We resume consideration of the Bill on section 29, amendment No. 253 in the name of Deputy Richard Bruton:
Education (No. 2) Bill, 1997: Committee Stage (Resumed).
I move amendment No. 253:
In page 23, subsection (1), line 40, after "board" to insert "or a person acting on behalf of the board".
I will revisit this issue on Report Stage.
I move amendment No. 254:
In page 23, subsection (1)(c), lines 44 and 45, to delete from and including "for" in line 44, down to and including "school" in line 45.
It has been represented to me that section 29, as drafted, could be invoked by schools to exclude students with special needs on the grounds that the available accommodation is not suitable. This has the potential to provide a further statutory barrier to such students and that is obviously not what was intended by the provision. I am, therefore, anxious that such a situation would not arise and I propose to remove the phrase in question in section 29(1)(c).
Amendments Nos. 255, 256, 258 and 259 are related. Amendment No. 257 is an alternative to amendment No. 256. The amendments may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 255:
In page 23, subsection (1), after line 45, to insert the following:
"(d) makes a decision or takes an action which materially and substantially affects the education or well-being of a student,".
This amendment seeks to broaden the remit under the procedure of appeals to the Secretary General which is currently solely confined to exclusions, student suspensions or refusals to enrol. The amendment seeks to allow appeals to be made in regard to any decision or action which materially and substantially affects the education or well-being of a student.
My memory of the earlier drafts of this Bill was that it was clearly envisaged there would be a broader canvas on which parents or students could make complaints. It has been strongly represented to me, by parents groups in particular, that the confining of the appeal procedure solely to issues of expulsion and so on is too narrow and that the Minister's provision that the appeals procedure might be extended at a later stage, subject to agreement, is an unsatisfactory basis on which to build legislation. Legislation should be constructed on the basis of a robust analysis of what parents and/or students should have a right to raise queries and appeals about. My view is that parents are an equal partner where decisions or actions are taken which materially affect students' well-being and have a right to appeal process in those circumstances. Such an appeal process is currently available in respect of far more trivial issues affecting a family's life, be that in regard to banks, insurance companies, casual dealings with the public service and so on. People have recourse to an Ombudsman in such circumstances to have their cases duly and independently deliberated and assessed. I do not think we should found legislation on the basis that partners, however valid their concerns, would have a veto right to prevent a parent's entitlement. The amendment is a sensible one and I hope the Minister will be well disposed to accepting it.
Parents' representatives have raised a very important issue in regard to the appeals procedure. As the legislation stands, people only have recourse to appeal to the Secretary General against the decisions of a board in regard to expulsion, suspension or failure to enrol for reasons other than accommodation.
An example of what should be part of the appeal process is that from time to time there is a clash of personalities between a student or students and a teacher in a school. The board of management could decide to exclude a student from classes in one subject or impose sanctions that could affect in a material way the education of the student. There should be a mechanism for appeals in this area.
Clashes of personality which can arise between students and teachers are extraordinarily difficult to resolve in schools. The rights of the parents and the child involved are paramount. There should be an appeal mechanism to give added protection to children. That children's rights can be seriously infringed by decisions of boards of management is not encompassed by the provisions relating to expulsion, suspension and failure to enrol.
It will be possible to cover the example mentioned by the Deputy in terms of subjects or a class in the regulations which will be drawn up. The Bill makes provision for an appeal if a student is either permanently expelled or suspended from a class or subject. The purpose of the section is to deal with cases where a student is deprived of an education or part thereof. I accept that at second level a student would be deprived if a leaving certificate subject such as physics or chemistry was involved and he or she did not get on with the teacher. Ideally these issues should be resolved at local level. The principal and board of management should intervene and resolve the problem. The regulations which will follow will accommodate the point made by the Deputy, but perhaps it could be addressed on Report Stage.
My amendment No. 256 has three aims and accommodates a number of the issues raised in the other amendments. However, I acknowledge it does not deal with them all. The fundamental issue is the degree to which the appeals mechanism will be clogged up. The phrase "an action which materially and substantially affects the education or wellbeing of a student" is very much open to interpretation. Every parent could consider that a certain issue substantially and materially affected their child's education. It could be endless.
There is a clash between the partners in terms of their perspectives on this issue. On the one hand parents want the broadest possible set of parameters governing the basis on which appeals can be made while, on the other, principals, teachers, boards of management and trustees are anxious to ensure that the entire system is not clogged up with vexatious claims and appeals. They are anxious to avoid teachers spending their time making presentations, attending appeals and preparing material for further appeals rather than teaching. This could be an extreme spin put on the matter by one side of the partnership process. The Bill attempts to balance the competing viewpoints and develop a framework to deal with substantial issues such as the denial of access to education, refusal to enrol, suspension and expulsion.
Amendment No. 256 proposes the deletion of paragraph (d) and the substitution of:
(d) makes a decision of a class which the Minister, following consultation with patrons, national associations of parents, recognised school management organisations, recognised trade unions and staff associations representing teachers, may from time to time determine, may be appealed in accordance with this section—
The word "agreement" has been replaced by the word "consultation". This is in line with an earlier amendment. The Minister does not have to secure the agreement of all the partners if he or she wants to develop the appeals process further and include issues which arise occasionally.
The section also provides for a review of the appeals mechanism established by the Bill within two years with a view to further refinement of its implementation. The proposed framework will allow development of the appeals process and the inclusion of other issues in the future, subject to consultation with the partners. This is the first time a formal appeals process with a proper mechanism has been laid down and this is a significant development in the education system.
Where is the review body mentioned in the Bill?
Section 29(8) states that the Minister
. . . shall from time to time review the operation of this section and section 28 and the first such review shall take place not more than two years from the commencement of this section.
Amendment No. 256 makes it clear that the Minister will decide the type of decisions which may be appealed to the Secretary General following consultation with the partners. It also aims to ensure that the appeals process in schools on a local level should be exhausted before appeals are taken to Secretary General level. At present appeals can take place at meetings of vocational education committees in relation to VEC schools.
In some voluntary secondary schools, appeals can go to the board of governor or the trustees after it has been heard by the board of management. This can resolve many issues locally. In the past trustees have been more flexible than management in terms of resolving issues. The aim is to ensure, as far as practicable, that all issues are resolved at local level. The appeal mechanism should not be used frequently unless it is necessary.
I take the Minister's point about vexatious appeals from people who want to work off grudges or have bad memories of their school days. It is most important that the time of schools is not taken up resolving such problems. However, the onus should be on the school and board of management to resolve problems internally within a reasonable period. Cases arise that cannot be satisfactorily resolved and there is a problem if a child's rights are not protected.
Perhaps a process could be established to objectively vet applications. The Minister's amendment would create a position where matters outside the three areas mentioned that are referred to the Secretary General would be vetted. Perhaps the Minister could consider the establishment of a streamlined process. Children are very conscious of justice being done and certain activities can destabilise all the students in a school. This may involve a specific incident involving only one student but children have a refined sense of justice. If a problem is not resolved by a board of management, it will be a weakness if people have nowhere else to go and they perceive that children's rights are not being protected. In the interests of the education system in general, people with grievances, other children in schools and staff members, there must be another way to deal with serious problems other than the methods mentioned by the Minister. This must be developed speedily.
The Department is engaged in discussions with the partners on the development of a grievance structure to take on board the issues mentioned by the Deputy. Many minor issues, which for the individual may be serious, relate to personalities — a student not hitting it off with a teacher or principal who may have a perception that they are being persecuted as a result. There should be a process to deal with that at local level. Once the Bill is passed we will then have regulations which develop models of best practice, not only in terms of the appeals committee but also in terms of the school's own set of procedures. In many instances those procedures are not what they should be or have been historically. I have some experience of vocational education committees where an appeals mechanism is already in place and parents can be consulted. That cannot be said of every school sector at the moment. The ideal would be to do what the Deputy is suggesting via regulations.
I am very unhappy with all the material we have here. The Minister is churning out the sorts of arguments we heard when the Ombudsman's service was introduced. When any rights are given to consumers we have always heard the same arguments that the system will be clogged up with people clamouring to disrupt it with vexatious complaints. In cases where an ombudsman service has been introduced, however, none of the predicted catastrophes has occurred. People are very responsible and they want an accessible system where their complaints can be heard in a fair and equitable way. It has to be done quickly and fairly.
I strongly favour the ombudsman approach. The Minister is making a mistake by going down the extremely legalistic route involving appeals to the Secretary General — who should not be involved at all — and from there to a committee with barristers and solicitors of ten years' standing. The Minister is making it worse by saying an initial round must be completed before he can even get to the legalistic procedure, namely, the conclusion of appeals procedures within the school. Nowhere does the Minster say there is a time limit on these appeals procedures. His amendment is making this worse.
The only thing I welcome is that he has moved an inch or two forward by saying he will take the initiative himself rather than leaving it to be agreed at the pace of the slowest mover. Unfortunately, my sense of the Minister's thinking on this does not lend me to believe that he will use the little extra power he is giving himself to good effect in this area.
We really need to step back from this matter and think of how important it is to a family or an individual to get a fair crack of the whip from the education system. We should compare that to how important it is to get a fair crack of the whip from local government administration. They are incomparable in importance. Much of the administrative load of local authorities, health boards and other public bodies is not important as regards shaping careers. We are quite happy to offer an ombudsman service to individuals in other matters, yet in the most important area affecting the future of a child we are watering down the right to make reasonable complaints in an independent appeals forum.
The Minister is too much a prisoner of the insiders who have always been reluctant to accept change. In every case where we have seen an ombudsman service people are reluctant to have their decisions put under scrutiny. We need to think about this again. I sponsored an alternative version in amendment No. 250 which, unfortunately, the Chairman ruled out of order.
We have an established tradition of an Ombudsman in this country. That Ombudsman has done an enormous amount of good and he has never had to complain to the Oireachtas that he has been swamped with vexatious claims. He has never complained either about the nature of the public he has to deal with. His complaints have invariably been about the extent of bureaucratic clogs in the system whereby people cannot obtain their rights.
He has been given the right under statute to discontinue his investigations where he feels they are unfounded or to find they do not warrant investigation in the first place. I would be quite happy to give an independent person, such as an education ombudsman, the right to dismiss vexatious claims without entertaining the nature of a teacher's or a school's complaint.
We need to think about this process again. The Minister knows that the parents councils have issued statements which are strongly critical of this process. I read them into the record before so I do not need to do so again. The parents are equal partners in this but the equality of their partnership is not reflected in these provisions. The Minister should rethink the position he is taking. If he is not willing to rethink his approach he will have to modify his stance in many places. He should accept the route of amendment No. 255 — which, at least, would prevent these interminable negotiations and consultations the Minister will bring upon himself — before he sets out simple principles as to what can be appealed. There is no merit in this. As legislators, we are trying to produce something for the future but we cannot become prisoners of partners who may be slow to move. We must make decisions in this area.
The Minister has built into amendment No. 256 something that is setting us back further. He has set no time limit on the length of time during which a school's appeal procedure may rumble along within the system before it goes out to independent appeal.
The Ombudsman actually covers the Department of Education and Science.
We are not talking about the Department of Education and Science, we are talking about schools.
The Deputy made a long statement about an education ombudsman and I am making the point that the office of the current Ombudsman covers schools in regard to examinations and school transport. An individual who feels he or she is not being fairly dealt with by the system may appeal to the Ombudsman. We deal with cases from the Ombudsman on an ongoing basis. The Ombudsman already has that capacity.
