Apologies have been received from Deputy Andrews. The meeting has been convened to consider Committee Stage of the Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2007. I welcome the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, and her officials to the meeting. It is proposed that the committee consider the Bill until 12.30 p.m. and, if consideration is not concluded, to arrange a further meeting. The list of amendments has been circulated.
Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2007: Committee Stage.
Amendment No. 1 in the name of Deputy O'Sullivan is out of order.
The amendment which has been ruled out of order would have the effect of saving the State money rather than imposing a cost. I tabled the amendment to provide an opportunity to consider issues like the closure of the school in Kinvara. Considerable public funds are expended to run schools yet a private organisation which owns one can do what it likes with the property. The effect is to take money from the State, which my amendment sought to address.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 4, paragraph (a), between lines 12 and 13, to insert the following:
"(i) in paragraph (b), by deleting “to be prescribed” and substituting “in excess of 14 days or such longer period as may be prescribed,”.
I tabled amendment No. 2 to facilitate a discussion of short suspensions. I have suggested that up to 14 days, a matter should be one of internal school discipline rather than for the Department of Education and Science. I am not hung up on the provisions set out, but felt we needed to engage in some discussion on whether children could be suspended for short periods without the involvement of the Department.
Section 29 allows the Minister to prescribe the period of suspension which can be appealed. Like the Deputy, I am not especially hung up on particular lengths of time and can certainly consider the 14-day period. It would not require a legislative change to determine a period. We had determined that a cumulative period of 20 days or more in a school year would be sufficient to ground an appeal. If there is evidence nationally that the period should be 14 days, we can reconsider the matter.
Can it be done by regulation?
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 4, line 16, after "school" to insert "either verbally or in writing".
The amendment is related to cherrypicking of students by certain schools. There is a problem with certain schools which have refused to enrol pupils, not by stating such refusals in writing but by placing them on the long finger. The schools are afraid of actions being taken by parents. I suggest the amendment be made to strengthen the section. There is no reference to such a requirement in the Bill. I would be interested in the Minister's views.
I raised the matter with the Minister on Second Stage, at which point she outlined a solution. I have revisited the cases which have come to my attention and discovered that there is a lack of awareness on the part of parents who do not realise they should apply to a school formally in writing to ensure procedures come into effect. While many parents feel a call to a school to request a place constitutes an official application, some schools use such an approach as an excuse to ask the parents more than once to come back in a few weeks. It would be useful to provide that once a parent has contacted a school, verbally or otherwise, the school is deemed to have been formally notified of an application. Otherwise, there should be a requirement that when a school has been contacted by a parent, he or she must immediately be informed of the necessity to complete the relevant form and have it signed in order that official procedures might commence. This would mean that children would not be passed on to different schools.
I support Deputy Crowe's attempt to address this issue. On many previous occasions, the Minister and others referred to the issue of cherrypicking and we need to find a mechanism to address that. I suggested in the past that the Minister, under section 33 of the relevant Act, has the power to make regulations. However, I support Deputy Crowe's attempt to have action taken in respect of that issue in the Bill before us.
I understand from where the Deputies are coming in the context of schools trying to place applications on the long finger. Section 19 of the Education (Welfare) Act 2000 requires that schools must make decisions in respect of applications. In fairness to everyone involved, applications should be made in writing because there would then at least be evidence that a parent had applied on behalf of his or her child and it would not be a case of that parent subsequently stating that he or she had sought a place and not obtained it. This would ensure that both parents and schools would be protected and that there would be records in place. However, schools cannot continue to permanently place decisions relating to applications on the long finger.
There is a requirement that a parent make an application and if a decision is not made, as required, within the 21-day period and in writing in respect of it, that is, de facto, taken as a refusal for the purpose of an appeal. Deputy Enright may be correct that parents may perhaps require additional information regarding how to go about making an application. They probably have reasonably good information to hand in respect of suspensions and expulsions because welfare officers and school authorities are aware of the procedures and must advise them in that regard. However, I accept that they probably do not possess sufficient information regarding actual applications.
We could provide such information as part of an education campaign. The Education (Welfare) Act 2000 states that a parent must be supplied with a decision, in writing, within 21 days. This will then allow him or her to appeal under the section 29 procedure. The appeals board also takes it as a de facto refusal if such a decision in writing is not forthcoming.
Is the Minister opposed to the amendment?
