The purpose of today's meeting is to resume consideration of Committee Stage of the Education (Welfare) Bill, 1999 [Seanad] which was referred to the select committee by the Dáil on 17 November, 1999. It is proposed to adjourn today’s meeting at 7 p.m. Is that agreed?
Education (Welfare) Bill, 1999 [Seanad]: Committee Stage (Resumed).
Private Member's time begins in the Dáil at 7 p.m.
We will adjourn at 6.55 p.m. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Michael Woods, and his officials. On behalf of the select committee I congratulate you, Minister, on your appointment. The committee looks forward to working with you.
We will resume consideration of the Bill at amendment No. 35 which relates to section 10 and is proposed by Deputy Higgins. Amendments Nos. 35, 37, 39, 41, 42 and 80 are related and may be discussed together. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 35:
In page 10, subsection (4), line 19, to delete "examined" and substitute "assessed".
I wish the Minister every success in his new responsibilities. The amendments seek to delete the word "examined" and substitute the word "assessed". I got the impression from the Minister's predecessor that he was minded to accept them.
I thank Deputy Higgins for his comments. I am delighted to be involved in the sector and look forward to working with the committee.
The amendments seek to change the terminology used in the Bill where the board arranges for the consideration of a child's physical, emotional or intellectual development. The Deputy is proposing that this take the form of an assessment. The Bill provides for an examination. It provides for the board to arrange to conduct examinations under section 10 and assessments under section 15. These are intended to be two separate and distinct events aimed at very different groups. Section 10 provides for a situation where, for example, the National Educational Welfare Board is considering how to provide for a child who has been expelled from school and is thought to have psychological problems. An examination might be necessary to assist the board in planning future provision for such a child. Section 15 refers specifically to a situation where a child is being educated outside the recognised school system and the board wishes to ensure the child is receiving a minimum education.
The Deputy will appreciate that these situations are very different. In the latter the board is acting to vindicate the constitutional rights of each child to receive a minimum education. This is a non-judgmental, factual assessment. In the former a situation has arisen where a child is experiencing significant problems in his or her education and remedial action is necessary to assist the child. The effect of the Deputy's amendments would be to cause confusion as to these two different events. While I have no particular hang up about this, it is the advice of the parliamentary draftsman that the correct language is used in the Bill which provides for both an examination and an assessment to address these different situations.
I am grateful for the elaboration on the thinking of the parliamentary draftsman. I note the difference between section 10 and section 15. The word "assessment" is used in a particular context in section 15 with which we have no difficulty but I am very anxious to dispose of the word "examination". Section 10(4) states:
The Board may, with the consent of the parent of the child concerned, arrange for a child to be examined as to his or her intellectual, emotional and physical development (hereafter in this section referred to as "an examination") by such person as may be determined by the Board with the concurrence of the parent.
My thinking is that an assessment is inclusive of any such examination that might be necessary. It is also a friendlier term. With the greatest of respect to the parliamentary draftsman, the use of the word "examination" is archaic and resonant of something that will not happen in practice. What is taking place is an assessment which may include such tests as may be necessary. I prefer the word "assessment" than the word "examination" in legislation.
I have a second problem with the word "examined". It has connotations of precision. The assumption is that there is a clear set of criteria or tests against which a child's performance, orientation or intellectual, emotion and physical development might be examined. While one can assess, one cannot operate with the precision the word "examined" suggests. For this reason "assessment" is the better word.
Ba maith liomsa comghairdeas a ghabháil leis an Aire as an bpost nua atá faighte aige. We addressed many issues when he was Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources. Even though he used the word "sector", a word he used when Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources, I will enjoy raising education issues with him.
I support what Deputy Higgins said about the effect of the language used in the Bill. We are dealing with a sensitive area in which we are trying to balance the constitutional rights of parents and the obligations of the State. To ensure the Bill is seen as non-threatening there is a need for accuracy. In this context the word "assessment" is the correct one. I am not certain what kind of examination is contemplated to measure a child's emotional and physical development. It can only be subjective. The word "examination" suggests a success and failure rate. Are we seriously contemplating delivering decisions on success or failure based on so many sets of criteria?
The amendments are very much in line with what the public believes is at stake. On the last occasion we agreed to allow parents to seek of their own volition to have their child assessed/examined. Where a child exhibits problems, obaining the professional assistance of the board should be an open, accessible and non-stigma creating event. In that sense the wording used in the Bill is important. Everyone has assessments done for various reasons. As Deputy Higgins said, "assessment" is a far more friendly word than "examination" which suggests deficiency defects or problems. The Minister might consider informing the parliamentary draftsman that he may be using a lexicon which no longer applies to the public and that he should think again.
I will look at the matter very closely again before Report Stage. I appreciate the points made by Deputies but I do not want to fall into a situation where a problem is created that may necessitate other consequential changes. I agree that "assessment" sounds friendlier in lay man's language. We will take up that matter with the draftsman before Report Stage.
I am grateful to the Minister. The draftsman might consider also the suggestion that an "assessment" in section 15 and an "examination" in section 10 might create more problems that it would solve. If one is arguing for the basic level of education to which every child should have access there is a certain merit in having a consistency of usage. Put starkly, in the old days when health inspectors visited schools it was used as a threat to children that they would take them behind the blackboard and examine them. There is a terrible resonance to the word. It is well worth trying to adopt a welfare mode in language as well as in substance. I am happy for the Minister to have a look at it between now and Report Stage.
Amendments Nos. 36 and 62 are related and may be taken together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 36:
In page 10, subsection (4), line 20, to delete "emotional and physical".
Amendment No. 36 which seeks to delete the words "emotional and physical" from the educational role of the board is based on many concerns expressed by members of the public who wrote letters and contacted me in various ways to stress their belief that the assessment of a child for emotional and physical development is more appropriate to health legislation or should be wider than the terms that the board as an educational body has been asked to run with.
