannot, with hands on heart, say we have been successful.
Our education system is trumpeted as one of the best in the world but that is for the top 66 per cent of students. However, the bottom group is not doing well in the system, in reading and writing skills and subsequent employment experiences. They drop out of school too early and even in recent times, where more have stayed on to do the leaving certificate, they failed it. We are not getting to grips with this even as effectively as other countries. Other countries are better dealing with people with the greatest disadvantage in the education system. There is a problem here which must be faced up to and this is a good opportunity to do something more radical than what is contained in the Bill. I desire something more proactive and aggressive.
I am satisfied with the committee as proposed. We have to be careful we do not park these issues with some convenient committee. It is the responsibility and obligation of the Minister of the day to be proactive in terms of educational disadvantage, piloting new projects, reviewing existing policies and developing new ones. Already considerable research has been commissioned in combating educational disadvantage. The most recently published research was that entered into jointly by the Department and the Combat Poverty Agency which provided a comprehensive account of educational disadvantage in Ireland. The Education Research Centre, for example, conducts research on an ongoing basis for the Department.
We should not underestimate or understate what is happening generally to combat educational disadvantage. The principal scheme introduced was the designated disadvantaged one. It involved a concessionary teacher and additional capitation grants for the students in those schools. The breaking the cycle scheme was introduced very much as a pilot project and only extended to 40 schools out of a total of 3,000. The educational disadvantage report to which I referred came to the conclusion that educational disadvantage was spread throughout the country and the majority of it was to be found in rural areas and population centres of less than 10,000, but the difficulty was that it was dispersed among small schools. In urban areas there were high concentrations of disadvantage in certain areas.
CORI was the principal promoter of this proposal for an educational disadvantage committee and has done considerable work in highlighting and creating focus and awareness on this issue. We have moved substantially to respond to the objectives of its proposals in establishing such a committee. Most concerns in amendment No. 284 will be taken up by the committee I am establishing and it will not be prevented from undertaking initiatives, except pilot ones. We then run the risk of splitting up and having pilots everywhere under different agencies and committees. There is already expertise within the system — the inspectorate, teachers and parents.
Certainly, people come up with good ideas or concepts. There is no difficulty in using the existing machinery to implement those concepts and pilot projects. Indeed, as I am beginning to discover, it often links in with other organisations. For example, the area partnerships which have been established are proving to be quite effective in combating educational disadvantage. They are providing extra resources other than those which the Department is providing and they are having the desired impact.
I do not accept that there are straws in the wind which would suggest that Ireland is not performing to the same degree as other countries. All the Ministers I have met on the European circuit have significant similar problems in their countries of a cohort of young people who are experiencing educational disadvantage.
We have been quite innovative in this country down through the years. We should give ourselves credit where credit is due. The Youthreach project for those between the ages of 15 and 18 was a particularly Irish innovation which has proven to be effective. Over two thirds of all Youthreach students move on to either education, employment or further training. We can do more, certainly. Much of the ongoing work will not bear fruit until later years.
We are still looking at it. The Deputy mentioned that the retention rate was at 82 per cent. I want to increase that to 90 per cent. That should a core function of the Minister. The Legislature and the Executive arm of Government should be driving this as a central Government objective.
I disagree with the Minister when he says that we are doing well in this field. All the evidence is that we are not doing well. The Secretary General recently told the committee that Ireland's ranking among those aged nine was better than among those aged 14. We lost ground in international rankings between the ages of nine and 14. Ireland is experiencing clear problems in maintaining its position among those in the critical years between the ages of nine and 14.
The Minister had to admit recently that the retention, which had been the Department's objective, will not be met.
Under existing policies up until my arrival in office they were not being met.
The Minister was reported as indicating that he would not achieve 90 per cent in the year. If he wants to make the political point that his policies on disadvantage are more inspired than those of the previous Government, that is pretty weak gruel. He can talk about children between the ages of eight and 15 and the £3 million or whatever he is allocating, but that is not significant when he is spending an education budget in excess of £2 billion.
