I welcome the Minister and his officials. Is it agreed that we will continue our consideration of the Bill until 1 p.m? Agreed.
Vol. 3 No. 4
I welcome the Minister and his officials. Is it agreed that we will continue our consideration of the Bill until 1 p.m? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 102:
In page 17, between lines 20 and 21, to insert the following subsection:
"(3) As soon as practicable, but not later than 21 days, after a parent has provided, in accordance with subsection (2), such information as may be prescribed by the Minister thereunder, the board of management of the school concerned shall make a decision in respect of the application concerned and inform the parent in writing thereof.".
While the amendment recognises the importance of an application on behalf of a child to join a school, it may not always be possible for a school to accept an additional pupil due, for example, to reasons of insufficient space. It is imperative however that all applications are dealt with speedily. The amendment therefore provides that boards of management must give a decision on receipt of an application within 21 days.
While I accept that a decision must be made within 21 days, in his opening comments the Minister led me to believe he was undermining the purpose of the section. Under what circumstances can an application be refused? I do not have to hand section 15(2)(d) of the Education Act, 1998. As I understand it the purpose of the section is to protect children from unreasonable attempts by boards of managements to refuse to accept a child whose needs, for whatever reason, may be out of the ordinary. I seek an assurance that that import will still be intact following insertion of the amendment. Will the Minister deal briefly with the conditions under which a refusal will be legitimate?
The Education Act, 1998, places an onus on a school to publish in such manner as the board, with the agreement of the patron, considers appropriate the policy of the school concerning admission to and participation in the school, including the policy of the school relating to the expulsion and suspension of students and participation by students with disabilities or other special needs. Unless there is insufficient space or some other exceptional circumstance, a child should be kept within a school. The purpose of the amendment is to ensure a decision is made speedily. As the Deputy is aware, such a decision can be deferred repeatedly. That is the situation one probably comes across most frequently. Once a decision is made there will be an opportunity to examine the matter further. The Education Act will impose a new requirement on the school to set out its guidelines.
Will the educational welfare officer who is standing as guarantor for the rights of children who, for one reason or another, have poor attendance or problems at school, stand as an adjudicator on the fairness of these admission policies and the fairness of their exercise? The key issue is to ensure that schools do not use procedural methods for blocking out children who would place a more significant demand on the system than they want to be associated with.
The bottom line is that the Education Act provides for an appeals system which has yet to be introduced. That is being examined currently. The Act provides many other safeguards, including the appeals system. This amendment ensures a decision will be made within a limited timeframe. At that stage it can be appealed if required. In the meantime there would still be scope for negotiation in that representations can be made to the school and to the board of management or to an alternative school in the area. This puts a degree of certainty into the matter in so far as the parents are concerned.
Will the educational welfare board, as a third party, submit appeals where it considers that admission policies are acting unfairly against its client?
Yes. That is covered in section 29. It can submit an appeal on behalf of an individual.
On that basis I am happy that although not all the sitting ducks are in a row, they can come into a row.
I move amendment No. 103:
In page 17, between lines 20 and 21, to insert the following subsection:
"(3) Where a student is seeking admission following a suspension of more than 6 days or a decision by a school to expel that student, the school to which the application is made may request that the Board carry out an assessment of any special resources needed by that student and the capacity of the school to provide those resources.".
The reason some schools traditionally have been putting a drag on admitting certain pupils, those who are out for a long period and for whom it is difficult to find placement, is that they recognise there are special needs to resource these children, so to speak. Those needs can stretch from withdrawing children from the classroom to safe havens during the period of their education and can involve considerable extra resources. An amendment, such as this, makes explicit that there may be such needs and that the board has a role in supporting the school. It seeks to provide that the school may make a request to the board to carry out an assessment of any special resources needed by that student and the capacity of the school to provide those resources to ensure the child is not just slotted into a pigeon hole and is out of the hair of the educational welfare service, as it were. We know in our heart of hearts that the school will not be able to provide the resources to ensure that that child receives the level of education to which we aspire.
This amendment does not impose an immediate resource requirement but makes it explicit that an assessment of the resource needs of the child be made clear to the school and the board and if matters start to go off the rails afterwards there would be an onus on the board to ensure those resources were coming on stream.
In general terms, I accept the point being made by the Deputy. When a child is being transferred from a school, on foot of some known problem, adequate provision must be made to treat those specific needs. My amendment No. 139 covers some of what is referred to in the Deputy's amendment. My amendment provides that where a child is being transferred to a school on foot of a school attendance notice served by the board, the board will consult with the principal of the school in advance of making such an order. This communication will assist the board and school concerned. In particular, the principal will be aware of the circumstances of the child entering the school.
In terms of meeting those needs, extensive and improving supports are already in place for schools such as teacher counsellors, visiting teachers for travellers, remedial teachers and extra posts for disadvantaged designated schools. Schools can call on support services, such as the national educational psychological service, to deal with specific cases. These administrative links provide a more effective and feasible means to meet the needs of schools and pupils than a legislative provision. A further concern would be that the inevitable bureaucracy involved in the creation of a legislative structure in this regard might result in a significant delay in a child accessing education following a school attendance notice either by accident or design.
I do not believe it is appropriate to establish the linkage the Deputy has in mind. The Education Act, in setting out the framework for the management of schools, provides that while schools are funded by the State and operate within broad ministerial policy they are, in the main, autonomous institutions with the discretion and the responsibility to use their resources to meet the needs of the school as appropriate. It is not appropriate that the board should make judgments as to how effectively or efficiently the school is using its resources. This must remain a matter for the board of management. Amendment No. 139 goes part of the way to meet the Deputy's concerns.
It goes a tiny part of the way. Essentially, the Minister is talking about school attendance notices and consultation with the parents and the principal. His amendment does not say anything about the resource needs of a particular child or that the back-up would be available. In my view it does not meet the need. The Minister's rejection of my amendment is based on the fact that there are in the system resources such as psychological services and so on. The reality is that there are 38 psychologists in the whole system for close on a million students. To say that such a service can be drawn down by the school at will is nonsense.
The second pillar to the Minister's argument is that this would slow down the admission. We have just agreed to his amendment No. 102 which provides for a maximum of 21 days. I have not provided in my amendment that the child would not be admitted pending this assessment. I merely stated that the assessment of special resources would be carried out and the school's capacity to meet them would be assessed by the educational welfare board.
The Minister's third argument is that it is the responsibility of schools to find the resources. That is true to a point. However, one cannot find two pints in a one pint bottle. If the schools have only a certain amount of resources that is all they can provide. If a child needs intensive psychological support and the school has no chance of getting that from the 38 officers providing that service, there is a need for someone to say, we have tucked away that child out of the hair of the educational welfare board and people will not knock on the Minister's door, but have we genuinely given that child a chance to succeed in education? All I am seeking to ensure is that there will be an assessment of the special needs of such a child and of the capacity of a school to meet them. That does not imply that a school loses its responsibility to provide resources according to the needs of a child, but it would enable an honest broker, such as the educational welfare board, to ensure that the resources can be delivered so that a school has the capacity to do so. The Minister's arguments are unconvincing.