The Ombudsman cannot deal with issues which materially and substantially affect schools. If the Minister is happy to sponsor amendment No. 250 in my name I will uphold him.
I did not interrupt the Deputy. Sometimes people may not like to see that what has been proposed already exists. The difference would be that an education ombudsman would have a separate, specific office as opposed to the existing office of the Ombudsman which deals with education issues as they arise from an individual's perspective. If the individual is not happy that their needs or requirements have been met they may appeal to the Ombudsman and say they did not receive fair treatment. That is already in place and we have had to respond to a number of issues which have been raised by individuals concerning school transport, special needs and examinations.
We are talking about a national appeals system; we are not talking about every issue that may arise at school level. To say that I am the prisoner of one partner in education while Deputy Bruton is the champion of another partner is overstating the case for political and propaganda reasons. That is the clear political message Deputy Bruton is endeavouring to develop. He is entitled to do that but I reject it.
This Bill represents a significant leap forward for parents in terms of their rights and responsibilities, their membership of boards of management, the establishment of a national appeals system in the first instance, the development of local grievance structures and a local appeals system. The regulations will be quite transparent and we will not be hanging around forever after the enactment of this Bill.
Teachers are not insiders, as Deputy Bruton described them. I take it he was referring to teachers when he spoke about the insiders objecting to this. That can only mean teachers or principals. They have a valid point of view because they are in school every day from nine to five working within the system. Teachers' views must be taken on board and so must the views of school principals. I make no apology for accommodating their perspective on this as well as the perspective of parents.
The Bill attempts to marry the different concerns of the partners. We have accepted suggestions by the National Primary Parents Council on this and other sections to try to accommodate some of their concerns. From their point of view we do not go far enough; there is a difference of opinion on this section dealing with material and how it would impact on the system. We will have to agree to disagree as I have fundamental views on this and I have been through the arguments with the earlier Bill from an Opposition perspective. I am now following through on what I said then.
I wish to pursue this issue. Perhaps the Minister could present to us the contents of the Ombudsman Act because that would be germane to this debate. It is my impression that the Ombudsman cannot hear complaints by parents about decisions which would significantly affect the education of their child. The Minster is presenting the case that this can be done. Before we proceed I would like to see the sections of the Ombudsman Act to which he is referring.
This is an important point. We are providing a legislative framework designed to respect all of the partners in the system. When it comes to one group wanting to complain about how the system has affected it, it should not be constrained by having to seek agreement from others.
People are not constrained.
This is not an issue proper to negotiation in a partnership spirit, this is an issue of people's rights.
They do not have to get agreement.
The Bill provides for——
Paragraph (d) of amendment No. 256 provides for further development of the appeals mechanism in consultation with the partners.
I have already acknowledged that the Bill signals a step forward but it is clear the Minister is of the opinion that we should not move to a point where a decision of a school or teacher which materially affects the education of a child should be open to appeal. He felt this was a point of principle that a decision of a teacher which materially affects a student should not be open to appeal. His point of principle is that there must be clear restriction.
Will Deputy Bruton outline to what type of decision he is referring, to help me with these amendments? Is the Deputy saying that if a teacher decides that someone should do pass or honours that should be the subject of an appeal right up to a national appeals secretary?
If a person feels a decision materially and substantially affects the child's future, and there is a realistic ground for it, he should be able to present those grounds to an education ombudsman. If the ombudsman sees that the student has not reached adequate grades on any such paper in the past, he could decide it did not merit further investigation but such decisions must be open to question.
That is why there is a local appeals process.
I am happy to have a local appeals process but I am not happy to have an open ended local appeals process without a time limit. The Minister has afforded no time limit.
What does the Deputy mean by a time limit?
Following the conclusion of any appeal procedure, the limit afforded here is for a reasonable length of time within which the parent must appeal. We offer no specified date during which the school must conclude its hearing of the appeal. That is a serious flaw. We should open so that an education ombudsman can hear any decision which is believed to seriously affect a child. All the evidence of ombudsmen in the past is that the Minister's fear that schools will become clogged up and that every parent will be hammering on the door of the ombudsman is unfounded. There are no grounds to believe parents will be vexatious in this area when they have proved not to be vexatious in other areas. Equally there are no grounds for believing that a strong ombudsman would not be able to see through vexatious complaints
The Deputy speaks as if the section was non-existent or was without flexibility. It is subject to review within two years. Amendment No. 256 is designed to deal with the issues which Deputies Bruton and O'Shea have identified. It is a better way of dealing with them as it provides for consultation with the partners as the system develops, to see what areas are excluded so they can be included in the future. The wording suggested by Deputy Bruton is general by nature and impossible to give shape to. The time limit issue will be dealt with in regulations which we will produce. Every detail does not go into a Bill. All legislation allows the Minister to produce and develop regulations vis-à-vis the implementation of the sections of the Bill. If necessary we can insert a time limit on Report Stage to accommodate that point.
We are establishing an appeals system which deals with major issues which would substantially affect a child's future in the education system. Amendment No. 256 replaces the section which already existed for that purpose but clarifies and strengthens it. It is there to develop other classes of decision which may be appealed. The door is not closed on new issues which may emerge.
At the top of the scale of areas which are open to appeal are expulsions, suspensions and failure to enrol. At the bottom end there are vexatious appeals. If a process could be found to independently screen the appeals other than those listed here, if there was an ombudsman who could adjudicate and decide whether a case required the attention of the secretary general, that would be worthwhile.
The points made by Deputy Bruton merit serious consideration. Is it an appropriate role for the Secretary General of the Department of Education and Science to be involved in dealing with appeals? In a sense there is an element of acting as referee on his or her own behalf.
I have a further amendment seeking that any decision made by the Secretary General would be subject to appeal to the ombudsman. As a public representative, if I have tried to resolve a case and feel there is still an injustice, I will advise a constituent to take the case up with the Ombudsman. It is a difficult area and I do not underestimate the difficulties the Minister has outlined. As a former teacher, I understand what he is saying but once we take this step it should be comprehensive in the areas which it addresses.
Speed is vital here. If children feel a sense of grievance in school, issues can arise which will require serious measures. These are the fundamental areas outlined. There are other issues which arise in which injustices can be done to children. It stops at the board of management and there is no court of appeal beyond that. The Minister is not providing a rapid solution for these children. A situation could arise in which a career could be damaged and a sense of grievance could pervade an entire family. I am not minimising the difficulties but there is no getting away from the fact that the rights of students should be protected by an appeal system which reaches beyond and deals with decisions of boards of management.
The regulations can cater for that in creating procedures which each school will have to follow in resolving issues and appeals — to board of management level and then to trustee level, if that is the context, VECs and VEC committees. Those procedures will be transparent. We have boards of management in place which were not there is the past. They are representative of the different partners and will give a more transparent approach. It is our intention to do this after the Bill is passed. I accept that these issues should be resolved quickly at local level before they fester.
This system has an opportunity to grow. It is being established in statute for the first time and it has to be reviewed after two years. This is a short period of time in terms of a system which will be established once the Bill is passed. We should allow the system to take its course.
The Minister is correct in stating that this system has the capacity to grow but I cannot accept that he should have the right to mediate on parents' rights. Parents' rights should be enshrined in the Bill. They should not be dependent on this or any other Minister mobilising himself to recognise those rights. I find it fundamentally objectionable that the provision is taking the notion of partnership, negotiation and discussion too far. There are issues of people's rights and issues which are properly the remit of a partnership consultation approach.
The Minister is making a mistake. He is stating that amendment No. 255 is impossible to interpret. I have tightened up on what the Department previously proposed. The issue relates to a decision of a teacher or other member of staff which materially affects the education of a child. I have modified that to state "materially and substantially". It cannot be a trivial issue. If it was open to interpretation in 1997 I fail to see why it has become impossible for the Department 12 months later. I do not accept the Minister's argument that the Ombudsman has any proper remit in this area. The Ombudsman cannot interfere in matters which are the policy of a school.
It is not the policy of the school.
On issues such as admission and suspension policy, if the school states that this is the way it handles these matters, then the Ombudsman is out of the arena. The Minister has still to give details of the Ombudsman's service but I do not believe that a parent with a legitimate concern about a decision taken in a school can go to the Ombudsman and have their case dealt with. I will be happy to withdraw my amendment if the Minister can convince me otherwise.
The Deputy is proposing an education ombudsman who would deal with issues such as admission policy and take advice from schools. His amendment would be hopelessly inadequate in terms of what he is proposing. The Deputy is talking about an Act which would supersede many of the issues we have discussed on this Bill which is about the balance of responsibilities.
Yes. The Deputy has spoken of the education ombudsman having rights over admission policy. That would be a very fundamental move and would have to involve all the partners. The Ombudsman can deal with the Department of Education and Science's decisions, school transport, examinations and so on. However, because education has grown so complex and involves conflicting rights and responsibilities as between all the partners, it would seem that if one wanted to introduce an education ombudsman Act, one would have to resolve those issues before the ombudsman could have jurisdiction.
If the Minister read amendment No. 250 he would see the role I am giving to the education ombudsman. The only significant difference from the approach adopted in section 55 is that an ombudsman should have the right to look at decisions taken by, for example, the Department of Education and Science as a significant player affecting students' rights. It should not be confined to challenging the decisions of teachers or schools. Many decisions taken by teachers or schools will be forced on them because of, for example, their access to remedial teachers or other support services. We should not close off the right of a parent to question decisions taken outside the school which equally affect a student. That is what the Minister is proposing. My approach is broader. The Minister may say it is more radical as it would require officials in the Department to be accountable for complaints.
They are accountable to the Ombudsman.
The Minister is trying to pretend that the Ombudsman Acts cover this provision. Despite his interruptions he will not cite the sections in the Ombudsman Acts. Under those Acts one can only question administrative decisions within the Department of Education and Science. One cannot question issues such as an appeal by a child with special education needs against the provisions he is getting in school where the school claims that the decision relates to the provisions allowed by the Department. That appeal cannot require the Department to state why there is no proper provision to help the integration of the child into the school.
There is a legitimate right to appeal such decisions which will prove a spur to policy over time. There will always be issues of resources and so on, but the notion that that sort of issue can be referred to the Ombudsman, Kevin Murphy, is untrue.
I am not saying that.
I thought that was what the Minister was saying.
Is the amendment being pressed?
This is the most important remaining issue. We have four hours. The Minister needs to reconsider this for Report Stage. He needs to recognise that he cannot set himself up as the mediator of parents' rights as he is seeking to do in the Bill. He also needs to make it clear that appeal systems in schools have to have strict time limits and I am glad that he has signalled a willingness to amend this on Report Stage. It would be a step forward.
He should also consider permitting appeals against decisions taken within the Department or other agencies outside the school which materially affect the education of a child. It is hard to understand why we should seek to pretend that the buck always stops with the board, the principal or the teacher when many decisions go beyond those people. This was included in my broader amendment which was disallowed.
I move amendment No. 256:
In page 24, subsection (1), lines 1 to 13, to delete paragraph (d) and substitute the following:
"(d) makes a decision of a class which the Minister, following consultation with patrons, national associations of parents, recognised school management organisations, recognised trade unions and staff associations representing teachers, may from time to time determine, may be appealed in accordance with this section—
(i) the parent of the student, or
(ii) in the case of a student who has reached the age of 18 years, the student, may within a reasonable time from the date that the parent or student was informed of the decision, and following the conclusion of any appeal procedures provided by the school or the patron, appeal that decision to the Secretary General of the Department of Education and Science and that appeal shall be heard by a committee appointed under subsection (2).".