Yes. The provisions in the Bill are adequate.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 4, between lines 25 and 26, to insert the following:
"(b) by substituting the following subsection for subsection (2):
"(2) For the purposes of the hearing and determination of an appeal under this section, the Minister shall appoint one or more than one committee (in this section referred to as an "appeals committee") each of which shall include in its membership an Inspector and such other persons as the Minister considers appropriate including teachers and/or representatives from recognised teachers unions".".
This amendment suggests that teacher unions should have representatives on appeals committees. As stated on Second Stage, members of the teacher unions operate at the coalface. The TUI was critical of the fact that teachers have been left out of the process. Appeals panels in the Six Counties and Britain already include serving teachers. Criticism has also been forthcoming in respect of the reinstatement of pupils on technicalities. I ask the Minister to look sympathetically on the amendment.
The newly-amended section 29 provides for the membership of an appeals committee to include an inspector and such other persons as the Minister considers appropriate. In appointing such a committee, great care is given to ensuring that its members have the qualities that are necessary, namely, that they have backgrounds in education and that they possess experience of the type of issues that might arise.
Where criticism has arisen with regard to students being re-admitted, questions have not arisen in respect of the calibre of persons serving on the relevant appeals boards. However, questions have been posed as to whether sufficient regard was given to all other situations and circumstances. These are the issues we are trying to address in setting out the criteria to be considered in the Bill.
The provisions in the newly-amended section 29 regarding who can be appointed make reference to the experience, skills and qualities required. I do not propose to accept an amendment that would be overly-prescriptive in that regard. The issues are addressed by the setting out of the criteria.
Amendments Nos. 5 and 6 are related and will be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 4, line 31, to delete ", scale and persistence" and substitute "and scale".
This amendment is designed to separate the different kinds of behaviour that might cause a student to be suspended or expelled. It attempts to separate persistence from scale because the scale of behaviour might be such that a once-off incident, if it was very serious, might be sufficient to suggest that a child should be suspended or expelled. Persistence and scale are separate issues. Persistence may involve many minor offences, if one wishes to call them that, and, therefore, I do not believe that it and scale should be contained in the relevant segment of the subsection. Both amendments involve the removal of the term "persistence" and its placement elsewhere.
The first part of amendment No. 6 states, "(b) whether the behaviour of the student constituted behaviour prohibited by the civil or criminal law, or both, and if so, the seriousness of the infringement...”. I am seeking that we should be more specific regarding the kinds of offences that might be considered serious. If something is against the law, it is of a different scale than other forms of behaviour in schools. The amendment is designed to introduce a greater degree of clarity and specificity in respect of the detail of the section.
Reference is made in the section to three issues, namely, the nature, scale and persistence of any behaviour. Whereas in respect of a once-off incident the scale thereof, whether the behaviour involved is consistent and — without being too prescriptive — the nature of such behaviour could be taken into account, I do not believe it is necessary to separate the words in order for each of them to be considered. However, an incident or incidents must be viewed in the context of all the criteria that are set out. Deputy O'Sullivan is probably referring to the behaviour of somebody who is persistently annoying as opposed to behaviour on the part of an individual that would be much more serious in nature and asking whether that would be viewed in isolation as an element. The answer in that regard is no, because it must be taken in the context of the other relevant issues.
The second issue was whether the behaviour of a student constituted behaviour prohibited by the civil or criminal law. I would be extremely reluctant to include definitions of that nature because as one does so, people would seek representation by lawyers, senior counsel, etc. The existing wording will ensure that there will be sufficient flexibility on the part of an appeals committee to consider the type of behaviour involved in an incident and to then weigh this up against all the other factors. For these reasons, I do not propose to accept the amendments.
Perhaps we could use a wording such as "nature and/or scale and/or persistence". The point I am trying to make is that if a student does something really horrific in school, it could be argued that his or her behaviour was not persistent because it only happened on one occasion. The latter might be an excuse for a school not being able to take action. I am trying to address those serious incidents — they might not be persistent in nature — in respect of which action is required.
I support Deputy O'Sullivan. The Minister referred to people seeking legal representation. If we leave any loopholes in place, that is what will happen. It could easily be argued that, despite its serious nature, an incident was only a one-off. Despite the fact that it was not so intended, inclusion of the word "persistence" in the legislation will provide people with a way out. I do not think that was intended by those who framed the legislation. Perhaps the Office of the Chief Parliamentary Counsel could re-examine this section of the Bill to ascertain whether the word "persistence" is necessary and to make the section clearer.