I apologise for being unavoidably late. I may be coming late to this argument but I strongly support what Deputy Bruton's suggests in his amendment. I was present to hear the Minister state that schools are almost autonomous entities. With respect, they are not. From my experience on the ground, the nub of the problem — I do not put a tooth in saying this — is that proportionately schools in the State system have taken in many more such children than some schools that are not in a State system. Schools quickly learn that such and such a school down the road is the place it is expected that children with difficulties will go. In recent weeks I spoke to people in a number of those schools who said that while they deplore the fact that other partners in education do not have the same social vision as they have, they point out that if, in anticipation of taking in such students, a school has a certain resource allocation and then the numbers suddenly shoot up, such children will be attending a school that is over-stretched and, perhaps, under-funded. If some schools are washing their hands of children with difficulties and if other principled educational facilities are willing to take them in, they have every right to anticipate such additional resources as are required in the interests of such children. We are not shuffling between factories; we are talking about a child on the move. This is one of the most important amendments to the Bill.
From my experience of constituents who have come to my advice centres, I am aware it was later proven that some children who were suspended for being disruptive or whatever had a difficulty in learning, hearing or in some other respect. Suspension in such cases is not acceptable. I will not elaborate on that matter now as it is for another debate. While the State pays for education and pays teachers' salaries, I state baldly that a far greater proportion of need and difficulties are being handled by schools in the State system in the areas where other schools are not carrying their share of the responsibility. The Minister may say we must respect everyone's autonomy, but respecting a child's needs involves assessing what additional resources are needed in the new situation. I strongly support this amendment.
I do not disagree in principle with the need for support nor with the general approach of Deputy Bruton's amendment. What Deputy Bruton proposes is a legislative provision whereas I envisage an administrative provision is needed, which is currently being made. The Deputy mentioned the number of psychologists and gave a figure of 38, but that number has increased since then. We must also take account of the number of references of which there were 42 as of last October. A national system in that regard is being established and it is well under way. The only matter causing delay has been the training of people to take up the available posts. The money is available and a national system will be in place shortly.
I do not want to insert a legislative provision to deal with a matter that should be dealt with on an administrative support basis. As members are aware from the other issues we discussed, the numbers of supports will be substantially increased in this regard. It would be more effective if we proceed by way of the administrative rather than the legislative route because that would cause more problems. If the Deputy wishes, I will examine the issue from that point of view for Report Stage and he can take it up again then.
The Minister has given ample reason that a legislative provision is important. He said there is difficulty in recruiting personnel to provide this service and that we will have problems finding this resource and that resource.
This system was not in place; it is only being put in place now.
We are taking about a child with specific needs who has left a school, has been driven out of it or whatever. That child has clearly identified needs. The argument advanced by the Minister is that the State is vindicating the right of the child to an education and that goes beyond the rights of the parent and the rights of the school. Therefore, it appears that an explicit legal statement would be a major advantage.
The history of this State is studded with good intentions of administrations that have fallen sadly by the wayside and everyday we hear squalid details of some new incident where an administration, often with the best will in the world, has sadly failed to deliver in respect of a child with special needs. We need to stake out legal ground in this area. The Minister is wrong in thinking this is a matter for management and that we can rely on it to manage things well in the interests of such a child. All evidence points to us not being able to rely on management to deliver what is required to a satisfactory standard. If the Minister tilted the balance and gave legal rights to those who are seeking to provide a good education for a child, that would be an advance. That would mean awkward situations for the Minister and his Department when a statement of need arises that is beyond the capacity of the administration to quickly deliver, but the Minister should inform us of such a problem. Every day we read reports in the newspapers of the cases in court in regard to health board areas where judges tell the Department of Health and Children that it is failing to deliver the services that are needed. We cannot rely on the administration not to sweep some of these things under the carpet, so to speak, instead of ensuring they are brought explicitly to our attention in the Oireachtas where we must make resourcing and legislative decisions. It would be a mistake to do what the Minister proposed.
It is worth sticking with this amendment because there is a lack of such measures in the Bill providing that State resources can and will be found to provide for a child who manifestly exhibits needs that are not been met under the existing system. Such measures are needed and this is not a bad place to start by inserting the measure I propose.
I am not moved by the argument that an administrative alternative can suffice for a legislative provision. I can only speak from the basis of the cases that have come to my attention over a period of 30 years. The one thing parents want is precision, but they will not get that under this Bill. The administration will say that if a matter is dealt with by way of a legislative provision, the parents and the child will have far more rights in that regard. For example, they would be able practically to take a case mandamus whereas with an administrative practice they would be restricted to making an appeal to the Secretary General of the Department, the Minister, an ombudsperson or something like that, which is not the same as the former. One either operates from that perspective or from the perspective of rights and legislation. This is not to say that good administrative practice is not most welcome. Indeed, I have been impressed by the Minister's attitude towards administrative innovation and good management and practice.
However, I have seen and experienced scandalous breaches where a parent and child were sent from pillar to post. In one case in the end there was the suggestion that maybe the child or the teacher was a liar. This is awful. What we want is precision. Leave aside the question of the 42 references to the 38 psychologists when there is a below minimum service available. One would hardly go to a pub if it is out of beer. That is a nonsense. We wish the psychological service well, but we will come back to that when it is established.
Much of that comment relates to before 1999. In 1999 there was a court case and the response to that court case is the response on which the system is currently operating. It is new, different and more advanced. There is a huge investment in the provision of not only psychologists but also other resource supports for children with disability or children who are disadvantaged. I can get the figures in that regard for the Deputies to show them the position.
I do not want to get into a discussion about neglect in the past. That is a waste of time. We are not here to waste time discussing what happened in the past. Look at the Education Act, 1998. It puts a new and clear onus on the Minister. In December 1998 the court case established the rights of the individual in that instance and the Government responded to that. It said it would make the provision and that is the basis on which the provision is made. Matters could have continued in a piecemeal way as they had previously but there is now a firm commitment to rights in response to the court case. That is the current position.
I can look at the amendment for Report Stage to see if it can be altered in any way. However, I cannot alter the basic stated position following the court case and I do not wish to tie it up in legislation to the extent that it becomes cumbersome. However, I am prepared to see if it is possible to go further on Report Stage.
We are not interested in wasting time. We are also not interested in hanging a legacy around the Minister's neck. A time will come when such legislative protection for the child might not be necessary and that is my hope. However, the case would not have been before the court if the administrative practice was so hectic. In the meantime, before we see the fruits of the new regime, let us have legislative protection of the child. There is no waste of time involved. I support Deputy Bruton in his anxiety to have a legislative protection rather than an administrative good intention.
I agree with Deputy Higgins. The courts have been forced, due to inadequate legislation, to interpret constitutional provisions and to make legislative interpretations on the hoof. That has been most beneficial. However, when we are looking at similar issues, such as those which have exercised the courts in the past and will no doubt excercise them again in the future, we should be extra careful to provide for a legislative framework that will not oblige people to go to the High Court to exercise their rights. The court case demonstrates that we must learn from what has gone before.
I welcome the Minister's statement that he will look at this for Report Stage but I am anxious to hear what he means by that. As soon as those words were uttered he said he would not change anything or do anything which would upset the balance, as he sees it. Let us not fool ourselves.
I am saying that if one wishes to introduce a new principle into the Bill, it is a different question. If one wishes to improve the position further under the new principles which have been established by the Government, I am prepared to look at that.
The court case focused attention and brought about a situation in which the State gave these guarantees. I am trying to deal with the current position. The court case was in December 1998. I, too, can look to the past and talk about my many experiences. I have 22 years experience of the same thing and doing battle for children. However, I am happy that the position has been clarified and that greatly increased numbers are being provided.