Another reason for this amendment arises from a reply I received from the Minister's predecessor last November when I sought to ask if the Department was aware of, ". . . ar thaighde ó Ollschoil Luimnigh a deir go gcuireann easpa gníomhaíochta fisiciúla isteach ar shláinte 40 faoin gcéad leanaí na tíre seo ar aois cúig go dtí a deich . . . ". I asked the Minister, given the lack of physical exercise among 40% of the country's children from five to ten, what role he had in providing recreational facilities — playgrounds and so forth. The reply stressed, ". . . is iad na tuistí ar an gcéad dul síos atá freagrach as sláinte leanaí féin . . . ". Given that the Minister is stressing, perhaps to avoid having to provide lots of playgrounds around the country, that it is up to parents to provide for the physical well being of their children, what is good for the goose is good for the gander. In this situation the board may be overstressing its remit to get into the various emotional and physical aspects of assessment if we continue with that wording at Report Stage.
I ask the Minister to look again at whether the board is going beyond what could reasonably be expected to be its constitutional obligations as an educational institution under education legislation by seeking to have emotional and physical well being included in its brief? Should we not face up to the fact that this is a health matter? Unless the Minister has overriding concerns about it we should adhere to the original reply from the Department that it is primarily a matter for the parents to look after the physical well being of their children.
I take a slightly different view from that of Deputy Sargent, although I would be sympathetic in the case where under section 15, dealing with people who decide to home educate, it was provided that authorised officers would go in and conduct intellectual, emotional and physical assessments and have powers of entry and other draconian powers. It seems to me that the reference to emotional and physical development is inappropriate there.
As I understand it, in this section we are giving the board the power, with the consent of the parent of the child, to arrange for certain assessments of the child which would include their intellectual, emotional and physical development. I do not see it as necessarily threatening to a parent to offer to them, subject to their consent, that the child's emotional development be assessed because emotional development is a cause of poor performance in school. It is a valid issue for concern for the parent and the board. While I can understand the point Deputy Sargent makes, I would be happy to leave it in place in this section but to consider its appropriateness later.
There are many instances where it is not only desirable but necessary that an examination should consider the emotional and physical development of a child. To protect the educational welfare of a child we must consider education in a holistic way. The Deputy's amendment would restrict this to an intellectual examination which would not be a comprehensive approach. Subsection (4) provides for a physical, mental and emotional examination. We are trying to help the children. One may have to deal with an emotional or a physical disturbance of the child and one must be free to look into those matters and to assist with them. The intention is to make it open to as comprehensive an approach as possible.
This flows from the use of the words "examination" and "assessment". It is technically possible to carry out an examination of a person's intellectual ability in areas of fairly precise science in relation to psychological testing. However, I am in favour of going for "assessment". With an assessment one is going beyond an examination of intellectual capacity and there are practical situations in the classroom. There are many children who would be described in lay man's language as being as bright as a button but who have an emotional disturbance. Equally there are other things which flow from something as basic as malnutrition. I would prefer to consider "assessment" rather than "examination" and that the emotional and physical development would be included here for these reasons.
I take Deputy Sargent's point, made with reference to the reply he received from the Department of Education and Science. It is a flaw in the Department's thinking to continually say that this part of a person's life is constitutionally ring-fenced by the family protection provisions of the Constitution. I am inclined to argue in the other way, entirely driven by the primary rights of the child. If we take that as the point of departure one would have to go for the fully rounded assessment. Having favoured assessment in the broad sense it would be inconsistent of me to narrow it, in terms of deleting it, as Deputy Sargent suggests, so I am in favour of it staying as it is.
I find the range of opinions interesting and almost interdependent. That brings me to realise that if Deputy Bruton's amendment No. 34 is accepted on Report Stage, the situation will be improved given that it involves an element of consultation. If we accept "assessed" rather than "examined", as proposed by Deputy Higgins, we are again improving the position. If the Department insists on an holistic approach, subject to parents' consent and to a less draconian term such as "assessment", it needs to look again at its general role in examinations. I look forward to the leaving and the junior certificates being more holistic. That may flow from our discussions here and if that is the case, it will be of benefit.
The applied leaving certificate is more holistic.
The Minister is picking and choosing now.
That is the new one that is developing in between——
What is good for the goose is good for the gander.
The reply in November, which I found unacceptable, stated that it was up to the parents to provide facilities for their children's physical well-being. If the Department is to insist on this line it should follow through on that. I would like the Minister to be holistic about this but I was not happy with the fact that parents would not have a choice in this matter, that they might feel their children would either pass or fail this emotional test or pass or fail the physical test. My amendment was tabled in that light but with the other changes I believe it is unnecessary and I withdraw it.
I move amendment No. 38:
In page 10, subsection (5), lines 23 and 24, after "subsection (4)” to insert “to instruction on the rights and duties of citizens”.
This amendment concerns cases where a parent refuses to give his or her consent, under section 4, to instruction on the rights and duties of citizens. A request was made to me by members of the general public who were concerned about the Bill. They felt that while the State had certain responsibilities it should be restricted from trying to do the work of parents, particularly when those parents are making every effort and many sacrifices to exercise their obligations and rights under the Constitution. Inserting "to instruction on the rights and duties of citizens" is exactly what the State may require for a child or a citizen to be aware of their role in society. I would be interested to hear the Minister's response to that because the view was strongly put to me by members of the public.
This section deals with the specific instance where the board feels it is necessary to undertake an examination or an assessment of a child. The role of the Circuit Court, and this would be in cases where the parent does not agree, is to provide a means of arbitration. That is a necessary provision and the amendment does not add anything to it. Once there is a disagreement, the board would have the right to go to the Circuit Court. Obviously that would happen in a limited number of cases but it is important that the board has such a power.
I agree with the Minister.
How stands the amendment?
The amendment stands alone because it has not been addressed. I will not press it because the Minister accepts the spirit of the amendment while not regarding it as worthy of insertion. I withdraw the amendment because the parents may have that view and they are entitled to put that view in the courts, if it comes to that.
Yes, and the court would act as an independent and fair arbitrator.
I move amendment No. 40:
In page 10, subsection (6), line 27, to delete "subsection (4)” and substitute “subsection (5)”.
This is a technical amendment which corrects a mistake in the original text.
This is a new section. Amendment No. 43 is in the name of Deputy Higgins. Amendment No. 182 is consequential and No. 44 is related so we will discuss amendments Nos. 43, 44 and 182 together, by agreement.