Recently we have seen in the Partnership 2000 report that we have failed to achieve the target set for bringing people from disadvantaged backgrounds into the third level system. The Department will be aware that targets of 500 per year were set and we are nowhere near achieving them. We are fiddling around with small numbers in the colleges. I would see a committee of this nature shaking the tree. They should be making the universities feel uncomfortable. They should be making many of us feel uncomfortable about just how seriously this issue is being taken. That would not be before its time. For example, they should be undertaking pilot schemes on the use of information technology. There is evidence from other countries, particularly the US, that information technology has been particularly useful in addressing problems of educational disadvantage. We appear to be behind the pack in introducing measures in that area. It would be good to have a group of this nature piloting that, looking at the sort of programmes which could be usefully introduced in the IT level.
The Minister's response was the bureaucratic response, that it would be awful to have all these school innovating and doing different things, and that we could not establish uniformity. Why do we want uniformity? We want to see things split up. We want to see innovation from different people. The idea of pilot initiatives is something we should be encouraging. Let 1,000 flowers bloom, should be the policy. I would have no fear of giving people some resource and encouraging them to pilot. That would be great for the education system. We would start to discover that some things work which we did not dream could have worked and start to apply them elsewhere.
I feel strongly that if we are to go to the trouble of setting up this group, we should give it teeth. It should have a mandate to make it uncomfortable for people who are not seriously looking at this area. We cannot sit back in a self-satisfied way and state that we are doing well in this area. We are not. We are falling behind our international competitors or colleagues. We ought to take a hard look at this area and try to do something innovative.
I ask the Minister to look again at this area on Report Stage? Let us set out something here which will be meaningful and which will have a long-term impact. That means being willing to cede an extra role for them away from the Minister and the Department. We may or may not debate later the extent to which we should be devolving power, but this is an area where a little devolution would be worthwhile.
I am not attempting to engage in party political scoring. To clarify the points I made on the 82 per cent retention rate, when I took office in July the public policy as enunciated in the White Paper on Education was to achieve a retention rate at second level of 90 per cent because full participation to the Leaving Certificate and the attainment of certification at that level is essential for any young person to have a decent chance of employment. However, there was no data within the Department or the Government generally on how we proposed to go from 82 per cent to 90 per cent. I commissioned an in-house study on where the Department stood on retention at second level. That is the point I am making. What I suggested in public speeches subsequently, having concluded the departmental research involving integrating sections of the Department relating to IT, post-primary and examinations, is that there was some evidence that the 82 per cent is a plateau and to get to 90 per cent will need additional intervention and targeted programmes. This is the case because we are dealing with students who have greater difficulty in staying in second level education.
We will have difficulty achieving 90 per cent retention by the year 2000, which was the stated public policy as far back as 1995. I could make a party political point and suggest that efforts should have been made in advance of this to go after this goal. All I will say is that we must do something now. The research has shown evidence of areas where improvement could take place if targeted approaches are taken.
On third level education, I agree that greater participation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds has not been achieved. People argued that the free fees initiative would be a miraculous cure for all our ills in this regard. Of course it has been nothing of the sort and it should never have been presented as such. It was presented as the panacea for participation by the disadvantaged. It has not produced one additional place for a disadvantaged student in the system. However, it has provided relief to students in the system, and particularly those from the PAYE sector, which is not a bad thing either. That is the context in which I would describe that decision.
Some universities are moving faster than others. In Blanchardstown, for example, we are anxious to establish a third level institution which would have disadvantage as its core mission statement. To give an example of our bona fides, the mission statement we gave to the establishment board of the Blanchardstown Institute of Technology is to include 30 per cent of its enrolments from mature, second chance and disadvantaged backgrounds. That will be tough to achieve. Unless we take decisions like that and give new bodies like BIT that kind of remit, we will never achieve the goal.
Some colleges are better than others. Recently I was talking to Professor Áine Hyland of UCC. They have a 10 per cent mature, second chance student figure in their undergraduate programmes. This is well above the average of 3 per cent in the overall system. Some institutions are doing better than others. DCU has been to the fore with its BITE programme. Other colleges are beginning to follow this example. We have increased investment in the Estimates by modest amounts to give greater support to third level programmes. The committee I am establishing will create the kind of focus Deputy Bruton is anxious to see. It will act without fear or favour, stimulate debate, criticise Government policy on an ongoing basis and suggest new ways of doing things. It will also put schools, universities and others under pressure in terms of the degree to which they fulfil the mandate to be socially inclusive and have proactive measures dealing with disadvantage. We are arguing about the extent and range of provisions for the committee. It is adequate and will more than meet its requirements. I am accepting a number of the amendments.