The only thing holding up the establishment of the full psychological service is getting sufficient numbers of the necessary personnel. They just were not there. However, the numbers have been increased and I can get the figures for the Deputies. The figures I have with me relate to October but there are more up to date figures available. That service will be a national service in a relatively short time with a separate board to deal with it on a national basis. That did not exist in 1998 or 1997. It is happening now, action is being taken. I am speaking in that context, not in the context of saying: "Let us just cover it and it might happen". There is no question that it might happen. It is happening and is well advanced.
Then there is no problem in agreeing to this amendment.
No. It creates a legalistic tie and I am concerned about that. I will look at it if the Deputy wishes. If not, the amendment will have to be put now.
It does not create a legalistic tie. It is couched in the most conservative terms possible. The school is making a request to the board to carry out an assessment of any special resources needed by that student and the capacity of the school to provide these resources. It is not saying that the child cannot be admitted within 21 days or that the decision has to be taken. It does not create a drag.
It recognises that, as the Minister says, there is now a legal onus on the Minister to provide satisfactorily. However, it goes beyond what he said in his initial response, that it is down to the school which is an independent agency and has the responsibility to deploy resources to meet these needs. That just cannot be done. This amendment does not break new legal ground in the sense that the Minister appears to understand it. It makes more explicit and more accessible to people the rights the Minister says are enshrined in the Act.
It would make it easier for children and those acting on their behalf to exercise their rights but it does not create new rights. It removes the obstacles to a child exercising its rights. I am happy that the Minister will look at it for Report Stage but each time he opens his mouth he denigrates what he will do on Report Stage and reverts to the principles of his original reply. I have no interest in having that note read out again on Report Stage.
How stands the amendment?
I am waiting to hear what the Minister will consider on Report Stage. There is no point buying a pig in a poke.
We can look at amendment No. 139 from the point of view of how far it goes to meet the Deputy's concerns. We have gone through the issues. If the Deputy wishes that I look at them for Report Stage, I will. If not, we will have to deal with it now. I cannot accept the amendment.
I am happy as long as the Minister considers it in a positive spirit rather than reading out his briefing note which states the reasons it should not and cannot be done. There is no point articulating those arguments and thinking he has done the devil and all for us.
Amendment No. 106 is consequential on amendment No. 104. Amendments Nos. 104 and 106 may be discussed together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 104:
In page 17, lines 24 to 31, to delete subsection (2) and substitute the following:
"(2) The principal of a recognised school shall, on the day on which the child first attends that school, enter the child's name, the date of his or her first so attending and such other particulars as may be prescribed by the Minister, in the register maintained under this section in respect of that school, and the child concerned shall, for the purposes of this Act, be deemed, as on and from that date, to be registered in that school.".
These are procedural amendments relating to the registration of a child in a school. Amendment No. 104 is a procedural amendment designed to effect concerns expressed in the consultation held on the Bill. Parents may in certain instances accept a number of offers from different schools to admit their child and make a final decision at a later point. This is a natural consequence of most parents' desire to get as good an education for their children as possible. The Bill as drafted would have required the principal of each school to enter each child into the school register when the parent accepts an offer to attend the school. The amendment will ensure that instead the principal will register only when the child attends, not when the offer is accepted. This will eliminate unnecessary paperwork in the school.
Amendment No. 106 is a drafting amendment to replace "child" with "child's name". This is a more accurate description of the process involved.
I move amendment No. 105:
In page 17, subsection (5), line 46, to delete "relating to school attendance".
This amendment relates to subsection (5) where the principal of a recognised school, on receiving a notification, will notify the principal of the school admitting the child of any problems relating to school attendance, which the child concerned had while attending the original school. Why does it refer only to problems relating to school attendance? If the child has special needs which need to be provided for and if there are other issues the admitting school needs to ensure are delivered, are we unnecessarily constraining the information which could be provided by limiting it to school attendance? Is this being done to protect the child's right to privacy? What is the motivation behind handing over only an attendance record? That would not help the principal of the new school to create an education plan for the child.
There is nothing to prevent principals providing other relevant information if they consider that appropriate. Section 20(5) has been specifically designed to ensure students cannot disappear from records in the transition between schools, particularly the transition from primary to post-primary schools. To this end, it provides for a communication between the principals of the schools in question to achieve this aim.
The effect of the amendment would be to place a statutory duty on each principal to make a report on the student's history in the first school to the principal of his or her new school. I am reluctant to impose this obligation on principals. I expect this would occur in many cases. However, it is more appropriate that it should happen at the judgment of the principals involved and where there are particular issues worthy of reporting. In some cases, however, it may not be necessary. Our principals are best placed to decide when this should happen. The section as drafted offers a better system to allow this to occur where the principal feels it is necessary, while not requiring it to occur where it is not necessary.
There is an important principle at stake on this issue. What is the position if a child is being bullied? The Minister's suggestion is to leave it to the principal's discretion to mention it. This seems to be an accountancy exercise where the children in one profit and loss account are appearing as children in another profit and loss account.
I am aware of a principal who was reported to the Department, whose administrative practice the Minister is confident he will reform. The Minister will say he is not responsible for anything which happened before he was appointed. I wish the Minister good luck and I am confident he will carry out such reforms. The principal was reported because he asked a child, who was not wearing the school uniform, to take off his top and sit in his desk for a day. The child's father contacted me about this case.
The Minister has confidence in every principal in the country but I do not. Most teachers are dedicated people — we must say that for a half an hour before we are allowed one second of reservation — but some behave like the Antichrist. It is daft to say they will write down anything negative about their own practices or that they will identify bullying which occurred in a session for which they had responsibility. I wish the Minister good luck in balancing the school attendance figures between one regime and another, but he is not handling the situation. He will probably tell me we should say a decade of the rosary for the good principals of Ireland.
Why does the Minister not delete the phrase "relating to school attendance"? Then anything relevant to a child's behaviour, such as being hit with tongs by one of his parents or being in trouble with the local gardaí, can be included. We are not talking about only school attendance. Why is the Minister obsessed with accounting for the days attended at school?
The Bill is about school attendance.
It is not; it is about education welfare. It amends school attendance legislation.
It is mainly focused on the issue of school attendance and welfare.
That is the Minister's problem, not mine.
We need to include the issue of school attendance.
I am not arguing against that.
The amendment would delete a reference to it.
The Minister can put in anything he likes.
The amendment seeks to delete the phrase "relating to school attendance".
The Minister said he regards it as cumbersome. If there are matters other than school attendance, the Minister is saying the principal must write the child's history. If the child is being bullied, where will it occur? The Minister will say the goodwill of the principal will ensure the child's interests are looked after. I do not accept that.
There are separate provisions that deal with bullying, as the Deputy knows. If a child is being bullied, he or she will be removed from the school in which he or she is being bullied. It is appropriate to mention school attendance because that is the main concern. It imposes a requirement to explain that area and to communicate the concerns and issues which have arisen in that regard in so far as they are known. To go beyond that is to create a requirement on the principal to go into more detail. One could perhaps add "and other matters which the principal would consider relevant". However, it is important not to delete "relating to school attendance".
The purpose is to avoid the confining nature of the present framing, where the only sort of problem that seems to be envisaged is a log book one. That does not really embrace the intention. These are very important transitions, whether the child has left for a special reason or is just making the transition from primary to secondary. All the evidence shows that these are the crucial transitions where things can go wrong. It is worthwhile to take care that this hand over is done in a way that is conscious of the full needs of the child.
How stands the amendment?