I move amendment No. 43:
In page 10, before section 11, to insert the following new section:
11.—Paragraph 1(2) of the First Schedule to the Freedom of Information Act, 1997, is hereby amended by the addition, after 'the Board of the National Museum of Ireland,' of 'An Bord Náisiúnta um Leas Oideachais,'.".
I discussed the related amendments earlier. The purpose of this amendment is to accord the board the title in the Irish language which would be used by those who use the Irish language as their language of choice.
I agree with the principle of the amendments but differ as to how this might be achieved. Both the Freedom of Information Act and the Ombudsman Act already provide a mechanism to allow for the expansion of the Acts concerned to new bodies. Given that these mechanisms already exist, I propose that they be used rather than amend this Bill. I assure the Deputy that I will, with my colleague, the Minister for Finance, arrange for the extension of both the FOI Act and the Ombudsman Act to the national educational and welfare board on its establishment. The title can also be 'as gaelige'.
Does the Minister agree that the titles can be in the Irish form?
Yes, that is right.
If the Minister comes back on Report Stage with his own proposals in relation to the title in particular, I will withdraw the amendment.
I move amendment No. 45:
In page 11, between lines 5 and 6, to insert the following subsection:
"(5) An educational welfare officer shall, where appropriate, act in cooperation with the persons referred to insubsection (4).”.
During the course of consultations with the partners on this Bill, concerns were expressed that the educational welfare officers should act in co-operation with the school and should carry out their functions in a reasonable manner. The educational welfare officers have an important role under the Bill. To properly fulfil this role it is imperative that they maintain an independent and impartial role in relation to the schools to which they are assigned. However, there is also a duty on the educational welfare officers to carry out their duties in a fair and reasonable manner. In particular, each educational welfare officer must recognise the importance of working closely and co-operating with the schools to which he or she is assigned. This amendment will create the appropriate context for the work of the educational welfare officers with schools to which they are assigned.
I have no objection to this amendment, although I am not altogether sure what it means. What forms of co-operation does the Minister envisage by this legislative provision? Does the amendment propose the introduction of something new or is it merely restating something that is in the Bill?
Section 11(4) provides that the board of management has a duty to co-operate with the officer but the officer does not have a corresponding duty to co-operate with the board of management. The amendment seeks to cover that aspect. In effect, it would make it a duty of an educational welfare officer to work in co-operation with the board of management, the principal, teachers and other members of the school staff. That would happen in the normal course of events but there may be cases where it might not happen. The amendment seeks to cover that.
Is subsection (4) correct given that amendment No. 40 had the effect of changing the reference to it?
We have moved on to another section but, in any event, any changes that arise which are consequential will be made between now and Report Stage.
The Bill envisages that educational welfare officers would have certain statutory duties in relation to pupils attending schools, schools receiving pupils and in circumstances where pupils might be expelled or suspended. This proposed subsection (5) states that where appropriate the educational welfare officer will act in co-operation with the person referred to. I presume that means where appropriate within the statutory obligations of the officer to pursue these matters and that it is not pinning him or her down to accepting an expulsion without question because it was appropriate that the board of management should decide such matters. I presume it does not go to that extreme.
No, I would not think so. It refers to appropriate situations and it is not tied down to any particular situation. It means that an officer will act in that way in appropriate situations. I do not think it creates a problem.
I move amendment No. 46:
In page 11, before section 12, to insert the following new section:
"12.—(1) The Minister shall appoint one of his or her officers as a development officer for each school in every disadvantaged area, in order to promote the development of appropriate relationships between the school and the local business community and relevant agencies.
(2) An office of the Minister appointed under this section shall not be given additional remuneration by virtue of having been so appointed.".
This amendment is self-explanatory. I may amend my amendment if the Minister is disposed to accepting it by deleting the word "business" so that it would read ". . . local community and relevant agencies". I had to include that second subsection to keep the amendment in order in relation to additional cost prohibition. It is a good idea that there should be this kind of connection between the context of education and the education system.
I support the thrust of this amendment. In considering it, I ask the Minister to give some thought to the need to build that type of liaison between home and school, which should be the responsibility of a development officer. Home education and school education are not mutually exclusive options. The nature of schooling — education is probably a preferable word — is to encourage parents to take as full a role as possible in the education of their children. There is a need to adopt a more flexible attitude to facilitate a child being taught subjects a home in which his or her parents are proficient and attending school for other subjects. Such a flexible attitude in education is normal practice in other countries. Such a practice would be useful in the current climate where there is a shortage of teachers and I am sure teachers would welcome a more proactive involvement by parents in their children's education. Such a development officer would be crucial in developing those links and making sure that the child's welfare is paramount in whatever arrangement is arrived at.
This section provides for the appointment of welfare officers, which is a major step forward. In providing for the appointment of educational welfare officers I envisage that they will perform a number of functions relating to school attendance and, in doing that, will liaise with schools and pupils or parents and the appropriate services. Liaison with other appropriate services will be further assured through the appointment of a liaison officer, as provided for by section 12. The educational welfare board as the national overseeing body will be in a position to ensure co-ordination of all the activities of its officers. If I were to appoint development officers their work would overlap with the work of these people.
This amendment and amendment No. 47 are likely to raise a policy point, which the Minister's predecessor was not anxious to move from, at least that is what I gathered from the Seanad discussion. He said he saw a connection with the local and anything beneath the national as a kind of regionalism by stealth. Leaving that aside, we want to co-ordinate the activities and to get the best result possible. All of us in education want to ensure disadvantage is reduced and the more impact that can be made in that regard locally the better. Educational welfare officers will deal that task on a child, school and family basis, but my amendment deals with where there are pockets of disadvantage in relation to the development of appropriate relations with the school, and I am willing to drop the reference to the local business, as I had in mind the local communities and relevant agencies. That provision would create a favourable context. I do not envisage that will be met by a national based co-ordination of the activities. That is not my experience of the way Departments do their work. This amendment and following one are an attempt to make a gesture towards the local and towards the integration of the local society and the local school.
I strongly support what Deputy Higgins said. My amendments Nos. 49 and 50 deal with this matter and I will elaborate on it further when we reach those amendments.