The Celtic tiger is benefiting a large portion of the population but others have not reaped such benefits. A growing number of people are falling below the line. Long term unemployment remains with us and there is an undoubted trend that where parents' educational achievements are low so too will be those of their children as their horizons and aspirations are lower. I have been very impressed by some of the Department's schemes dealing with the lifeskills of those from disadvantaged areas, including the concept of community development. The more people are empowered to take charge of and manage their own lives the more their children's lives will be improved. Such a development raises their children's horizons.
I welcome the education disadvantage committee. It is always important that the Minister receives advice on policy and strategy. The Minister spoke of the Combat Poverty report and how disadvantage is dispersed. In some of the major urban areas one can identify areas where there is an element of disadvantage. As a result, the sort of provision the Minister is talking about should operate in a devolved context. What is suitable in Dublin, Cork, Limerick or Waterford may not be suitable in a medium-sized or small town and even less so where there is a sparse population and an even greater difficulty providing a service. I have not tabled an amendment in this regard but the Minister should examine the possibility of devolving this process. It may mean that a number of committees are set up around the country feeding back into the centre. I feel strongly about this issue, which is the greatest issue in Irish society. We have to get to grips with disadvantage. This is not to place a less than full value on the good work which has been done.
The Minister is at the centre and the buck stops with him. However, in terms of making sure that things happen, there is a validity in what Deputy Bruton has said. The consultative process is important and enriches everyone. The result will be better policies and strategies. However, we are talking about a process which will enable us to put together a framework in mainstream education. The vital issue is how this is driven. We are going to have to change mindsets to bring about significant improvements. This includes elements such as the development of lifeskills and community development. If a community becomes more confident and empowered and deals better with its problems, the whole climate for moving forward, including the education agenda, is easier. The driving forward of the process is the key issue. The Minister should consider how this can best be achieved. We are losing the battle. Consultation, policy development and strategies will help us. We have to start taking more comprehensive steps to address this issue.
I have no great difficulty with what the Deputy has said. I am quite open in terms of communities around the country. The Deputy is correct in saying that different communities may have different approaches and different needs. I have mentioned the input of the education subcommittees of the area partnerships. Some of these are very good and are having a good impact. They are devising initiatives some of which we then support. We need to be flexible. We are often constrained by existing subheads and arrangements. I accept the need for greater flexibility on our part whereby we can support initiatives taken by area partnerships. There is also a need to draw on the experience of what is happening throughout the country. We have an inspector on every area partnership but I accept the point that we could benefit more and develop more flexible arrangements for supporting different types of initiatives to combat educational disadvantage.
I move amendment No. 60:
In page 9, subsection (1), between lines 33 and 34, to insert the following:
"(a) to ensure, subject to the provisions of this Act, that there is made available to each person resident in the State, including a person with a disability or who has other special educational needs, a level and quality of education appropriate to meeting the needs and abilities of that person,".
Amendment No. 61 was discussed with amendment No. 51.
What was the Minister's view on that?
Section 2 provides the funding.
Section 7(1)(b) states that the Minister has to plan and co-ordinate. The amendment suggests to plan, co-ordinate and provide appropriate funding for——
Section 2(a) refers to providing funding for each recognised school and centre——
But not to support services.
It does refer to that — "and to provide support services to recognised schools, centres for education, students, including students with special educational needs——"
That is fine. I just wished to clarify it.
Amendment No. 63 is related to amendment No. 62 so both may be discussed together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 62:
In page 9, subsection (1)(b), between lines 38 and 39, to insert the following:
"(iii) the provision of information on all aspects of the education system.".
