Amendment No. 135 is cognate with amendment No. 70 and both may be discussed together by agreement.
Education (No. 2) Bill, 1997: Committee Stage (Resumed).
I move amendment No. 70:
In page 9, subsection (2)(a), line 44, after "with" to insert "disabilities and".
This amendment relates to points I made yesterday about including the word "disability" with "special needs" in the relevant sections. The amendment seeks to have subsection (2) read:
Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1), each of the following shall be a function of the Minister:
(a) to provide funding to each recognised school and centre for education and to provide support services to recognised schools, centres for education, students, including students with disabilities and special educational needs. . .
The subsection as it stands refers only to students with special educational needs.
Amendment No. 135 relates to the functions of a school. It seeks to amend section 9 to read:
A recognised school shall provide education to students which is appropriate to their abilities and needs and, without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing, it shall, as far as resources permit—
(a) ensure that the educational needs of all students, including those with disabilities and special educational needs, are identified and provided for.
This subsection as it stands refers only to students with special educational needs. These amendments are in line with the Minister's amendment to the Long Title.
It is in line with the amendment to the Long Title and we were of the view that it was covered. However, I will include it in the amendments which I table for Report Stage. I accept the amendments with a view to rephrasing them for Report Stage.
Amendment No. 71 was already discussed with amendment No. 31. How does the amendment stand?
I move amendment No. 71:
In page 10, subsection (2)(d), line 11, after "Irish" to insert "and Irish Sign Language".
The Minister indicated yesterday he would look at this area again. Will he wait until the officials have made their visit to Sweden before he finalises his position on the matter?
Before Report Stage?
I think that would impose an unnecessary burden. We will send the officials to Sweden — there is already considerable interest in that. I will see if it can be done but I do not want to tie myself to it.
The legislation would benefit if a group could advise the Minister on the success of sign language in Sweden. It would give him a clearer view on the amendment.
I will try to do that.
Amendment No. 73 is out of order as it involves a potential charge on the revenue.
Amendments Nos. 77, 78 and 80 are related to amendment No. 74. Amendment No. 81 is an alternative to amendment No. 80. Amendments Nos. 74, 77, 78, 80 and 81 may be discussed together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 74:
In page 10, subsection (4), between lines 35 and 36, to insert the following:
"(b) shall recognise the important input of patrons, parents, students, education managements, teachers and other staff as well as the wider community, who together represent the educational partners, at both national and local level and shall endeavour to ensure that they shall be consulted in all areas where they have a direct concern by persons concerned with the implementation of this Act,".
The purpose of this amendment is to modify the existing provisions in section 7(4) where the Minister is undertaking to consult, wherever practicable, the various education partners, as he considers appropriate. This commitment is to consult national associations and is essentially a high level consultation process. Most important education decisions have a local impact. This amendment seeks to ensure the Minister recognises the input of the various education partners at both national and local level and that he shall endeavour to ensure they shall be consulted in all areas in which they are directly concerned by persons concerned with the implementation of the Act. The lack of a vehicle for local consultation in the Bill is an oversight which the amendment seeks to address.
The amendment is also an attempt to define who constitutes the education partners. The definition section of the Bill does not define the education partners. When I came to write the amendment I noticed few references are made to the wider community when people discuss the partners in education, which is a significant oversight. The wider community has an important role, particularly in local decision making. The Minister has recognised that by developing industry to education links and groups involving the wider community. Industry is only one strand of the wider community. The Bill should recognise that education has far reaching implications for those outside the immediate system. The concerns of such people should be taken on board in policy making and decision making. I hope the amendment commends itself to the Minister.
I attempted in drafting the Bill to make substantial provision for meeting the needs of people with special educational needs or other disabilities, in line with the Government's commitment in An Action Programme for the Millennium. Amendment No. 81 provides for the Minister to include in the consultation process, where appropriate, persons or groups with special interest in the education of students with special educational needs.
In amendment No. 74 Deputy Bruton is proposing that the important input of all the partners in education, at both national and local levels, should be recognised and that they should be consulted where appropriate. Partnership is an important principle underpinning all aspects of the Bill. Consultation with the partners at both national and local levels is a recurring theme, not only in section 7 but throughout the Bill. Therefore, I do not think amendment No. 74 is necessary.
Amendments Nos. 77 and 80, which were tabled by Deputy O'Shea, also relate to consultation. Amendment No. 77 seeks to insert the word "local". Amendment No. 80 proposes to delete "education as the Minister considers appropriate" and substitute "national education policy and local and regional education issues as the Minister considers appropriate". We must bear in mind the practicalities of such matters. It could be impractical to commit a Minister in legislation to consult everyone at every local level. As Minister, I have been engaging in such consultations but I accept such consultation often depends on the personality or energy of Ministers or their predisposition to travel to meet local groups.
National organisations are there to streamline the consultative process and take views from their members. For example, when one meets the ASTI national executive one is meeting a body which represents the interests of local members. The same applies to the other unions, the parents' associations, the management bodies and principals' associations. There must be practical mechanisms for consultation at that level.
If we include a general provision, such as that proposed in amendment No. 74 and others, where would it stop? It is not realistic to tie down future Ministers by obliging them to consult on every issue which arises in a given locality? The other danger is that the national organisations could be broken up in the process. For example, Ministers could get involved in meeting certain branches in local areas which might have different views from their national body, although the national body might have gone through a process to reach a position on the issue.
These are very deep questions. Partnership is about respecting the status of the organisations with which one is meeting. Those who represent the constituent elements in the education world have their own processes and situations. While I have no difficulty with meeting groups and consulting people, I would be slow to put such a requirement into legislation.
The Minister is obviously responding to amendments which were not tabled in my name when he says there is a suggestion the Minister should engage in consultations with every local group. I was at pains in drafting my amendment to recognise the impracticality of that; instead, I am proposing that the Minister would recognise their input and endeavour to ensure they are consulted — not that he consult them. In other words, if the Department decides to close down a school or withdraw a service from a school there would be an effort by Department officials to consult in making such decisions. It seemed practical to suggest the Minister would be involved. There is a substantial day to day relationship between the Department and schools and just as the Minister is anxious to bring in partners at national level, the person designated to deal with schools on a day to day basis should endeavour to make sure the various partners in the process at local level are consulted. I cannot think what the issues would be about which a major decision would be effected. Undoubtedly, consolidation of schools will become an issue over time and I would not expect a Minister to go down and try to sort out a row in a country town about whether schools should amalgamate or develop, but I would expect whoever is acting on his behalf would be obliged to take into account the view of all partners.
National organisations would not feel undermined if issues arose about consolidation of schools or attempts to develop a broader range of subjects and how that would be organised between schools. They do not have the resources to deal in great detail with individual issues of that nature. I acknowledge the Minister's point that he does not want to be dragged legislatively into consulting with every group but I tried to draft my amendment to prevent him being drawn into that.
The Deputy is talking about local areas and local bodies are involved in local issues. That is done currently by inspectors or Department officials and, indeed, from time to time the Minister must sort out an amalgamation issue by meeting deputations. I have no difficulty incorporating the principle articulated by the Deputy on Report Stage once the wording has been tied down.
I will accept amendment No. 77.
The Minister accepted amendment No. 77.
No, it states the Minister shall consult national and local associations.
It is not mandatory that the Minister does so.
We should use good faith in the legislation. If "wherever practicable" is inserted, the Minister must say it was not. Where possible we should meet groups and we do so for specific cases. The section deals with a national context.
If the Minister is consulting national bodies and a local issue which is highly controversial, such as the amalgamation of schools, is involved there is a feeling that certain points of view are not getting through.
I will look at the wording before Report Stage. I want to protect against putting an obligation on the Minister to travel all around the country.
The section states "The Minister shall consult..". Does that mean the Minister personally?
Yes, at national level. We will come back on Report Stage. We have agreed wording similar to Deputy Bruton's amendment and we can accommodate what Deputy O'Shea is endeavouring to achieve.
What about amendment No. 80?
Amendment No. 80 is unnecessary. The words "matters relating to education as the Minister considers appropriate" cover everything.
It does in an arbitrary way, but certain areas of the country may be left out. "Local" has a place.
I am satisfied with the subsection and will not accept that amendment.
Will the Minister accept amendment No. 78?
I am not inclined to accept that. It was never envisaged that we would consult primary and second level students on a regular basis similar to consulting USI in regard to third level students. It would involve thousands of students around the country who do not have recognised representative bodies. Students' councils are in-house structures which I strongly support and wish to see develop. I do not see a necessity to place an obligation on the Minister. I will not accept amendments Nos. 78 and 80. I will accept amendments Nos. 74 and 77 on Report Stage.
I am concerned about the growth in the area of PLCs. The Minister is extending grants to this area this year, which is welcome. That group will now become a more identifiable part of the second level system.
We will find a way to include PLC students.
Does the Minister have a problem in principle with including terminology relating to students aged over 18 years?
We consult with students aged over 18 years in third level education. The USI has begun to represent PLC students, even though they are not affiliated. Embryonic organisations are emerging in the PLC sector. I will try to include an amendment on Report Stage which covers PLC students. The issue can be debated at another time. Perhaps I am conservative, but I believe that leaving certificate students should concentrate on that alone.
Amendments Nos. 75 and 76 are related and may be discussed together. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 75:
In page 10, subsection (4)(b), line 36, to delete "shall, wherever practicable" and substitute "make all reasonable efforts to".
I move amendment No. 79:
In page 10, subsection (4)(b), line 39, after "teachers" to insert ", the Irish Council of People with Disabilities".
This amendment provides for the inclusion in the consultation process of the Irish Council of People with Disabilities. In another amendment, the Minister said he will look at a formula on Report Stage whereby disability will be included. I am happy to move forward in that fashion. It does not have to be the council that is consulted, but other organisations also. Does the Minister intend to include some reference to groups representing the disabled?
I move amendment No. 81:
In page 10, subsection (4)(b), line 41, after "education" to insert ", including persons or groups of persons who have a special interest in, or experience of, the education of students with special educational needs,".
I move amendment No. 82:
In page 10, subsection (4), between lines 41 and 42, to insert the following:
"(c) shall appoint an Appeals Committee to investigate any area where the needs of students have not been adequately addressed.".
This amendment seeks to insert a new subsection in section 7 which deals with the functions of the Minister and it gives the right of appeal.
Amendment No. 82 proposes to establish an appeals committee. Sections 28 and 29 provide for comprehensive grievance and appeals procedures and the establishment of appeals committees. Deputy O'Shea's amendment is unnecessary, particularly in this section. I do not propose to accept it.
My understanding is that the appeals procedure will relate to three areas, suspension, expulsion and the non-recruitment of a pupil on any other basis than the lack of accommodation. This amendment proposes to deal with circumstances where the needs of students have not been adequately addressed. This is different from the appeals procedure proposed by the Minister.
Deputy O'Shea's proposal is open-ended. The appeals structure involves a balance between the practicalities of administration and the protection of the basic right of appeal on decisions taken in relation to students. The proposed committee would be a huge burden on those concerned and it is unnecessary. There are already appropriate means of redress in terms of the needs of students.
I support this amendment. The Minister and his Department have been less than fulsome in sections 28 and 29. There is more involved in a citizen's rights in the education system than is encompassed by section 29, which covers expulsions, exclusions and refusals to enrol. People have a right to an appropriate level of education suited to their needs, about which we have spoken ad nauseam. The Minister is saying he will give those rights but that people will have to go to court to establish them. That is unacceptable in this day and age. Every group in the public or private sectors are providing services and establishing ombudsmen to allow the public vindicate their rights in respect of any legitimate concern they have about the way they are treated. The education system should be no different.
I am sorry my amendment No. 250 which proposes the establishment of an education ombudsman has been ruled out of order. The principles underpinning that amendment are fundamental. The Minister is offering very weak provisions. He has made only one improvement to sections 28 and 29, which I welcome. He is being courageous in providing a complaints procedure to deal with students' grievances about decisions taken in a school. He will not wait for an agreement which may not be forthcoming. An agreement from all groups concerned in order to consult with them will no longer be required. This is a step forward.