On amendment No. 46, I think the Minister has misunderstood what Deputy Higgins has put forward. Deputy Higgins is essentially saying that within each school there should be a designated officer so that the school would look outward towards the community and the welfare service. That is what he is promoting rather than a network of liaison of non-school agencies, as promoted in section 12. Deputy Higgins is seeking to complement rather than to cross what the Minister proposes. He is saying that schools in the modern era cannot perceive themselves as inward looking or dealing with only blackboards and chalk. Essentially education is about the position of the child in the community and there are very rich resources in the community that can make a child's education much more meaningful. Deputy Higgins is introducing a valuable insight. It is entirely new to the Bill and would stand alone even if we cannot persuade the Minister about the regional issues which are also important. The Deputy has raised an interesting and valuable point which I support.
The welfare officers will be local and will have important local functions. The liaison will be local. I am anxious to develop the importance of the school in the locality. That is even more important in the case of second level schools. These welfare officers will liaise closely with the community and the parents in the course of looking after the children.
The Deputy suggests that there be another layer of people, development officers. That could be considered some time in the future but it is not appropriate to the Bill.
Perhaps I could explain further. For about 11 years, a long time ago, I was chairman of the Galway-Mayo regional arts committee. Helen Bygrove was the arts officer. We pioneered things such as murals in schools, painting classes, music, composers in residence and so forth. On one occasion we offered a ticket plus bus scheme for the benefit of outlying areas which had no venues for theatre performances, concerts and so forth. We found that when there was a co-operative person in the school, the scheme was a great success but it was less successful where there was no such person. The flyers, for example, would not be brought home.
The welfare officers will deal with cases on a personal basis and the national body will co-ordinate them. What if there is a school in a disadvantaged area where a high complement of problems are brought into the classroom? This says that instead of the school having a series of individual cases added together, one can actually deal with the disadvantage. In this school, for example, nobody has ever visited a museum, an art gallery, the fire station or the like. There are such schools and if the Department has a person there, they will have an impact on the problem of disadvantage.
The amendment states: "to promote the development of appropriate relationships between the school and the local business community [I prefer "the local community" to leave it broad] and relevant agencies." Equally important, it creates the concept of the community within the school as a collectivity rather than an aggregated set of individual problems. The latter bedevils the best intentioned people in the school setting. The attitude is that so-and-so has a problem, comes from a problem family and so forth. There is almost a set of prejudices delivered into the definition of the situation. With regard to schools in disadvantaged areas, the school's face has to be turned towards a more positive version of the world. That is why I put down the amendment.
I am invited to read poems in quite well heeled schools and at a few disadvantaged schools, and I know the difference and am interested in the attitude. I am interested in there being a development officer in each school in a disadvantaged area. It would be such a wonderful thing. Why wait to do it? In providing for education welfare officers we are acting as a fire brigade for individual cases and not dealing with a place that is a collection of problems in a problem area. Why not do it now?
The board of management has room on the board to involve people from the community. It is responsible for developing the relationship with the community.
Many of the things mentioned by the Deputy are already done by schools, certainly in Dublin, and the Deputy has been doing these things in the west. It is not a matter for legislation, it is a matter for development. We will be looking at the issue of the arts in schools and we will encourage, promote and develop them. The same applies to music, which we discussed during Question Time. I agree this is something schools should be doing.
We will work particularly with disadvantaged pupils, not so much with disadvantaged areas. We started out with disadvantaged areas but now we intend to focus more on the pupils, particularly in areas that might be considered disadvantaged. The determination of disadvantage was quite crude. It depended on the number of unemployed people in the area among other things. However, within schools there can be children, sometimes a large number, who are suffering from disadvantage but they are not in the disadvantaged category.
I agree with the Deputy that this is something that needs to be done on an administrative basis but I cannot accept the amendment as proposed.
This is one amendment on which I will insist. I will work on it between now and Report Stage and eliminate the word "business". I prefer a broader phrase because the community includes the business community. The reality that I cannot ignore is that there are schools where wonderful things are happening but every new innovation, even something like a library, will happen to those who already have.
No. It is happening to the have nots at present. The Deputy should come with me to see some of the schools.
I have been in quite a few recently.
So have I and the purpose of my——
It will happen more now because money is provided for that.
We should be able to do it easily. I am trying to make it less a heroic achievement than a normal achievement.
The normal achievement will come through the teachers in the school having the facilities, support and resources to deliver those arrangements because they want to do that.
That will help them. There is also a need for motivation.
Principals are good motivators.
They are. However, I was in one school where, as I waited in the staff room to go to the principal and talk about poems or something similar, a teacher told me I was wasting my time, that they were dross and not to expect questions. I was appalled for months afterwards.
I refuse to accept that everything will evolve in a rosy way. I want to see it included, even if it is a total failure. At least we will have the knowledge that it is not working. It would be so good to have a development officer in each school in every disadvantaged area instead of relying on goodwill. We will not go into the ritual of saying that we have the most wonderful system with wonderful teachers, people and boards of management. It is a mixed situation and in some boards of management one might as well hop one's head off a wall as try to get progressive ideas like this through.
There might be mixed development officers as well. In any event, the Deputy wants me to look at it for Report Stage.
I understand the Minister has assigned £1,000 to each school or at least a subset of schools in a disadvantaged area to facilitate the development of a school plan. Could he write to those schools and indicate that it would be appropriate if they designated a development officer to do what Deputy Higgins did as a priority action at an early stage in the development of their plans? He could do this by administrative means if he is unwilling to accept it in the legislative form set out by Deputy Higgins.
That is a reasonable suggestion and I undertake to do it in the context of the plan that is being developed at present.
The Department has already sent money.
Yes, but much more detailed plans will be developed. These will include the disadvantaged areas, of which the Deputy is aware, and children in other areas. I take on board the general spirit of Deputy Higgins's proposal in that regard.
I will withdraw the amendment and resubmit it on Report Stage.
I move amendment No. 47:
In page 11, subsection (1), line 14, after "officers" to insert "for each health board area".