This seeks to add the provision of information on all aspects of the education system to the functions of the Minister in addition to the other aspects of support services and determining national education policy. It is heartening to hear that the Minister was willing to amend the Bill prior to this discussion so that it did not have the appearance of being confined to schools. The amendment follows the same line of thought that the education system should be as broadly based as possible and that information on all aspects of it should be one of the main functions of the Minister. The point made by Deputy Bruton is equally applicable to this amendment. It ties in with something I mentioned before that good parenting depends on the general provision of information outside the school premises. I hope the Minister is open to this suggestion. The National Parents Council is keen that this be seen as a central function of the Minister and I take that as a good sign. It appears the council's view of education is broader than the view that it should be confined to what happens in schools. I hope the Minister is amenable to the amendment and I ask him to accept it.
I share Deputy Sargent's sentiments. I recall that one of the tasks of the education boards in the previous Bill was to promote discussions in their regions and to disseminate information on activities. It was seen as central to any education authority at the time that vigorous debate be promoted and information be given about education policy. With the decision to revert to a centralised administration of the education system, there is a greater onus on the Minister to provide information to people so that there can be a meaningful debate. It is important that parents, especially those of children with special educational needs, have the information necessary to make choices. Their choices are difficult, such as whether to opt for integrated or non-integrated education. As I understand from a recent report from the Disability Federation of Ireland, parents do not receive that information and are in the dark when making decisions which will have a profound impact on their children's future. The Minister should adopt as a key part of his role that information be made available to those for whom the decisions they make are important and also that vigorous debate on education issues be promoted in the community. I hope the Minister will accept this amendment or an elaboration on it if he believes that necessary.
I already stated that I discovered during my time in the then Department of Health that, although much was happening in terms of resources and new initiatives, information was not disseminated as comprehensively or clearly as it should have to those most affected. The issue raised by these two amendments is how objective and comprehensive education should be delivered to parents, carers and students in a consumer friendly and readily comprehensible fashion. When I became spokesman on Education, I contacted the Secretary-General of the Department and was amazed at the list of publications the Department had produced. They were comprised mainly of reports and information regarding structures. What is important is the method by which this information is made available to people — for example, to a parent or carer of a child who requires full information at a certain time in the child's life for the best decision to be made. In light of the Minister's refusal to examine a devolved structure and instead to assume all responsibility, it must be asked of him how information is to be disseminated to the people. It is an important aspect of the education system and the Department of Education and Science should have the greatest expertise in this area. I confess I do not have the answers but I believe these two amendments have highlighted a deficit. Their statement of the provision of information as an objective is appropriate, I would like the Minister in reply to give his views as to how this important function of the Department can be properly administered.
In terms of general information, it would be best carried out at national level. The Department has been extremely proactive in terms of providing information and we should give credit where it is due. We now have a communications office born of the old press office. At any major exhibition on training or education, the most popular stand and the one in most demand is that of the Department of Education and Science. Some months ago, I and the Tánaiste opened a FÁS exhibition, organised in association with the Irish Independent. I was informed that people flocked to the Education and Science stand. One had only to go to the stand to see the plethora of publications the Department produces in a range of areas. It is exceptional. The stand is at all teacher and parent conferences. It tours the country with publications on everything.
We can do more and we can do it better. We are anxious to create a one stop information office within the Department where the public can call in, talk to people and acquire publications and information.
The Department must comply with the provisions of the Public Service Management Act, 1997, which are comprehensive with regard to the provision of information. The Freedom of Information Act also places obligations on the Department to provide information. The word "all" could create problems, for example, in respect of schools. Information pertaining to individual students could be on report sheets which would be proper to individual cases. There could not be widespread access to those records because they are relevant only to the individuals or families concerned. There might be other areas where for good reasons a school might not want to make certain information available to everybody.
The amendments seek information on the education system. We are committed to that and we are proactive in its promotion. The best way to do it is to lay down procedures by which the information will be provided. If Deputies agree, I can put down an amendment on Report Stage based on that principle.
I accept that the Department constantly provides significant amounts of information and I am ready to give it credit for that. I hope the Minister can follow through on his commitment and that he will include it as a function rather than an accessory. It should be recognised by the Minister and everybody else as a function.
I move amendment No. 64:
In page 9, subsection (1)(b), between lines 38 and 39, to insert the following:
"(iii) the provision by Vocational Education Committees, by schools and centres for education of adult or continuing education or vocational education or training.".