The fundamental issue is that citizens have rights which go beyond the decisions of a teacher. They have a right to expect that all of the functions set out for schools, the Minister and different bodies in this Bill are ones about which they can raise legitimate complaints. An independent officer should investigate those complaints and either dismiss them as vexatious, reject them as unfounded or uphold them and recommend a remedy. This is an important issue and many of the partners in the education system, representing groups of parents and students see it as such. The Minister should think about this again and come back with a more satisfactory method of dealing with citizens' grievances about the entire education system, not just about expulsions or decisions of teachers. He should reconsider the entire system from his Department to education centres or other bodies which may be established in the future. It appears we will be treated to a number of quangos and they should all be accountable to an education ombudsman. If necessary, the committee should take a stand.
The Ombudsman has jurisdiction over education and deals with a range of related issues on an ongoing basis.
He deals only with administration — for example, if a matter relates to maladministration — he does not deal with issues such as the rights under section 7.
He does deal with them. The most recent case on which he reported related to school transport for a child with special needs. This matter related to more than administration. It was a fundamental issue in terms of the child's access to transport to school. The Ombudsman's judgment has been implemented. However, there are other means by which people can address issues. We must be careful in terms of the running of the education system. I want teachers teaching in schools and principals administering schools. If a mechanism such as that suggested in the amendment was put in place, the entire system would become clogged up in a short time. Ireland would have the best mechanisms in the world for making appeals but nothing else would be organised. The fundamentals must be maintained.
Section 29 is not confined to the three areas of admissions, expulsions and suspensions. It also contains a measure where the partners can make decisions about other areas which might be covered by the appeals committee in the future. Representatives of the national parents' organisations are involved and could consider extending the remit of the committee. The appeals process has been controversial and there have been disagreements and differences of opinion among the partners about it in terms of achieving a balance.
Once a proper based appeals system is up and running, it can grow organically in terms of becoming a committee with a wider brief. Change creates fear and anxiety but people will settle down and realise it is not as difficult as they first anticipated. The Bill includes an enabling provision which will facilitate the expansion of the appeals committee to accommodate issues such as the needs and rights of children in relation to the education system. This is the first time such a strong statutory underpinning of an appeals committee for parents and students has been established. The system will evolve from that initial position. In terms of other mechanisms, a further section relates to the inspectorate ensuring that the needs of children are properly met by the system. These measures are adequate and, therefore, I am not prepared to accept the amendment.
The Minister is making a fundamental mistake in his approach to this matter. He is peddling the notion that people having the right to appeal decisions will mean that the system will become bogged down, nothing else can be done and teachers will be taken from their duties. This is thinking from the dark ages. The banking and insurance systems have ombudsmen. The idea that citizens have a right to expect quality services is mainstream to the job of running a school. If a person finds it burdensome to answer to people who are not happy, he or she should not be doing the job. It is part of their duties to put procedures in place in their school to deal with these matters. It is the Minister's duty to create posts such as an ombudsman who can deal with issues that are not resolved in schools.
The amendment does not mention an ombudsman. I did not deal with that aspect.
The amendment relating to an ombudsman is out of order because it would involve a charge on the Exchequer. However, the principle is the same. The Minister is taking the same road as the Minister of State who mentioned the blinkered campaign of opposition to the Education Bill by the National Parents' Council for primary schools. The Minister of State also mentioned people writing a charter for busybodies to undermine the authority of the teacher. This is the stable from which the Minister's thinking is emerging.
I do not agree.
Is the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea, semi-detached from the Government? He has the courage to put in colloquial terms what the Minister is putting in bureaucratic terms. The idea is that citizens who question the services they receive are troublesome people who are clogging up a smoothly running system and they should not bother their barney. However, people are educated and they expect standards.
I have no difficulty with that.
The Minister of State betrayed the type of thinking behind sections 28 and 29.
The National Parents' Council was consulted before and after the Bill was published. Some additional improvements it suggested have been accepted, while other points have not been included. I attended the council's conferences and branch meetings and I accept it as a full partner. The Bill provides an unprecedented degree of statutory underpinning of parents' rights in education in terms of the formation of parents' associations and recognition of the national association. It also places a strong obligation on boards of management to advise and assist parents' associations in schools.
It is propagandistic to suggest there is a hidden agenda to undermine the role of parents in education. The opposite is the case. I listen to views on an ongoing basis and actively encourage parents' associations. Regarding the recent discussions on the formation of boards of management, which I brought to a conclusion after a long period of disagreement between the partners, public advertisements were placed to ensure parents' associations in local areas knew the exact process and procedures vis-à-vis the election of representatives on the board of management. I do not accept the Deputy’s point.
Will the Minister reconsider the amendment? It states that an appeals committee shall be appointed to investigate any area where the needs of students have not been adequately addressed. Examples would be a geographic area where second level schools do not provide the desired range of subjects, problems that arise in terms of special education and school transport issues. I do not want a mechanism that would flood the system because it must deal with crank issues or malicious complaints. People have genuine grievances and there is an imbalance in the provisions for different groups of students which are related to geographic and other factors. In a broad sense the amendment proposes an element of inclusiveness. If people are concerned about particular provisions for students in their area, they would have a mechanism which they can be sure will investigate legitimate complaints or deficits identified in the system.
The Minister tried to tell the committee how much he respects the National Parents' Council. However, the council said about the Bill that it has the weakest possible position on rights and entitlements of children. It said it is not a bill of rights for children and throughout it, rights are watered down in favour of administrative and financial considerations. There is no due process for children or parents, only a weak appeal system for matters not resolved at school level. There is a semblance of democracy throughout the Bill but no substance to it.
It is all very well for the Minister to say he respects people but that does not bring home the bacon. We must stop thinking of pupils, students and parents as being less than citizens when they are before the altar of the education system — they expect fair treatment and equal rights. My recollection of the Ombudsman Act is that he is precluded from commenting on policy issues, and an implementation by the Minister of his functions under section 7 of this Bill would have to be construed as policy. The Ombudsman cannot go behind policy implemented by the Minister; that is not with his remit, he must accept policy as it is and on that basis decide whether it is being fairly administered. Deputy O'Shea and I recognise that the citizen has a right to complain about policy if it is not providing appropriate education in line with the functions agreed in amendment No. 60, which are fundamental to——
The Deputy wants an appeals committee on policy? That is a lawyer's charter.
If a person believes the Minister, in the policies he pursues, is not ensuring each person resident in the State — including people with disabilities or other special education needs — is getting a level and quality of education appropriate to his or her needs, that person should have the right and opportunity to challenge that policy. That could be done through an appeals committee — as mentioned in Deputy O'Shea's amendment, although it is not fleshed out at great length — or in the more detailed form of an ombudsman, such as I proposed in the amendment. That was disallowed. This is an important principle. If the Minister thinks it is not, he should listen to the Minister of State in his Department, Deputy O'Dea, to discover how important it is. This is not an aberration by one Minister of State, it is current thinking.
The Deputy quoted the primary tier of the National Parents Council but he did not quote the post-primary tier, which broadly welcomes the Bill.
That is not relevant.
It is because the Deputy is in a propagandist mode and is not discussing the Bill.
I referred to the remarks of the Minister's departmental colleague about people who have trouble with this section. That is not propaganda.
The quotation used by the Deputy featured fine rhetoric but in terms of its content, the only part of the Bill with which the council had difficulty was the appeals committee. In cold logical terms, I challenge anyone to go through the previous Education Bill and this one, point by point, and show where the points dealing with parents' rights, are being diluted, particularly in terms of membership of boards of management and the various rights and obligations of boards. The only disagreement is with the appeals committee and I acknowledge that.
The Minister is opening a much wider area and we could discuss it if we go back to Second Stage.
We have a right to disagree on various issues and the appeals committee is one area where there has been disagreement among the partners. I produced a formula which I think is balanced, practical and has the potential for growth. There is no other dilution of parents' rights. The primary tier of the National Parents' Council also had strong views about the regional education boards, and they were entitled to them, but in my view those boards did not add to parents' rights when compared to the existing system or what we propose here. In my opinion that was a misnomer, and I am entitled to my opinion. We went to the electorate on that position and we were endorsed. The election produced a new Government and our policies on the regional education boards were not hidden. We live in a democracy and we must try to work together to move agendas forward. I am endeavouring to do that. In all our areas of activity we consult the parents, whether it is on the introduction of the new primary curriculum or on the various committees I have established. The primary tier of the National Parents' Council has membership on those committees. It is unfair to suggest my office does not want parents involved because that is not the position.
The Minister has thrown down a challenge to go through the Bill section by section. I am conscious that the Chairman might not have enough time available so, without making that comparison, I recall that the Minister's change of position on boards was not satisfactory from the parents' point of view; the previous Bill had a requirement that boards should be in place. Parents were pleased with the provision in the previous Bill that each school would publish an annual report, but that has been withdrawn from this Bill. They are also unhappy with this appeals mechanism. Under the previous Bill, the regional education boards would have had a duty to ensure each child received an appropriate education but that has been significantly watered down. The Minister has mended his hand in that regard but there are at least four areas——
I received sustained applause at the meeting of the post-primary tier of the National Parents Council for abandoning the regional education boards. I have also established boards of management, comprising parents, at primary level.
The Minister should not confuse the applause ringing in his ears with the establishment of a proper education policy.
I am simply giving their views.
The Minister is attempting to deflect our attention from the important issue we are discussing. If, in the eyes of a parent or student, the Minister fails to ensure a student is getting appropriate education or has failed to develop policies which deliver such education, must the student go to court to vindicate his or her rights or should we enable that person to do something which is more accessible, cheaper, independent and that gives a fair hearing to both sides? Citizens expect that. The notion that the system would be bogged down if people complain and try to assert their rights is poor thinking which went out with the Ark. This is an important principle and the Minister should think again.
The appeals process in sections 28 and 29 is focused on boards of management and the appeal route is through the Secretary General. My concept of appeals is wider. People feel they are excluded and their needs are not being addressed, so I have constructed a process in which those issues can be raised and investigated. I have tabled amendments to later sections to strengthen the process in that regard. I do not envisage this as a system through which people could bring forward personal grievances against boards of management; it refers to the broader remit, where there is a deficit of provision.
The amendment states "any area".
What I meant by that was "any area of provision", although it may not read like that to the Minister. As he can see, the amendment is general. "Area of provision" would refer to special education, general education, second level, etc. I did not include the phrase "geographical area", I simply included "area". This would be a process to investigate a specific deficit in provision. Some parts of the country feel remote from the centre. Individuals may come to their Deputy and he may table a parliamentary question or write to the Minister, but I am talking about when there is a real deficit in the area where the case is being investigated. The investigation of problems in such an area, which will give a true picture of the position, will lead more speedily to provision in the long-term.
There is not a place in the State which does not feel it has no extra need for provision. There is not one parish which would not appeal, as every Deputy and Senator in this House knows, if we were to introduce this amendment as it is tabled.
I accept the bona fides of what the Deputy is trying to do. In the section dealing with the objects of the Bill we have inserted a provision whereby we would institute a review of the extent to which the objects are being met. We have had a good debate on these opinions so far and I am not disposed to accepting the amendment. I am interested in asserting the rights of individuals, students in particular, to education and the rights of parents to access to information. During my term of office that will be realised. This amendment is not the way to go in this context. Section 29 contains enabling measures to move into other areas as we go forward with the agreement of the partners.
There is a basic flaw in the Minister's approach. The whole principle of subsidiarity exists as part of EU legislation to which we have to adhere. We should not be afraid of that at any level of the education system. There will be teething problems. When a new appeals process is offered there will be a flood of appeals, but over time things will level out. A more important agenda will be served, that of empowerment, inclusiveness and the concept of partnership in the education system.
There is a tendency to view parental input as a necessary evil. This is a total misapprehension — parents are an asset and their involvement in the education system is vital. This Bill does is not welcoming in its conception. Parents have not been involved in this debate. Debates on education tend to receive the input of the usual suspects. As a former teacher who is aware of the problems in the education system and wants to see them rectified, we should seek to promote inclusiveness so parents in disadvantaged areas have a feeling of ownership of the education system.
We are being asked to decide whether we will agree the O'Dea appeal mechanism with the busybodies and the blinkers or whether we will have a decent system.
Is the amendment being pressed?
- Bruton, Richard
- Farrelly, John
- McCormack, Padraic
- McGinley, Dinny
- McGrath, Paul
- O’Shea, Brian
- Sargent, Trevor
- Brady, Martin
- Brennan, Mattie
- Carey, Pat
- Ellis, John
- Hanafin, Mary,
- Keaveney, Cecilia
- Kitt, Michael
- Martin, Micheál
I move amendment No. 83:
In page 10, between lines 41 and 42, to insert the following subsection:
"(5) The Minister shall direct each local authority to establish an education welfare committee with such number of education welfare officers as may be prescribed, to co-ordinate the statutory and other agencies concerned with the welfare of children in their functional area.".