The Minister seems sym pathetic to——
I will look at it. I do not want to say something that will become a bureaucratic nightmare.
We all want to avoid that.
I am very glad to hear that.
We have had too much experience of it.
I move amendment No. 106:
In page 17, subsection (6), line 49, to delete "child" and substitute "child's name".
Amendment No. 110 is related to amendment No. 109 and both may be taken together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 109:
In page 18, subsection (4)(b), line 23, after “15,” to insert “and has not been certified by a medical practitioner as an absence due to illness”.
This amendment deals with the aggregate number of days on which a student is absent from a recognised school during the year. If he or she is absent for 15 or more days it will be reported to the education welfare officer. If certified medical illness is the reason for the absence, I cannot see why the child would have to be referred to the educational welfare service. It was originally intended that they would have to say what the illness was. This is excessive. I cannot see how this is desirable if the principal receives a medical certificate with which he or she is happy.
I have heard the argument that, as genuine illness is not truancy in the old fashioned sense, the Bill should specifically exclude this area. However, as we have already agreed in committee, this Bill is not simply about addressing old fashioned truancy. My concern is quite different. To me, the fundamental question is whether each child is receiving the education, not necessarily the reasons this education is not received. The child who misses school due to serious illness may be just as educationally disadvantaged as the child who misses school for broader socio-economic reasons. It is my intention that the educational welfare board should be able to assist all non-attending children, regardless of the cause. I do not want to exclude children with an illness. It is not a question of truancy but of the child needing support. The purpose is to give special support to such a child.
I recognise the purpose but I think this is an excessively bureaucratic way of achieving it. The Minister may be unwilling to entrust to parents the decision on whether the extent of the absence due to illness calls for alerting the educational welfare board. However, I cannot see what the educational welfare board will do when it finds out a child was out for 16 days with measles. I do not believe it will give an early warning and do anything about this. It seems that some element of judgment is being brought into this. Reference to the educational welfare board should be mediated through some reasonable judgment, either on the part of the principal or the person certifying the medical problem. This is over the top. Earlier, we talked about the parent having to write down the nature of all the illnesses and so on. We modified that because it was seen to be unduly onerous, as I suspect this is also. Perhaps it is the wrong attitude, but people will feel that being referred to the educational welfare board after 15 days of illness is a statement of some sort.
We are caught between two stools here. On the one hand, the purpose is clearly to link the child to the resources and, on the other, one does want to interfere excessively, as Deputy Bruton said. It would be a very good development if a child with a long-term illness received appropriate support. I am keen to ensure the existence of that supportive link. Perhaps a slightly different statement is needed for situations involving illness. I know a great deal about this area because I missed a few years of school due to illness and all that was available from the school were good wishes. I have a reasonable appreciation of that side of the argument.
The aggregate number of 15 days in the school year is a lot — it is almost 10% of the school year. The section states "the aggregate number of school days on which a student is absent from a recognised school during a year is not less than 15". A child with a particular or recurring illness could exceed that.
I would not want to create a situation where the child would receive just bureaucratic attention rather than the kind of support needed. I will look at that in general terms.
Deputy Bruton probably feels much the same about this as I do. If this is, as we hope, a very supportive board — and I think it will be because it will have a great deal of resources available to it — its intervention could be desirable for an ill child. A child with a recurring illness could lose a great deal of the school year and would possibly benefit from some support. I will see if there is any other way of covering that kind of situation.
I accept that.
I move amendment No. 111:
In page 18, subsection (4)(c), line 24, to delete “for whatever reason,” and substitute “for a reason specified in subsection (6) of section 20”.
This amendment seeks to achieve consistency. There is a contradiction between section 21(4)(d) and section 26. Section 26 limits the reasons and section 21(4)(d) seems to change the spirit as enunciated in the other section.
The effect of this amendment would be to significantly reduce the support and value of the education welfare officer to schools and pupils. The section, as structured, provides that education welfare officers would become involved in a wide variety of instances where a student leaves the register. The effect of the amendment would be to reduce this scope to cover only instances where a child transfers between a school or where a child moves to be educated outside a recognised school.
It is my intention that the education welfare officers will have much broader role. In particular, where a child leaves school at the age of 16, it is entirely appropriate that the education welfare officer should be given this information so that he or she may make contact with the child and the parents to ascertain how the child's education and training needs can be provided for. As such, I cannot accept the amendment.
It is the spin put on it which is important in the end, or more accurately, the construction put on it. It can be construed as the Minister has done or it can be construed differently. Section 21(4)(d) means it is entirely reliant on the opinion of the principal. Once again one is being asked to chose between the opinion of the principal and legislative specificity. There is a clear obligation if one follows section 26 but the Minister said that if he does not proceed with my amendment, it will enable the principal to do the world and all. I am being asked to make an act of faith again. If I proceed with my amendment, the Minister said the principal will be limited. We are back to this new age thinking — a millennium of wonderful things in education. Some of us have an incapacity for that because we have had the experience of dealing with the Department for too long.
There could be some confusion in that section 26 refers to a child, while this section refers to a student. That could have an influence on the ages. I will look at that for Report Stage.
I thank the Minister.
Amendment No. 113 is related to amendment No. 112 and they may be taken together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 112:
In page 18, subsection (5) line 33, after "report" to insert "to the parents' council of the school and".
The school puts together a report on school attendance and furnishes it to the education welfare officer. Such a report should be available to parents as a matter of principle. Too often, parents are deemed to be inferior when it comes to partnership and things which are commonly available within the school and which are not made available to the parents. We should make it clear that school attendance is a matter of concern to parents and that the report should be duly made available to them.
I accept this amendment in principle but I would like the parliamentary draftsman to review the precise wording.
I move amendment No. 113:
In page 18, subsection (6), line 38, to delete "prescribed by the Minister" and substitute "determined by the Board".
Amendment No. 113 provides for the board, rather than the Minister, to determine the requirements for the annual report on school attendance by the school board.
I move amendment No. 115:
In page 18, after line 42, to insert the following subsection:
"(8) For the purposes of this section a student shall be deemed not to be absent from school where any period of absence is authorised by the principal and relates to activities organised by the school or in which the school is involved.".
Amendment No. 116, in the names of Deputy Richard Bruton and Deputy Hayes, is out of order as it involves a potential charge on the Revenue.
I know amendment No. 116 cannot be moved but will the Minister indicate, in the context of the operation of this Bill at school level, whether he will send a circular which would allow a member of staff to have responsibility for the operation of this in each school? I understand the amendment I tabled would require additional financial resources and that these matters are out of order. Is the Minister giving a commitment that he will allow a post of responsibility to be established for the function of performing this new role?
The welfare board would have a function in that regard in promoting and encouraging. It is true I would have to ensure it happens.
I do not want to labour the point, but the Minister will not establish a post of responsibility in each school, particularly those affected by the problem of non-attendance. Is he saying he will not establish a post of responsibility in terms of the implementation of this provision at school level?
The boards of management, under the Education Act, have a general power to appoint staff with the consent of the Minister. The principal of a school has a responsibility for day to day issues, such as the assignment of staff.
It is more shedding of responsibility. There are some schools, which the Minister knows, where the problem is so grave that the principal cannot be intricately involved in every case. It requires liaison with a member, or members of staff, who would be able to perform these functions.
It is a management function in the school. I appreciate the point the Deputy made. We have initiatives to promote staying in school and so on. The welfare board will also take initiatives in that regard. Under the Education Act, it is essentially a management function for the board of the school.