The amendment is self-explanatory and I mentioned some of the arguments for it earlier. Section 12 is most important and it would be useful to designate officers in each health board area. It makes much sense, particularly in relation to the type of liaison which will exist between the different services.
My intention with regard to the liaison officer is to provide a network of communication at a senior level in all the institutions which will be concerned with the issue of non-attendance to fulfil an early warning, co-ordinating and information sharing function. Through this network the agencies involved can work more effectively at local level. It is my intention that a senior member of the welfare board should participate in this network and disseminate information as appropriate throughout the education welfare officer structure. However, I expect the local education welfare officer will be in close contact with the relevant health board, Garda authorities and other concerned bodies to allow for an integrated approach to local problems.
The value of my suggestion is that it turns the Minister's aspiration into a more likely reality. While he may expect the liaison to be fruitful and beneficial, and I share his hopes, in a practical system, matters may be omitted. If there is a definite territory, which already has a number of grouped services which extend from health to welfare matters, there would be a more bottom up approach. There would also be more integration with existing services and a net result of more accountability. I urge the Minister to accept the amendment.
This is not a marginal issue, it is central to the Bill. The notion of some national network having the capacity to co-ordinate services in a meaningful way for a child who is consistently out of school is ludicrous. The only way in which this can be done in a meaningful manner is if the co-ordination occurs at local level. In private session the Chairman drew our attention to the Combat Poverty Agency's submission. I am not surprised that at the core of its submission is the view that local structures to facilitate local liaison on issues of non-school attendance between officers of the board and relevant authorities should be established. This would strengthen the capacity for local liaison and move it from being an informal relationship to a formal agreement between key bodies. It also recommends a possible amendment. My amendment No. 49 may not be eloquent, but it mentions establishing a local liaison network.
It is arguable whether the health board is the appropriate level, as Deputy Higgins puts forward, because it is a high level. For example, in the Eastern Health Board it is a high level covering Kildare, Wicklow and Dublin. The health boards have recognised that they will have to break it down to make it more meaningful. However, this is nit-picking. The principle of Deputy Higgins's amendment, or in the alternative versions I have offered, is crucial. The Minister must move in some way to establish this local network. If he needs time to identify where or how it should be structured, I would be happy with an undertaking to come back to it on Report Stage.
However, this is an issue on which the committee should divide if the Minister is not willing to concede some form of local structure because it is at the core of the Bill. Everything I have seen in the couple of years since I took over the education brief tells me that educational disadvantage is, as the Minister pointed out, multifaceted and holistic. The Minister will get a land if he thinks a stand alone education welfare service will be able to deal with this matter without the integration of the roles of social workers, juvenile liaison officers, the Garda or the local youth clubs. The only way this nut will be cracked is if a broad-based liaison and support network is established.
There have been worthwhile attempts at liaison in the past, but the history of them shows that unless there is a statutory provision, which puts an obligation on the parent bodies to free the time of their officer in the field at local level to ensure he or she is available for case conferences or different liaison activities, it will not happen. Other pressures from the parent body will supersede the need to integrate its services. This matter is at the core of the Bill and the Minister should consider it at length before rejecting the approach offered in the amendments.
This is a matter of administration and how the work is done. It is not possible to administer on a statutory basis. I accept the point that the work should be done in co-operation in the local network. As I said, a senior member of the welfare board should participate in this network. The Deputy's amendment seeks to fix this for each health board. However, the arrangement may be on a different basis. It does not necessarily have to be on a health board basis because one is liaising with various other groups. The co-operation will have to be at local level.
It will also involve co-operation with the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, which will be heavily involved with children and the counselling of parents in such cases. It can operate as suggested. That would be satisfactory. I will look at the administrative aspects of it for Report Stage. However, it makes adequate provision for a scheme which will be very effective at local level.
I welcome the Minister's agreement to look at this for Report Stage. However, he would be quite wrong to leave here thinking that this is just a matter of inappropriate administrative structures.
We have developed some successful models of local liaison. There are groups, which have not been mentioned in this Bill, doing this sort of work with children who have school attendance problems and families which have difficulties. They have developed tracking arrangements for pupils and outreach schemes using parents. These parents were untrained but these groups developed their skills and sent them to work with other parents on an extension basis. They are doing work which goes to the core of what this Bill is about.
The Minister's national liaison scheme is incidental to this. It is good, in principle, to talk about high policy co-ordination. However, delivery is about co-ordination at local level. There is no point in a family being visited on different days by the St. Vincent de Paul Society, the juvenile liaison officer, the health board social worker, the school attendance officer from the education welfare board and other child welfare support services. That is what is happening on the ground at the moment. It is a mess, wasteful of resources and, most importantly, is not delivering the sort of services that can help children in this position.
A number of integrated service initiatives were set up. While I am not completely up to speed with them all, it seems, from what I have seen of them, that it takes years to get the parent body to agree, even in principle, that their local officers' time should be released for this sort of integration of service across the board. The "turf" mentality is very strongly ingrained but we are trying to crack it. In other words, we are saying that we want an integration of service rather than the fighting of turf wars.
The key submissions being made by agencies such as the Combat Poverty Agency are in relation to these local structures. We appoint these agencies to advise us on issues of this nature. There is no point in the Minister saying, having heard the Combat Poverty Agency, that he thinks, in his wisdom, that this is something to be sorted out on the night. It has never happened that way.
The Minister should look afresh at this. We should have local structures in this important area. My prejudice is that we should have local structures on a much wider basis in education. However, surely there is no area more important than poor attendance and children dropping out of school early, with all the subsequent consequences.
I would like if the Minister were moved to make a concession in regard to Deputy Bruton's suggestion on a local structure. I am not hung up on the health board area aspect, but I am insistent on the principle. I am interested in the easy identification of the person to whom a parent or child can go. I see them as lost children or children in difficulty. I am also interested in what Deputy Bruton said about turf wars. Some children who are expelled have nowhere to go and hang around their area with nobody to turn to. The only way such a child will be included again is by having some sort of local structure.
I am not convinced by a statement on paper that it will be handed down vertically. However, I would be happy if the Minister were moved to say that he would examine for Report Stage an initiative that would address the case for a local liaison officer. I appreciate there are certain difficulties. One must be very careful in relation to balancing a disinterested interest in the child and the rights of the child involved.