This amendment returns to an issue discussed at length yesterday and the most practical and effective solution to it. I refer to the growing number of dysfunctional schoolchildren who present challenging behaviour, make no progress in terms of education and in many cases are substantially diluting the rights of other children to an education. There are certain general characteristics about the group but it is always dangerous to generalise. In many cases the difficulties emanate from the home and a deficit in parenting skills. Bringing these children along so that they will focus on their education and afford them a decent quality of life is not achievable in the school setting alone and there is a need to go a long way beyond that. There are agencies which provide some component of the support services necessary in the family context, but there is a need for co-ordination. Ultimately, if parents for whatever reason, such as incompetence or inability to carry out their duties, do not provide the child with the basic support necessary, they must be assisted and encouraged to share that responsibility by co-operating with the various agencies to bring about the resolution everyone wants.
I am not a fan of sin bins as it is not a good idea to exclude children from their classrooms or school unless there is no alternative in terms of the overall good of the class. These children are readily identifiable and any experienced teacher will identify them at an early age. It is at that stage the co-ordination of support services in a family context would be most beneficial. We need education welfare committees and they should be set up under the auspices of local authorities. The amendment is based on vocational education committees which are set up by local authorities after local elections each year. A feature of this system is that it provides not only for students at second level. It provides, as the committee will be aware, for PLC students. It also provides adult education and education in many areas relating to disadvantage. Vocational education committees were responsible for the development of the great success story of Irish education in the past 25 years, the regional technical colleges. My point is that there is experience here both at local authority member and administrative levels. In addition, a handful of local authorities have school attendance committees.
There must be a desk on which the buck stops if parents are failing. The problem at present is that nobody in particular is responsible for co-ordinating services in a family context. My amendment states that in addition to setting up education welfare committees there should be education welfare officers. I would envisage these officers having responsibility to ensure the plight of this not very large but growing number of children is effectively addressed. These officers must have power. Statutory powers must be given to the education welfare officers so that not only can a package be put together in the context of these students but that there is the wherewithal to see that it is followed through and agencies co-operate to bring about effective results. The provision must be comprehensive and devolved. Logic dictates that the resolution will come from a dynamic structure in the local area.
This brings us back to devolution. I am aware of projects which are focused on this area and I welcome them, but at the end of the day when we look at the combat poverty report which indicated that the greater part of educational disadvantage is in rural areas, it gives another measure of the difficulties of providing in the short to medium term the kind of provision which is necessary to advance these children.
I would envisage that there would be provision in schools where these children could be withdrawn from the normal classroom environment for a period of time. In such circumstances there is always a danger that whatever measure is put in place is seen as a reward rather than an initiative to bring about change and to develop the child to the stage where he or she can come back into the mainstream and perform effectively. It is not an easy matter by any means. There are basic symptoms which are manifest in such children. One of them, to which I referred yesterday, is that they have difficulty dealing with groups. On a one to one basis they are quite manageable in many cases, but when put in with a group they are not able to deal with it. I am not a psychologist, but as a former teacher I believe this has much to do with self-image, self-esteem, etc. Because these children feel nobody respects them in many cases, they decide to make it a self-fulfilling prophesy. There is also need to seek attention which can be part of the make-up of these children.
Many of these children are very intelligent. By and large, they have the normal range of abilities. The other feature which I have noted is that these children become survivors. They look on society purely in terms of their survival and how they exist within that framework. There is no analysis as to how society is structured and organised, and they do not see the constructive side of organised society. There are also other features where these children learn to communicate in a kind of verbal shorthand.
I ask the Minister to take the initiative. Obviously, the agencies of which I speak, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the Garda, the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, local authorities and, most significantly in this context, health boards, must focus on the development of parenting skills. Whatever plan is adopted for these children must be focused on the parents and they must be brought along every step of the way. This is workable and the cost would not be excessive. Better co-ordination in the short, medium and longer terms will lead to a saving for the Exchequer. The other point is that these children can cause havoc in society outside school. A small number of them can cause unpleasantness. They can cause a great reduction in the quality of life for many people, young and old.
There has been no reduction in the number of reports I receive on this matter. The point I made yesterday which should be stressed is that schools do not advertise this sort of thing because if it goes out into the public arena, parents can lose confidence in schools. Therefore, the full extent of what is happening here is not known. For instance, when children are expelled or suspended from schools there is no onus on boards of management to inform the Department. To the best of my knowledge, in most cases in which children are expelled or suspended — I would see roll-over suspension as expulsion — and the parents take the matter to a public representative, the public representative will either advise them on how to contact the Department, contact the Department, himself or table a parliamentary question. However, the Department does not have a handle on what is happening.
I have no difficulty in agreeing with Deputy O'Shea and sharing his commitment to children in need who are disadvantaged in the education system — we had a significant discussion on that yesterday. There are a range of measures in place and we need to do more. However, I do not propose to accept this amendment. It proposes to establish an education welfare committee and it asks me to direct each local authority, but I would be reluctant to direct local authorities in this area. I am not sure a local authority is the best local body to do what Deputy O'Shea suggests here.
We are preparing the school attendance Bill and the concept of education welfare officers was mooted in the context of the report on school attendance two years ago. Therefore, there is potential for the inclusion of welfare officers — we might have a different name for them by that stage — in the context of the prevention of early school leaving, absenteeism, affirming school attendance, etc., in a positive way within the context of the school attendance Bill. That might be the best context in which to deal with the overall issue which the Deputy raised.
However, I am proposing an amendment, amendment No. 288 to section 33, the section which enables the Minister to make regulations in this area. It involves deleting the existing paragraph (i) and substituting paragraphs (i) and (j). Paragraph (j)(i) will concern procedures for the promotion of effective liaison and co-operation by schools and centres for education with (i) other schools and centres for education, (ii) local authorities (within the meaning of the Local Government Act, 1941), (iii) health boards (within the meaning of the Health Act, 1970), and (iv) voluntary and other bodies which have a special interest in education, in particular, education of students with special educational needs. That takes care of the issue of liaison with and co-ordination of services and the bringing together of the various agencies at local level concerned with the welfare of children. That is an appropriate amendment in the context of this Bill.
In terms of the wider issues, the school attendance Bill has an important role to play in developing non-legislative strategies as do the range of ongoing measures to combat educational disadvantage such as the home-school liaison scheme and remedial and psychological services.
The school attendance service is quite restricted. It does not operate in many areas. How widely does the Minister intend to extend that service? Does he have to bring that question back to his colleagues before he can give an answer?
Yes, but the Deputy will have no doubt where my instincts lie. I have to bring the proposed legislation to Government and seek approval. It will then be a subject for debate for this committee and the House. However, the Government is committed to introducing the Bill.
I do not want to be less than welcoming for the Minister's amendment. However, we are talking about liaison. Without being too specific, the buck seems to run around the table when dealing with the type of case I am describing.
I would like to see the liaison remain within an education context. We may call the officers welfare or attendance officers. Disadvantage in the education context must also involve other agencies. We must be careful about involving people who are on the margins, have little to do with education and may not get priority within that body. I have some concerns about, say, involving someone in a local authority who may be isolated from what is going on. A high level of integration and liaising with schools and other education agencies will be required. The area partnerships are interesting to the degree to which VEC chief executive officers, for example, have taken significant leading roles in co-ordinating many local agencies and statutory bodies. Some VEC officers have worked extremely well in area partnerships in bringing together the various agencies mentioned in this and my amendment from health boards to local authorities. There is a need for effective liaison. The issue of disadvantage is better catered for in the school attendance Bill.
I welcome the thrust of the Minister's approach as it focuses on where we are going. The school attendance officer's post is long since redundant. A wider remit is necessary. The discharging of that remit requires that the position be strengthened in a statutory sense. That will involve other Departments giving up some powers. What are the Minister's thoughts on that?
I would first like to consult with those who will be giving up some power. Where school attendance services exist the officers are doing a first rate job. Many of their views and experiences will inform our deliberations on the preparation of the school attendance Bill. These officers operate in the boroughs of Dublin, Cork and Waterford. They have a lot of experience and put in a lot of work. Their insights will be valuable when developing policy.
I am not sure of the authority that will be yielded. In many respects we will have to incorporate what already exists into the new system. We will then have to examine the provision of the service in areas where it does not currently exist and where gardaí have had to become involved. I do not want to go into the detail of that Bill today. That would not be appropriate because we have not finalised proposals or brought them to Government. We are close to doing so. I would prefer that process to take its natural course. We are still involved in consultations with partners in education and interested persons. I do not wish to pre-empt those discussions by laying down the parameters within which I, as Minister, would like to see things developing. I am open to change and to good ideas.
I withdraw the amendment on the basis of what the Minister has said and against the background of his refusal to accept the amendment, in terms of his amendment No. 288, and the fact that I would be ad idem with much of what he has to say on the new school attendance legislation.
I would like to raise the issue of the devolution of powers from the Minister to bodies other than those which he is setting up which look like national bodies and on which he is introducing enabling legislation. There is a view which has been articulated by the OECD that Ireland is exceptional in having a highly centralised Department of Education which is bogged down in dealing with individual schools on a day to day basis. There is a huge chasm between the individual school which, to some extent, operates as a republic on many of the important education issues and the Department which is a highly centralised body, looks for paper-based reports from schools and is often called in to provide a fire brigade service. As far as devolving power to a level where local people can feel they have an influence on decisions we have an education system which is highly centralised.
The Minister had misgivings about the regional education boards provided for in the previous Education Bill. He made much of the alleged cost of any such system. I do not suppose we are going to get him to change his mind on that. However, in previous discussions with him I detected an awareness that the level of centralisation was not satisfactory and a willingness to consider some forms of flexible devolution towards community level. He has been quite fulsome in his praise of the partnerships and their ability to do interesting things at local level. Bearing that in mind, I wonder on this section whether the Minister does not feel it would be appropriate to come back on Report Stage and indicate a willingness to consider devolving certain functions and budgets. He does not have to be specific at this stage but he could leave in place a framework in the Bill which would allow us to consider situations where a group of schools in a town came together and decided: "Here we are in Tullamore with four primary and three secondary schools. Why should we not try and develop some joint services? Why should we not look at expanding the curriculum in the girls' school to accommodate other items?" They could form a local board to oversee their joint work and it would be right for the Government to give them recognition in budgetary terms for taking on that work.
My amendment No. 128, which was along these lines, was disallowed. It was designed to push out the frontiers in terms of what the Minister previously acknowledged as a deficiency in the system and it showed a willingness to consider some form of devolution. A great deal of innovation could be unleashed, as happened with the partnerships, if the Minister were willing to allow some powers be devolved. The previous system was definite in the functions which would be devolved.
The Minister should as a minimum, accept some loose framework starting from small beginnings which could grow organically over the years. He might even consider designating a small budget next year for co-operative ventures between schools to set up loose groupings whose structures he would approve and which would be allowed to make certain developments. It would be seen as innovative and would meet some of the concerns the Minister knows have been articulated by groups, especially those dealing with the disadvantaged, about the loss of regional education boards. They believe that, to confront disadvantage, it is necessary to have a structure closer to the local level than the Department because there is much beyond the capability of school which the Department is too removed to deal with. We should make some provision for such a structure.
As this is the last time we will deal with the functions of the Minister, I would like to hear his opinion on devolving some of the powers of his Department and the fact that many independent observers believe there is too much centralisation. Even from my discussions with officials in his Department, there is a recognition that too many staff are involved in firefighting activities which are inappropriate to a national organisation.
There was a substantial debate on this on Second Stage when I articulated my views on regional education boards and the issue of devolution. I have no intention of embarking on another debate on it other than to say I have indicated that I have no difficulty in setting up county fora of education on a non-statutory basis to co-ordinate and promote liaison between schools, both primary and secondary, and education institutions in a given area. It should be accepted that the Bill devolves considerable powers to boards of management in schools. The degree of centralisation can at times be overstated. I will table amendments for the development of national agencies. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment is a classic case of a national body which has proved its worth in terms of the manner in which it was developed.