I move amendment No. 117:
In page 19, before section 22, to insert the following new section:
"22.—The Board, in pursuit of its functions, shall—
(a) undertake initiatives involving networks of schools and outside agencies to develop supports to assist schools in the retention of students at risk in education,
(b) participate in and promote the participation of schools in integrated service initiatives in support of families with difficulties across the full range of supports needed,
(c) develop models of financial and other support for students that will encourage continued participation in education, and
(d) develop and run training programmes for staff, particularly for schools which have a substantial problem with attendance and early leaving.”.
The purpose of this amendment is to amplify the functions of the board. Section 10 states that it is "to assist recognised schools in so far as is practicable to meet their obligations under this Act," which is a very limited statement as to what they might do. I suggest they undertake initiatives involving networks of schools and outside agencies to develop supports to assist schools in the retention of students at risk in education. This recognises that we have worthwhile initiatives in the community and that it should support and develop these initiatives.
I suggest that it participate in and promote the participation of schools in integrated service initiatives in support of families with difficulties across the full range of supports needed. Again, the Minister rightly identified in the Bill the need for integration and the involvement of other agencies and has set up this elaborate liaison network. This matters at school level and schools should participate in relevant services locally. I suggest the board develop models to do that and also realistic codes of operation. That should be an explicit function of the educational welfare board.
Financial obstacles often stand in the way of children participating fully, whether it is the attraction of part-time work or the inability of parents to afford to keep their children in school. We should look positively on, and the educational welfare board should seek to develop, the types of initiative that have been successful, for example, in Clondalkin where children have been paid a certain amount on the basis of a contract they make with the school in relation to homework, attendance, abstinence from working in pubs half the night or whatever. That dimension should be looked at and explicitly provided for in what the educational welfare service would be doing.
There is also a need to develop and run training programmes, especially for teachers in schools with high levels of attendance problems. Studies show that children who drop out of school early do not generally regret the decision. They have had bad experiences with teachers and it is plain that teachers are occasionally ill equipped to deal with the kind of problems they present when they arrive at the school. The educational welfare service will be a centre of excellence for better approaches.
In this amendment I am trying to make the legislation more explicit on the question of the future direction of the board. There has been far too much bureaucratic provision with lists of people being passed from one area to another, notifications and so on. Of course that is important otherwise the board will not be alerted to problems, nor in time. However, I see the advantage of giving it an explicit mandate in areas of training, developing models of integration of service, developing supports in and out of the school and so on. I hope the Minister will see that this amendment adds to the Bill and that it helps in spelling out what will be expected of the board with regard to the schools, especially those that deal on a regular basis with children with poor attendance and associated problems.
I fully agree with the Deputy that the activities set out in the amendment are all valuable areas in which the board might be involved. However, I believe the functions already set out in subsection (2) are broad enough to encapsulate most of these areas, and indeed more, in so far as they are appropriate to a school. I am not sure that paragraph (c) in the amendment states sufficiently clearly what is required of the school. It is somewhat vague and general for legislative purposes.
As regards paragraph (d), I accept that the training of staff in relation to attendance issues is an important factor in ensuring that a school environment encourages attendance. I also accept that schools have a very important role in training. However, I am concerned that the proposed amendment places too much responsibility on schools. The national educational welfare board has extensive——
The Minister may be responding to a different amendment.
We are dealing with amendment No. 117.
Section 22 does not provide anything for schools. It says that the board, in pursuit of its functions, will do certain things. I do not propose to substitute my amendment for the section.
If the Deputy will bear with me. I am concerned that the proposed amendment places too much responsibility on the schools. The national education welfare board has extensive functions under section 10 in relation to assisting schools and promoting a supportive school environment. I refer in particular to paragraphs (b), (c), (d), (e), (g) and (i) of section 10(1). This is the better approach.
In general, I prefer with legislation of this kind to set out broad aims and then rely on the board appointed to carry them out as it sees appropriate. I do not believe that as legislators we should be over-prescriptive in setting out for the board where it should focus its energies. The Deputy will recall that there are various mechanisms in the Bill for ensuring the accountability of the board to the Minister, especially section 13 dealing with the directions to the Minister under section 33, which deals with reports to the board. Within these constraints the board should be given responsibility for its actions. If there are still matters for which the Deputy believes we should make specific provision, I will consider them further in the context of the section and will return to the subject on Report Stage.
I do not mind whether it is included in section 10 or in the new section proposed by this amendment. Bills of this kind generally set out the broad objective of the board, which I accept are well covered in section 10, and specific functions are then provided for. The merit of my amendment is that it recognises that schools are not republics on their own and that the education of children, especially those prone to drop out of school, is in a context. The notion of networking with agencies outside the school is important at school level and the board should be actively engaged in this. There is not much recognition of that in the Bill, not even in general terms. For example, there is provision for the establishment of a super structure for integrated service initiatives, but there is no requirement placed on the board to encourage the schools to be so engaged.
While section 10 provides that the board will carry out reviews of training and guidance given to teachers, my amendment goes further in that it provides that the educational welfare board can develop and run training programmes because of the expertise it will have built up in this field. If the Minister will look at this——
We could possibly incorporate some of the elements outlined here in an amendment. However, I do not want to specify too tight an agenda because I want the board to be innovative and broadly based in its approach. I will do that.
I move amendment No. 118:
In page 19, before section 22, to insert the following new section:
"22.—(1) Where an education welfare officer receive a notification undersection 21(4), he or she shall carry out an assessment of the child concerned and shall consult with the young person concerned, his or her parents, the school principal and such other persons as appropriate in an effort to secure satisfactory attendance and participation by the student at the registered school if this is in the student’s best interests.
(2) Where the education welfare officer is unable to secure a satisfactory attendance and participation by the student, the Board, after consultation with the young person concerned, his or her parents, the school principal and such other persons as appropriate, shall—
(a) prepare a plan for the purpose of assisting that young person to avail of educational opportunities,
(b) give all such assistance to such young person, his or her parents, the school, alternative education providers or other persons as it considers appropriate for the purpose of carrying out such a plan,
(c) mediate with other services to deliver appropriate supports to the student in the context of the plan, and
(d) monitor the progress of the student in the context of the plan.”.
This goes to the heart of the Bill. I know the Minister will say the Bill is concerned with reacting to the needs of children who present with problems. However, I searched the Bill in vain to see what would happen when there is an early warning of a poor attendance record delivered by the school principal who has notified in writing that a child is having persistent problems in this area. What happens then? If we go on history, nothing happens. The Department is contacted but it does not have an adequate response. Parents then become involved in trying to find if there is anything to help their child. That is the reality. Perhaps there will be a new reality following the court case.
When the educational welfare service gets an early warning it should carry out an assessment, yet this provision is missing from the Bill. The assessment should consider what is required to devise a plan for the child in question. There is then a need to consider how the aspects of the plan will be delivered, including the question of mediation with the other service providers to deliver the supports set out in the plan. It will then be necessary to consider follow up action — for example, how is the child to be monitored?
There is merit in setting out such a framework in legislative terms. The Minister will probably reply that he does not want to have any such specific provisions in the Bill on the basis that the administrative aspect will adequately look after it. However, in the UK, for instance, those steps have been set out so that a parent has a statutory right to trigger this. Here it is not a statutory right. We are saying the board, when it is alerted and has strong evidence of a problem, would trigger such a mechanism.