Some other factors need to be taken into account in this regard. It has been proposed to include the word "scale" in the Bill. If a major and serious incident takes place, it might be suggested the behaviour in question was not persistent. In such circumstances, consideration would have to be given to the interests of all concerned and the safety, health and welfare of the teachers, students and staff of the school. If a once-off incident that was severe in scale took place and it impacted on the safety, health and welfare of the teachers and others in the school, it would have to be considered. All of these criteria have to be taken into account. It is not the case that somebody who was involved in an incident once, as opposed to persistently, would be automatically returned to the school. Similarly, somebody who is persistently involved in low level incidents will not be automatically expelled or suspended from a school. I could understand where the Deputies are coming from if this criterion could be taken on its own, but it will have to be taken in conjunction with the other criteria.
I still think the wording would be better if it provided for an element of separation. Perhaps a phrase such as "and-or" could be used. I am not necessarily insisting that my wording be included in the legislation, but I would like the current wording to be changed in some way.
I have read this section of the Bill which perhaps could be changed on Report Stage. I tried to read it as a member of a board of management would read it. The way it is written makes it seem like the "persistence" of the behaviour is tied to its "nature" and "scale". That is not really what the Minister is trying to do in the section. Perhaps that could be changed, from a technical point of view, at a later stage.
I will examine this criterion, in the context of all the other criteria, in advance of Report Stage.
As amendments Nos. 7 and 8 are related, they may be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 4, line 43, after "peers," to insert the following:
"subject to the requirement that the Minister shall remain responsible for securing as far as practicable the educational rights of the individual student in the event of a decision under subsection (1)(a) or (b) being upheld,”.
I spoke on Second Stage about this issue which has been raised by a number of organisations in recent days. We have received submissions from Barnardos, the National Youth Council of Ireland and the National Parents Council. They are concerned about the rights of students whose behaviour causes problems. I argued on Second Stage that we needed to ensure such students who have rights could avail of educational opportunities when it was proposed to suspend or expel them from school. The Minister responded by saying such students would go to another school, rather than leave the school system altogether. When children are expelled, what are the duties and rights of the schools which are expected to take them in? This issue is addressed in the amendment and the submissions we have received.
The amendment relates to the Minister's responsibility to cater for children with behavioural difficulties who are constitutionally entitled to an education. She might say it is automatically her duty to ensure children in such circumstances who have certain rights are provided for. This legislation does not look after those rights sufficiently. The three organisations I mentioned, particularly the National Parents Council, have expressed concerns about whether the efforts made by children to address their behavioural problems which may be rooted in family problems are taken into account to a sufficient extent when appeals are heard. All of us who spoke on Second Stage referred to the balance of rights. We need to make sure before we finalise the Bill that we have given sufficient consideration to the rights of children who are suspended or expelled because they have caused difficulties. The amendment addresses that matter, essentially.
I did not expect amendment No. 8 to be grouped with amendment No. 7. The reference to "welfare" in amendment No. 8 does not refer only to the welfare of children who may be subject to suspension or expulsion. The intention of the amendment is to address the legal entitlements not only of such children but also of the other children and staff concerned. The amendments have been grouped together. I have tabled amendment No. 8 to point out that staff and students have other rights in addition to welfare rights.
I would like to speak about amendment No. 7. We were all contacted by various groups after we had submitted our amendments. The National Parents Council, in particular, has expressed concern that this legislation, which I strongly support, could result in children with special educational needs and Traveller children, for example, being excluded from schools. I ask the Minister to elaborate on the sections of the Bill which will ensure this will not happen. What will happen when children are suspended or expelled? Naturally other schools will be reluctant to take in a child who has been expelled from another school. One can understand the position of such schools. As legislators, we need to ensure children in such circumstances are not written off forever. The State should assume responsibility for them by ensuring there is somewhere else for them to go.
This is a key aspect of the Bill. While Sinn Féin is generally in favour of the changes being proposed, it emphasises the need to make adequate provisions and put in place alternative educational structures for children who are suspended or expelled owing to persistent misbehaviour. Deputy O'Sullivan's amendments represent an attempt to strike the balance that needs to be struck in this regard.