We should be careful about inserting loose arrangements in legislation. Schools and groups invariably make requests to the Department and it would probably be better not to include funding for those under a minor subhead or to create a fund for them which would be meaningless in terms of what such schools or groups would require. Sometimes there can be a more flexible response by the application of a range of subheads to an initiative of a group of schools. The IT 2000 initiative is empowered to respond and react to such local initiatives, for example, where a group of schools has a proposal for linking up in terms of technology. There would be no difficulty in responding to that.
There is considerable sense in having a national focus to combat educational disadvantage because it allows resources to be targeted and allocated effectively. It gives a good idea of the extent and location of disadvantage and what is happening nationally so that resources can be reallocated and adjusted appropriately to best serve those in need. Sometimes a centralised body can take more ruthless and objective decisions in terms of meeting disadvantage than a local body. For example, it was because there was a national focus on retention rates that we now have the information to target resources to try to improve retention rates in areas in difficulty. Were that to be localised, there would not be such a national focus and strategic approach.
We do not have the money to set up regional education boards and the logistical work in establishing them was never undertaken anyway. It seems to me the aim was to establish them in legislation and to let someone else worry about their implementation and introduction. It would have taken a considerable time to do that. It would have taken a number of years to have them all up and running and providing all the services they were meant to provide. According to the Education Bill, 1997, they were meant to do everything, despite that half of it was not even in place. I do not wish to enter into an ideological debate but that is the reality. We do not have a nationwide psychological service yet the regional education boards were required to co-ordinate one.
I have no difficulty with local responses but this is a small country with a small population and a State-aided education system. We should wait to see how the county fora system I intend to establish develops and evolves over time. It does not need a statutory underpinning at this stage.
I remember in Opposition that the partners in education had huge difficulties with the regional education boards, especially regarding different schools and different sectors in education. For example, there were three different sets of responses from the post-primary sector alone. Even within the parents' organisations, the primary section was in favour of something the post-primary section was not. The VTOS was another issue. Church of Ireland schools also had difficulties with regional education boards. There is a range of issues which was never resolved. People felt their autonomy at local level was being threatened. There is considerable local autonomy in education which is not often understood. Many schools, particularly voluntary secondary schools, felt regional education boards would reduce their degree of local autonomy and that their freedom to manoeuvre would be restricted. The boards were seen as a Big Brother which would tell them what to do, allocate their budgets and sort out their priorities while the boards of management would lose much of their power. These were the views of people I met during my period in Opposition. All those issues are important in terms of devolution.
Rather than a centrally imposed model of devolution, it might be more effective if it came from the ground up. Hence, once this Bill is passed, I intend to set up county fora on education involving all partners in a non-threatening way. One such forum has already been established in Clare. It came together of its own accord a number of years ago and brought the primary, secondary and VEC sectors together. There were not the same tensions between them as there are in other counties and they found the exercise a useful experience.
As regards support services, section 7(1)(b)(ii) reads: "to plan and co-ordinate . . . . support services". There have been articles by education correspondents in the papers recently upon which I place great importance. One such article stated that there was a bid to form education agencies and that the Minister was prepared to privatise certain sectors in education. If that is the case we should have been made aware of it when we discussed the section. Perhaps the Minister will clarify the position. I presume it refers to the bodies corporate mentioned later in the Bill.
While an Education Bill is necessary and welcome, this Bill does nothing important. It contains a great deal of aspiration but does not secure real change in how our education system is structured. I attended the teachers' conferences at Easter and a recurring theme at those conferences was the Minister's need for more staff in the Department. The main criticism of the Department is that a relatively low level of administrative decisions are taken within the Department.
The Minister said there is a high level of autonomy at local level but the concept I am attracted to is one where at regional or county level there is an input into overall policy in a partnership context. Parents are involved in boards of management but there is another, more important, role for them in developing policy and plans for education within their areas. The social partners and the education sector would also have an important input in that regard.
Undoubtedly there are situations where co-ordination and integration of services would lead to savings, from the point of view of the Exchequer, and to more effective use of existing resources. Yesterday, I alluded to the fact that there is competition between schools for pupils. That is a negative influence but it is the result of falling birth rates and consequential reduced enrolments. However, if one seeks to change the system, fears become evident. The education system is probably the system least sensitive to change. Ultimately, changes are achieved rather slowly and there is a huge fear of the unknown.
Devolution of power to local level is cost effective in the overall context of education provision. What something will cost depends on what criteria one uses to count and measure but I believe it would be economical. It would also enable the system to dovetail into the economic, cultural and other aspects of life in a region or county or wherever the boards were established. There has been a degree of decentralisation but the remoteness remains. Decentralisation in the Department effectively means moving a function from A to B but the function still happens within the overall monolith. The Minister might say functions have been decentralised to Tullamore or Athlone but the monolith remains the same. The concept of subsidiarity and democratising society inevitably leads to devolution and over a relatively short time this issue will have to be revisited.
I put down a number of amendments, one of which I believed would be helpful without committing the Minister to a particular course of action. He has committed himself to establishing county fora and I welcome that. It is a move in the right direction. They will have a consultative role at first. However, one of my amendments sought to insert an enabling section which would allow the Minister, by regulation and at a time the Minister and the Government deemed appropriate, to devolve functions and to establish new structures. The Minister can claim this is a small country but being small does not mean we should not devolve power to the type of structures I have mentioned. That is my main problem with the Bill.
The Minister has reacted constructively to the debate thus far. However, and I do not wish to be confrontational, the road to subsidiarity is upon us and it is the road we must take not only in education but in many other spheres. One can see it in action in health boards which were given more autonomy under legislation introduced some years ago. There have also been regressive decisions. The old county health committees played a most important role, albeit consultative, and helped to convey the concerns and views of the public in their counties. The county I represent, for example, has many differing needs for services, depending on where people live and other factors.
I take it the Minister has no sinister plans to privatise the education system. However, it must be borne in mind that decentralisation and devolution are inevitable. They are not included in this Bill but they will take place in the short to medium term.
I will comment briefly on the Minister's reason for not adopting the course suggested in amendment No. 128.
The county fora might be a good development. They are better than nothing but talking shops have questionable value. If the Minister takes that course, he should establish each forum as an education committee of the local authority. I am no longer a member of a local authority but I understand the authorities have the ability to establish committees that have a variety of non-elective tasks. It is probably better to establish the fora within the local authorities and allow local representatives to take an interest in the development of education issues.
The wider question is why should we not have statutory recognition for groupings of schools operating together on a co-operative basis or within some other type of body which the Minister might recognise in the future? The Minister claims it is better to tackle educational disadvantage nationally. My point refers to the basic principle of subsidiarity. Some things can be done better on a national basis and one does not devolve such functions to the local parish, county or town.
The Minister must exercise judgment and this amendment would allow him to do that. He might see functions that can be performed better locally and they are the functions he would devolve. There is immense scope for co-operation between schools and for schools dealing with the transition between primary and secondary education within their areas.
That can happen without it being included in the Bill.
It is clear that the schools can do it better. He then said it was far better not to have a single subhead from which local initiatives could develop but that we should have a range of subheads. That is a bogus answer. If a sum of money is designated to be used by groupings of schools, there is nothing to stop them using some of it for information technology, some for school furniture and some for the provision of joint caretaker services. Money designated under a particular subhead can still be used flexibly.
The Minister has, on more than one occasion in the course of this debate, commended the area partnerships. Partnerships have shown that they can do things which the Minister and his Department cannot. The Department does not have the flexibility to introduce innovative thinking often, because an initiative in Finglas, for example might then be demanded in Tralee. If we move in the direction I suggest — and there is an inevitability about it — the Minister cannot be asked to defend the provision of a service in one area because the decision to provide that service will have been taken locally. Some things can be done much more effectively locally than by the Department.
The Minister argued that local autonomy will be stoutly defended. The merit of this approach is that if people are not willing to co-operate they will not access the funds which will be available under such a scheme. Local autonomy will have its price. We all know that because of declining vocations and because of the various pressures on religious orders to move out of education, the way our schools are run is changing. Some alternative must be found to fill the position traditionally occupied by religious orders at local level. They have provided a management structure and a range of services and without them we would not have got to where we are. For one reason or another they are falling away and there is a need for creative vehicles at local level to ensure the continuation and development of schools. There is both merit and inevitability in going the route I suggest. It would be useful if the Minister would acknowledge it in a statutory way rather than simply promise to consider it in the future. I would like to hear a commitment from the Minster to go down this road of experimentation.
All of what Deputy Bruton has described is already happening. Area partnerships existed even before the publication of the Education Bill. They can bring other agencies to the table and can access resources other than education resources. The Department can add to those resources, particularly in areas of disadvantage. Individual schools, having raised perhaps £250,000 for a PE hall or an IT initiative, often come to the Department seeking financial help. We respond to such initiatives. It would be wrong to give the impression that the Department is like a bulwark holding on to every bit of power and refusing to co-operate with local organisations. The situation is very fluid and it is probably advisable to allow it to develop organically rather than place statutory parameters around it.
Amendments Nos. 84 to 126, inclusive, in the name of Deputy O'Shea are out of order as they involve a potential charge on Revenue.
I move amendment No. 127:
In page 10, before section 8, but in Part II, to insert the following new section:
"8. (1) Every child shall have the right to receive a level and quality of education appropriate to meeting their needs and abilities, and the needed support services to enable its delivery.
(2) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1), the parents of a child who has been referred by a school, a medical doctor or other specified person for an assessment of special education needs shall be entitled—
(a) to receive an assessment of the child's educational needs by a suitable person designated by the Minister, who shall arrange that the parents and other relevant persons shall be consulted in the course of the assessment and that the parents shall receive information to guide their educational choices,
(b) if the designated person, following the assessment, determines that special education provision and support services are necessary for the child, to receive a copy of a statement of those special needs, and a proposed individual education plan, which shall be drawn up following consultation with the parents concerned, and
(c) to have that statement entered onto a national data base of educational needs, maintained by the Minister to assist in the proper planning and provision of such services in accord with subsection (1).
(3) Every parent shall have the right to send their children to a school of their own choice, having regard to the rights of patrons and the effective and efficient use of resources.
(4) Every parent of a student, or a student as provided for in regulations, shall have the right to access in the prescribed manner to records kept by the Inspectorate, by the school or by the Department relating to the educational needs or the progress of that student in his or her education.
(5) Every parent of a student, or a student as provided for in regulations, shall have the right to have complaints or grievances heard by the appropriate procedure within the school and, failing resolution in the school, by an independent investigation.
(6) Every student shall have the right to have access to appropriate guidance to assist them in their educational and career choices.
(7) Each year the Minister shall report on the obstacles, if any, in the way of meeting these rights and on the progress being made in removing such obstacles.".
The purpose of the amendment is to provide a statement on the rights of parents and children. While there are many statements concerning schools, boards of management and the functions of the Department and the Minister, there is no statement concerning what students and parents are entitled to expect from the system. There is need for a charter of some sort outlining the position of the individual and parent. This was the motivation behind the amendment which sets out a number of things a parent or student has a right to expect.
Section 8(1) of the amendment follows directly from the Minister's obligation to provide an appropriate education. Subsection (2) deals specifically with the right of a parent whose child has a special education need. It provides that a parent of a child referred by a school, medical doctor or other specified person for an assessment of special education needs would be entitled to have that assessment carried out, be consulted in the course of it, receive information to guide them in the choices they make and if, following the assessment, it is decided the child has a special education need be entitled to a statement of the need. It also provides that, in such circumstances, a proposed education plan for the child be drawn up following consultation with the parents.
The subsection also provides that the statement of need be entered in a national database of special education needs so that the Minister would be in a position to properly plan provision in this area. There is quite a considerable degree of support for the idea of individual education plans being an appropriate route to pursue for children with special needs. The different agencies would commit to the different elements of the plan with some effort being made to co-ordinate its delivery.
The other issues raised in the amendment deal with the different rights of parents or students, including the right of parents to send a child to the school of their choice, to have access to information held by the inspectorate, school or Department, to have complaints or grievances heard by an appropriate procedure in the school or, failing this, by an independent investigation and to appropriate guidance to assist students in their education and career choices. It is remarkable that the Bill does not mention the issue of entitlement or obligation to deliver guidance even though it is a central part of education and is becoming an area of increasing pressure in terms of provision. The Bill should include a statement to the effect that students have a right to expect this. Finally the amendment provides that each year the Minister should report on obstacles encountered in allowing parents or students vindicate their rights under the section.