This is a huge flaw in the Bill. School attendance officers have been working outside of the legislation to try to do some of this work. They have not had explicit legislative authority to do that. It is fine to say the board has a function in all these matters, but there is also a need for a process in the event of early warnings. That process should be set out in the legislation so that parents who wish to exercise their rightsvis-à-vis the board know there might be an assessment, some form of a plan, mediation with other providers and assistance available to them and that the progress of their children will be monitored by the board. I am amazed this is not provided for in the Bill.
My aim in drafting this area of the legislation was to ensure a child could not slip through the net and be overlooked within the education system. Schools are very busy places and may not have the resources to help a child with school attendance problems. I want to ensure they cannot slip through the net in any of those circumstances. That is where the education welfare officer comes in. On the other hand, failure to attend school in some cases may not amount to what might be termed an education threatening event, for instance, a once off lengthy illness. There must be flexibility to allow the education welfare officer an opportunity to exercise discretion and to concentrate on those cases which actually need help rather than merely going through the motions of a statutory requirement.
It is not practical to legislate for these matters. I accept the course of action the Deputy outlines in his amendment might be appropriate in some scenarios but it would be excessively time consuming and bureaucratic for many other situations. The legislation, as drafted, draws on the accumulated experience of the education welfare officers and allows them to tailor responses to each case in question. They will do so within the overall context of the general board policy and on advice from schools. The amendment would remove that flexibility and, as such, it would not be a useful amendment to the Bill.
I appreciate what Deputy Bruton is trying to do but, in effect, if the new system does not work along these lines, one would have to question the operation of the system. Guidelines must be prepared for the education welfare officers and this is something which would be a normal part of doing a good job. This is done in almost every sector. One takes the general responsibility and then prepares the guidelines on how one should proceed. That is what I would follow up with the board in the context of how it might carry out its functions and deal with the issues and concerns raised here.
I can sympathise with the Minister. Perhaps my amendment to section 21(1), which states that when there is an early warning alert the education welfare officer shall carry out an assessment, consult with the person concerned, his or her parents, the school principal, etc., is too onerous to deal with every early warning case. I would be content to drop the consultation requirements, which may be excessive, but there is a need for an assessment. In other words, all these cases cannot be bundled up and sent to the education welfare board because if a person telephoned the board to inquire about a child who has a school attendance problem, it would state the case is filed away and it has not got round to considering it. On the other hand, if the principal goes to the trouble and we put in place a legislative procedure where an early warning is issued by way of a notice to the education welfare board, there is an expectation that there will be some assessment. Therefore, I would be willing to water down section 21(1).
On section 22(2), however, in drafting the amendment I tried to accommodate what the Minister would say, that this would not allow tailored responses and was too onerous. My amendment states that where the education welfare officer is unable to secure a satisfactory attendance and participation by the student, the board shall, after consultation with the parents, etc., prepare a plan, mediate with other services, and so on. In other words, it is anticipated that in the majority of cases the education welfare officer would be able to secure a satisfactory attendance without going down the more structured route of a planning procedure.
It is ironic that the Minister is happy to anticipate this approach, that is, preparing a plan and mediation with other services to deliver appropriate supports, when the child has dropped out of school completely and left the system. However, when the child is still within the system and open to be rescued from abandoning education, the Minister is unwilling to anticipate this other than in guidelines which he will draw up later.
There is a difficulty with guidelines. We are talking about a child having a fundamental right to an education and about him or her being able to exercise that right. The Minister cannot say he will draw up guidelines and that this is just good administrative practice. We are trying to spell out more than just good administrative practice; we want to spell out rights for children. Let us be honest, a high proportion of children drop out of school. Some 20% drop out before sitting the junior certificate. Some 3,000 drop out with no qualifications and 17% of those between the ages of 16 and 25 have the lowest level of literacy in that they cannot read the information on an Aspirin package. It is not unusual for children to come through the education system with that system having failed them. It is wise to talk of providing for statutory rights of this nature, and it would be unwise of the Oireachtas to state the Department can rely on guidelines and administrative practice to deal with this.
I feel strongly about this section. It is the one, above all others, in which something of this nature is necessary. If the Minister can tell me in two years' time, or whenever we come to review the operation of the Bill, that his guidelines have been far better than even the statutory provision, I will be the first to offer him my congratulations but I still want to have this as a base line protection.
Section 28 deals with the duty to make reasonable efforts to ensure certain children receive the prescribed minimum education. Section 28(2) states:
Where the Board having made all such reasonable efforts as are referred to insubsection (1), fails to have the child concerned enrolled in another recognised school it shall, with the consent of the Minister, make such other arrangements as it considers appropriate to ensure that the child receives a prescribed minimum education.
Therefore, the Bill contains a clear onus to provide for that.
That is where the child has left the school.
We could consider the point the Deputy is making and state, for example, that the officer may carry out such assessments and prepare such plans as are necessary for the child. In other words, we could at least indicate in the legislation that this is the direction we intend to take. We could include the term, "Where the education welfare officer shall take action, as appropriate".
It should be a fundamental right.
This matter revolves around fundamental rights. As we already discovered, children have rights and parents have rights which brings us back to the interference of the educational welfare officer with the board of management of a school. The educational welfare board will also have rights, duties and entitlements. This amendment is really concerned with prescribing the guidelines, instead of saying that they are normal management functions.
If the Deputy wishes, we will consider the use of general terms which would indicate what clearly was the intention. I do not believe it is necessary to do so but it may be helpful to include in the Bill something which does not prescribe in detail but which indicates the areas which should be covered.
I wish to seek clarification in respect of this amendment, the other amendment and the effects of the section. It seems that there is a certain tension in terms of the problem of school attendance. I am sympathetic with what the Minister is attempting to achieve in that regard. One version of the legislation appears to be that a child with a school attendance problem attracts the attention of the welfare officer. However, what is the positionvis-à-vis a child who has not been identified as having a school attendance problem? That raises the second strain on the Education (Welfare) Bill.
The welfare of a child, if one is operating from the child's perspective, would suggest that the child's needs existed before he or she developed problems in terms of school attendance. We are continually fluctuating between a minimalist version of school attendance legislation and the aspirational tendencies in terms of the welfare of a child, which might be another version of the legislation. I am at a loss with regard to how much more progress I can make in respect of this matter. That is why I have stopped making contributions on certain matters because I am being asked to accept provisions in their entirety. I find that the Bill lapses into a school attendance model when it enters the area of prescription. The rights of the child appear to be regarded as an unachievable idealism. The position will become hopeless if we proceed in this fashion.
We have heard about the various interest groups involved in this and the fact that none of them must be upset. However, from the point of view of child or that of an excluded parent, it is a great pity that many people were not upset earlier.
I am sympathetic to Deputy Higgins's point of view. However, we are trying to make the best of the Bill before us and school attendance has been a good indicator — I accept it is not the only one — of problems emerging. Perhaps the Minister will be willing to put in place the concept of a structured response on which the child, the parent and the school — as it seeks to vindicate the rights of that child — can rely. There must be a legislative provision from which a structured response can emerge in cases where such a response is manifestly necessary. That is the intention behind the amendment which seeks to limit the response to cases where it is necessary.
I agree with the Minister that we cannot oblige the educational welfare service to assess every case where a parent feels that their child deserves better treatment. At the same time, however, there must be a legislative guarantee where Deputies, for example, who come across children who are not being served by the system, should be able to require an educational welfare officer to develop a plan, mediate with other service providers and monitor the child. That is an important reassurance for all of those involved.