I accept that the members of the committee want to ensure individual students are not sacrificed for the sake of everybody else. The constitutional right of those students to an education, the strongest right they could have, is supported in legislation. We are trying to rebalance the various rights. The proposed new section 29(4)(c) of the 1998 Act states strongly that regard must be had to “the educational interests of the student concerned and the desirability of enabling the student as far as practicable to participate in and benefit from education with his or her peers”. That provision relates to the interests of individuals, whereas the new section 29(4)(b) refers to the need to enable the student concerned “to participate in and benefit from education”. The rights of individual students have to be upheld in any appeal. An attempt is being made to address the impression created that too much emphasis is being placed on the rights of individuals. The task force on student behaviour rightly focused on such individuals. Too many have been left by the wayside, making them unable to participate fully in education and society. The task force recognised that the home-school-community liaison service, the school completion programme and, in particular, the National Educational Welfare Board, which has a statutory function, are ensuring education continues to be provided for children under the age of 16 years who have been excluded.
We all agree that suspension and permanent expulsion should be used as a last resort, although they can work. I taught students who had been expelled from other schools. It can be useful to give students a new beginning in a school where most people do not know their past and where they do not carry any baggage. There can be reciprocal local arrangements in some areas. A school may take a student from another school, knowing it might be in the same position at some time. The rights of the individual student remain paramount because of his or her constitutional right to an education. As Deputies know, the National Educational Welfare Board must make all reasonable effort to ensure the student is enrolled in another recognised school. We have accepted that the formal school structure is not the most appropriate for every student. That is why we have places in programmes such as Youthreach which are being expanded. We are looking to other centres providing education. The onus is on the National Educational Welfare Board to make the arrangements. Therefore, I do not think it is necessary to accept amendment No. 7.
In response to amendment No. 8, the Bill requires the appeals committee to consider the individual and other students. It is designed to ensure students can continue to receive instructions from teachers. To put it in context, the Bill seeks to address the concerns of serious incidents of misbehaviour. The health and welfare of teachers, students and staff of school must be taken into consideration. That probably covers welfare and legal entitlements also. It is about reconciling the competing entitlements. The Bill sets out to do this. Therefore, I do not propose to accept amendment No. 8.
This Bill is one of the first legislative measures to follow on the recommendations of the task force on student behaviour in second level schools. It will be in operation before many of the other recommendations are implemented, such as smaller classes and an adequate National Educational Psychological Service for post-primary schools, in particular. We are all aware of major problems with children who may be dyslexic but do not come within the parameters of the right to support. Some of the recommendations made in the task force report, which are very holistic, have not yet been implemented. We have a duty as public representatives to ensure the rights of children who have been suspended or expelled are protected adequately. If all of the recommendations of the task force were implemented, I might agree there was no need for the amendment. However, the alternatives to school such as Youthreach and youth encounter projects have waiting lists and there is no space for some of the children excluded from other schools.
While there is a constitutional right to an education, there may not be appropriate ways in which to exercise it. I accept that while the National Educational Welfare Board has a responsibility to the children concerned, there is an insufficient number of educational welfare officers. They have a heavy workload and still do not have the numbers considered necessary to do the job properly. There is no onus on the schools expelling pupils to refer them on. I do not know if such a provision could be inserted in the Bill; I have not tabled such an amendment, but it is a matter that should be looked at. The pupil who is expelled should not be left to his or her own devices to find alternative educational opportunities. The National Youth Council of Ireland suggests in its submission that there should be a provision that would require the previous school to ensure the young person concerned was placed in another school. I have not tabled an amendment to that effect, as I only received the recommendations yesterday. The point is that there should be an obligation on somebody to ensure a child's educational rights are vindicated. For that reason, I will press the amendment.
A number of the issues raised in the report of the working group, School Matters, were addressed. The task force on student behaviour in second level schools has not only been established but is at work in the priority schools this week. School were assessed on the basis of greatest need. The teams, comprising people of the highest calibre and from a broad range of backgrounds, psychologists, teachers, principals and people who have worked with special needs children and been involved in youth work and so on, are working with students, teachers and principals towards the establishment of behavioural support classrooms. That is probably the single greatest recommendation made in the report.
The National Educational Psychological Service is being expanded, with an additional 31 staff joining within two years, including the psychologists for CDVEC. Staff numbers will rise to more than 200. The home-school-community liaison programme has been expanded, with 80 new staff being recruited in the past couple of months. Staff are targeted at the most disadvantaged schools and their role is firmly recognised in the task force report. They have a key role to play in attendance and behaviour patterns and linking with parents and families. I would put the role of the 450 home-school liaison staff and educational welfare officers together. It is very much the carrot and stick approach. This means that more than 600 staff have within their remit a role in ensuring participation in school and school attendance. This is having a significant effect.