The amendments sets out a charter of what people might expect. Obviously it will have to develop over time. In the context of children with special educational needs, it sets out in a very specific manner a clear process for establishing the need and appropriateness of support services. It takes the Minister's commitment in amendment No. 60 a stage further by spelling out how the process can be delivered. This is a feature of legislative provision in the UK, for example, where there is a special Act devoted to children with special educational needs. Many other countries adopt this type of approach which has much to recommend it.
Amendment No. 127 is interesting and I have no difficulty with much of its substance. My commitment to the needs of children with disabilities or special needs is well known and we have demonstrated that clearly in the Bill. The amendment is not necessary or appropriate in this legislation.
Subsection (1) of the amendment is encompassed in the Bill as drafted and in my amendments to sections 6 and 7 which we have already discussed. Subsection (2)(a), which deals with assessments, is covered by the support services listed in section 2 and also by the provisions in section 13. Section 13 deals with the functions and role of the inspectorate. It states that the inspectorate "may conduct assessments of the educational needs of students in recognised schools and advise those students, their parents and the schools as appropriate in relation to the educational development of those students". It shall also advise teachers and boards. The inspectorate will have the type of functions detailed in Deputy Bruton's amendment.
Subsection (2)(b) and (c) concern the provision of statements for children with special needs. We are moving in that direction. There is nothing in the Bill to prevent this from happening. Substantial work has already been done in this area. I am not convinced we need that level of detail in the Bill.
Subsection (3), which deals with the right of parents to send their children to a school of their choice, is covered in section 16 which deals with the objects of the Bill. Subsection (4) of the amendment is covered in section 9(e) and also by the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. Subsection (5), which deals with appeals, is covered by sections 28 and 29. Subsection (6) can be accommodated under section 2 which deals with support services and the provision of guidance. Subsection (7), which provides for annual reporting by the Minister, is effectively met by the provisions of the Public Service Management Act, 1997, which provides for the publication of annual reports by Departments.
The Minister is correct that under section 13 one of the functions given to an inspector who is qualified as a psychologist is to assess the psychological needs of students. However, strong views were expressed to the committee last week by a person from one of the special schools who said the idea that psychologists are the only people to conduct these assessments is misplaced. They clearly made the case that the assessment should be more holistic and should not be confined to psychologists but involve parents and a wider range of interests. This assessment should be wider than is provided for in section 13.
Amendment No. 161 states:
In page 14, subsection (2), line 30, after "psychologists" to insert "or who have other expertise, including expertise in the education of students with special educational needs.".
That broadens the range of people who may be called upon.
That may be an improvement. The impression I got last week was that it is a process in which the parent plays an active part. It is not just the experts who make a decision and hand it down. That is why it is important to spell out the obligation to consult parents in this process.
While section 13, which will be amended to include people other than psychologists, creates the possibility of conducting assessments and advising parents, subsection (2) of this amendment focuses more on parents. Section 13 does not give parents the right to an assessment. This is a more general provision which will create a long-term service. It is better from the point of view of parents because they will have the right to get an assessment if the child is referred by someone who identifies a problem. Once this section is in place, more information will be available to parents about the operation of these assessments and the system being put in place. This is a step forward.
One of the functions of the inspectorate will be to assess needs. If a parent has a child with a special education need which is sufficiently serious for a school, medical doctor or another specified person to refer him for assessment, the parent would have a right to receive that assessment. The amendment also proposes that the outcome of this assessment should be an individual education plan to which the system will be committed. Schools and other players will be involved in delivering elements of the plan. It also explicitly states that this information should go into a national database to assist the Minister in planning and providing services on the basis of these assessment returns.
I accept there are commitments scattered throughout the Bill, but I saw merit in including a section which sets out the rights of parents and students. What part of the Bill caters for subsection (6)?
Section 2 deals with support services. Subsection (6) of the amendment states that every student "shall have the right to have access to appropriate guidance to assist them in their educational and career choices". The guidance service is there as a support service to schools.
It may be there.
It is there; it is not excluded by the support services. We can accommodate amendment No. 137 in the Deputy's name if he so wishes. I know the Deputy wants to specifically include guidance.
Guidance should be included. I accept the Minister is not disposed to including a section which sets out the rights of parents and students. Subsection (2) of my amendment commends itself in that it spells out the nature of the assessment to be carried out, the right of a parent during the course of that assessment to be heard, consulted and given proper information so he or she can make informed choices, the outcome of the assessment in terms of a resulting statement which should be given to the parents, the need for a proposed individual education plan which sets out support services that the experts believe are necessary for the child's education and the need for a statement to be entered in a national database.
I have a problem with the level of detail which some people may regard as inappropriate. Nothing is hid from parents in terms of when assessments will be made and reports are made available to them. I have no difficulty amending the section which deals with the inspectorate if the Deputy wants to include a provision that the inspectorate consults the parents. As regards the statement of special needs, we are heading in that direction.
I do not know if Department officials were present last week when representatives from the special schools were before the committee, but they were of the opinion that the Department's thinking was not in accord with what they thought was appropriate. They were attached to the idea of individual education plans and they did not see it being delivered currently. There is a breakdown in communication between the experts with whom we spoke last week and what the Minister presents as current practice.
In terms of the assessments.
They did not see them resulting in individual plans.
I have the experience of meeting people in clinics who tell me that their child has been assessed and that the psychologist has outlined the various needs of the child. An individual plan for each child may not be drawn up in each institution. The State is still dependent on the service providers for the delivery of the service in many situations in special schools.
At present assessments can be carried out by psychologists or teams of experts in conference. It depends on the individual case.
This plan would be the passport to availing of services subsequently. In other words, if a care assistant in the classroom was necessary and that was specified, the plan would be a passport to availing of the service. There is a belief that some of the supports are not provided when it comes down to it.
Some of them have not been in place for years. That is a resources issue.
There is a need to spell out a framework for the process of evaluation, the participation by parents and the information given to them about choices made on their behalf, whether they opt for a special school or a mainstream school. A statement should arise from the process which specifies the interventions needed and that statement could get national recognition by being put into a national database. A Minister could then know the level of demand for services being shown by the assessment. It would be a firm needs statement on which resources could be planned. It seems that the process is up in the air, an impression which was reinforced by the presentation to the committee last week from experts in the field.
This would be a major move in some respects. I am anxious that the practical implementation of this. There are huge implications for the providers——
This system is on the statute books in other jurisdictions and they contend with the practicalities of it. It is not a case of legislating for something which cannot be delivered. It is a question of driving behaviour for the future.
I will look at the matter for Report Stage.
I am put in mind of the need for the dissemination of information. I am attracted to the idea of a charter or rights for parents and students. The exercise could entail extrapolating the rights from the legislation. It might be a document that parents would receive when their child enrols in school for the first time. People come to public representatives' clinics because they feel they get an inadequate service and they rarely, if ever, have an idea of their rights, scant as they may be in some areas. A charter might also allow us to avoid costly court actions against the Department——
It might create more of them. We do not want to wrap up the whole system in litigation.
People have a right to the information. It is in the nature of legislation that the information it contains is in various sections. There is an information deficit for parents and students. Those of us who are familiar with the system sometimes forget that we communicate in jargon which others may not understand.
I am concerned about the assessment of special needs children. To the best of my knowledge some of the assessments are carried out by psychologists who may not necessarily be educational psychologists. Downs syndrome children can often have speech problems. There is a deficit of speech therapists. It is a vital service and if it is not provided early it is hard to make up the lost ground.
Preparing a document which draws together all the information would be a worthwhile exercise. It will have to be addressed at some point.
I acknowledge Deputy O'Shea's points. We have included many rights in the Bill for parents and students in terms of access to information and records. I took a decision today to give parents and students access to information. We always have to try to bring people along. The Freedom of Information Act, 1997, will have a significant impact on the situation pertaining to the Department and information. I am prepared to look at this matter for Report Stage.
Amendment No. 128 is out of order as it involves a potential charge on the revenue.
I move amendment No. 129:
In page 11, subsection (4), line 15, to delete "established and maintained" and substitute "established or maintained".
I move amendment No. 130:
In page 11, subsection (4), line 17, after "Act" to insert "and the committee may exercise any of the functions under the Vocational Education Acts, 1930 to 1993 in respect of the school".
This section deals with management matters. This amendment seeks to amend subsection (4) which states:
In the case of a school established and maintained by a vocational education committee that committee shall be the patron of the school for the purposes of this Act.
However, nothing that relates to the committee's functions is mentioned, and my amendment proposes that the committee may exercise any function under the Vocational Education Acts, 1930 to 1993, in respect of the school. This is a section that names the VEC as patron but does not allude to its functions.
We checked with the draftsman's office and I assure the Deputy that there is no need for this amendment. Nothing in the Bill will undermine the functions of the vocational education committees in relation to their schools as set out in the Vocational Education Acts. That is guaranteed.
There is an absolute guarantee that there will be no diminution. I accept that.
I move amendment No. 131:
In page 11, subsection (6), line 22, after "any" to inset "Act of the Oireachtas or instrument made thereunder,".
The Education Act is the first dealing with the general educational system. Other legislative measures deal with the specific parts of the system. One of the most important of these is the Vocational Education Acts which date back to 1930. The purpose of this amendment is to acknowledge and clarify that the role of the vocational education committees as patrons of their schools derives in part from those Acts. This is a technical amendment.
Amendment No. 132 has already been discussed.
This amendment will resurface on Report Stage, as will amendment No. 133.
Amendments Nos. 267 and 268 are related to amendment No. 137.
I move amendment No. 137:
In page 11, between lines 38 and 39, to insert the following:
"(c) ensure that students have access to appropriate guidance to assist them in their educational and career choices,".
This amendment introduces the provision of appropriate guidance and counselling for students in their educational and career choices. The other amendments are similar in that they apply to curriculum provisions. This is appropriate and the Minister has referred to the need for explicit reference to guidance and counselling. My wording may not be absolutely correct but the Minister seems to accept the principle.
I accept this amendment, though amendments Nos. 267 and 268 are not necessary. I will return to them later.
Amendments Nos. 139 and 140 are alternatives to amendment No. 138 and will be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 139:
In page 11, lines 39 to 41, to delete paragraph (c) and substitute the following:
"(c) to provide social, personal and health education for students and to promote their moral development in consultation with parents,".
I have been mystified by the section I am seeking to amend. The word "health" appeared in the Education (No. 1) Bill regarding the functions of a school regarding the provision of social, personal and health education for students. I am unclear as to why "health" does not appear in paragraph (c), which I am seeking to delete in favour of my amendment.
I thought the word "health" had been included. I will accommodate a proposal on health education on Report Stage. We have already agreed to promote the moral, social, spiritual and personal development of students in consultation with their parents having regard to the characteristic spirit of the school. That is included in section 9 under the functions of the school.
I move amendment No. 140:
In page 11, paragraph (c), line 39, after "the" to insert "health,".
This seems to find favour with the Minister, who wishes to keep "spiritual and moral" in and to include "health".
I move amendment No. 141:
In page 11, lines 41 and 42, to insert the following:
"(d) to promote equality of opportunity for both male and female students and staff of the school,".
This amendment adds a new function to the school's list of functions that promotes equality of opportunity to male and female staff and students. This should be broadly accepted by all Members.
I do not want to nitpick but section 6(b), regarding the general objective of the Act, is much more explicit, promoting equality of access and participation. It promotes the means whereby students may benefit from education, recognising that educational disadvantage is a deep-seated matter. Putting everyone on the starting line together, which is one notion of educational opportunity, is insufficient positive discrimination for those who are educationally disadvantaged. Many people would welcome the Minister's amendment while preferring a formulation closer to that in section 6 (b). There is a view that Ireland's educational system has always espoused equality of opportunity, but for those coming from a background where family circumstances do not encourage homework, where families are short of money and food, simply saying people have equal opportunities when at school is insufficient. Section 6 (b) has a broader definition and refers to the means whereby students may benefit from education. That would embrace homework clubs and other, more inclusive initiatives than this phraseology.
This is in addition to what is already included.
The Minister should learn the views of those interested in equality. They will be interested in section 6(b).
That is included.
I move amendment No. 142:
In page 11, between lines 44 and 45, to insert the following:
"(e) in the case of schools located in a Gaeltacht area shall contribute to the maintenance of Irish as the primary community language,".
I move amendment No. 143:
In page 11, paragraph (e), line 45, after “student” to insert “and the student himself or herself, as specified by the Minister,”.