However, the most important aspect is that whenever I have talked to parents with children in trouble, they have asked me where they should go or to whom should they call on. That can be easily identified when it is local. It is best and most effective if people co-operate with each other. "Liaison" is a great word. It often means making sure nobody is interfering on one's turf. One needs to talk to people to make sure of that, which is very different from providing the kind of care we are talking about. I will have to insist on pressing amendment No. 47 if the Minister tells me he is rejecting the local structure out of hand.
I agree with the general concept of local team support. I set up the MABS, the community development agency and the family resource centres, so members do not have to tell me about the need for comprehensive local support. However, the difficulty is knowing which way to do that. That does not need to be put into legislation but is a matter for the administration and operation of the whole system. I appreciate the Deputy's point that people at central level may feel they would rather do other things and they do not want people to spend time on this. Therefore, co-ordination is needed.
In a way, it would make this much bigger if it were put into legislation because it would require different kinds of people to be involved, such as health boards, liaison officers, welfare officers, the Garda and anyone else involved in certain cases. The Deputy spoke about the problems with turf wars and getting people to give their attention to this.
While a comprehensive approach is not always needed, I agree there is a need to have one where necessary. The Deputy gave the example of expulsion. Under the Bill, there is an opportunity to go to somebody about cases of expulsion. We often encounter problems in this regard, where no other school will take the child. The Department must ask schools to take in the child because they have had problems in behaviour and so on. However, a more comprehensive approach is needed before it gets to that stage.
I will look at the points the Deputy made and I will see how best to address them on Report Stage. However, I think it is more a question of the method of administration. The Deputy mentioned the bottom-up approach. I wrote a book about that, which was published by the Institute of Public Administration in 1971. While the book is based on the bottom-up approach, it is about administration and management and is not about legislation. The question is whether legislation is required to ensure this will happen, which may be what the Deputy is trying to get at.
It is. The Minister is very much coming our way. We just want him to achieve here what he has achieved elsewhere and not be frustrated in his new environment. The lesson some of us have learned from educational investigation is that it may need the clarity of legislative expression. I will withdraw the amendment on the basis that on Report Stage the Minister will indicate how an administrative directive would work or if he suggests that there is a legislative reference.
I move amendment No. 48:
In page 12, subsection (6), between lines 3 and 4, to insert the following:
"(e) an tAire Ealaíon, Oidhreachta, Gaeltachta agus Oileán;
(f) the body set up under section 31 of the Act of 1998;”.
This section sets out the relevant authorities that will have liaison entitlements and duties with the education welfare service. It appears to be an omission that the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands is not listed among those who would have a relevant input. It also seems that the body set up under section 31 of the Act of 1998, which is the special committee on educational disadvantage, should have an input into the work of this liaison group because it would be developing policy models and undertaking research in this field. It would be appropriate, therefore, if it had direct input into the liaison network at national level of the kind under consideration here.
The primary objective of section 12 is to ensure that bodies which have significant regular involvement in the care, education or welfare of children can liaise to ensure a better provision of service. While the bodies referred to in the amendment have some involvement with children, I do not consider that this is of a kind or to an extent intended by the section. I am concerned that we would dilute the section if we overdo the bodies specifically mentioned.
The Deputy will note that the section provides for the Minister to extend the list of persons to liaise with the board. This would perhaps be a better way to deal with the involvement of the two bodies now at issue and other bodies which may be relevant in the future.
I could understand the Minister's position with regard to, say, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. However, the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands has responsibility for the National Museum, the National Gallery, institutions in receipt of capital funding, local theatres and a series of bodies and organisations administered through the Arts Council. In Mexico it is compulsory for all children within a set radius of Mexico city to attend the museum of modern art and the museum of ancient artefacts. The inclusion of the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands is, therefore, relevant, especially as the Minister is now responsible for the Gaeltacht and for heritage. It is synonymous with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform's responsibilities with regard to the courts.
Deputy Higgins has put the case more eloquently than I could. The Minister says the amendment may make the subsection unwieldy or lacking in focus. It should not be forgotten that there is provision for the inclusion of eight health boards and approximately 83 vocational education committees, and all the various Ministries. The proposed body already comprises well over 100 liaison people. It is difficult to understand why he would leave out the Minister responsible for heritage and culture.
The committee on disadvantage is sadly not yet established, but it will also make a relevant input to the work of this body. While it will not deal with children on a daily basis, if the purpose of the section is to develop liaison and coherence in policy, it will have relevant things to say to the bodies who will liaise with each other.
I agree with the points made by Deputy Higgins and Deputy Bruton. If an tAire Ealaíon, Oidhreachta, Gaeltachta agus Oileán is not to be included, where does that leave the schools and the education of children living on the islands around the coast, unless it is the intention to wind them down? While the Minister may not have that in mind, such an interpretation could be made on the basis that if he is not going to include the Minister responsible for the islands he sees no further involvement for them.
Is the Minister resisting the amendment without a sound basis? I ask him to reconsider because it is not a great extension to the list of bodies and organisations to be included. Acceptance would make the list more comprehensive.
I do not wish to make a big issue of this. Other Departments could also be included. For example, many children could learn from the inclusion of horticulture, agriculture, the marine etc. The bodies and organisations included are concerned directly with the welfare of children, hence the inclusion of the health boards — it is no use including one health board.
The section imposes an obligation to liaise. In view of this, the situation could become unwieldy if care is not taken.
It is already unwieldy.
That is correct, but the bodies and organisations listed are relevant to the provision. The provisions on the functions of the board imposes an obligation to promote and foster in society an appreciation of education and physical and emotional development etc. The arts are especially relevant here. The relevant authority is obliged to liaise with the liaison officers. I would not strongly object to their inclusion and I will consider the matter for Report Stage, especially given that children are heavily involved in the arts.
I appreciate the Minister is responsive to our concerns, especially in view of the fact that the theatre company engaged in visiting schools to address the topic of bullying has just had its grant withdrawn. It has written to me to advise that in consequence, it will be unable to visit any more schools.