I could turn to any page in the report, parents' associations, parents' rooms and so on. Members may know that disadvantaged schools have been invited to apply under the dormant accounts funds for funding for parents' rooms. It is not correct to say this legislation is the only thing to have happened as a result of the report. Significant progress has been made in the past 12 months. There is a statutory obligation on the National Educational Welfare Board to ensure there is another appropriate place for educating the child who is not enrolled, either suspended or expelled from a school. I do not think it is necessary to put the onus on the existing school to do so, when somebody has a statutory obligation to do it.
How does it know the child has been expelled or suspended if the parents are not responsible enough to tell it?
If a school wants to expel a student, it must give the student 14 days notice and within that timeframe it must notify the National Educational Welfare Board which comes into contact with the parent and the child before the expulsion takes place.
Must the board act?
It must. It has a legal obligation to do so under section 27 of the Act
What is the reason for the number of children hanging around and not in school?
In some cases the board may not be able to find an appropriate place for the child, the reason some children are engaged in home tuition. Some provision is always made for the child who should be in school or a centre of education appropriate to his or her needs. There is an obligation on the school to notify the board.
I move amendment No. 8:
In page 5, line 5, to delete "and welfare" and substitute ", welfare and other legal entitlements".
We now come to amendment No. 9 in the name of Deputy Enright. Amendments Nos. 10 and 12 are related. Amendments Nos. 9, 10 and 12 will be discussed together. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 9:
In page 5, line 28, to delete "relevant" and substitute the following:
where an appeals committee finds that a school has acted--
(i) properly, in terms of notifying the student and his or her parent or parents at each step of the process towards sanction,
(ii) reasonably, in terms of taking the final decision to sanction the student,
(iii) in accordance with its policy or policies and where--
(I) the policy or policies were well communicated to the student and his or her parent or parents, or
(II) the school had made reasonable efforts to communicate the policy or policies to the student and his or her parent or parents,
the appeals committee shall not overturn the decision of the school save in
exceptional and extraordinary circumstances.".
Amendments Nos. 9 and 12 are a little different, but both were grouped together. The purpose behind the amendments is to strengthen the legislation as far as possible. Amendment No. 9 would add to what is already contained in the legislation drawn up by the Minister. Its purpose is to ensure a school would have proper procedures in place which it would follow and that it would make parents aware of them. This would ensure that once the school followed the prescribed steps in regard to sanctioning a student, its decision to suspend or expel could be overturned only in exceptional or extraordinary circumstances. It is putting a degree of trust in the school, but on the basis that the parents of children attending the school know of the school's policies and that the school follows all the steps in the process.
Amendment No. 12 relates to matters discussed earlier where a student has been suspended or expelled for the use or threat of violence against another student, a teacher or property. The circumstances must be exceptional or extraordinary before a student is expelled. This amendment makes it clear to students that this type of behaviour, in particular the use or threat of violence against anybody within the school system, will not be tolerated and that, once the school has followed the correct procedures, it would take something exceptional and extraordinary to allow that student to remain in the school.
This approach has been taken in other places in recent times. Extremely violent behaviour is still rare, but where it happens it is important that it is dealt with firmly. This amendment would allow for that to happen.
This Bill involves a fine balancing of rights. It is very important everything is taken in context. What we are doing here is setting out a clear statutory framework by which the appeals committee must determine an appeal. It must look at the individual rights of the student and balance that against the educational interests of the school community as a whole.
I can understand that if something very serious happens in a school, the school will want to ensure that it does not have to subject itself to something similar in the future. That is all the more reason schools should have clear school policies that are agreed with staff, students and parents. Schools are now required to have policies. We have even given them templates to make it easy to ensure they are taking into consideration all the things that should be in such policies.
Under section 23 of the Education (Welfare) Act the school must consult the school community before preparing its code of behaviour. Parents must also be provided with a copy of the school's code of behaviour before their child is admitted into the school. Some schools require that students sign up to the code of behaviour when they are registering and that the parents be involved as well.
It is important that we look at this legislation in conjunction with the Education (Welfare) Act. The points the Deputy raises in regard to behaviour are valid. However, this must be dealt with in the overall context of the school and its policies, taking into account all of the elements included in this legislation and how they balance each other. A serious incident would be covered under paragraph (a). I will certainly deal on Report Stage with the issues that were raised earlier in regard to scale. It would also be covered under paragraph (e) which deals with safety and health. The policies of schools must also be considered. This sanction is comprehensive enough to address the issues about which Deputy Enright is concerned, without creating an imbalance in either direction.