This amendment seeks to give students entitlements in their own right. Obviously, a five year old child would not have a right of access to records, but it seems that at some point the Minister will specify that students have the right to get the information currently being prescribed for their parents.
That raises the question at what age should students have access to all their records. I presume that in most cases parents would pass on the information to the student. I have difficulty with the proposal that every single student in a school should have access to records on an ongoing basis.
Their own records?
At present they have access to their results. There could be cases where data are of a private or personal nature.
This is the student's own information.
It could relate to a family situation or a whole range of issues. For example, it could relate to information given by a mother to a school about a trauma which may have occurred to her son or daughter. The parent might not want the student to have access to such information, particularly at an early age, for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, teachers and principals may need this information to deal properly with the child in the school context and to be aware of the child's difficulties. We could be very general and prescribe a whole range of areas in which people could have access to information and records, but we must consider the implications of this in terms of running schools and giving teachers, principals and school administrators room for manoeuvre to handle delicate situations correctly.
I see where the Minister is coming from, but there is a basic dilemma in that people of 18 years can vote, join the Army and die fighting for their country and enter any type of binding contract, yet, by implication, we are denying them a right under this legislation. On the other hand, under social welfare law, means testing for a person over the age of 18 is based on his or her parents' income. In that context such a person is not seen as a free individual.
Certain information can be divulged to schools. As a teacher I know that some information is given confidentially because it is relevant. There should be a formula to cover that sort of information, but that is easier said than done. There is a basic dilemma here because, on the one hand, we are telling students they are full citizens and, on the other, we are not giving them the same rights as other full citizens. This is a problem that must be dealt with.
That is a fair point in terms of 18 year olds who have the right to vote. We might be in a position to come back with an amendment on Report Stage to cover 18 year olds.
What is the position in relation to the Freedom of Information Act where one has a right of access to records?
That is covered in section 21 of the Freedom of Information Act which provides that access to information will not be provided if it interferes unduly with the administration of the system. Obviously the Information Commissioner appointed under the Act would have to be satisfied that a reasonable proposition was being advanced by the Department or the schools. In other words, one cannot refuse information without good reason.
Is there an age limit as to who can access this information?
I am not sure of the age limit under the Freedom of Information Act. Records held by schools are not covered.
There are arguments for and against.
Amendment No. 147 is an alternative to Amendment No. 146. Amendments Nos. 146 and 147 will be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 146:
In page 12, lines 10 and 11, to delete paragraph (i) and substitute the following:
"(i) establish or maintain contacts with other schools and at other appropriate levels throughout the community served by the school, and".
This amendment adds a further function to the list of functions. It is through such contacts that schools can work co-operatively to provide a more effective education service to all students.
I move amendment No. 148:
In page 12, paragraph (j), line 13, after "policy" to insert "which does not involve entrance examinations and".
This amendment relates to the functions of schools. Subsection (j) of the Bill states:
"subject to this Act and in particular section 15 (2) (d), establish and maintain an admissions policy . . . . .."
I am seeking to have inserted after "an admissions policy" the words "which does not involve entrance examinations and". I would have a problem with "entrance examinations"per se. I would not have a problem, however, if an examination or some form of testing or assessment is carried out absolutely and utterly in the children’s interests so that they are properly placed within the school. However, entrance examinations used for creaming or exclusion purposes, is anathema to what education should be about. I would like to hear the Minister’s views on this matter.
The practice of entrance examinations has been reduced considerably over the years. Schools generally tend to have examinations but they are no longer called entrance examinations. They are called assessments to identify the strengths, weaknesses, standards or orientations of the students. The amendment is overly prescriptive and seeks to more or less tell schools what they can and cannot do. We spoke this morning about the need for some local autonomy but on the other hand this amendment proposes to tell schools what they can do. There is a great deal of diversity within the system. Parents can choose which school their child should attend and so on. However, I cannot accept the amendment because to do so would be overly prescriptive.
The basic point is that people should not be discriminated against arbitrarily — for example, a child should not be denied a school place because he or she performed badly in an entrance examination. The legislation should protect every child against such an eventuality. The amendment is not overly prescriptive; it can be strongly argued that it is devolutionary because it devolves a right to students which, in terms of subsidiarity, means going to the very end of the system.
It is important to have ideological consistency in all of this.
Logic helps too.
We are dealing here with the functions of a school. This is all predicated on achieving the right balance between the competing interests of the different partners — patrons, management, teachers, students and the community. Our function is to establish and maintain an admissions policy which provides maximum accessibility to the school. Schools feel very strongly about their right to have an admissions policy. It involves much more than entrance examinations and includes the parish to which the child belongs. It can involve the past attendance of family members and attendance at the local primary school, which tends to have a natural follow on to the secondary school.
The evidence to date is that, given the demographic trend, schools tend to compete to get students rather than keep them out. Secondary schools in some urban areas still have problems because of the huge growth of some parishes. We have had to build new schools in some of these areas, such as Knocklyon and Castletroy, and in areas in County Meath and County Kildare. There is a rich diversity in Irish second level education with vocational, community, comprehensive and secondary schools. I take on board the points made by the Deputy but I want to stop short of legislating for forcing schools in a particular direction.
It that established practice?
Yes, but placing it in the legislation would put legal obligations on people which might upset the balance I mentioned earlier. I am not prepared to go down that road.
It strikes me as somewhat inconsistent that while there is an appeals mechanism with three areas in which one can appeal, we are not prepared to put a safeguard in the legislation to cover one of the grounds for appeal not arising in this context.
It will arise. However, who defines what an entrance examination is? Schools have many examinations at the moment which they will argue strenuously are not entrance examinations. However, it could be argued that such examinations are entrance examinations by another name. Inserting a legal provision could result in litigation on whether someone was refused a place because of their performance in the entrance examination or because there were not enough places. My experience to date is that the primary reason for students not being admitted to a secondary school is insufficiency of places. The old concept of an entrance examination as the access route to a school is gone. The purpose of the existing examinations or aptitude tests is to enable secondary schools to assess students' strengths.
The issue is becoming somewhat complicated. The simple issue is whether any form of testing or examination is the tool by which a child is refused a place in the school of the parents' choice. The issue is not the methods of testing or assessment but whether a young person is excluded on the basis of ability or performance.
It would be far too prescriptive, in my opinion, to put this into law.
Therefore, we are not providing a safeguard to protect a group of children, who in the main are probably among the most vulnerable in society, from exclusion on arbitrary grounds and perhaps because they are just not wanted in the school.
According to my experience in recent years, the reason children do not gain places in particular schools is largely because of an insufficiency of places in the school.
Would the Minister say the school authorities are absolutely impeccable in their method of selection in every case, in terms of not excluding people they do not want?
Certain local choices are made and certain boards of management and schools engage in selectivity. We have a State aided system and we do not control every single detail of actions by schools. Schools hold their admissions policies dear, which is not something with which all the partners readily agree. The implementation of a measure such as this would require agreement among the partners.
Is that agreement already established?
It is in practice but it has not been legislated for. There is a significant difference between established practice and giving something a statutory underpinning.
Nobody, including the Minister, has said there are not instances where children can be denied a place in the school of their choice in their locality for no reason other than they are not wanted.
The Deputy's amendment would not cover that.
What I am saying is that the entrance examination might be the instrument used to give a face to that.
Not at all. One could equally argue the Deputy's amendment would put another face on it by trying to pretend that is not the reason. Schools are obliged under the legislation to produce an admissions policy which must be public and transparent. The Deputy is basically saying that if a school wants to refuse someone access they will find some reason to do it. He is suggesting schools might hide behind the entrance examination. I suggest they have 100 other hooks to hang such a decision on if they want to. If they are determined to prevent someone from attending a school — which is covered by the proposition put forward by the Deputy — there are more ways to do that than an entrance examination. They will cite reasons such as numbers. The major advantage when one is trying to get into a secondary school is that a family member went there. Schools tend to admit all relations of past pupils, irrespective of how they perform in entrance examinations, and pupils from the local primary school with which they have a strong relationship. VEC and community schools have no barriers in allowing children into them. There is a strong diversity in the system which accommodates a full range of abilities and aptitudes.
Whatever methods are used to exclude, this is the one we are dealing with now and we need to make an argument along those lines. A child may be receiving home-school tuition in a disadvantaged area and because of poor performance in an entrance exam, he or she does not move on with his or her peers.
I do not think that happens. The only reason principals refuse admission to a child is that they have evidence of him or her being disruptive. That is the main issue in terms of admissions policy. Schools also have a tradition and consistency of admitting pupils from local parish schools. If I wanted to be prescriptive I could propose other amendments and include a section outlining how pupils should be admitted to second level.
One could equally argue for a measure to prevent schools from poaching. Certain secondary schools have high academic records which they maintain by creaming off top class students from other parishes, particularly socially and economically disadvantaged areas. We have evidence where children in schools in such areas have been offered scholarships, which is a practice I do not like. This raises the issues of parental choice, the rights of students and the rights of schools. Just like the entrance exam, we could argue that is not a desirable practice. However, do we legislate for it or do we become overly prescriptive in terms of admissions policies? The practice of poaching has excited a great deal of opposition and is one I would not encourage. However, if I legislate against it I could be accused of denying a child's right of access to a school of his or her choice or his or her parents' choice. It is not as simple as we might wish it to be.
I do not see it as a simple issue. I accept the Minister's point that other ruses can be found to deny a child a place in a school. I have the same difficulty as the Minister with the practice of creaming off students. The social downside of this relates to the performance of schools. Gradually poaching no longer has to take place because the achievers will move to those schools anyway. These are real difficulties. We will not agree on this so I will withdraw the amendment on the basis of the Minister possibly coming back to this on Report Stage.
We will reflect on it.
Perhaps the Department should consult with whoever has an interest in this. They may feel it is perfectly acceptable to include this in the Bill.
We have already consulted on the issue of admission, which causes considerable fraying of nerves.
Can the Minister direct a school in the VEC sector to accept a child? What is the position regarding the voluntary secondary sector? I am not clear on the point made by the Minister about community and comprehensive schools.
There are a wide variety of second level schools which provide great diversity, community-comprehensive schools, vocational colleges, voluntary secondary schools, both religious and lay, and gaelcholáistí. We can direct VEC colleges because they are more directly under State control. Ultimately we cannot direct voluntary secondary schools.
Does this legislation address that in any way?
It does to a certain extent. However, ultimately the schools are legal entities in their own right.
How does the Bill address it?
It deals with partnership, acknowledges the legal status of the various partners and creates a framework outlining the functions of the patrons, schools, principals and teachers. The Bill does not address the suggestion that we take them over.
Who suggested that?
That was one logical way to do it — the only way to direct them is to make them State schools.
Is the Minister telling us he does not intend to make them State schools?
I move amendment No. 149:
In page 12, subsection (2)(a), line 22, before "the" to insert "saving in a case where an appropriate education is not otherwise available without undue difficulty to students with a special educational need,".
The Minister may refuse recognition if he is not satisfied that the school is viable. My amendment proposes that viability should not be put on such an altar that we will deny children access to a need on the grounds of some test of viability that was the only effective vehicle open to them. Perhaps that is an exaggerated interpretation of what the test of viability means in practice.
It probably is. Section 10 provides for the recognition of schools and proposed schools by the Minister. The section does not alter the existing position where schools are currently recognised by the Department of Education and Science although there is no statutory need for this recognition. We will propose an amendment No. 149 which will have the effect of removing the viability condition from schools where students have special educational needs. I assure the Deputy that his amendment is not required. The Bill at no stage lays down stringent viability conditions for recognition. Criteria for viability may vary according to circumstances.
The Commission on School Accommodation Needs has undertaken substantial analysis of this issue and its work is continuing. The steering committee is looking at that and the report should be published shortly. The criteria for viability operated by the Department for schools for children with special needs are currently much less stringent than those which apply to mainstream schools. The Department already provides special classes and schools where the number of students is much lower than that which applies in mainstream schools. This situation will not change following enactment of the legislation.
Criteria for the viability of schools are necessary to ensure accountability and transparency in the disbursement of public funds. The Bill enables the creation of a framework in which criteria can be established. It is a reasonable provision.
I will withdraw the amendment on the basis that amendment No. 60 imposes a duty in any event.
It can be done in a range of areas. For example, special classes are provided with up to seven pupils in primary schools.