There is a notable absence of any reference to the Minister's function regarding adult or continuing education. The Minister appears to be involved in controversy with the vocational education committees as to whether he will develop their role. However, my amendment refers to the provision of adult or continuing education by the vocational education committees or by other centres.
We have just emerged from a year of promoting lifelong learning and one of the core functions of the Minister will be to promote adult and continuing education. It is an objective of the Bill and somebody should have the function of delivering it. Who better than the Minister?
It is in the Bill.
It is in section 7(1)(b) which provides that it shall be a function of the Minister to plan and co-ordinate and now to provide funding for "(i) the provision of education in recognised schools and centres for education". That includes education within the vocational education committees.
Does it include adult education?
It does, and continuing education.
When the Department previously formulated this section it made explicit mention of it when it was describing the functions of the regional education boards.
It is included in the definitions in this Bill. A centre for education "means a place, other than a school or a place providing university or other third level education, where adult or continuing education or vocational education or training, is provided and which is designated for that purpose by the Minister". Those concerns were expressed but they are dealt with in the definition section. Where the words "centre for education" are used they embrace the definition in section 2.
Under both this and the VEC legislation, therefore, the Minister will have a mandate for the provision of adult education?
I move amendment No. 66:
In page 9, subsection (1), between lines 38 and 39, to insert the following:
"(c) to ensure that the educational needs of all students, including those with special educational needs, are identified and provided for in suitable accommodation with appropriate support services, including where necessary the coordination of other bodies in the provision of such support services,
(d) to ensure that where any of the Minister's functions are delegated to others, appropriate resources are allocated to carry out the function.".
This deals with the issue of appropriate accommodation and support services. I hoped the Minister would take account of that broader need in amendment No. 60 in order to deliver appropriate education. There is always a problem securing appropriate support services within these education sectors. What was the Minister's view?
We agreed the amendment covered that.
I move amendment No. 68:
In page 9, subsection (1), between lines 38 and 39, to insert the following:
"(c) to ensure that any student who is out of school for an unreasonable length of time shall have an appropriate education provided for them.".
This refers to the problem of children who are out of school for an unreasonable length of time. There appears to be a problem with regard to where they will be accommodated.
Until a child reaches the age where education is no longer compulsory, he or she cannot be expelled by a school unless it has found alternative accommodation for him or her. However, that obligation is more often breached than applied. Somebody must take responsibility for establishing that a child who, for whatever reason, has been put on long-term suspension or expulsion from a school is brought back into the system.
The Minister will probably promise to develop further the school attendance function of the Department but the current situation is most unsatisfactory and all politicians have encountered it in their clinics. Finding accommodation for children who have nowhere to go is an endless process. There should be a clear acceptance of responsibility in this sphere by the Department.
The Minister might claim that many of the schools are voluntary schools and he cannot tell them what to do. However, we are telling parents that they must send their children to school. There is a contradiction here and somebody must resolve it. This amendment is an attempt to stop the buck with the Department. It cannot be shunted to the schools in the current meaningless way because it is not working.
It does land on my desk. Finding appropriate education for a child who is out of school but who is entitled to an education under the Constitution is the Department's function. However, the process of dealing with that involves negotiation with schools or the provision of certain centres.
Sections 6 and 7 impose an obligation on the Minister to provide for the appropriate education of all children. Amendments Nos. 50 and 60 improve the situation somewhat although they do not specifically mention the problem in the language used in the Deputy's amendment. The statutory obligation on the Minister does not cease simply because children are not in school.
Already the Department provides home tuition and tuition settings other than the formal school setting for students who are out of school for substantial periods for a variety of reasons. This will continue after the enactment of this legislation. We will also introduce a school attendance Bill which will deal with the issue mentioned in the Deputy's amendment. We must always have sufficient alternative provision for children who are in difficulty. I accept that, to date, this provision has not always been sufficient in certain local situations. It will be difficult to solve this problem legislatively. We are trying to marry the parent's aspirations, the child's difficulties and the rights of the school's patrons.