I cannot support this amendment. Bad as matters are, they are made worse by introducing the notion that the school appeals procedure can continue for an indefinite period. The Minister must signal that he will modify it on Report Stage to insert a time limit.
We have signalled we will introduce a time limit on Report Stage.
Amendment No. 261 is an alternative to amendment No. 260 and both may be discussed together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 260:
In page 24, subsection (2), lines 17 and 18, to delete ", a practising barrister or solicitor of not less than ten years standing".
This amendment is an attempt to move away from the legalistic structure provided for in the Bill of appointing practising barristers and solicitors of not less than ten years standing. The appeals committee will comprise an inspector, a practising barrister and such other persons as the Minister considers appropriate. It appears it will be a three person committee. Requiring the presence of a practising barrister or solicitor is a signal that the direction the mechanism will take will be legalistic.
One can envisage that, over time, parents will come to the conclusion that, to get a fair crack of the whip, they will need professional representation and that schools will feel likewise. What should be an informal and independent method of handling complaints of this nature, something which has characterised ombudsman services to date, will become more legalistic and will over time, similar to the Employment Appeals Tribunal which originally set out to be a simple mechanism with no legal representation, develop to the point where these issues will be treated in a legalistic manner. Workers using the Employment Appeals Tribunal increasingly need professional representation.
Rather than adopting the legalistic approach, I would prefer to see the appeals committee develop similarly to the rights commissioner service where complaints are sent to an experienced person who is recognised for their independence of mind. Perhaps the reduction of ten years to seven in amendment No. 261 is an improvement but I do not believe it changes the principle. There are many people without legal training who have experience of the education system and the confidence of both parents and schools and who could do a better job.
It is unfortunate the structure being implemented is such that matters will go all the way to the Secretary General of the Department of Education and Science and from there to this high level star chamber. The structure being implemented is formal whereas I would prefer a simpler ombudsman approach which has a good track record. It is based on one individual of good standing making decisions or co-ordinating an office which makes such decisions.
My amendment adopts a different approach. The need for either a barrister or solicitor to have been practising for not less than ten years seems excessive. Seven years seems more appropriate.
I accept Deputy O'Shea's amendment.
The case presented by Deputy Bruton is that proceedings of hearings should be conducted with a minimum of formality. The very presence of a legal person militates against that. Perhaps such a person ought to act as adviser to the committee on points of law which may arise. The cases which will be heard by the appeals committee are often of the same nature as marital difficulties and there is a growing body of opinion that the adversarial approach is inappropriate in settling such disputes.
I am not fixed on this. The word "shall" is used in the Bill which can be changed to "may" on Report Stage so that it will read "may appoint" a barrister or solicitor. I believe barristers or solicitors are needed on the committee. There is an argument that the presence of a solicitor or barrister would show people that there would be an element of fairness and legality, although the idea is for informality and quick decision-making. People often may not bother bringing a solicitor or barrister to represent them if there is already one present because they would have confidence in the appeals mechanism. Solicitors and barristers, whatever we may say about them, have expertise and experience in the field.
However, I accept the Deputy's point that in the emerging discipline of conflict resolution there are other people with expertise in the field and I would not want to exclude them from serving. As it happens, they are not excluded because the Bill states "an Inspector, a. . . . solicitor. . . . and such. . . . persons as the Minister may deem appropriate from time to time". I am prepared to change "shall" to "may" in terms of appointing a solicitor. I am also accepting amendment No. 261.
Will the Minister outline why he does not believe decisions taken outside the school which materially affect a student or parent should not also be open to appeal?
Such as provisions relating to special needs and support in a school. If a parent takes the view that their child is not being properly provided for, that the child needs a care assistant or——
The section is not meant to cover that. The section is meant to develop a proper appeals system for complaints which parents and children have about their schools. The issues the Deputy raises are ones of fundamental policy.
They are not.
They are. People ended up in the High Court during the term of office of the last Government over the issue of providing for needs.
Is that good?
No, it is very bad, but it was a policy issue.
It was not a policy issue.
It was because the Government allowed it happen. We cannot blame systems and procedures. The bottom line was that the Government allowed a parent to go to the Supreme Court.
The Minister is perpetuating that approach.
I am not.
The appeals system arose from complaints from parents that they did not have a proper appeals mechanism relating to a range of issues——
They were right.
——pertaining to the management of a school in relation to the students. This is a welcome step forward in that respect. It is not fair, for example, that a school can be responsible for inadequacies in Government policy. This appeal system deals with appeals against the school's board of management for taking certain decisions. The appeals then go to another layer before reaching the national appeal structure. It is not fair to embroil schools in the inadequacies or otherwise of the Government of the day in terms of whether sufficient resources are made available to a range of students. There will always be disputes about that.
I have already signalled my anxiety that the appeals mechanism should extend beyond the school. The membership of the appeals committee is germane to this section. If the members are predominantly appointed by the Minister who is open to scrutiny, it would not be an appropriate approach.
When the Minister moved amendment No. 60 he acknowledged it was incorrect that responsibility for Government policy should fall to the schools. The original drafting of this Bill provided that it was up to the school to ensure that appropriate education was provided for children with special needs. The Minister recognised that this was not a proper duty for a school and moved amendment No. 60 which provides that it will be the Minister's obligation to ensure that there is made available to each person resident in the State, including a person with a disability or who has other special education needs, a level and quality of education appropriate to meeting the needs and abilities of that person.
One of the most fundamental issues a parent might wish to appeal is whether that obligation has been vindicated. The Minister, correctly, is critical of the previous approach of the State which was that decisions of this nature should go to the High Court or the Supreme Court. The thinking appears to have been that these matters were not legal rights and the State would defend any attempts to establish them as such. This was not a good approach on the part of the State. Now that the Minister accepts that many of these decisions and ultimate responsibility lie beyond the school, the logical implication is that appeals of decisions which materially affect a child should also go beyond the school.
The Minister took a huge step forward with amendment No. 60. However, the logical consequence of that amendment is that parents should have a right to have an appeal heard by a group other than the Supreme Court, which the Minister acknowledges was the wrong approach. He should modify this provision and allow appeals. That is germane to this section because it deals with who should sit in judgment on these decisions. Should they be people inside the education system who are appointed by the Minister or should they be independent of the Minister?
That was the argument for solicitors, that they were outside the system.
This is wider than the issue of a barrister or a solicitor. It relates to the inspector——
Inspectors have expertise in this area. I made my case in this regard.
What is it?
I made the point already that less than two years ago a Government——
The Minister prosecuted the then Minister for doing so but he is perpetuating it in this legislation.
I am not. The Deputy was a member of the Government that allowed that case to proceed. However, I do not blame him for it
I have accepted the Minister's argument.
In legislating for an appeals process one can not cover the actions of politicians in successive Governments of whatever hue. The general provision of education needs——
The issue was not about politicians.
Let us not rewrite history.
The issue was about the State's belief that it would not allow go unchallenged a view that there were certain legal rights. It was determined to fight those rights and to impose its view of the way decisions about education were made.
I will not go through the case because the State eventually did not contest it in the Supreme Court.
The case fell asunder in the end.
Why keep going for three or four years? I do not blame the Deputy for that but——
However, the logical implication of the decision taken by the Minister is that we should allow——
The Deputy is broadening the debate from the function of this section which is to provide for an appeals mechanism for schools and students.
The Minister is not offering another section to deal with this issue?
Not at this point.
This is, therefore, the only place we can debate it.
No. It can be debated after the Bill is passed. Some of these rights are constitutional rights. It is regrettable that people had to go to the High Court and the Supreme Court to confirm them.
I read the biography by Des Rushe of the great educationalist, Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice, who founded the Irish Christian Brothers and the Presentation Brothers. He describes in the book how on one occasion a solicitor chided Edmund Ignatius Rice for passing the solicitor in the street the previous day without saluting him. Edmund Rice's response was, "I was afraid it would cost me another 6s 8d".
Therefore, I will change the "shall" to "may".
What is the status of the amendment?
I will withdraw it. However, we must continue the debate on Report Stage when the Minister should signal his willingness to have decisions that transcend the school but which affect parents and children, open to the same type of scrutiny to which he is asking schools to expose themselves.
I move amendment No. 261:
In page 24, subsection (2), line 18, to delete "ten" and substitute "seven".
I move amendment No. 262:
In page 24, subsection (4), line 33, to delete paragraph (b) and substitute the following:
"(b) appeals are dealt with within 30 days of the appeal being lodged with the Secretary General, excepting a case where the committee receives approval from the Secretary General for an extension of no more than a further 14 days because of specified difficulties in concluding the appeal.".
This amendment imposes a time limit in respect of the handling of complaints when they are lodged. The Bill only provides that they should be dealt with in the shortest time possible. Experience with An Bord Pleanála and other institutions shows that we should try to put pressure on a system through the imposition of clear time limits. The amendment proposes that appeals should be dealt with within 30 days of being lodged with the Secretary General "excepting a case where the committee receives approval from the Secretary General for an extension of no more than a further 14 days because of specified difficulties in concluding the appeal".
In other words, the committee should be expected to conclude an appeal hearing within 30 days. If it is a difficult issue the committee can ask for an extension from the Secretary General and, if the Secretary General accepts the reason for the request, he or she can grant such an extension. The amendment, therefore, also offers flexibility. There is a general expectation of promptness in handling appeals but there is a fail safe mechanism for thorny issues. Such an approach would be beneficial to all concerned.
I accept the amendment subject to certain rewording on Report Stage and a small alteration in the length of time.
I will withdraw the amendment subject to the Minister putting down a reworded amendment with similar effect on Report Stage.
I move amendment No. 263:
In page 24, between lines 33 and 34, to insert the following subsection:
"(5) In an appeal it shall be a good defence if the school demonstrates that the student refuses to accept the legitimate authority of the Principal to run the school in an orderly manner and that it has provided due process in reaching its decision.".
I am not a lawyer but it is strange that this section does not provide for what constitutes a good defence by a school. If it decides to suspend a child, having gone through the due process, does that constitute good defence? Why does the Bill not specify what constitutes a good defence by the school? I have suggested that in an appeal, it shall be a good defence if the school demonstrates that the student refuses to accept the legitimate authority of the principal to run the school in an orderly manner and that it has provided due process in reaching its decision.
This amendment is intended to open discussion of this topic rather than being a robust amendment in and of itself. Should we try to delineate what constitutes good policy in this area? I would have liked an education ombudsman offering schools guidelines on good practice. We will not have that approach and I am interested in the Minister's opinion of good defence and reasonable action.
I do not think this amendment is necessary as it could be seen as a brake on the rights of parents and students to appeal. The principal might be perceived as being able to put the student on the back foot by saying he or she has done various things. The emphasis should be on the appeal committee hearing, depending on who is making the appeal.
This would be in the hearing.
The committee should have the power to deal with these situations as they emerge and this could potentially close off one avenue. I am worried that this could give a school a way out of giving someone the chance to appeal to the committee. Ultimately one wants the committee to look at the substance of the case; it is not so much whether the board observes due process. I would like the appeals committee to hear the appellant and then it is a matter for that committee to decide whether the defence and arguments are good ones.
Good practice should develop and an education ombudsman would promote good practice, including internal complaints procedures. Does the Minister envisage precedent being established over time?
The regulations and review process could cover that to some extent.