I understand the grant was withdrawn because the company had not visited schools for some time. The money was available but it was not taken up. Although I am only two weeks in the job I am not that green.
It is a long time in politics.
I am sure the company would be familiar with the Minister's constituency — I will return to that matter. The thrust of the changes that are desirable in education include providing for the arts, such as music, the visual arts and so on. This involves providing for visits to all the different local institutions. As Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, I and my officials liaised with the then Minister for Education and her officials. I am, therefore, aware of the circumstances in which the chapter on education in the arts plan was written. Having been achieved, I am deeply committed to it.
I often talk to people about memories of school and I am astounded at the number who tell me they had a wonderful time every day. A good dose of creativity in a school day would do a world of good. The more people who leave the classroom on a regular basis to visit museums, art exhibitions etc., the better it will be. Similarly, the more the Minister with responsibility for the arts promotes this, the better it will be for education. I am glad the Minister has agreed to consider the matter further.
Deputy, you have spoken for the Minister.
I will consider that issue further before Report Stage.
I look forward to hearing the Minister on Report Stage.
I move amendment No. 49:
In page 12, between lines 9 and 10, to insert the following subsection:
"(7) The Board shall endeavour to establish a liaison network at local level which shall also involve those involved in education and other relevant community groups to promote coherent and consistent support to pupils, parents and schools.".
To a large extent, the committee discussed this in the context of amendment No. 47, although my amendment is different from that of Deputy Higgins in that I am conscious of the well established liaison networks in some communities which are doing excellent work. It surprised me that the Bill gives them no recognition of any sort. One would almost imagine that the Minister was starting with a clean sheet of paper, nothing was happening in the community and the educational welfare service was to be parachuted in to do this new job and would have this national liaison network with the 105 or so bodies.
The real work is to be done at local level with local liaison. My amendment recognises that to a large extent this will grow organically from networks which exist already in many areas. In other areas, it will be up to the board to try to create those networks. The phraseology of my amendment was fairly loose to make the requirement that the board would develop these but also leave the board the scope to recognise what is already in existence and to build on that rather than create something new.
I still feel that this approach has something to commend it but, conscious that the Minister will return to this on Report Stage, I am content to withdraw the amendment with a view to resubmitting it again on Report Stage, along with whatever other thinking we can do between now and then on what are appropriate local structures.
Deputy Bruton's amendment is important and I support it. The point I made earlier is even more relevant here, that is, a considerable number of these links are taking place in an unofficial way in many cases but not all together. It is important that the board would recognise what is happening and try to learn from the good example set in some areas. In other areas, there is a need for more liaison at local level between community groups and other interested parties in education.
If we are to promote home education, as the Minister stated ought to be possible in the Bill, as well as the more conventional school education, liaison is even more important. The resources of schools are stretched, notwithstanding the provision of additional resources in recent years. The home network is of benefit also and both benefit from having close liaison and a working relationship.
I would like to do some of this in the near future for the children who need it. That is one of the most important things. I will certainly look at some reference to liaison with the local voluntary and statutory agencies to make sure they are mentioned in the legislation. One cannot force it to happen, but one can provide for it as part of the spirit of what people should be doing.
I move amendment No. 50:
In page 12, between lines 9 and 10, to insert the following subsection:
"(7) A person designated under this section may request the Board to convene a meeting of relevant designated officers to assess the needs of a child who has particular attendance problems.".
The purpose of the amendment is to build on the notion of the local approach. It provides that, where there is a local network operating, a person designated in any of the bodies, such as the local juvenile liaison officer, could request the board to convene a meeting of relevant designated officers to assess the needs of a child who has particular attendance problem. In other words, if an education welfare officer, juvenile liaison officer or social worker recognises that there is a problem which requires the input of a broader range of services, he or she could convene such a case conference.
I am sure the Minister will state that he does not feel that this is appropriate to the legislation, but experience would suggest that if there is no statement that this is part of a person's official duty, it is expected of him or her and statute provides that he or she should do so, it will not generally happen. That is why I felt it desirable to submit an amendment of this sort.
The designated persons are already provided for in the Bill in the form of the education welfare officers. The officers are in the best place to deal with individual cases of children and to assess their needs and those of the school concerned. They would, through the board liaison officer appointed in subsection (1), be in the best position to bring together the representatives of the other bodies covered in section 12. In the case of expulsion, the welfare officer will call a case conference involving all the relevant people.
The amendment goes slightly further in that it envisages that such initiatives would not be solely at the behest of the education welfare officer but that if there was to be local liaison, with which the Minister seems sympathetic, one of the other agents, such as a juvenile liaison officer in the case of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, a social worker in the case of the health boards and presumably an officer of the VEC, much of the work of which has been in disadvantaged areas developing programmes, would be able to convene such a meeting. If liaison is to be meaningful, which presumably is the Minister's wish because he is setting up this legislative network for it, it must be a two-way street. Requiring these bodies to appoint someone who will respond to the education welfare officer is one thing, but equally it would seem appropriate that the education welfare service would respond to needs as identified by some of these agencies in their own right. It seems sensible that there would be a complimentary obligation on both sides and it is desirable to give that expression in the legislation.
A school principal can, under section 21 which deals with school attendance, call in the education welfare officer. The education welfare officer is seen as the person whose duty will be to bring together the representatives of the other bodies and he or she will be in the best position to deal with it.
I am not disputing that. All I am saying is that it will be taken as read that the education welfare officer will do so. If the liaison network is to be set up, it should be open to one of these other bodies to highlight a child who, for instance, needs a personal education plan to deal with his or her non-attendance problems where it seems that the education welfare board has not responded to that need effectively because the child keeps turning up in the Garda station. In such a case, the agent concerned could take the initiative to convene this group. If the Minister wants liaison, it must be a two-way process where the board will have an obligation to respond to those who are being asked to liaise with it.
There are many people who may make such a call. To designate only those to whom the Deputy refers would be to go against the argument he made previously that there are others who may be concerned. It could be said that only the views of designated people will be taken into account. In my experience Deputies should be designated because it is often they who are approached or who seek action.