I, too, am conscious of the need to keep a balance. However, legally schools must have policies on certain areas, particularly discipline, bullying and so on. The wording of this section, without amendment No. 9, lessens the value of the school's code. Under this legislation we are providing that the school can have its code but that what is contained in subsections (4)(a) to (4)(i) are paramount. This waters down the ability of a school to decide what is acceptable in terms of behaviour. It has always been a feature in Irish education that schools decide how they want to run themselves and amendment No. 9 would firm that up very strongly.
On amendment No. 12, I accept what the Minister says about subsections (4)(a) to (4)(e). However, it is not explicit enough. If a student comes into a school threatening or carrying out violent behaviour, the school should have the right to make it clear that it will not be tolerated. While the legislation is good, it is not prescriptive. Including the words “use or threat of violence” empowers schools to make clear what the result of certain behaviour will be. It is important that schools should be able to spell it out in that way. All the other aspects, the appeals committee and so on, will still kick in, but it is important that my amendments be given consideration.
I am conscious that each case should be dealt with on its merits and that we should try not to be reactive. I have listened to what the Minister said in regard to trying to bring balance to situations that have got out of hand. Cases of violent behaviour in schools have recently hit the headlines. My amendment is an attempt to put into the legislation in black and white that violent and threatening behaviour is not acceptable and will lead to the ultimate sanction of expulsion.
I accept the Minister cannot legislate for technicalities. However, there is concern that some students will get off on a technicality, as has happened in the past. There is also concern that in some schools the perpetrators of violence are allowed to remain at school while the victims of these bullies have been relocated. I accept what the Minister is trying to do. What I have tried to do is put it in black and white.
I do not recommend the reinstatement of pupils who have been expelled or suspended for behaving violently or threateningly. I am not suggesting that those who are involved in that type of behaviour should be put out of the school system. However, it sends the wrong signal if they are allowed to stay in the school where they carried out that behaviour. I accept that each case must be dealt with on its merits and that it is necessary to keep a balance. My amendment is probably wrongly worded, but that is what I was trying to do.
If I look at the word "scale" again before Report Stage, I might be able to provide for the flexibility to take account of serious violent behaviour as opposed to taking into account the nature, scale and persistence of any behaviour.
It should be remembered also that violence can be specifically mentioned in the school's own code of behaviour and that would then have to be taken into account by the appeals board. I am satisfied that in the past, where the perpetrator of violence was allowed to remain at school, the appeals board probably did not have guidelines or criteria which obliged it to take into account the rights, interests, health, safety and welfare of other students in the school, which are now set out in this Bill.
I move amendment No. 11:
In page 5, between lines 28 and 29, to insert the following:
"(4A) In hearing and determining an appeal under this section against a decision to which subsection (1) (c) applies an appeals committee shall have regard to regulations under section 33(g), which the Minister shall make within 6 months from the enactment of the Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2007.”.
This amendment addresses the issue of enrolment policies which are dealt with under section 33 of the Education (Welfare) Act 2000, whereby the Minister can make regulations governing enrolment in schools. It deals with the practice of cherrypicking by certain schools which do not admit, for example, pupils with special educational needs or pupils from certain social backgrounds. This power was given in the 2000 Act but not implemented and regulations were not drawn up. The amendment would insert this reference into the Bill and oblige the Minister to make regulations within six months of the enactment of this amending legislation. I am thinking, for example, of a regulation to oblige all schools to make provision for children with special needs in order that a school could not wriggle out of its obligation and admit a bright child from a particular family but refuse to admit his or her less bright brother, by claiming it could not provide for his or her particular needs. I accept that the main purpose of the legislation is not to deal with enrolment but propose that we take this opportunity to address the issue.
Schools have an obligation to take children with special needs. That obligation is clearly set out but I am aware that they do not all live up to their obligation. Section 33(g) of the Education (Welfare) Act 2000 obliges the Minister to consult the education partners — patrons, national parents associations, school management organisations, trade unions and staff associations — prior to making regulations under the Act. Were I minded to make the regulations, that process would have to be gone through. A huge number of complex issues surround schools’ admissions policies and practices which are worthy of consideration. However, they cannot be dealt with under this legislation or within the timeframe proposed by Deputy O’Sullivan in her amendment, given the legal obligation to consult the education partners. I am conscious of the issue but will not accept the amendment.