I hope that the appeals procedure would seek to go first for conciliation and that arbitration would be its final function. Some issues that give rise to big difficulties can be resolved through reconciliation, once people realise the enormity of what they are doing. To assist conciliation, the less legalistic the initial approach the better. It would help the chances of reaching accommodation before arbitration becomes necessary.
That is a very good point. Perhaps there should be more emphasis on resolution rather than victory for one side over another. We may come back to this on Report Stage with a view to including a conciliation function in the work of the appeals committee.
I move amendment No. 264:
In page 25, subsection (7)(b), line 7, to delete "made to" and substitute "made by".
This is to correct an error in the text.
I move amendment No. 265:
In page 25, between lines 36 and 37, to insert the following subsection:
"(12) The Ombudsman may investigate any actions of the Secretary General under this section.".
I realise that the appeals process of the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, for example, means that cases cannot then be referred to the Ombudsman. I want the administration of the Secretary General open to investigation by the Ombudsman. That is not aimed at the present incumbent, but people should be entitled to go that step further.
The Secretary General's role is purely administrative in the sense that he appoints the committee, which then hears the appeals, makes its decision and gives recommendations. The Secretary General then communicates again with the board of management. His actions in establishing the committee and then acting afterwards are subject to the existing Ombudsman legislation. I am advised that under existing legislation any action taken by the Secretary General can be subject to investigation by the Ombudsman, making this superfluous. The Deputy's point is covered.
I will withdraw the amendment on that basis, but in relation to the arbitration of the appeals committee and their reaching a final decision in a case, does the Minister see any merit in that being referable to the Ombudsman?
The legislation is quite strong in the obligations it places on the school to implement the recommendations of the appeals committee.
I am referring to the actual decision, not to the decision itself. Does the Minister see any merit in allowing the Ombudsman to adjudicate on that?
I do not but I will reflect on it before Report Stage. The Deputy is asking for another level of appeal to the Ombudsman if people are not happy with the national appeals system. I would be worried about asking the Ombudsman to come in on an existing appeals system. As Members know, the Ombudsman can take time to resolve issues and, to return to Deputy O'Shea's point on reconciliation, it is in everyone's interests to resolve these cases quickly. If an appellant does not feel he or she has got satisfaction, he or she may pursue it further, but the Ombudsman does not deal, for example, with social welfare appeals. He may deal with policy issues that arise from matters relating to social welfare appeals procedures, but there is a chief appeals officer to deal with appeals.
I asked this question because it is important to ensure as far as possible that parents and students feel some ownership of the system, which could be intimidating for some people.
I could see the Ombudsman coming in when the appeals committee makes a recommendation the school does not implement. The Secretary General should ensure that recommendation is implemented and if he or she failed to do so the Ombudsman could take the Secretary General to task for not ensuring that the recommendation was implemented fully in the interests of the student.
Will the Minister give an interpretation of the role of the Ombudsman in education between now and Report Stage?
I move amendment No. 266:
In page 25, subsection (1), line 41, after "prescribe" to insert "certain essential elements of".
This amendment proposes that the Minister, instead of prescribing the curriculum for recognised schools would prescribe certain essential elements of it. This will give flexibility to schools to determine the curriculum apart from the core elements the Minister prescribes to all schools. I note from the Minister's amendments, including amendment No. 269, that he seems to be open to this approach.
Later amendments cover the core curriculum. Amendment No. 269 amends the section by inserting a new paragraph (2)(a) which imposes an obligation on the Minister to have regard to a school's rights in respect of the curriculum. This ensures that schools have effective autonomy as regards the curriculum, particularly in providing courses of instruction in such subjects as the board considers appropriate, as provided for in subsection (4).
This section replicates the rights and powers the Minister already has as regards the core curriculum. This is done in consultation with the partners. The National Curriculum Assessment Council established later in the Bill will have the primary function of advising the Minister in terms of curriculum formation. I am unhappy with the words "certain essential elements of". There is no conspiracy by the Department or myself in prescribing the curriculum. We are putting on a statutory basis what is already the position in practice.
The Minister prescribes the core elements of the curriculum.
I move amendment No. 269:
In page 25, subsection (2), lines 48 and 49, to delete paragraph (a) and substitute the following:
"(a) shall have regard to the desirability of assisting schools to exercise their powers as provided for under subsection (4),".
Section 30 provides that the Minister following appropriate consultation may prescribe the curriculum for recognised schools. The section also provides that the subjects offered may be varied according to the circumstances of the school. Amendment No. 269 deletes subsection (2)(a) with the aim of avoiding any possibility that different classes of schools would have different curricula, leading to fragmentation to the disadvantage of some schools. This will address a concern articulated to us following publication of the Bill. These concerns are unfounded but we are endeavouring to address them and assure people of the intentions of the Bill.
The amendment also adds a new paragraph (a) which will impose an obligation on the Minister to have regard to schools' rights in respect of the curriculum. This will ensure that schools have effective autonomy as regards the curriculum, particularly in providing courses of instruction in such subjects as the board considers appropriate, as provided for in subsection (4).
The Minister will not prescribe any subjects. He proposes to delete subsection (2)(a) as it now stands and substitute another paragraph. They both seem different.
We propose to delete the paragraph because people thought we would apply different curricula to different schools. That was not the intention. We wished to deal with schools who wished to do certain subjects in accordance with their ethos.
Is that not done already by recognising the leaving certificate applied?
Management bodies were concerned that the paragraph would be discriminatory so we propose to delete it and insert a new paragraph. We are addressing two different concerns — one relating to the autonomy of the school in developing certain subjects and the other relating to the fact that the existing wording could lead to fragmentation to the disadvantage of some schools.
I move amendment No. 272:
In page 26, subsection (2), between lines 13 and 14, to insert the following:
"(e) shall seek to ensure that the subjects and syllabi followed in a school will be appropriate and relevant to the educational and vocational needs of the students".
This amendment proposes that the Minister would seek to promote subjects and syllabi in schools appropriate and relevant to the educational and vocational needs of the students — that he would be actively involved in ensuring that particular needs of students would be provided for by boards. In the light of the amendment the Minister refused earlier, perhaps he will not accept this amendment.
The amendment is superfluous to a certain extent.
There is a widespread belief that some of the syllabi pursued in inner city schools are inappropriate to the needs of many students.
The idea of having appropriate curricula and syllabi is not contested.
It is not happening.
It is happening in many areas. The role of the National Curriculum Assessment Council is to provide curricula and syllabi which are appropriate to the needs of students. It is involved in the leaving certificate applied, the leaving certificate vocational, transition year, the new primary school curriculum and the area of special education. I will look at the amendment on Report Stage. It does not cause me difficulty other than that it is covered already. The bodies involved need to drive the concept of the amendment forwards.
I am aware of a large rural area where there was academic provision for children but no VEC presence at second level. This militated against the provision of an appropriate education for those students. I agree with the spirit of this amendment.
On the grounds that the Minister will look at it on Report Stage, I withdraw my amendment.
I move amendment No. 274:
In page 26, subsection (1)(a), line 28, after "teaching" to insert "of Irish and".
In the context of amendment No. 274, I wish to refer to amendments Nos. 275 and 276 and seek the agreement of Members in relation to my proposed approach. I ask Deputy O'Shea to withdraw amendment No. 276 because following publication of the amendments I received further representations on a number of issues, including issues relating to teaching and learning through Irish. I have considered the amendments on this matter proposed by Deputies Bruton and O'Shea and found much in them with which I agree. We are at one in our goal of ensuring a strong and vibrant Irish language and in our commitment to a system of education through Irish as one of the primary means of achieving that goal. In order to find a way of addressing the concerns raised in representations and in the amendments tabled by the Deputies, I propose reconsidering the issues in full for Report Stage. At that time I hope to be in a position to put forward proposals which will command widespread support. In the meantime, to allow the fullest consideration of all the issues, I will withdraw my amendment.
The section deals with teaching through the medium of Irish and the need for the establishment of a national body to oversee it. A clear need for this has been demonstrated over the years through the lack of resources for research into teaching through Irish, development of textbooks, aids, resources and teacher training for Irish medium schools. I had other representations from broader movements involved in the Irish language saying what they wanted for the body. The issues raised are meritorious. My original view was that the body should be for schools which use Irish as a medium of instruction. We must see how the suggestions can be accommodated on Report Stage.
The Minister will examine amendments Nos. 275 and 276 on Report Stage together with the issue of a resource centre for teaching Irish.
There will be a resource centre for teaching through Irish. This does not require legislative provision. We have resources to do this.
Representations were made to me, and I am sure to the Minister, concerning this issue. Do I take it this issue will not be dealt with in the legislation?
That is correct, although it is dealt with in the section dealing with education support centres as the resource centre for teaching through Irish will in essence constitute such a centre.
I move amendment No. 278:
In page 27, before section 32, to insert the following new section:
"32. — (1) The Minister shall be order, following consultation with patrons, national associations of parents, recognised school management organisations, recognised trade unions and staff associations representing teachers and such other persons as the Minister considers appropriate, establish a committee, hereinafter referred to as the 'educational disadvantage committee', to advise him or her on policies and strategies to be adopted to identify and correct educational disadvantage.
(2) Subject to subsection (3), the Minister shall appoint persons to be members of an educational disadvantage committee for such period not exceeding three years as he or she thinks fit and may renew such appointments as he or she thinks fit.
(3) Up to half of the membership of the educational disadvantage committee shall be appointed from nominees of such voluntary and other bodies which have objects which the Minister considers relevant to the work of the committee.
(4) The Minister may by order amend or revoke any order made under this section, including an order made under this subsection.
(5) In each financial year the Minister, with the concurrence of the Minister for Finance, out of monies provided by the Oireachtas, may make to the educational disadvantage committee a grant or grants for the purposes of expenditure by that committee in the performance of its functions.
(6) The Minister may provide such secretarial and administrative support to the educational disadvantage committee as the Minister considers necessary.
(7) In this section 'educational disadvantage' means the impediments to education arising from social or economic disadvantage which prevent students from deriving appropriate benefit from education in schools.".
As amendment No. 278 is agreed, amendments Nos. 280 to 283 inclusive, cannot be moved.
The spirit of amendment No. 281 has been agreed.
The spirit of amendment No. 283 has also been accepted.
We will return to them on Report Stage.
Amendment No. 284 is out of order as it involves a potential charge on Revenue.
I move amendment No. 285:
In page 27, between lines 16 and 17, to insert the following subsection:
"(3)(a) As soon as practicable after its establishment, and within six months before each third anniversary thereof, a committee shall prepare and submit to the Minister for approval, with or without amendment, a strategic plan for the ensuing three year period.
(b) A strategic plan shall—
(i) set out the committee's proposed arrangements for correcting impediments to education referred to in subsection (1) for the ensuing three year period,
(ii) include a statement of the priorities identified by the committee for the period covered by the plan, and
(iii) have regard to the need to ensure the most beneficial, effective and efficient use of the resources available to the education system.
(c) The Minister shall, as soon as practicable after a plan has been approved, cause a copy of that plan to be laid before each House of the Oireachtas.".
The amendment relates to the committee on educational disadvantage. It provides for a strategic plan and outlines what it should involve.
I am a great believer in establishing committees and allowing them develop their own approach to the issue rather than tying them down to doing certain things. I have no difficulty with the concept of their having a strategic plan but would prefer the committee to work this out itself. Perhaps "shall" could be changed to "may".
I do not have a problem with that.
I could accommodate this on Report Stage.