I am focusing more on the technical aspect. If a child is not attending school, is having difficulties with the Garda or experiencing problems at home, it seems that the alarm bells should ring and there should be a conference of experts — not Deputies — in the field who could put in place a support network for the child. Such a conference should be convened——
Parents often approach a Deputy because they trust them and they know that matters will be kept confidential. I am not stating that they will not approach other people but they often go to Deputies because they trust them. People do not want to have to approach the Garda, fill out a report and have their child's non-attendance become a federal issue. A great deal of what the Deputy is seeking will be provided under the section when the system is put in place. Under the terms of the section there will be a formal system to deal with these problems. The difficulty to date has been that there has not been a formal system in place with statutory powers and functions and designated staff.
The remainder of the things to which Deputy Bruton referred will happen naturally, once the focus is in place. He referred to voluntary and other groups, which are very well schooled in community work, counselling etc., and they know whom to approach and they make the necessary connections very quickly. The problem here has been that there has been no system in place and no one has held specific responsibility or authority. It is fine to state that any of the individuals listed could act as a designated person but education welfare officers have already been given responsibility in that area and everyone can relate to them once they are in a position to offer their services locally, which they will be.
The Minister correctly stated that people frequently turn to Deputies when they experience difficulties. What would happen if the teacher was the problem? I am familiar with cases where problems arose because of differences between the version offered by a child in trouble and that put forward by the principal. In such cases, people either took recourse to the courts or threatened to do so. I accept the Minister's assertion that a mechanism will be put in place but can he assure me that parents would be able to alert the relevant people over the objections of a teacher? How would the parents trigger the process in such circumstances?
The Education Act provides for both local and national appeals.
Will the Minister agree to reconsider this matter before Report Stage in the context of parents' capacity to trigger the process?
The difficulty with the Bill is that it does not establish what will happen when the alarm bells ring because a child is not attending school or exhibiting the symptoms of other problems. It is not stated that the board shall, in appropriate cases, convene a conference of relevant experts to design a plan of intervention to support a child in trouble. No provisions are set out in the legislation in this regard. The concept of setting out a plan for such a child is only set out in the section dealing with children who have completely severed their links with their schools. It is only when such children enter the labour market that the board can put in place a plan for them and, at that stage, the horse has already bolted.
Part of the reason I have been trying to table amendments is to try to fill that gap. It is fine to establish the board's functions at national level. However, we are trying to develop an early system warning mechanism which will trigger a system of appropriate supports. I do not want to belabour the point but the lack of such a mechanism has given rise to my concerns. It is for that reason I have been trying to insert provisions into the Bill which would make the work of education welfare officers more meaningful and identify their links at local level with different agents in the community and with parents and children. I suppose my proposal does not fit easily into the Minister's framework but the Bill, as it stands, does not deal well with this matter.
The Bill will provide, for the first time, an expert welfare board and trained staff to deal with the issues. The Deputy's amendment seeks to do these people's work which I do not believe can be done in legislation. I stated earlier that I would consider these matters but I just do not believe in the approach the Deputy wishes to take. I believe in management and in providing the requisite opportunities and controls on a management basis.
At present the Department is responsible for investigating individual cases. However, under the provisions of the Bill, welfare officers will be able to investigate cases in greater detail and liaise locally and the welfare board will deal with matters on an overall basis. In terms of early warning systems, much tighter controls will be placed on attendance. If someone is missing from school for more than six days——
I am sure the bureaucratic side of things is superb. I am not complaining about that.
The Deputy calls it bureaucracy but it is really statutory provision. He asked earlier what will happen when the alarm is raised——-
There could be up to 6,000 alerts in the days immediately following implementation of the legislation. At no stage was the Minister's predecessor willing to indicate what will happen with children who either present themselves or are identified to the relevant authorities.
The Deputy must relate the provisions in the section to the other measures already in place such as support services, psychological services etc. Resources and expertise, which were absent heretofore, are now being made available. I intend no criticism here, I am merely stating the current position. Making much greater provision and granting people specific roles, tasks and functions go hand in hand. That was not the case before now.
The Deputy referred to parents' capacity to trigger the appeal. My experience is that parents have appealed but nobody has put everything together. A welfare officer will be appointed and one must ensure that everybody else is brought into the process. This leads to the question of how one designs the officer's role and specifies how it is best done through networking etc. As long as there is overall cover for people working with another, the rest is down to management and making it happen.
Amendment No. 52 is related to amendment No. 51. Both may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 51:
In page 12, between lines 16 and 17, to insert the following subsection:
"(4) A direction under this section shall not relate to an individual case.".
The amendment contains a standard provision to ensure that the Minister does not get involved in individual cases.
The effect of the proposal would be that the Minister would be restricted from giving policy directions relating to individual cases. While it is not my intention that the Minister would give such directions, and in general policy directions would apply only to general, not specific, matter, nonetheless the possibility of directions applying to or arising from individual cases cannot be discounted. The provision would unnecessarily restrict the Minister's powers and possibly lead to disputes as to when a direction relates to a case. Accordingly, I do not accept the amendment.
The section deals with a purely executive issue which properly belongs within the remit of the Minister. It is not appropriate that the Legislature should be involved nor should it be able to become involved in the detail of individuals' policies or practice. The Minister will remain ultimately accountable to the Oireachtas in the normal manner.
The purpose of my amendment was to draw a distinction between a policy issue and an individual case. The Minister's interpretation of it is quite the opposite. It had been my intention, for example, that the Minister would confine himself or herself to policy. The amendment states that "a direction under this section shall not relate to an individual case". I take the point that an individual case is not separate from policy. It is an unusual interpretation to suggest that the amendment disqualifies policy.
Many Acts include a convention whereby when Ministers decide to issue directions to boards with a statutory underpinning, a statement is made to explain them. They are not internal matters which can only be winkled out of the Minister through a parliamentary question. These are matters of public interest which should not await discovery. The Minister should be happy to lay them before the Oireachtas, without seeking approval, which would be excessively onerous.
I have no particular concern about laying such directions before the Houses of the Oireachtas. I will examine the wording in Deputy Bruton's amendment again before Report Stage. With regard to Deputy Higgins's amendment, I am reluctant, as an experienced Member, to remove altogether the power of intervention for a Minister because from to time to time it can be quite important.