I would welcome it if the Minister can take positive action in this area but I do not want him to merely include vague references to this possibility in the legislation. There must be a clear indication that, in cases where it is warranted, the approach to which I refer will be taken. It is not unusual for the Minister's Department to provide a legislative provision of this nature because, section 30 makes just such a provision but it applies to children who have left school. The Department seems willing to employ a structured response when the horse has already bolted.
If the Minister is guided by his instincts and concentrates merely on administrative matters, he will miss the point. He must take the opportunity to draw a line in the sand and it will be welcome if he and the Department can do so.
I said earlier that I accept fully that the course of action the Deputy outlines in the amendment might be appropriate in certain scenarios and he has come to agree with my point of view. Let us see if we can pinpoint those scenarios rather than increasing the levels of bureaucracy involved here. I will consider the matter before Report Stage, particularly in terms of clearly indicating the intention of the Bill in relation to those scenarios.
That is a welcome development.
I move amendment No. 119:
In page 19, before line 1, to insert the following subsection:
"(1) The board of management shall make the successful integration of pupils at risk of poor attendance or early school leaving central to the objectives, strategies and actions developed in their school plan.".
This amendment is straightforward in that is spells out one of the expectations in relation to a school, namely, that "The board of management shall make the successful integration of pupils at risk of poor attendance or early school leaving central to the objectives, strategies and actions developed in their school plan." The Minister may have already made provision for that in guidelines he is issuing to schools. However, it is important that such provision should be made and that every school should work on the basis outlined.
I hope that each board of management would give serious consideration to the problem of non-attendance in their schools. The educational welfare board will assist them in that process. However, it is appropriate to legislate for this. If we legislate for this specific aim, will the other goals of a school, such as learning or personal development, lose status in comparison? I am confident that each school will treat this issue with the appropriate seriousness without having to include such a provision in legislation.
Is the Minister in a position to provide——
I accept that the guidelines are the best approach.
I would be satisfied if the Minister issues guidelines on how school plans are drawn up — this should probably have been done already. Has he made explicit provision for the issuing of guidelines?
I have to look at the guidelines which have been issued.
The Minister said he hoped most boards of management would do this which seems to presume that many would not. If this is the case why are we bothering to introduce legislation? It would be outrageous if any board of management did not address the issue of early school leavers and pupils at risk of poor attendance. It is outrageous that many do not do so at the moment.
Every school must comply with the school attendance strategy set out in section 22.
I was not confusing that section with what we are discussing. This amendment deals with the integration of pupils at risk, which is not what section 22 deals with. The Minister referred to the obligations regarding school attendance, which I accept. The apparent acceptance that some boards of management will not fulfil their obligations to pupils at risk, other than those laid down in relation to attendance in another section, is an insufficient guarantee. This is becoming like a prayer.
Perhaps the Minister will give us a note of what exactly is set out in the guidelines regarding the drawing up of school plans.
Amendment No. 120 in the name of Deputy Richard Bruton. Amendments Nos. 125 and 127 are related and all may be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 120:
In page 19, subsection (1), line 9, after "strategy')" to insert "and provide a copy of this strategy to parents".
This amendment relates to a similar issue. If a school draws up a statement of strategy to foster an appreciation of learning and encourage regular attendance, it should be available to parents as a matter of course. It is an important statement of the direction of the school. Parents can often contribute to the success of these strategies by understanding them and participating in their formulation. The minimal provision proposed in this amendment is that schools provide copies of their strategies to parents.
I will accept amendment No. 127 in the name of Deputy Bruton. Section 21(4) of the Education Act provides for the school plan to be circulated to parents. Section 20 provides for a board of management to report on the performance of schools regarding the objectives of the school plan. Amendment No. 127 provides that the statement of strategy will be included in the school plan.
Amendments Nos. 121 and 124 may be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 121:
In page 19, subsection (2)(d), line 24, after “activities” to insert “or groups organised in the community engaged in activities which could be supportive to students”.
This deals with co-ordination and the fostering, promoting and establishing of contacts by the school with other schools that provide primary or post-primary education and with bodies engaged in the provision of youth work programmes services related thereto or engaged in the organising of sporting activities. My amendment proposes to add "or groups organised in the community engaged in activities which could be supportive to students". Confining the provision to youth work and sporting organisations is restrictive. Partnership organisations are well established in this field and are doing useful work. They do not seem to be referred to here.
Subsection 2(d) provides that schools may include youth work programmes and the organisation of sporting activities in their statements of strategy. There is a danger in suggesting that statements of strategy should be all encompassing in involving the community. The youth work and sporting areas are most likely to be relevant to schools in their statements of strategy. As schools develop their statements, they may expand them to involve the community as they see appropriate. This legislation will not prevent such an expansion.
I am concerned that amendment No. 124 would result in further demands on schools. This section will be evolutionary, in terms of impact on schools. Many schools will doubtless adopt the Deputy's approach to mix programmes of activities. Some will do so more quickly than others and others will opt for different routes. This legislation should not be too prescriptive in this area but rather should serve as a guide by which schools, with the assistance of the educational welfare boards, will develop.
This emphasis on sporting activity is another remnant of the old Department. Was there a good reason for excluding culture — music and the arts? The Department of Education and Science once wrote to inform me that dance had nothing to do with physical education. Is this the idea of the glorious people in shorts?
I take it that happened some time ago.
About 15 years ago. I kept it because it was so funny.
The Deputy has probably had a good influence on the Department since then.
There was also a time it thought martial songs were suitable for boys and lullabies for girls. With the beginning of a new century and millennium, could cultural activities be included? Youth drama groups are doing wonderful work around the country. Other cultural activities are also well represented. The provision is slightly miserable as it stands.
The Minister is right that the legislation should not be too prescriptive. However, it is surprising that partnership organisations, with whom schools should be networking, are not mentioned. Perhaps they do not exist everywhere. I will withdraw amendment No. 124 and will consider on Report Stage whether something might be retained.
I will examine the issue with general reference to culture and sport.
Amendments Nos. 122 and 129 are cognate and may be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 122:
In page 19, subsection (2)(e), line 29, to delete “discipline” and substitute “behaviour”.
These are technical amendments to correct drafting errors.
I move amendment No. 123:
In page 19, subsection (2), lines 31 to 36, to delete paragraph (f) and substitute the following:
"(f) the identification of—
(i) aspects of the operation and management of the school and of the teaching of the school curriculum that may contribute to problems relating to school attendance on the part of certain students, and
(I) for the removal of those aspects in so far as they are not necessary or expedient for the proper and effective running of the school having regard, in particular, to the educational needs of students, and
(II) that will encourage more regular attendance at school on the part of such students.".
I move amendment No. 127:
In page 20, subsection (7), lines 4 and 5, to delete "may, if such board of management considers it appropriate," and substitute "shall".
I move amendment No. 128:
In page 20, between lines 6 and 7, to insert the following subsection:
"(8) Subject to the agreement of the Minister, the board of management of a number of recognised schools shall be entitled to present joint school attendance strategies and that such strategies be regarded as complying with the requirements of this section.".
When I read this legislation, I thought there was an omission in that it did not give the right to various boards of management to produce a joint strategy. Much of the problem of school attendance relates to certain areas, especially urban areas. It would make sense if the legislation allowed for joint strategies to be produced by a number of schools. I have already received a query from three primary schools in one area my constituency where the school attendance problem is a major issue about when the officers will be appointed for those schools. Given that, when the officers are eventually appointed, their work will relate to one or two areas, it would make sense for some schools to be allowed the option of presenting a joint strategy. Perhaps the Minister would consider that.