Will the idea of strategic planning be part of their brief?
This is to ensure they do not deal with fringe issues, although I appreciate this is not likely. However, the possibility should be cut off.
One never likes being too prescriptive in terms of tying the hands of committees one establishes. We will return to the issue on Report Stage.
I welcome the Minister's view on the amendment. Amendment No. 284 was disallowed but envisaged a more active role than simply advising the Minister. The fact the Minister is agreeing to the development of a strategic plan by the group places it more centre stage in influencing the direction of policy and in promoting initiatives, something which is a significant step forward.
The issue of a further education committee or authority arose again yesterday in the context of discussion of the 1998 Estimates of the Department. This relates to amendment No. 286a which was ruled out of order. Will the Minister respond to this issue?
There is a Green Paper developing on adult education. Potentially a separate Bill will emerge and it is best to await that process.
Is it likely that a further education authority or some such body
will be included in the legislation?
I was referring to adult and continuing education. A Green Paper on adult education is being developed by the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea, in consultation with the partners. I regard education of travellers as more relevant to the entire system and we have policies relating to them in this context. The establishment of a further education authority would be through separate legislation.
I am seeking regulation of the way in which the sector grows.
Exactly, particularly the further education sector. Of course, the sector may not want such regulation. I am seeking regulation of the growth of this sector particularly the further education sector. They might not want that regulation.
On the basis that legislation is being prepared I am prepared to withdraw the amendment.
I do not quite say that. We are considering the option of legislation. The national qualifications authority would encompass the further education sector in respect of quality assurance and certification. In respect of the regulatory role, which is where the focus of the further education authority will be, I am examining my options and they may include legislation. Legislation is likely. At the moment I am consulting the partners on that matter. It will be some time next year before proposals would be prepared.
I look forward to hearing the Minister's thoughts on that issue.
I move amendment No. 287:
In page 27, line 20, to delete "may" and substitute "shall".
The Minister will, no doubt, make regulations and I see no reason to use the restrictive word "may" instead of "shall".
I am advised that "shall" is more restrictive than "may". Use of the word "shall" would mean that no part of the Bill, when enacted, could come into effect unless regulations were made. This would delay implementation of the legislation and make it unnecessarily cumbersome. The word "may" provides for the making of regulations only where necessary. Other parts of the Bill which do not require regulations can be implemented. The amendment would prevent the legislation from being implemented until regulations were made.
That was not my intention and I withdraw the amendment.
I move amendment No. 288:
In page 27, lines 36 to 40, to delete paragraph (i) and substitute the following:
"(i) access to schools and centres for education by students with disabilities or who have other special educational needs, including matters relating to reasonable accommodation and technical aid and equipment for such students;
(j) 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;".
Amendment No. 292 is cognate on amendment No. 291 and both may be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 291:
In page 28, paragraph (a), line 6, after "a person" to insert "having such qualifications as may be prescribed".
These amendments deal with the question of an inquiry into the suspension of a teacher under the Vocational Education Act. The Bill makes no provision for the qualification of the person to act in this capacity. I propose the person to carry out such an inquiry should have such qualifications as may be prescribed. It is not acceptable that the person in question should not be required to have any qualification.
The amendment could create more inflexibility. It would require that a qualification be prescribed. The necessary qualifications for this role might vary from case to case and it may not be possible to foresee what qualifications might be required in a particular case. To date, we have made sure people who are asked to preside at such proceedings are adequately qualified. I have no doubt that such people will continue to be carefully assessed. We may give some consideration to this matter when the new VEC Bill is drafted. We would not want to prevent the appointment of someone eminently qualified to such a function.
I am not suggesting prescriptive qualifications such as a certain standard of education. A basic understanding of the education system and of the VEC system in particular would be a prerequisite.
Will the Deputy agree to leave this matter until the VEC Bill is drafted? It might be preferable to consider it in that context.
On that basis, I am prepared to withdraw the amendment.
I move amendment No. 293:
In page 28, between lines 9 and 10, to insert the following:
"(c) by the insertion of such provision for teacher representation on boards of vocational education committees as may be prescribed by the Minister.".
This amendment allows for a statutory provision to be inserted enabling the Minister to make provision for teacher representation on vocational education committees.
This measure will be included in the new VEC Bill.
On that basis I withdraw the amendment.
I move amendment No. 294:
In page 28, before section 37, but in Part VI, to insert the following new section:
"37.—(1) In this section 'education support centre' means a place in which services are provided for teachers, parents, boards and other relevant persons which support them in carrying out their functions in respect of the provision of education which is recognised for that purpose by the Minister in accordance with subsection (2).
(2) The Minister may recognise a place as an education support centre and where the Minister so recognises a place he or she shall cause the name and address of that centre to be entered in a register maintained by the Minister and available for inspection by members of the public during normal working hours.
(3) An education support centre shall have a management committee, to manage the business and staff of that centre.
(4) A committee established in accordance with subsection (3) shall be a body corporate with perpetual succession and with power to sue and may be sued in its corporate name and no action shall lie against a member of a board in respect of anything done by that member in good faith and in pursuance of their functions as such members.
(5) The Minister may withdraw recognition from an education support centre.
(6) The Minister may, from time to time, make regulations relating to all or any of the following matters:
(a) procedures for the appointment of management committees;
(b) the appointment and remuneration of staff;
(c) the making of grants to education support centres;
(d) the provision of information to the Minister on any matter relating to the operation of education support centres;
(e) access to an education support centre and to the financial and other records of that education support centre by persons appointed by the Minister, and
(f) such other matters relating to the operation of such centres as the Minster considers appropriate.".
This new section provides a statutory basis for education support centres and sets out a framework for the operation of these centres.
Education support centres, currently known as education centres, have become an accepted part of the education landscape, providing valuable support in the area of in-career development and involvement in the co-ordination of such national programmes as the transition year project, civil, social and political education, relationships and sexuality education and the information technology in-service programmes. They act as resource centres for teachers and others in the education system. They are now being broadened to take on board all the partners in education.
However, in common with much of our education system these centres have developed without any specific statutory backing. This section will address this issue. It provides for statutory backing for education support centres and for the Minister to recognise institutions as education support centres and to create a register of such centres. It also provides for the management of the centres by management committees. In particular, the section provides a legal immunity to the members of these committees in respect of the performance of their duties.
Finally, the section provides that the Minister may make regulations relating to the operation of the centres. These regulations would be made in accordance with section 33 which provides for consultation with the partners in education before any regulations are made.
This request was made by those involved in the education centres. Their experience is that they have grown ad hoc as the original teacher centres became education centres. There is no governing regulatory or statutory framework for them. They are increasingly becoming more important in the overall education framework and it is advisable that we include this provision at this point.
What mystifies me about this new section is that the Minister does not provide for the delegation of functions to these centres. I would have thought a fairly fundamental element in the establishment of a body is that one would give it functions and oneself the power over time to devolve other functions to it. I am surprised the Minister has not made a provision for delegating by order or otherwise functions to these education centres.
These centres are a valuable resource and, indeed, are one of the only regional resources available. Inevitably, they will play a greater role in the future. In the light of the decision not to go ahead with the regional education boards, they will gradually fill a vacuum. The Minister should at least give himself enabling powers to delegate certain functions by order. The Oireachtas should have the right to see, in some shape or form, what those powers will be. That is why I would like to see orders or regulations, which ultimately devolve powers to these centres, being provided for. The Oireachtas could see what the Minister was asking these centres to do over time.
These centres have developed without ministerial delegation of authority, regulation or imposition. They grew from the genuine commitment of teachers who wanted to develop in-service research into new curriculum and subjects, to develop international best practice and to find out what was going in their subject area. It basically developed into providing a resource to teachers in a given area. Their role has grown and the European Operational Fund allowed us about £10 million for capital development of educational centres and two such centres are being built.
I am not sure it would be the correct approach at this stage to say we will delegate and that we want the centres to perform certain functions. These centres have grown organically and have been very dynamic and positive. They have a strong relationship with the Department in the context of in-career development, provide many of the in-career development programmes for the Department and have developed considerable expertise.
Educational support centres are defined in amendment No. 294 as meaning "a place in which services are provided for teachers, parents, boards and other relevant persons which support them in carrying out their functions in respect of the provision of education which is recognised for that purpose by the Minister in accordance with subsection (2)." The Minister may recognise a place as an education support centre and where the Minister so recognises a place he or she shall cause the name and address of that centre to be entered in a register maintained by the Minister.
I would have thought that over time——
Matters may develop over time. However, if we include a strong regulatory framework, it could be misread by those involved in educational centres.
I do not suggest a strong regulatory framework. The area of activity of these education support centres should grow because we have a very centralised education system. They provide a regional presence and have proven themselves. Many people would have confidence in them if they developed certain powers to promote co-operation between schools in subject provision and other areas.
That would kill them. We should not fall into the trap of saying these education support centres are meant to be an administrative body. Subsection (6) of the amendment states: The Minister may from time to time, make regulations relating to all or any of the following matters and it goes on to list a reasonable number of areas in which we could make provisions. We could include in those areas the functions of education centres.
That the Minister would have the right to delegate.
Does the catch-all subsection, (6)(f), cover this?
Yes. We deal with education centres on an ongoing basis. I would hate to ringfence them and tell them how to develop because they may resist that.
From my experience of education centres, teachers are the dynamic and they should retain a high level of independence to grow. I would not like to see any restrictions. It would be helpful to the Oireachtas if we got reports on these centres in the Department's annual report. It would give Deputies the opportunity to make suggestions to the Minister as regards their development under the terms of the enabling subsection to which I referred earlier. Teacher centres were established because of teacher needs.
Amendments Nos. 295 to 303, inclusive, are related and may be taken together. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 295:
In page 28, subsection (1), line 26, after "with" to insert "patrons,".
Section 39 provides for the composition of the council of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. I do not propose to set out the composition of the council in the legislation rather the composition will be arrived at following consultation with the partners in education.
I propose two amendments to this section, amendments Nos. 295 and 303. The purpose of these amendments is to provide for consultation with patrons as regards the composition and appointment of members of the council. Patrons are included in all other provisions relating to consultation with the partners and I would value their input into this process.
I propose to accept on Report Stage, subject to clarification of wording, Deputy Bruton's amendment No. 300, which would have the effect of ensuring that the membership of the council is representative not only of bodies and persons involved in the education system at primary and post-primary level but also of those involved in the pre-school, adult and continuing education sectors. This is in keeping with the remit of the council and of those with a general interest in the council's remit. I do not propose to accept the other amendments tabled by Deputy Bruton, Deputy O'Shea and Deputy Sargent in relation to specifying in the legislation particular groups which would be included in the composition of the council. I refer to amendments Nos. 296, 297, 298, 299, 301 and 302.
The purpose of section 39 is to set out a framework for the composition of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. Further details as regards composition and membership will be finalised following consultation with the partners, as outlined in subsection (1). It would not be desirable to pre-empt this consultation process nor would it be appropriate to include the level of detail requested by the Deputies in the primary legislation. Such a level of detail would be more appropriate to the orders setting out the composition provided for in subsection (1). I point out to Deputies that the list of groups contained this section is not intended to be exhaustive. There is nothing in the section as currently drafted which would prevent other groups or organisations from being represented. The section as drafted makes provision for the inclusion of other persons with experience or skills relevant to the work of the council and so listing them is not necessary. It would not be appropriate to highlight some groups but not others in the legislation.