I accept that there must be consultation. However, it is several years since this measure was enacted and consultation has not commenced. The Minister appears to indicate that she is mindful of the need to make regulations, should she be in a position to do so after the general election. I am anxious that the process would be commenced. There is a need for regulation because certain schools are clearly not fulfilling their obligation to be holistic and inclusive in the enrolment of children.
Deputy O'Sullivan has outlined the main issue arising from this section of the 2000 Act. This is an ongoing problem. The Minister spoke about it last Easter at all the teachers' conferences and we are now approaching Easter again. It is all very well to raise the issue but we must provide solutions. I accept that finding a solution is not a simple matter.
Parents choose, for various or perceived reasons, to send their children to a particular school. Schools are willing to take children from outside their immediate area, particularly if the children in question do not have difficulties. They can equally refuse to admit a child with special needs or who is a Traveller on the grounds that he or she does not live in the school's catchment area. This is a real issue. If a school is willing to take one pupil from outside its immediate catchment area, it cannot refuse to take another.
I agree that this can be a difficult problem and that consultation must take place. The teachers' unions have spoken about the issue but none has proposed a solution. It reminds me of the proposal to hold a referendum on the rights of children. Everyone thinks it is a good idea but no one wants to say what the wording of the constitutional amendment should be. The question must be addressed. I am not sure if this is the way to do it but I am convinced that we must deal with the problem.
The issues are worthy of being pursued with schools at all levels. I recently advised a parent who has two sons in one school, while a third who qualifies on the basis of being the sibling and son of a pupil or former pupil of the school but has special needs is being advised to go elsewhere. I was quick to advise the parent of her rights. Nevertheless, I do not propose to accept the amendment in this context.
I move amendment No. 12:
In page 5, between lines 28 and 29, to insert the following:
"(4A) Where a student has been—
(a) suspended, or
for the use, or threat, of violence against—
(i) another student,
(ii) a teacher or any other member of the staff of the school, or
(iii) property, whether held by the school or a person referred to in paragraph (i) or (ii),
the appeals committee shall have particular regard to that fact, and shall not overturn the decision of the school save in exceptional and extraordinary circumstances.".
In light of what the Minister has said about the issue of scale, I withdraw the amendment and will resubmit it on Report Stage.
I move amendment No. 13:
In page 6, lines 1 and 2, to delete "the Secretary General may stipulate, as" and substitute "it shall be".
The Secretary General in hearing an appeal may ask for specific information from the parents of the child who is the subject of the appeal, the school or another party. The section allows that the Secretary General may decide not to proceed with the appeal. My amendment proposes that the appeal should not proceed if information requested by the Secretary General is not supplied. If information is needed in order to address an issue, it should be supplied.
I do not propose to accept the amendment. Whereas a school and the parent of a student must provide information, I could not allow a school to obstruct a hearing by failing to submit information. A school could delay a hearing indefinitely while the child in question missed school. In fairness to the child and his or her parents, an appeal board should be allowed to draw an inference from a failure to provide information. An appeal should go ahead and no one party should obstruct it. A school is more likely to obstruct the appeals process because it is the school which benefits from a pupil's absence from school.
I move amendment No. 14:
In page 6, line 40, to delete "may" and substitute "shall".
The Bill allows an appeals committee to proceed with an appeal even if it considers it to be vexatious. If an appeals committee considers an appeal to be vexatious, it should not proceed with it. If it proceeds with an appeal, it cannot consider it to be vexatious.
I draw members' attention to the fact that a process of facilitation is gone through before a case comes to an appeals committee. That process will have teased out the various issues involved and the facilitator who works with both parties will be in a position to determine whether the appeal is vexatious. The decision will not be taken on an initial reading of the paperwork. Consideration will be given to the matter by a facilitator before the case comes to a full appeal. For that reason, I do not propose to accept the amendment.
I raised this matter during the debate on Second Stage. Will the Minister explain why she proposes to include a reference to the State Examinations Commission in this section? This could make the publication of tables of examination results more likely.
In many cases poor performance by children in school is not necessarily the fault of the school. According to the Minister's figures, one in three children from disadvantaged areas have problems with reading and writing. Their parents have literacy difficulties and what happens in the home impacts on the school. Class size, inadequate supply of support teachers and insufficient language support teachers also impact on schools. I am concerned that opening up this information to the State Examinations Commission is part of a move towards the opening up of school league tables to which I am totally opposed because they do not take into account the factors I have outlined. Perhaps the Minister would expand on why she intends to allow this information to be given to the State Examinations Commission.