Amendments Nos. 150, 152, 223 and 228 are cognate and may be discussed together. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 150:
In page 13, subsection (1), line 9, after "teachers" to insert ", the student council where one exists".
The amendments seek recognition of a students' council where one exists in terms of access to information in decisions about withdrawal of recognition of a school. There is a strong reason for recognising the role of a students' union where one exists when decisions of this nature are being made or a school is making provision for information under section 20. This move is logical. The establishment of student councils is being encouraged and if one exists, these rights should follow.
I accept the amendments. It is a good idea and I favour student councils.
I move amendment No. 152:
In page 13, subsection (2), line 14, after "parents" to insert "or the student council where one exists".
Amendments Nos. 153 and 154 are related and may be discussed together. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 153:
In page 13, subsection (1), line 36, after "determine" to insert "and publish".
The Bill sets out that the Minister will determine each year with the concurrence of the Minister for Finance the criteria by which any class or classes of recognised schools will obtain funding. The section states that the Minister shall in each year make to each recognised school or centre for education grants which accord with the criteria determined under the subsection. However, there is no provision for letting people know what the criteria involve. If the criteria will dictate funding, schools have a right to know what they involve and to conduct themselves accordingly. The amendment seeks to ensure that they are published each year.
I accept the amendment in principle but I wish to introduce a different wording on Report Stage. I have no difficulty with publication. I will accept amendment No. 154 as it stands.
I move amendment No. 154:
In page 13, subsection (1), line 39, to delete "may" and substitute "shall".
Amendments Nos. 156 and 157 are alternatives to amendment No. 155 and all may be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 155:
In page 13, lines 52 and 53, and in page 14, lines 1 to 9, to delete subsections (4) and (5).
It is a technical amendment which provides for the maintenance of existing arrangements in relation to the funding of vocational education committee schools. It will allow the Minister to continue to fund the vocational education committees which will in turn provide funding to the schools under their authority. The point of Deputy Bruton's amendment No. 156 is covered by this amendment. Amendment No. 157 is also unnecessary because amendment No. 155 deletes subsections (4) and (5).
Effectively, the flexibility of vocational education committees in terms of the disbursement of their funds will remain in place.
Yes. I have no problem with that.
My amendment No. 156 is misplaced. It should be an amendment to section 13. I will check the position.
I move amendment No. 158:
In page 14, subsection (7), line 19, to delete "section" and substitute "subsection".
This amendment provides for the correction of an error in the text.
Amendment No. 159 is out of order.
I move amendment No. 160:
In page 14, subsection (2), line 28, to delete "may" and substitute "shall".
Subsection (2) states that the Minister "may include amongst those he or she appoints as Inspectors under subsection (1) persons who hold qualifications as psychologists". The amendment seeks to replace the term "may" with "shall". It will not mean it is mandatory for the Minister to appoint a psychologist but a more positive affirmation would be reassuring.
I have no difficulty with the amendment. In the normal course of events, psychologists are appointed to the inspectorate. This will continue to be the case, although we are anxious to set up a national psychological service. However, it will always be the intention to appoint psychologists to the staff of the inspectorate. I will accept the amendment to give assurance on that point.
Amendments Nos. 161 and 164 are related and may be discussed together. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 161:
In page 14, subsection (2), line 30, after "psychologists" to insert "or who have other expertise, including expertise in the education of students with special educational needs.".
This provides that the inspectorate will include people with expertise in special education. I am anxious to include this provision in the Bill. It will allow the Minister to appoint to the inspectorate people with appropriate expertise across the range of the special needs area, including, for example, linguists.
Deputy O'Shea's amendment No. 164, which specifies the qualifications of inspectors particularly in relation to special needs, is unnecessary for three reasons. First, the procedures for the appointment of inspectors, in line with subsection (8), will take place in accordance with the provisions of the Civil Service Commissioners Act and the Civil Service Regulations Act. This will ensure that each inspector appointed is appropriately qualified.
Second, the emphasis in the Bill on the needs of students with a disability or special education need will ensure that there are sufficient inspectors with appropriate qualifications. Third, it is not necessary that every inspector should be qualified with regard to special needs education. The emphasis will be on ensuring that a sufficient number of inspectors are available with appropriate qualifications in this regard.
The amendment arose in the context of a point made by a group which appeared before the committee last week. If the Bill involves integrated education and will ensure that people with special needs are part of the mainstream school system, it is inappropriate that inspectors do not have a particular expertise in this area. If they taking a holistic view of the school in which there are disabled children, this expertise is necessary and desirable.
Some inspectors are dedicated to the area of special needs. They not only deal with children attending special schools and special classes but can also assess children in mainstream schools. It would be unfair and wrong to include the amendment because it would inadvertently but explicitly exclude people with tremendous expertise in given subjects whom we need within the system. The inspectorate's role is broad and wide; it covers State examinations and a range of other activities and it would be foolish to exclude people or to put an obligation on every inspector to have this qualification. It would make greater sense to ensure a sufficient number of people with expertise. The amendment could, without intending to do so, exclude people who are top class in a given field of expertise, whether in the sciences, English or another subject. All our chief examiners and current inspectors are people of the highest quality and of great calibre. Should the chief examiner in science be required to have a specific qualification? I am not sure he or she should. We will provide dedicated inspectors because this is all about developing expertise and having a targeted and focused approach to children with special needs.
The Minister says such a provision could exclude inspectors but what we are concerned about is the exclusion of people with disabilities. An examiner in a subject should be aware of the difficulties disabled children encounter. I know of one case last year where the Department showed much good will but administrative regulations made it difficult to tackle. It is not too much to ask and is entirely appropriate that inspectors should appreciate the difficulties experienced by disabled people in learning, examinations, etc. The Minister is saying that these people are experts in one way but do not need to know about the needs and abilities of disabled people.
There is a difference between needing to know and being experts. The Deputy's amendment provides that they should be appropriately qualified and we are talking about specific qualifications for inspectors. All our inspectors would have knowledge and awareness of the special needs area. In the case mentioned by the Deputy, it was not so much the inspector's fault as that there are administrative mechanisms and procedures governing examinations for children with special needs. I am hoping to have those provisions reviewed, although perhaps not in time for this year's examinations. I have initiated the review through the examination body I set up, asking it to assess the area for future State examinations. Officials and Department inspectors must be guided by the existing arrangements. The key issue is that we have a sufficiency of inspectors to meet the needs of special needs children, which we will have.
Does the Minister not agree we would be better able to cater for people with physical or sensory disabilities if the inspector, at whatever level he operates and whatever contribution he may make to the education system, obtained the appropriate qualifications and was thereby aware of the difficulties encountered by those people? This need not mean a person must take a year off to study but that there should be a basic understanding of the difficulties of disabled people.
Inspectors are engaged in ongoing in-service training programmes and there is no difficulty in terms of awareness, etc. In terms of pre-service training, one area which will be covered by the teacher training review is the need for modules on special education at teacher training colleges, so that every teacher qualifying from them will be exposed to the area. The inspectors will come from the primary teachers ultimately. Inspectors do and will access in-service programmes but the amendment suggests that they should have appropriate qualifications.
Last week, the representative of boards of management of special schools said one contribution to the care and education of people with disabilities would be to make inspectors au fait with this area.
They are aware.
In the Minister's view, would they all have appropriate expertise?
The Deputy is changing the goalposts. He asked whether they were aware but not every inspector is an expert in special education.
It comes down to the appropriate plan and provision.
We must have some logic. The inspectorate should have broad expertise, covering a range of areas. Invariably people develop expertise in given areas and inspectors are no different. The obligation of the Department of Education and Science — and of the Government and the Oireachtas — is to ensure we have a sufficient number of experts qualified in special education on the inspectorate who can meet the needs of all children in special education. The Bill provides for that; it is not necessary to put in an additional provision whereby every inspector must have a qualification.
It would be worthwhile if the Minister's officials could read the minutes of our last meeting, where we heard the comments of people at the coalface.
The Secretary General has informed me that if we had applied this measure in his day he would have been excluded.
I will not comment.
I cannot accept amendment No. 164.
My basic concern is to develop the position of disabled children through the inspectorate. Could the Minister examine the section in that context before Report Stage? Perhaps the inspectorate could become a more pro-active resource in this area — that is what I am seeking.
I will look at the relationship between the inspectorate and special education before Report Stage but I will not bring forward a qualification provision.
It does not matter whether it is done through legislation or some other way, so long as this area of service is covered.
I do not want to lose my experts.
I move amendment No. 163:
In page 14, between lines 30 and 31, to insert the following subsection:
(3) The objectives of the Inspectorate shall be:
(a) to promote excellence in the management, teaching, use of support services, and consultative processes within schools and centres for education, in pursuit of the objects set out in section 6;
(b) to assist schools and centres of education in the framing of plans under section 21 and in establishing procedures under section 20;
(c) to assess international developments in education to ensure that Ireland adopts best practice as it develops overseas;
(d) to develop and apply the most appropriate procedures for the examination of educational proficiency, in consultation with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment;
(e) to disseminate information about its own activities, and about successful initiatives implemented in schools or centres of education, particularly as they bear on educational disadvantage, and to promote discussions about the educational issues for which it has responsibility;
(f) to promote the effective implementation and updating of individual educational plans issued in respect of students with special educational needs.".
The amendment seeks to set out the objectives of the inspectorate. We are setting up an inspectorate and giving it particular functions but there is a need to state its overall objective.
There is a need to state the overall objective of the inspectorate. The role of the inspectorate should be to promote excellence in schools and that should be in all dimensions of its work, including integrating those with special needs. The role of the inspector should also embrace helping the schools to put together plans under section 21. We are providing that schools should develop plans. It seems there is a great deal of expertise within the Department, in the inspectorate in particular, which would be of enormous benefit to schools in developing plans and strategies to improve the quality of the education they offer. The inspector should have this broad role explicitly rather than an evaluating role that involves simply sitting in the classroom, talking to various people and then leaving. He or she should assist with the development and resourcing of a plan. The inspectorate should actively identify best practice. The Minister said it should compare what it is doing with other countries. That is fine, but there should also be an active brief to ferret out what is best practice rather than looking out the back window to see how we compare with other countries. We should look out the front window and examine what will become best practice and the methods that will be most relevant when IT takes hold.
The inspectorate should also be given a role, other than the passive one of performing whatever functions the Minister gives it in relation to examinations, to develop and apply the most appropriate and forward looking procedures for the examination of educational proficiency. It is the expert and the eyes and ears of the Minister within the schools.
Subsection (e) is very important. The inspectorate should produce an annual report as a matter of course, disseminate information about successful initiatives and promote discussion on these issues. The inspectorate has not been a widely known element of the education system. Most second level teachers have not seen an inspector for years. If we are to give legislative expression to the inspectorate, an annual report on the state of play in the schools would be important.
Deputy O'Shea said it should have an explicit role in promoting the effective implementation and updating of individual education plans for students with special educational needs. It should monitor the extent to which the Department, the Minister and the schools under his control are delivering on what was set out when the assessments took place.
We are establishing the inspectorate on a legislative basis for the first time. As it stands it is being made into an appendage of the Minister. He will appoint it; it can move only if he says so and it only advises the Minister. This is enclosed thinking. The amendment to the subsection attempts to open up that and introduce concepts to education such as TQM, which is prevalent in outside organisations but for which there is little support within the system. This is an opportunity to give the inspectorate this mandate. There will be hiccups when negotiating and developing the vehicles for doing this, but it is the way to proceed. The inspectorate should be seen not only as an adviser and evaluator but as an ally of schools in developing good practice. That is the concept which fits into modern management and we should state that explicitly in the legislation. The existing provisions are old fashioned in the way they have been framed and need some of the cobwebs blown away.
That is terrible. The language is not very outdated. The inspectorate can advise teachers, parents and parent associations, may conduct assessments of the educational needs of students, evaluate the quality and effectiveness of the provision of education in the State, including comparison with relevant international standards and practice, and report to the Minister; conduct research into education; provide support in the formulation of policy by the Minister; advise the Minster on any matter related to education policy and provision, including the curriculum taught in recognised schools and assessment of teaching methods; perform such functions relating to the preparation and marking of school examinations; and support, advise and visit schools, evaluate their management and the effectiveness of the education provided in those schools, the quality of teaching and the effectiveness of individual teachers. That is all in the section which I inserted in the Bill.