The body has representations of core groups but we also want appropriate expertise and skills on the council. We need to strike a balance between representatives and people with core expertise who can get work done. It is important we establish a council which will be effective, will work and which will have a certain representative quality.
I welcome the fact the Minister has accepted amendment No. 300. On the amendments he rejected, the Minister may have misunderstand the intent of those amendments which propose to modify the list of people with whom he would consult as regards the composition of the council and are not requests for positions for each of these organisations. This relates to where the Minister decides to list some of those he consulted but fails to list others. This inevitably causes disquiet among certain groups that they will be left out, particularly students and those with disabilities.
One could have 50 groups.
Yes. It raises the question as to whether there should be a list. The Minister introduced this concept.
In terms of the core partners in education.
Perhaps the Minister should have thought about it in practice.
There is a role for these groups as they are involved in the national council and are on some of the course committees. That is how the concept developed.
Before the Minister decides on this order which will determine the composition, he should consult with these groups even if the consultation is not provided for statutorily. It will be good practice to hear the views of Irish language organisations, the Irish Council of People with Disabilities etc.
I am not too concerned with amendment No. 298 which deals with the Irish Council of People with Disabilities. However, the consultation process must include those involved with the disabled. To ignore this group at any level——
Perhaps the Deputy would accept a reference to the sector or people with expertise in special education.
Amendment No. 296 refers to "national Irish language associations". Those who have responsibilities in terms of the development of the Irish language——
We are going down the same road, if that is possible. There are many national organisations which deal with the Irish language and, as we saw in earlier amendments, they do not always agree.
Appropriate consultation with the generic sector could be included, without exhausting the Minister.
Many people would see the consultation process as a way of getting on the board. They will be disappointed when I say no. We will have a consultative process which raises hopes that cannot be fulfilled. We will be in dire trouble afterwards.
Will these interests be represented?
We cannot have 55 people on the board of the NCCA.
That is not the intention. We are talking about the consultation process in which the Minister will take part. He makes the decisions. It seems that not consulting with those promoting the Irish language at this stage——
The INTO promotes the Irish language.
It is part of its brief.
The normal procedure is that the core partners in education are consulted in these matters. This is provided for in the section. To date they have formed the core groups of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. We could take this matter too far. In another section we establish a national body for teaching through the medium of Irish. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment already deals with the Irish language by composing the Irish syllabus at primary and post-primary level. This section deals with the composition of the council. I will look at this on Report Stage to see how I can refine it.
I move amendment No. 303:
In page 29, subsection (4), line 5, after "with" to insert "patrons,".
Amendments Nos. 304, 305 and 306 are related and all may be discussed together. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 304:
In page 29, subsection (1)(a), line 11, after "for" to insert "early childhood education,".
Section 40 sets out the objects and functions of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment which are broadly to advise the Minister on the curriculum for schools and on assessment procedures. Amendment Nos. 304 and 305 propose to include early childhood education in the remit of the council. Deputies will be aware of the Government's commitment to early childhood education, which is expressed in An Action Programme for the Millennium. The National Forum for Early Childhood Education which I convened last March was a practical expression of our commitment and we resolved to develop a White Paper on early childhood education.
Development of a curriculum will be an important aspect of the huge development of early childhood education and it is clear the council will play an important role. I am proposing amendment No. 304 to reflect this. Amendment No. 306 deals with those with special educational needs and I will look at it on Report Stage. The national council already advises me on the curriculum and assessment of children with special educational needs. I recently asked it to become involved in developing a primary curriculum for children with special needs. There are no nationally based guidelines for special education. There are areas where we are lacking. Amendment No. 306 is in line with what we are doing and there is no reason it should not be included, subject to wording.
Amendments Nos. 307 and 308 are related and may be discussed together. Is that agreed?
I move amendment No. 307:
In page 29, subsection (1)(b), line 12, after "schools" to insert "and examinations on subjects which are part of the curriculum".
Amendment No. 307 reflects the advisory role which the NCCA plays in respect of State examinations. Deputy Bruton's proposed amendment No. 308 will have the same effect.
Amendments No. 309 and 318 are related may be discussed together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 309:
In page 29, subsection (1), between lines 12 and 13, to insert the following:
"(c) the need, if any, for a special curriculum for students with particular needs including those with special educational needs.".
I will return to this on Report Stage.
I move amendment No. 311:
In page 29, subsection (2), between lines 25 and 26, to insert the following:
"(d) to advise the Minister of the appropriate principles for curricular provision in schools which will promote equality of access to subjects amongst boys and girls and facilitate non-stereotyped subject choice by students;".
The effect of this amendment would be to expedite the process in education whereby the traditional stereotypes vis-à-vis gender, particularly in the context of female students, would be removed.
I have no great difficulty with this, although my amendment No. 316 makes specific reference to the promotion of equality of access to education in general and to instruction in any particular subjects between male and female students. Will the committee agree, subject to drafting on Report Stage, to accept the principles of amendments Nos. 311 and 317?
The Minister is accepting the principle of the amendment and I therefore withdraw it.
I move amendment No. 312:
In page 29, subsection (2)(d), line 29, after "standards" to insert ", having regard to national and international standards and good practice in relation to such assessment".
The amendment expresses the requirement that advising on standards the council should bear in mind models of good practice and standards to be found in the State and abroad. I do not think Deputies will criticise this provision.
I move amendment No. 313:
In page 29, subsection (2), between lines 29 and 30, to insert the following:
"(e) to advise the Minister on strategies which will lead to increased effectiveness in the teaching and use of Irish in schools;".
I accept the principle of the amendment but will review the wording of it for Report Stage. It is a function and we should place it on a statutory basis.
I move amendment No. 314:
In page 29, subsection (2)(e), line 31, after "teachers" to insert ", including needs arising from the introduction of new curricula, subjects or syllabuses in schools,".
The amendment reflects the council's current role in reviewing the arrangements made for in-service training relating to new curricula, subjects or syllabi.
I move amendment No. 316:
In page 29, subsection (2), between lines 34 and 35, to insert the following:
"(g) to promote research and development in education and to conduct or commission such research and development where appropriate to its objects and functions;
(h) to promote equality of access to education generally and to instruction in any particular subjects between male and female students;".
This refers to the council's longstanding role in the promotion of research and development in areas appropriate to its objects and functions. The amendment also provides that the council should have as one of its functions the promotion of gender equality. The effect of the amendment will be to both consolidate and enhance the valuable role the council plays in the education system.
We will examine amendment No. 318 for Report Stage, given the commitments we have already made in terms of special education.
I move amendment No. 319:
In page 30, before section 41, to insert the following new section:
"41.—(1) The Minister may, for the purposes of this section, by order designate persons who, or organisations which, have a special interest in the exercise by the Council of its functions and the persons or organisations so designated are hereinafter referred to as 'designated bodies'.
(2) The Council shall, from time to time as it considers appropriate, consult with designated bodies and shall consult with such bodies when requested to do so by the Minister.
(3) A designated body may at any time, as it considers appropriate, make representations to the Council on any matter relating to the functions of the Council and the Council shall consider such representations and shall inform the designated body of the outcome of that consideration.
(4) The Council shall give to each designated body a copy of each publication issued by it as soon as may be after it has been issued.".
The amendment provides power for the Minister to designate by order persons or organisations which have a special interest in the work of the council. The council will consult with designated bodies on appropriate issues. The Minister may also request that the council consult with designated bodies on any particular issue or issues. Provision is also made for the designated bodies to make representations to the council and for the council to give copies of each of its publications to such bodies. The new section reflects the importance of education to society and the deep and lasting interest which a wide range of groups has in the education system. Designated body status will provide a conduit for other persons or organisations not represented on the council to be involved in the work of the council. As far as the council is concerned, the designation of persons or organisations will provide an additional route of advice and expertise on which the council may draw as it carries out its functions.
As it stands to reason that the council will do this anyhow, why is the Minister bringing forward this amendment?
It gives guarantees to bodies which deal or work with the council from time to time.
Is this to ensure they are not shut out?
Exactly, it will ensure they are not closed out by a future council.
I move amendment No. 320:
In page 30, subsection (1), line 28, after "functions" to insert "as he or she considers necessary or expedient".
This deals with the staffing of the council. Section 42(1) states: "The Minister, with the consent of the Minister for Finance, may appoint such and so many persons to assist the Council in the performance of its functions." Added to this I want the phrase "as he or she considers necessary or expedient".
Yesterday the Minister indicated he is not inclined towards overdoing the involvement of consultants or other people. However, the phrase suggested in the amendment is a safeguard in the long-term for the taxpayer.
I will take on board part of the amendment on Report Stage subject to confirmation of wording. I am informed that, following the model of section 24 which relates to the appointment of staff to schools, it might be appropriate to use wording along the lines ". . . . with the consent of the Minister for Finance may appoint such and so many persons as he considers necessary to assist the council in performance of its functions". We will return to the issue on Report Stage.
Why is the Minister not providing the body with the right to recruit within a budget fixed by him with the agreement of the Minister for Finance? It seems the council should have the right to recruit staff and work within its budget to do what it deems appropriate. I am of the view that if the council decides it is more effective to proceed with a consultancy than employ in-house staff it should do so. We should give the council discretion within its budget regarding the type of people it employs and at what level.
It does, but this is standard legislative provision governing pay terms and conditions.
I thought we were moving towards a position under the Department of Finance whereby it was cash controlled and Departments, including the Minister's, could live within its administrative budget and redeploy resources.
We are moving towards that situation but have not reached it yet.
We are making statutory provision for something which will be contrary to the direction in which we are heading.
Public pay policy would still govern the issue.
It might even suit us to keep it that way.
There still remains the issue of remuneration. Why under subsection (1) should the Minister rather than the council appoint staff?
I will examine this issue on Report Stage.
I move amendment No. 321:
In page 30, between lines 35 and 36, to insert the following subsection:
"(4) The Civil Service Commissioners Act, 1956, and the Civil Service Regulation Acts, 1956 and 1958, shall apply to full-time, permanent employees of the Council.".
This is a technical amendment and provides that the provisions of the Civil Service Commissioners Act, 1956, should apply to appointments of staff to the NCCA. This will ensure normal Civil Service recruitment provisions and employment regulations will apply to the staff of the council.
I move amendment No. 322:
In page 32, subsection (1)(g), line 26, after "who" to insert "knowingly".
I want the section to read, "who knowingly acts in breach of regulations made by the Minister or who otherwise misconducts himself or herself in respect of an examination". This seems to impose penalties on someone who unknowingly acts in breach of ministerial regulations.
That does not cause difficulty and is consistent with the offences set out in section 50. I accept this subject to confirmation of the wording before Report Stage.
I move amendment No. 323:
In page 32, subsection (1), between lines 30 and 31, to insert the following:
"(i) the provision of facilities, testing aids and reasonable accommodation to ensure equality of access, opportunity and choice for students with special educational needs.".
The matter this amendment deals with is covered in the Bill.
Is the Minister satisfied that this is provided for?
Amendments Nos. 324, 325, 327 and 328 are related and may be related. Amendments Nos. 325 and 326 are cognate.
I move amendment No. 324:
In page 33, subsection (1)(d), line 8, to delete "and wilfully".
There is an element of overkill in some of the wording here, which refers to a person who knowingly and wilfully credits a candidate with higher marks than the marks to which that candidate is entitled with the intention of conferring an advantage on that candidate over other candidates. If somebody does something knowingly the person is doing it wilfully. Why is "wilfully" necessary?