I am doing the opposite. The Freedom of Information Act extends to the State Examinations Commission in its operations. This ensures it will have the power not to give out results, for all the reasons we have discussed previously. What the Deputy is trying to do is in line with my thinking.
In the case of schools in disadvantaged areas in particular, a number of factors may impact on children's performance. Deputy Crowe is quite right to say it is not just a matter of the school but also of community and parental support and so on. I am sure he would agree with the Government's policy of targeting disadvantaged schools in the past couple of years. That is where the smaller class sizes have been targeted.
There are now 1,450 language support teachers in our schools, which is quite an extraordinary development, with another 350 to go in over the next two years. Literacy programmes, and reading and mathematics recovery initiatives are being targeted at disadvantaged schools. Standardised testing, being introduced in all schools this year at two different points for English reading and mathematics, will allow people at a local level, teachers and parents, to have information about how their children are doing.
The emphasis here is on linking in with the home through home-school-community liaison initiatives, the provision of parents' rooms, family literacy supports and so on, all of which are in the DEIS programme. These will address the issues the Deputy has raised. I fully accept that these schools would be even more disadvantaged by the publication of examination results. That is why I am making sure those results cannot be published.
In a sense the Minister is ensuring that league tables cannot be published. However, if an individual school decides to publish its examination results, there is nothing in the legislation that prevents it from doing so. Is that correct?
The State Examinations Commission will not be obliged to provide access to the information. The information cannot come from the State Examinations Commission.
What if the school has the information? It would have to get it from the State Examinations Commission.
Every school has the results of every student.
If the school decides to publish its results in their totality, not in regard to individual students, this legislation would not stop it from doing so.
No. This applies to the State Examinations Commission.
It cannot give out the results for the whole country?
No. Neither can it give out the results for, say, Offaly, and compare them with results from somewhere else. I sincerely hope schools will not start publishing their leaving certificate results.
I move amendment No. 15:
In page 7, between lines 40 and 41, to insert the following:
"(a) in section 24(4), by inserting after “officer”, ”, but the board of the school may if it considers that the circumstances underlying the proposal to expel the student so warrant, forthwith suspend the student without further notice for the period between notification of the educational welfare officer and the carrying out of the expulsion”.”.
Under the Education (Welfare) Act 2000 a child cannot be expelled for 20 days irrespective of the nature of the behaviour. What I am trying to address here is a situation where an extremely violent, perhaps criminal, act has been perpetrated by a student and the school must wait 20 days before it can take action. I propose that schools should have stronger powers in extreme situations
It may suit schools in some circumstances that they must wait 20 days because they must notify the Educational Welfare Board, which will make sure the parents are made aware of their rights of appeal and have time to find an alternative placement for the child.
On the other hand, subsection 24(5)(4) of the Education (Welfare) Act, which is the subsection that relates to expulsion, provides that it 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 are maintained in the school concerned and that the safety of the students is secured." This means that a school is not prevented from suspending in the interim a student it is proposing to expel if the school considers this is a reasonable measure to preserve order discipline and safety.
What the Deputy is trying to address is, therefore, addressed in the Education (Welfare) Act, although under normal circumstances 20 days' notice would be given if a child is to be expelled and the child stays in the school. However, the school can suspend the student during that period if it is felt there is a danger and it is necessary to maintain good order and discipline and secure the safety of the other students in the school.
Does the Minister feel that is strong enough and clear enough?
The Education (Welfare) Act specifically mentions that subsection (4), which deals with expulsions, is without prejudice to the right of a board to take reasonable measures.
Can the school immediately exclude a student from school during that 20 days?
It can decide to expel a student in 20 days' time and in the meantime, having regard to the safety of the students in the school, it can suspend the student. That is covered in the Education (Welfare) Act.
i move amendment No. 16:
In page 9, lines 20 and 21, to delete subsection (2) and substitute the following:
"(2) The Education Acts 1878 to 2001 and sections 2 to 5 may be cited together as the Education Acts 1878 to 2007.”.
This is a technical amendment concerned with the collective citation of the Bill. I would like to hear the Minister's response.
My legal advisers advise me that, there being different titles to different Acts, the only one we are amending is the Education Act 1998. They advise me that they are satisfied that the citation and reference to the Education Acts in the Bill is accurate.
My legal adviser advises me otherwise. I may resubmit the amendment. I will not press it for the moment.
I will have it re-examined to make sure.
That concludes the business of the Select Committee on Education and Science in considering the Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2007. I thank the Minister and her officials and Deputies for their co-operation.