Amendment No. 163 adds little to what I already included. In addition paragraphs (c) and (d) of Deputy Bruton's amendment are covered in section 40 of the Bill which deals with the role of the National Curriculum Assessment Council, and in section 40 (2)(b). One of the objects of the NCAC is " to advise the Minister on appropriate methods for the assessment of the effectiveness of the education provided in schools, with particular regard to mechanisms whereby students who have problems achieving their potential may be identified as early as practicable and assisted;". Section 40 (2)(d) states " from time to time to advise the Minister on the standards of knowledge and skills which students at various age levels should attain and on the mechanisms for assessing the achievement of such standards;". That gives a general provision that the NCAC can advise the Minister.
It is all covered in the Bill and is a major step forward. We are dealing with the pilot quality programme of the school evaluation programme. We have not decided to bring TQM into the system yet. Much is being achieved. We could easily argue about which language is better but what matters is that the inspectorate has been given a real role. It is also comprehensive in terms of the quality of education in schools. That should be acknowledged.
This is not just a matter of language. There is a fundamental difference between what I believe we should encourage the inspectorate to do and current practice. Current practice, even under whole school evaluation, is based on inspectors visiting schools, seeing what is happening, drawing up a report, deciding what is right or wrong and advising the Minister. If we are to develop quality in our schools there must be a partnership. The Department cannot think it can inspect quality into the schools, it has to be built with the co-operation and partnership of the schools. That means one must meet them, look at their problems, help them to devise plans central to tackling their problems and be willing to honestly face up to the issue of resources. If resourcing hampers a school in its ability to develop quality education, it should be confronted. This process embraces the parent as a true partner and parents are not outsiders as is the case in the current pilot. The minimal role given to them in the original text was subsequently watered down. These are not just issues about semantics and language but also about philosophy and approach.
All of that is included.
With regard to school evaluation, the Minister is not helping the schools to plan——
We are, that is what school evaluation is about.
That is what it should be about but not what it is about.
The Deputy wishes to impose a model with which the Department does not agree. If we were to adopt it, we would not even get off the starting blocks.
The Minister is trying to defend a half hearted effort to address this.
For years successive Governments have tried this and failed; we need everybody on board.
The big issue is that he is not willing to put resources into it or honestly face up to the issue. Many schools have huge problems coping and we need to be honest enough to say the Department will go into them not just with people to evaluate and make recommendations to the Minister but who will honestly acknowledge a problem in the school and say a plan should be put together to help it identify ways of dealing with the problem which would involve meeting parents and other partners to develop and resource the plan. Only when they have had a chance to implement a plan should we ask whether they achieved.
The model developed by the Minister and endorsed in the Bill is an old fashioned one of inspection with outsiders coming in to evaluate rather than partners coming in to help develop a plan. We should try to lift the inspectorate on to a new plane so that it is not beholden to the Minister and is in a position to make recommendations about resources openly and honestly as part of the development of a plan in the schools. That is the way to go and people will see inspectors in a more positive light if they become partners and advocates in the development of the school.
I am glad the Deputy has come around to my thinking. We introduced the term "evaluation" and to suggest we are only interested in inspecting is a nonsense and untrue. The entire school evaluation programme, which was roundly attacked by the Deputy, is a collaborative exercise involving all partners and aims to assist the performance of schools. It accepts teachers' professionalism and endeavours to evaluate what is happening and how it can be improved. It is a very modern approach and, therefore, not old fashioned and the Department and the chief inspector deserve to be commended.
The notion that we do not have people helping schools is misplaced. For years, inspectors worked with schools, particularly in the primary sector, to develop plans and strategies. The attack on the inspectorate has been overdone and the suggestion that it has been hiding in rooms in Marlborough Street and does not meet anybody is incorrect. The section is a significant advance and the powers, roles and functions given to the inspectorate will leave it well placed to meet the challenges in terms of school evaluation.
One must have the players on board for successful school evaluation. We can talk all we like about wonderful concepts and what should be, but it counts for nothing if we do not earn the confidence and trust of partners in the process. School evaluation has been criticised but it is a welcome initiative because we could not get anything off the ground for years and successive Ministers had difficulty developing it. It was called school inspection but I changed it to evaluation because it promotes a better philosophy in that we are not out to catch people out. We wish to evaluate overall school performance with a view to improving it.
People may be frustrated with the pace of it but if we do not have everybody on board from day one we will go nowhere in terms of school evaluation via a collaborative approach.
The day I graduated from training college, the then Secretary of the Department, Seán MacGearailt, spoke to us in Irish. The important advice he gave us was "Féach ar an chigire mar chara." The reaction from the vast majority of the students was where did this fellow come from? The Secretary-General heard that advice and I would be interested to hear whether he adopted it during his life.
Deputy Bruton's point regarding the inspector's involvement in the school is important. I have seen innovation and commitment from inspectors with regard to schools and a major commitment to disadvantage from individuals, but this amendment refers to the inspectorate at large. Section 13(3)(a)(iv) states the function of an inspector shall be "to advise parents and parents' associations." I do not have a problem with this but I question how much of an inspector's time could go into performing this function. I am concerned because there will be a transition process and if parents know inspectors are obliged to give them advice, many will take up that offer. This needs to be balanced in terms of the amount of time devoted to the bigger picture by the inspectorate rather than it becoming overly involved in individual cases where priority for such advice would not be great.
Deputy Bruton's amendment deals with objectives while the section outlines functions. The functions are there to achieve objectives. The distance between the Deputy and the Minister is not as great as it may seem. Ultimately, the inspectorate improves what is happening in our schools and the education our children receive. A mission statement might not be a bad idea in terms of the legislation and the functions involved could emanate from that. A mission statement, like other parts of the Bill, is aspirational, but it might not be unproductive to state the objective of an inspectorate.
Our interpretation of Deputy Bruton's amendment is that the vast bulk of it involves functions as opposed to objects. Our view is that most of this is covered already. I am prepared to examine amendment No. 163 again. If we feel there is something there which is not included in the section, we will look at improving the section on Report Stage in the context of Deputy Bruton's amendment.
I would be wary of another matter. Deputy O'Shea made a valid point about how we divide the workload and activities of the inspectorate. We must be careful not to impose too many administrative burdens on the inspectorate as opposed to the real work, which is liaising and working with schools. We do not want to have somebody behind a desk writing reports for the rest of his or her life as the sum total of his or her contribution to education. I am always wary of that scenario developing. We must be careful of the balance between that and allowing people to do the job.
There is a need to set out what we are trying to achieve in this area. At the heart of it is the pursuit of the highest possible standards. Implicit in that is the Department starting to look at what is succeeding in some schools and trying to develop that in the mainstream.
Also at the heart of it is ensuring that schools have the capability to make planning a meaningful exercise in their schools. Many schools have weak management structures. They are going to find it difficult to develop plans. They will need the support of the inspectorate to do this successfully. They will need the willingness of the Department to resource strategies which come out of those plans. Nowhere in section 13 is there any expression of that sort of approach. That is a major shortcoming. Inspection without looking at the issues of planning and resources is a rather barren exercise.
One of my amendments involves dropping talk of inspectors because it is inappropriate. We should be talking about targeted plans to develop excellence within schools, resourcing those plans, and subsequently seeing whether those resource plans were delivered, and if not, why not. That is how one gets into an evaluative phase.
There are contradictions here because the Deputy is opening up the prospect of the big arm of the Department through the inspector telling schools how to make their plans.
It could be interpreted as the Department declaring a board of management is weak and therefore sending in big brother to sort it out.
The Minister is understating his capacity to explain to people that it is people helping them as a partner or a friend.
I am not. My view on school evaluation is that the inspector is there as a friend to evaluate how the school is doing, but we have placed an obligation on the boards of management of schools to produce the school plans. We are saying that boards of management should have autonomy, that we should trust them to do certain things. On the other hand, the Deputy is saying we should bring in third parties to do it.
I have no difficulty in consulting with inspectors on the development of school plans, but the perception of that from the partners, boards of management or teachers, in particular, would be that the school plan should be their exercise and they should have the freedom to do it. They would perceive the role of the inspector as the central power dictating the shape of the plan.
We must be careful how we do all of this because these are the real fears and perceptions which are abroad. Most schools have bought into the idea of a school plan. Having met many teachers and principals, I know they like the exercise which a school plan involves. They think the compilation of annual school reports, to which the Deputy referred, is largely an academic exercise with 4,000 reports ending up in the Department and nobody looking at them, but they see the school plan as a different exercise altogether which involves collaboration between everybody in the school.
I will adapt this amendment to take account of our discussion and resubmit it on Report Stage.
On a point of clarification, amendment No. 156 was misplaced. That amendment should have been to page 15 of the Bill. It was an amendment to section 12 instead of section 13. I want to resubmit that amendment.
I move amendment No. 165:
In page 14, subsection (3)(a)(i), lines 36 and 37, after "education," to insert "on the initiative of the Inspectorate, or".
Amendment No. 165 provides that the visits to recognised schools and centres for education will be not just as directed by the Minister which is the present provision but on the initiative of the inspectorate. Far too often in this section the inspectorate is seen to be under the thumb of the Minister, being directed by the Minister to report solely to him on what he finds in the school. In subsection (7), it is only the Minister who sets out criteria, for instance. The inspectorate should be trusted and seen as a valuable body in itself which works on its own initiative and is not beholden to the Minister. If we want to develop the notion of the inspectorate as a "friend", this would be a positive way to proceed.
I am not prepared to accept this amendment. In practice what happens is that the inspectors act on the direction of the chief inspector. They meet with the chief inspector and take a team approach to their roles and programmes. They have and will have the power to visit schools if they consider a visit is warranted. It is not necessary to spell out the power in detail in the Bill.
In addition, what we are providing for here is an enabling framework where we will create the criteria. Section 13(7) states: "An Inspector . . . shall carry out his or her functions in accordance with such procedures for, and criteria of, inspections as may be determined by the Minister from time to time, following consultation with patrons, school management organisations, recognised trades unions and staff associations representing teachers and such other persons as the Minister considers appropriate, and such directions as may be given by the Minister from to time.". This brings in the partnership issue. As we expand and develop the role, we must do so in tandem and in consultation with the partners. For example, it would be widely known that there is a huge difference between primary school and second level in terms of the role of the inspectorate. To arbitrarily provide a power to call on second level schools whenever they wished could generate unnecessary hassle, hostility and difficulties because partners would not be in agreement with that. In consultations preceding the Bill, we did not indicate that we would be providing such a power. It makes sense to have the safeguard of consultation with the partners because if one is anxious that the concept of the inspector as a friend develops in that way, we had better do it properly from the beginning under recognised criteria drawn up between everybody involved.
One does not need to mediate everything through the Minister. He attacked the former Minister for seeking to take functions for herself. In this Bill the Minister is directing inspectors before they visit, insisting that they report to him and that only he mediates in discussions they have with the education partners.
In practice, the Deputy knows what we are talking about——
In practice why not take out the Minister and put in the chief inspector or the inspectorate as I have done?
They ought to be agents of the Minister. The Minister is ultimately in charge of public policy. I have taken out a whole range of references to the Minister from the Education (No. 1) Bill.
We are giving the inspectorate a statutory basis. It is not just officers.
We are not making it independent. Is that what the Deputy wants?
We are establishing inspectors with powers which are independent of the Minister. Section 13(6) states: "An Inspector shall have all such powers as are necessary or expedient for the purpose of performing his or her functions."
Inspectors are accountable to the Minister and that is as it should be.
They are accountable on policy but not on operational matters such as when they visit a school. That is ridiculous. They do not have to mediate every discussion with the education partners through the Minister.
The Bill is creating a framework and a set of criteria which will govern all of these issues. The Minister will not check up on every inspector on every visit he or she makes. That is not intended. The Deputy is going into an unnecessary degree of detail. I urge a note of caution.
This is Committee Stage. It is because we are going through detail——
There is only a certain level of detail into which one should go on any Bill. In terms of the inspectorate we should proceed in tandem with the partners.
We are discussing a specific amendment which says that inspectors should visit a recognised school. The Minister is saying they will only visit as directed by the Minister. I am not denying the Minister the opportunity to direct inspectors to visit schools or that they should do so on the initiative of the inspectorate. We should recognise legally as well as in practice that they are conducting their business, we are giving them a statutory basis and they have a right to do things. These powers are set out in section 13(6) and inspectors should determine their own procedures. They should interface with the partners themselves. That is how to make the inspectorate more meaningful.
We will have to agree to disagree.