The term "wilfully" implies the intent as well. I am not a barrister and that is my advice.
One could prove more easily that somebody knew what they were doing as opposed to proving intent. I will bow to lawyers on this, but it seems that if one knows what one is doing one intends to do it.
One could know what one is doing but not know the effect of that.
This deletion surely broadens the offence, as "maliciously" serves to restrict it.
Exactly. Amendment No. 327 proposes the insertion of "knowingly and maliciously" as it has been put to me that it should be absolutely clear that a person who accidentally obstructs the conduct of an examination should not be guilty of an offence. The aim of amendment No. 327 is to accommodate this concern and to make it clear, where it is not already stated, that an offence will occur only where a person acts knowingly and maliciously. I think that is Deputy O'Shea's intention also.
The language looks like overkill to me, but if there is a legal point here I accept it.
There is no political input into the word "maliciously". I am taking legal advice.
I do not doubt the Minister's motives.
Amendment No. 328 is potentially broader in scope, as it provides that someone who interferes with the conduct of an examination commits an offence. Interfering with an examination could be interpreted very broadly, from someone bringing materials into an examination to personal conduct as to the operation of an examination. I know the Minister ridiculed the notion that this is wrong. I am no lawyer, but there is a broad power of prosecution here if those words stand.
This section relates to obstructing any candidate or person engaged in an examination or otherwise interfering with the conduct of an examination. I would not have thought bringing in materials would be covered by that; it refers to someone stopping an examination or causing a disruption in the centre which would have the effect of stopping the examination from taking place. We will look at this on Report Stage.
Somebody bringing materials into an examination is undoubtedly interfering with the examination.
That would not interfere with the examination. The point here is the conduct of the examination.
It would interfere with conduct relating to one's paper. I could understand if it prevented the examination going ahead——
I will look at this on Report Stage. We are seeking to ensure that the examination process is not obstructed at the examination centre.
If that was spelt out in the section it would be clearer.
If somebody decides to turn up a ghetto-blaster outside an examination centre just to interfere with the students inside, that should be an offence the Garda can address immediately, though playing the ghetto-blaster might not be an offence in its own right.
Our amendment would cover that. It might also cover JCBs.
The word "conduct" could not be confined to the examination hall and someone barring access to that hall. It could also apply to someone's personal conduct in the hall.
I move amendment No. 327:
In page 33, subsection (1)(h), line 20, before "obstructs" to insert "knowingly and maliciously".
The ink is barely dry on the Freedom of Information Act and the Minister is introducing a specified power of refusal to allow people access to information on examination results and comparisons between schools. Where is this leading? It makes it illegal for schools to provide information on education plans and examination results.
This section states:
Notwithstanding any other enactment, the Minister may refuse access to any information which would enable the compilation of information (that is not otherwise available to the general public) in relation to
(a) the overall results in any year of students in a particular school in an examination, or
(b) the comparative overall results in any year of students in different schools in an examination.
It is to stop the compilation and publication of league tables. It relates to education policy and philosophy. I accept there may be disagreements and people may believe we should publish league tables. However, it would be wrong for the education system to allow the compilation and development of school league tables based on examination results.
I do not favour league tables. However, I do not see why a parent should not have the right to see the overall results of students in any year if they are contemplating two different schools. We should not say it is wrong for parents to consider how successful different schools are in examinations. It is not by any means the sole criteria of success nor would I not condone the Minister or his Department saying it should be the major measure of success.
Undoubtedly, it is a matter in which parents will be interested and it will influence their choice of schools. We are not only talking about the criteria for judging the success of schools but we are saying we will restrict access to information which should be in the public domain. The Minister, the Department and I may believe this is too narrow a ground for parents to judge a school but we should not say they cannot have information.
It would not have that impact. It states: "The Minister may refuse". A school principal may say to a parent that a school had so many grade A's, B's or C's. I will not refuse permission on a school by school basis.
Surely, under the Freedom of Information Act, a parent has the right to go to a school to ask how it has performed.
We are trying to prevent the compilation of national league tables.
I am concerned that the Minister is throwing the baby out with the bath water.
We are trying to balance sound education policy with what I would regard as potential abuse of the Freedom of Information Act. Perhaps "abuse" is too strong a word but I am trying to prevent the utilisation of the Act to compile league tables. It might run contrary to our education policy as it should be. I accept, however, this could change under future Governments but as far as I am concerned, it is a policy which should remain intact. It has the agreement and endorsement of all the partners, including parent and teacher groups. Perhaps I am paranoid about this matter but it is important to our education system that we do not allow the development and compilation of national league tables on how schools compare on simplistic grounds and which would be disadvantageous to students. That is the intention behind this provision.
Is the Minister saying it will still be open to a parent to obtain information from a school?
It does not affect parents' rights to access information.
Do parents have the right to access that information?
Can parents find out how a school is performing in examinations?
The Freedom of Information Act does not cover schools but this Bill does in terms of parents.
Is the Minister saying they cannot get the information anywhere?
At the moment they cannot get information except for generalities. Let us be honest, it is not as if parents are ignorant about which schools they want their children to attend. The provisions of the Freedom of Information Act introduced a year ago do not extend to school. After every leaving certification examination, a national bank of information and data is available in the Department which could be readily and easily accessed.
The Minister is saying that at the moment parents do not have the right to find out how a school is performing in examinations, although they may find out such information on the black market because it is generally put on a notice board. The Minister is saying he will not provide this information. He is the only one who has this information comprehensively available to him. He is not saying he will not provide it to The Sunday Times or to someone who is trying to compile league tables but that he will not facilitate access to information even to parents who have a legitimate interest in knowing this information.
There is nothing which excludes schools from making that information available.
There is nothing wrong with parents going to the Minister or the Department to ask how a school is fairing in the leaving certificate. Why would the Minister decide not to give such information?
That is a matter for the Minister of the day because this provision states: "The Minister may refuse".
If the section states "may", then the Minister will de facto refuse to provide such information.
I will not be Minister forever. Generally, the opposite is the case and parents rush to tell others how good a school is. We do not envisage a Department setting up a service telling parents that such a school got 50 or 100 A or B grades. There is nothing excluding or preventing any school from giving its leaving certificate performance in terms of numbers and not individuals. This Bill prescribes that schools must give parents full access to the records of the school in relation to information pertaining to students performance and so on. There is a certain conflict here in terms of the provision of information and the protection of education policy.
I am not overly concerned about this matter once it does not interfere with the school's ability to develop a plan and to make information available as it chooses.
Section 20 states:
A board shall establish procedures for informing the parents of children in the school of matters relating to the operation and performance of the school and such procedures may include the publication and circulation to parents, teachers and other staff of a report on the operation and performance of the school in any school year, with particular reference to the achievement of objectives as set out in the school plan provided for under section 21.
We amended the Bill to strengthen that.
As a general principle, I support the idea of disclosure. However, when we move into areas such as examination results some schools may be happy to run to the media to tell all and sundry how it performed. Other schools may appear to perform less well in examinations but if the overall context was considered, perhaps a different view would emerge. Because of the danger of the simplistic interpretation of figures, protection is necessary. If simplistic league tables were available, it would have a destabilising effect on the system at large. It is a judgment call. If information is given to a parent about the performance of students in a school, it might be possible to extrapolate how identifiable individuals performed. If simplistic information is available, it could be used to appraise how a school has performed which would be very damaging educationally.
Having said that, disclosure of the maximum amount of information is always important. There is certain information which cannot reasonably be released unless all the information is available, including a pupil's attainment level when he or she arrived in a school. On balance, I see the need for such a provision. As a teacher I would instinctively be wary in these areas.
On Report Stage I will table further amendments under the examination section which will protect the anonymity of examiners and offer some legal protection as well.
Will the Minister deal with the rights of people in respect of exams? The section on exams is all about poachers. There is very little mention of people's rights under the examination system and their rights to have their papers appealed. I know the Minister is dealing with rights but this section seems like a one-legged stool.
The Deputy has made a valid point. Section 49(f) states: "The terms under which candidates may appeal against the results of an examination and the procedure for such appeals,". We allow for the Minister to make regulations to cover all of those areas. That included the marking of work pursuant to examination, the preparation of examination papers, procedures in place for how examinations are conducted, the charge and collection of fees, the issuing of results, penalties imposed, designation of places, etc.
It was interesting to note that there was no statutory provision. In other words, people could do what they liked with the results——
There are issues surrounding people with dyslexia or other learning difficulties. People would expect that a Bill dealing with examinations would in some way try to delineate.
It would be very hard to do that in legislation. There is an expert body separate from the DP's commission and the examination system. It is currently looking at the appeals system and I would like it to look at the whole area of children with special learning difficulties such as dyslexia. I am unhappy with the restrictive approach to students with these difficulties sitting examinations. It will not be easy to solve this issue because there are a number of issues revolving round it such as the integrity of the examination system, etc.
I am sure the Minister is aware of the case involving the Ombudsman in the marking of leaving certificate papers. Some time after results are published when it is discovered that the standard of marking is not up to standard and students did not receive the grades they were entitled to, are these students afforded any protection?
There is no protection. Last year we developed an initiative in that area, particularly in relation to appeals. For example, a chief inspector and I looked at appeals and where a more than average number of children's appeals were being upheld we reexamined the entire bundle of scripts to ensure the marking scheme was being applied properly. In some instances we discovered scripts belonging to people who had not made appeals. These scripts were re-examined because in the judgment of the appeal examiners they were not marked in accordance with the marking scheme and as a result they were upgraded. In the past these scripts would not have been discovered. This situation cannot be easily rectified because it could result in a person losing a college placement. That is why we decided to make scripts available to students in the case of appeal. Human error is always possible.
Where it is discovered that a student should have received higher grades and points and, therefore, lost his or her first choice on their CAO application, surely justice would demand that there would be some redress in this situation?
Can we provide for it in this legislation?
It would be up to the person who has been denied his or her full rights in terms of the marking of his or her paper to seek redress. Ideally, when one would do that the Department and Minister of the day would seek to redress the wrong that had occurred. If such a case is caught early enough we will contact the CAO office to see if places can be secured for people for the following year and we will try to work out a resolution with the people concerned. It would be very difficult to make a provision for redress in legislation. A case could be resolved two years after the exam and a student could have lost two full years. Redress would have to be worked out to suit each individual case. The onus would be on the Department to be even handed and generous in terms of its response to the individual.
I accept difficulties will arise but the only option left for an individual might be litigation which would be prohibitive for many people. It is always possible that a person might be left with massive legal bills. I know this situation does not arise very often but we should still have a quick method to redress the wrong done.
I agree, but I am not sure we can do it through legislation. Each case varies in terms of the loss and the impact a decision had on a student. Ideally, it is up to the Department to respond to each case that arises but it must respond with equanimity, correct the wrong and ensure redress is given.
Question put and agreed to.
Amendments Nos. 329 to 334, inclusive, form a composite proposal. Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 to amendment No. 329, amendment No. 1 to amendment No. 330, and amendments Nos. 1 and 2 to amendment No. 332 are related. On section 329 amendments Nos. 1 and 2 to amendment No. 329, amendment Nos. 1 to amendment No. 330 to 332, inclusive; amendment Nos. 1 and 2 to amendment No. 332 and amendments Nos., 333 and 334 will be taken together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 329:
In page 34, before Schedule 1, to insert the following new section:
"52.—(1) The Minister, with the concurrence of the Government, may from time to time by order (in this Act referred to as an 'establishment order') establish a body to perform, subject to subsection (2), functions in or in relation to the provision of support services.