Not only are they free to do that, they are encouraged to do it. I agree with the Deputy that the issue of school co-operation is one which should be encouraged and fostered where appropriate. It is obviously appropriate in the development of strategies for school attendance. It is for this reason section 22(2)(e) provides for statements of strategy to co-ordinate with other schools programmes aimed at promoting good behaviour, encouraging regular attendance and exchanging information relating to matters of discipline and school attendance.
However, it is important that each school should, as a first step, undertake its own process of self-examination leading to the development of its own statement of strategy based on its strengths and weaknesses and in the context of the local community within which it operates. This is the approach schools now take in the school planning process. I am concerned that the effect of the Deputy's amendment might be to lead to some schools skipping this crucial phase and adopting instead a template strategy which might not fit their needs. The section as it exists contains within it the thrust of the Deputy's approach without running the risks I have outlined.
I received a letter the other day from three primary schools in Killinarden asking for their officers because the Garda is investigating the many children not attending school. Is the Minister telling me those three schools are entitled to produce a joint strategy effective for them, because it is likely when the officer is appointed, if he or she ever is, that he or she will be placed in a certain area to deal with a number of schools?
They must first produce their own strategy. If they do not do so, they will not know where they are going, and it is an easy way out to become involved in something which is produced between two or three schools. If they have their own strategy and co-ordinate and co-operate with the other schools, that is the optimal situation. That is provided for.
If the Minister is telling me that a joint strategy can be presented for three, four or five schools where the problem is especially acute, that makes sense and I am happy to withdraw the amendment.
I move amendment No. 129:
In page 20, subsection (2), line 14, to delete "discipline" and substitute "behaviour".
Amendments Nos. 130, 131 and 132 are related and may be discussed together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 130:
In page 20, subsection (2), lines 15 to 17, to delete paragraph (a) and substitute the following:
"(a) the standards of behaviour that shall be observed by each student attending the school;
(b) the measures that may be taken when a student fails or refuses to observe those standards;”.
These amendments relate to the code of behaviour in the school. Amendment No. 130 provides for a redraft of paragraph (a). It will change the focus of the Bill from a concern with disciplinary measures to the promotion of good behaviour. Amendment No. 132 provides for an additional paragraph to refer to procedures the school will put in place relating to the notification of the absences of a child from the school. This refers to my earlier amendment No. 95. Amendment No. 131 is a technical amendment reflecting layout changes due to amendments Nos. 130 and 132.
I move amendment No. 131:
In page 20, subsection (2)(c), line 20, to delete “and”.
I move amendment No. 132:
In page 20, subsection (2), lines 21 and 22, to delete paragraph (d) and substitute the following:
"(d) the grounds for removing a suspension imposed in relation to a student; and
(e) the procedures to be followed relating to notification of a child’s absence from school.”.
Amendments Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, to amendment No. 133 are related and may be discussed together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 133
In page 20, before section 24, to insert the following new section:
"24.—(1) Where the board of management of a recognised school or a person acting on its behalf is of the opinion that a student should be expelled from that school it shall, before so expelling the student, notify the educational welfare officer to whom functions under this Act have been assigned, in writing, of its opinion and the reasons therefor.
(2) The educational welfare officer concerned shall, as soon as may be after receiving a notification undersubsection (1), make all reasonable efforts to ensure that provision is made for the continued education of the student to whom the notification relates.
(3) For the purposes ofsubsection (2), the educational welfare officer concerned shall, as soon as may be after receiving the said notification—
(a) make all reasonable efforts to consult with the principal of the school concerned or a person nominated by him, the student concerned and his or her parents, and such other persons as the educational welfare officer considers appropriate, and
(b) convene a meeting attended by him or her of such of those persons as agree to attend such meeting.
(4) A student shall not be expelled from a school before the passing of 20 school days following the receipt of a notification under this section by an educational welfare officer.
(5)Subsection (4) is without prejudice to the right of a board of management to take such other reasonable measures as it considers appropriate to ensure that good order and discipline is maintained in the school concerned and that the safety of students is secured.”.
This is unusual in that a series of amendments have been tabled to the amendment. I will first discuss the rationale for my amendment and then proceed to discuss the Deputy's amendments.
The expulsion of a student from a school is a serious step for a school, but even more so for a student. Expulsion must be a solution of last resort and, where adopted, a school should not shirk responsibility completely for the student but should join in efforts to provide for his or her continuing education. This amendment inserts an additional support to schools and students at the point of expulsion. The amendment provides that, where a school intends to expel a student, the educational welfare officer will be informed.
The principal duty of the educational welfare officer is to find a way in which the continuing education of the student in question can be provided for. To achieve this, the educational welfare officer will rely on the co-operation of the school, the student and the parents. By bringing the parties together as proposed, a further opportunity is provided to them to consider the situation and to search for mutually agreeable solutions.
To allow sufficient time for this meeting, subsection (4) of the amendment provides that no student can be expelled for at least 20 days after the notification to the educational welfare officer of the intent to expel. Although the expulsion of a student might be a solution of last resort for a school, there are situations where it is in the interests of other students in the school or the student it is proposed to expel that he or she be removed from the school pending a resolution of the case. Subsection (5) clarifies that a school can take such measures as to ensure good order in the school and to protect the safety of the staff and students of the school.
Deputy Bruton's amendments are related and propose that my amendment provide that the educational welfare officer in question should also prepare an education plan for the student in question and ensure it is available before expulsion takes place. Deputy Bruton has also proposed a similar idea in amendments Nos. 144 and 148. I agree that the educational welfare officer must have a role to intervene where a child's educational welfare is at risk. This is why I make specific provision in section 24 for their involvement in issues of expulsion.
However, I am concerned that the measure proposed by the Deputy will not always be the appropriate response to the issue at hand. For example, in many instances the educational welfare officer may become involved as a facilitator between the school and the parents. In such instances it may be possible to resolve the issue in question within the school without the requirement of a new education plan. Alternatively, the issues causing the particular problem of non-school attendance might be purely school related and the solution to these problems might lie inside the school. Immediately resorting to a new education plan would ignore these issues and would not be wise. Where, however, it is clear that a pupil cannot be accommodated within his or her existing school or despite the efforts of the education officer in any neighbouring school, the duty to ensure the child receives a certain minimum education rests with the National Educational Welfare Board. This is provided for in section 28. In those situations it will be necessary for the board to provide some form of plan, schedule or scheme to ensure the child in question does receive a minimum education. I am in broad agreement with Deputy Higgins's amendment, but much of what he proposes is in my amendment. The requirement for a 20 day breathing space and the duty on the educational welfare officer to make all reasonable efforts to consult interested parties are both features of my amendment.
Regarding paragraph (c), this touches on the same issue raised by Deputy Bruton, namely, the provision of a minimum education to a child in question. As I explained, this section is not designed to deal with that situation but rather foresees a situation where pupils might move between schools. Section 28, however, makes explicit provision that where a school is not available the board will takes steps to ensure a child receives a minimum education. In that sense I am in agreement with the Deputy on most of his proposals. Nonetheless, if there are points I have missed or on which he has a different view, I will consider them on Report Stage.
I remind Members that there will be an informal meeting later today with two Members of the Welsh National Assembly to discuss education policy and the Irish language from 3.30 p.m. to 4.15 p.m. in room 114.