Schools will argue that to keep a child in school will adversely affect the education of other children in the school. Parents do not often favour alternative provision. Suggestions that a pupil go to a particular centre are often rejected by parents. This is often followed by a process of discussion and argument while attempts are made to marry differing needs and motivations. These incidents are increasing and the Department works on an ongoing basis to place children who have been moved out of school. We need to do more and there is an obligation to provide alternative programmes within the school setting so that children, instead of being expelled or suspended, can be accommodated in an alternative programme within the school. Some schools are doing this and doing it quite well, but of course the issue of resources is significant. I am conscious of the issues raised in the amendment but I do not feel it necessary to accept it.
I accept that, technically, it could be established that the existing provision makes the Minister responsible but it would do no harm to insert a reference to the plight of students who are out of school for an unreasonable length of time. Even if it can be argued that such students are covered by the existing provisions there is merit in having this obligation stated explicitly.
I acknowledge the problems outlined by the Minister. VEC's often find themselves as a sort of lender of last resort trying to accommodate children who have had difficulties in other schools. They get, I suppose, additional provision of some sort to accommodate these pupils. The Clondalkin report showed that 25 per cent of children were out of school and half of them were absent on a fairly chronic basis, that is for at least one third of the year. This problem will not go away. It would be a good idea to acknowledge the seriousness of this problem in the Bill. It would not solve the problem but it would acknowledge its existence and it might strengthen the Minister's hand in encouraging voluntary second level schools to tackle it. We will be discussing admissions policies later. We also need policies for suspensions and expulsions.
Amendment No. 60 clearly places on the State an obligation to provide an education to each student, including one with a disability, appropriate to his or her needs. This includes children who are out of school for an unreasonable period of time.
I do not think people would interpret those words as meaning what the Minister says.
They may not see it in language terms but the statutory obligation is, nevertheless, there. The status quo is being changed so that the Minister now has a statutory obligation to make this provision.
The proposed amendment makes explicit what the Minister says is implicit. It is useful to have this obligation stated explicitly.
As Deputy Bruton's amendment is worded, the obligation could apply to any student of any age. I will look at this matter before Report Stage. I would be anxious that no child's constitutional rights should be denied.
Every child has a constitutional right to primary education. The statutory age for school attendance is 15. These are two different rights and they are quite clear. I am happy that the Minister will look at this matter again but I would like to see some recognition of this problem in the Act.
There is a possibility of raising the age of compulsory school attendance in a school attendance Act. It might be better if we dealt with this matter in the forthcoming school attendance Bill. Amendment No. 60 covers the key issue of Ministerial responsibility.
My amendment merely elaborates on the Minister's amendment. It adds nothing new.
I will come back to this matter on Report Stage.
I understand the point made by Deputy Bruton. The Minister knows of my interest in this question. I have asked him parliamentary questions on the subject. I was surprised to learn that schools have no obligation to report expulsions to the Department. I am not sure if people are aware that a school cannot expel a student under 15 years.
Without providing alternative schooling.
I believe many teachers are not aware of this fact. If a pupil under 15 is expelled from a second level as distinct from a first level school, does the Minister have any statutory powers in such a situation.
One cannot force a school to re-admit a child who has been expelled. One can only use leverage. The pupil has constitutional rights, although one would not wish to see pupils taking actions in the Supreme Court.
In the school attendance Bill I will be attempting to cover the points raised by Deputy O'Shea. We have greater control over some second level schools than others. Vocational and community schools have a more direct relationship with the State whereas voluntary schools are privately owned. We have, under the Constitution, a State aided system of education which reduces the degree to which the Minister can impose his policies on schools. I would not wish to impose solutions.
I have served on boards of management where children have been expelled. If one wants to impose obligations on schools in terms of young people one must provide them with some options and genuine alternatives in the form of alternative programmes and centres to which children can be referred. Parents must then decide whether they are anxious that their child go to a particular centre. Some parents are not anxious. For example, the Minister could make a declaration having examined a situation. School advice is not always wrong. Invariably on boards of management I found parent's representatives sided with teachers in the case of a child being expelled on the grounds that the behaviour of the child was such that the education of other children in the class was being undermined and disrupted. There has been a lack of alternative provision, but the situation is improving. The project for eight to 15 year olds will be an additional significant improvement as it will at least give additional projects. We could do with more in areas to which children can be referred in an informal and formal setting.
I withdraw the amendment on the basis that the Minister will be accommodating on Report Stage.