(2) The performance of functions by a body established under subsection (1) shall be subject to the determination of matters of policy by the Minister.
(3) A body established under subjection (1) shall be known by such title as may be specified in the establishment order.
(4) A body so established shall be a body corporate with perpetual succession and a seal and with power to sue and be sued in its corporate name and to hold land.
(5) The Minister may from time to time by order amend an establishment order or an order made under this subsection.
(6) The person appointed as principal officer of a body established under subsection (1) shall be accountable to the Minister in carrying out the functions referred to in that subsection.".
I move amendment No. 1 to amendment No. 329:
After subsection (1), to insert the following subsection:
"(2) Such an order shall be laid before each House of the Oireachtas for approval and shall not take effect until after that approval has been granted.".
The aim of my proposed amendments Nos. 329 to 334, inclusive, is to provide for the establishment of executive bodies to perform functions in or in relation to the provision of support services. Policy determination will at all times remain the responsibility of the Minister. Each of my proposed amendments covers a specific aspect of the establishment of executive bodies.
Amendment No. 329 provides for the establishment by order of an executive body.
Amendment No. 330 provides for the membership and staff of an executive body and covers matters such as the terms and conditions of appointment of members of the body and the conditions of service of those employed in it. Amendment No. 331 provides for the order establishing each executive body to set out the functions of the body and the conditions under which the body may perform its function. Amendment No. 332 provides for the administration of executive bodies. It provides in particular for keeping and auditing of accounts of bodies and the furnishing to the Minister of information regarding the performance of functions. Amendment No. 333 provides that the Minister with the concurrence of the Minister for Finance may make plans for executive bodies. Amendment No. 334 provides for revoking establishment orders and the dissolution of executive bodies.
The establishment of executive bodies is consistent with the policy approach set out as far back as the Green Paper on Education in 1992 which notes on page 156 that the most efficient way by which these tasks would be performed, while enabling the Department to focus on its broader policy, would be through a series of executive agencies which would have designated powers and responsibilities within given policy and budgetary frameworks. The establishment of these executive bodies would offer a unique opportunity to improve immeasurably the administration of the system. It is also in keeping with the spirit of the Public Service Management Act and the strategic management initiative.
Deputies have proposed a number of amendments to this part of the Bill. With one possible exception, I have no difficulty in principle with the aim of these amendments but I would like to consider them further for Report Stage.
Deputy Bruton proposed that the establishment of an agency should require positive resolutions of the Houses of the Oireachtas. This is certainly a strong safeguard for the people affected by an order. We can look at that for Report Stage.
I have no difficulty in accepting the thrust of amendment No. 329, which was tabled by Deputy Bruton. It is always my intention to consult with the education partners, in particular any staff bodies, before establishing a body under these provisions. Establishment should only occur after all involved have, as far as possible, been given an opportunity to put their case and after any difficulties identified have been resolved.
Deputy O'Shea's amendment would have a similar effect. I agree with the approach adopted in his proposed subsection (3). Of course, the terms and conditions of staff who may be transferred to a corporate body cannot be worsened as a result of that transfer. I will return to these issues on Report Stage and I expect we can agree an appropriate set of provisions.
Amendment No. 332 relates to the Minister's accountability to the Oireachtas in respect of the bodies, although not for their day to day activities. I have no great difficulty with that and we can examine it for Report Stage.
In principle, the notion of executive agencies is a good one. It provides for delegation and allows the Department to focus on policy issues. As a result of the Department's very high level of centralisation it has suffered badly from the obligation to man the pump on day to day issues. However, it is difficult to divorce this debate from the decision taken by the Minister not to support any devolution of power to bodies which would be closer to schools and parents and have the ability to add some value to co-operation between schools and the development of coherence at regional level.
We have not seen any indication from the Minister in regard to what he hopes to do by way of executive agencies. It is rather like Hamlet without the prince as we do not know what the executive agencies will do. I know from earlier debates that the Minister is extremely sensitive to the cost implications of establishing bodies of this nature. I am sure he will furnish the committee with detailed estimates of the costings of running executive agencies.
There are none.
The Minister is heading off a lengthy debate on whether the costings will be published.
To some degree, the whole debate about regional education boards was trivialised by the exclusive focusing on administrative costs. The administrative costs of vocational education committees in 1995 were £25 million. I suspect one could make an argument that vocational education committees were very wasteful organisations, although many people would hotly dispute that and would point to the valuable services they have developed.
While I welcome executive agencies, I regret that the notion of devolving power closer to the community has not been taken on in this area. We are essentially making a very centralised body a little more efficient, rather than making it more accountable or more devolved in how it conducts its business.
Having said that, I do not oppose these sections. I welcome the Minister's willingness to retain accountability to the Oireachtas by providing for positive approval by the Oireachtas and consultation with those involved. My amendments to amendment No. 332 indicate there should be continuing accountability of the Minister to the Oireachtas in respect of the activities of the body.
Many of us have been frustrated over the years in cases of legitimate public interest in what executive agencies are doing. When one tables parliamentary questions on the matter one is told the Minister has no role in the activities of these bodies. One is reduced to waiting for such bodies to make an appearance once a year, if one is lucky, before committees such as this one. In practice, it is usually once every five years. If we are to go down the executive agency route, which has rightly been signalled as the way forward, we must develop some reasonable accountability structures for Members of the Oireachtas and the public.
I welcome the Minister's positive response to my amendment, especially the second part of it. Am I correct in my interpretation that this only provides for the secondment of staff, as opposed to their transfer, from the Department to the executive agencies? Does that indicate the Minister sees the executive agencies as having a limited tenure rather than being there in perpetuity?
They could have a limited tenure in some cases. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment is a classic example of the development of a national executive body. That developed over time and has now been placed on a statutory basis. The same could happen with the development of a national psychological service. I do not want to pre-empt what will happen on the steering committee, but that service may need an executive body to give it a focus and develop an area of expertise.
There may be other short-term needs for executive bodies. There is sufficient flexibility to deal with all possible outcomes. Some bodies will have short tasks to perform and will not necessarily last forever.
If the recognised trade union or staff association of one of these executive bodies put it to the Minister that they would prefer if their members were fully transferred, as distinct from seconded, is he satisfied the legislation will accommodate that?
It might be the other way around. If the Minister established a body to run the psychological services, for example, he would retain the right to dictate the numbers, grades, qualifications, methods of appointment etc. Would that effectively impose Civil Service structures on this body, which is supposed to be more innovative, and prevent it from being more flexible in its approach?
Of necessity, there is a certain stepping stone approach to the establishment and development of such agencies. The initial approach will be cautious in regard to resources, appointments and so forth. It would not then exclude the agencies from having their own flexibility regarding taking on part time staff or coming to the Minister for additional staff.
Should the legislation not go the whole way? This should be a budget within which the body operates. If the staff are exclusively psychologists and there is no secretarial assistance, that is their decision.
This can develop over time, but this is enabling legislation. We are moving step by step to set up this executive and give it authority.
I know what will happen in the first year. The chief executive officer will be asking the Minister for a psychologist because he has four administrative officers.
Either way this needs a budget.
Regarding these amendments, I will look at this before Report Stage and we will accept the principle of accountability to the Oireachtas.
This amendment relates to positive approval by the Oireachtas.
I move amendment No. 330:
In page 34, before Schedule 1, to insert the following new section:
"53.—Every establishment order shall contain such provisions as the Minister considers appropriate in relation to
(a) the number of members of the body established by the order, the method, terms and conditions of their appointment and tenure of office;
(b) the number, grades, qualifications, method of appointment (including secondment), conditions of service, tenure of office and the remuneration and superannuation of the persons employed in or by the body so established.".
I move amendment No. 1 to amendment No. 330:
After the last line of the amendment, to insert the following subsections:
"(2) The Minister shall not make an establishment order, or an order amending such an order, containing provisions relating to the secondment of members of staff of the Department of Education and Science to the employment of the body proposed to be established by that order without having first consulted with any recognised trade union or staff association concerned.
(3) Save in accordance with a collective agreement negotiated with any recognised trade union or staff association concerned, a member of the staff of the Department of Education and Science who is seconded, by virtue of an establishment order, to the employment of the body established by the order shall not, while in the employment of the body, receive a lesser scale of pay or be brought to less beneficial conditions of service than the scale of pay to which he or she was entitled and the conditions of service to which he or she was subject immediately before the day of such secondment.".
I take it that the Minister is accepting subsection (3). Is that correct?
We will come back to that on Report Stage but I accept that there should be no worsening of conditions.
What about subsection (2)?
We have covered that already. I will accept it in principle.
I move amendment No. 331:
In page 34, before Schedule 1, to insert the following new section:
"54.—An establishment order shall contain such provisions as the Minister considers appropriate defining the functions of the body established by the order and the manner in which the conditions under which the body so established may perform the functions so defined.".
I move amendment No. 332:
In page 34, before Schedule 1, to insert the following new section:
"55.—An establishment order shall contain such provisions relating to the administration generally of the body established by the order as the Minister considers appropriate including provisions relating to—
(a) the meetings of the body so established and the procedures at such meetings,
(b) the use and authentication of its seal,
(c) the regulation of its finances and the keeping and auditing of its accounts, and
(d) the furnishing to the Minister by such body from time to time of information regarding the performance of its functions, and the furnishing of such information to the Minister at any time at his or her request.".
I move amendment No. 1 to amendment No. 332:
1. In paragraph (d), line 1, after "Minister" to insert "and the Oireachtas".
2. After paragraph (d), to insert the following paragraph:
"(e) the continuing accountability of the Minister to the Oireachtas in respect of the activities of the body.".
I accept the principles behind these amendments and will return to them on Report Stage.
I move amendment No. 333:
In page 34, before Schedule 1, to insert the following new section:
"56.—In each financial year the Minister, with the concurrence of the Minister for Finance, out of monies provided by the Oireachtas, may make to a body appointed under section 52 a grant for the purposes of expenditure by that body in the performance of its functions.".
I move amendment No. 334:
In page 34, before Schedule 1, to insert the following new section:
"57.—(1) The Minister may at any time by order revoke such an establishment order.
(2) A revoking order shall contain such provisions as the Minister thinks necessary or expedient consequential on the revocation, and, in particular, may make provision for
(a) the dissolution of the body established by the establishment order and the transfer or distribution of the property, rights and liabilities thereof to any of the following—
(i) the Minister, or
(ii) any one or more than one other body established by an establishment order,
(b) the preservation of continuing contracts made by the dissolved body,
(c) the continuance of pending legal proceedings,
(d) notwithstanding any restriction under any Act, the transfer of the holder of any office under the dissolved body to—
(i) the Department of Education and Science, or
(ii) any other body established by an establishment order.".
I move amendment No. 335:
In page 5, line 7, to delete "CHILD" where it firstly occurs and substitute "PERSON".
This was accepted in principle.
I will come back to it on Report Stage.
I move amendment No. 337:
In page 5, line 7, after "WITH" to insert "A DISABILITY OR WHO HAS OTHER".
I move amendment No. 339:
In page 5, line 13, after "PARENTS" to insert "THE WIDER COMMUNITY".
I cannot remember what the Minister said about this.
I have no difficulty with this and will return to it on Report Stage to make sure the drafting is right.
I move amendment No. 340:
In page 5, line 15, after "BELIEFS" to insert ", LANGUAGES".
This amendment respects the diversity of languages, beliefs, values and traditions.