This tit for tat has absolutely no relevance to the White Paper but it has to the fact that the Minister takes umbrage at remarks which went too near the bone. At the conference I met a teacher who is a long time member of the INTO and attended conferences on numerous occasions. He told me a scéal about a Minister for Education some years ago who did not attend the conference and had to send his parliamentary secretary, what we would call nowadays a Minister of State. That Minister of State had been educated in the more affluent private sector and was less than familiar with the conditions of ordinary people and national schools. He assured the delegates at that conference that class sizes had no effect on the efficiencies or the quality of education provided in a school. Needless to say, his views were not well received. I cannot help wondering why Deputy John Bruton, who was the Parliamentary Secretary, has changed his views in the past 20 years.
I must at this juncture advert to the campaign for early retirement. I am sure the majority of teachers would prefer to continue to serve up to the age of 65 but — and it is a major but — numerous teachers no longer feel capable of answering fully the children's needs up to the current minimum age for retirement on pension. This situation has become intolerable. It is fraught with difficulty for the teacher — that is a matter of serious concern — and more importantly for the children who, through no fault of the teachers concerned, are denied the standard of education to which they are entitled under the Constitution. I appeal to the Minister to settle this problem on the basis that will do justice to all concerned.
A special problem arises in the area of funding for teachers who are employed as substitutes over a lengthy period, sometimes years. Invariably these teachers are fully qualified. They are victims of a serious injustice in that they are denied the full benefit of annual salaries and superannuation credit for the period they serve as substitutes. Without the service of substitutes the primary system would break down. No financial consideration, whether imposed by the Department of Finance of otherwise, can be held to justify the treatment at present meted out to substitute teachers. A straightforward principle of equality is involved and should be upheld.
I welcome the Minister's announcement regarding the establishment of a commission on school accommodation needs. I urge her to waste no time in setting up that commission which should be given specific targets for the completion of its deliberations. I strongly recommend that the commission be enjoined to bear in mind the social and economic implications as well as the educational implications of any decision on the closure of schools in a particular area. This applies particularly to primary schools. The school is a focal point of the entire community in rural areas. With the local post office and the Garda station it establishes the area as an individual community. This individuality is of crucial importance and should be safeguarded at all costs, consistent with the overriding need to provide a full and comprehensive education for all the children within the community.
The White Paper asserts that the provision of adequate resources for primary education will continue to be a priority. If the primary education provision is to continue as in the past it can only mean the Minister will shrug off any real commitment to the funding of what the White Paper declares to be "of fundamental importance in determining children's life chances". Let us continue to commit essential funding to primary education. It is the most important sector and we should get away from disadvantage with regard to other sectors, at second or third level.
I welcome the Minister's commitment to the implementation of recommendations of the special education review committee. I ask her to ensure there is no unavoidable delay in the process of implementation. This report has been with the Minister for the past 18 months. There is an urgency about the committee's recommendations which must not be ignored. While the committee paid a well deserved tribute to those agencies already involved in the provision of special education it recognises that the resources available to these are wholly inadequate. This point was underlined in a recent radio interview by the incoming President of the INTO, whom I compliment on her election to high office, in which she outlined her priorities in relation to special education. The necessary resources must be provided for special education without delay. There is a special need for the provision of adequate psychological services to cope with the needs of this area. I am pleased to note the Minister's commitment to an expanded psychological service. Perhaps the Minister would indicate in her concluding remarks the timescale she has in mind for this most urgent development.
With regard to the education of traveller children, how does the Minister propose to maintain continuity and how are the schools to cope with the special problems of traveller children who tend to move during the school year to locations sometimes far distant from the school in which they commenced the school year? These are practical problems to which I hope the Minister will be able to find practical solutions. Otherwise the White Paper simply pays lip-service to the principle of equality in the case of traveller children. These problems will be even greater when the children are engaged in second level education.
According to the White Paper the Minister proposes to establish new education boards. Someone a little older than me, and probably also the Minister, pointed out to me at the weekend that the regions mentioned by the Minister bear remarkable similarity to the regions proposed in 1940 for the evacuation of children from the Dublin area in the event of a breakdown of Government consequent on bombing or invasion during the war. I know the Minister does not anticipate a breakdown of Government for those reasons but it is interesting that these regions are mentioned at a time of remembrance.
Perhaps it indicates no more than that it is dangerous to put any plan on paper in a Government Department, particularly in the Department of Education. We no longer have the borderland region of Donegal, Cavan, Monaghan and Louth. We now have a region stretching from Malin Head to Carrick-on-Shannon, and it is a brave distance from Malin Head in County Donegal to Carrick-on-Shannon in County Leitrim.
Despite the serious arguments presented in the White Paper, I take the view that the verdict on the Minister's proposals for the establishment of education boards must be marked "not proven". I am particularly persuaded by the argument about the desirability of releasing the Department from its current involvement in the detailed delivery of services to schools. We are a small country. Already a substantial degree of decentralisation is in operation at primary and secondary level. Boards of management of national schools are responsible for the day-to-day running of activities within schools without being over-intrusive into the roles of their principals and of the teachers subject, of course, to the general guidelines laid down by the Department. The Department is not generally involved in the detailed management of schools.
At second level the degree of decentralisation is greater than at primary level. Private secondary schools operate under the overall direction of the Department in respect of the curriculum. The examination system is strongly centralised, and long may it remain so in the interest of impartiality, equity and equality. The vocational school system has a high degree of independence of the Department and operates largely on its own initiative, subject only to keeping within the budgetary limits set down by the Department. Naturally the Department's influence in the area of curriculum and examination systems is much the same as in the secondary school system.
Similarly, the detailed operation of the comprehensive and community schools is largely independent of any interference from Marlborough Street. Where is the need, therefore, for the introduction of an additional layer of bureaucratic control at first and second level by way of the proposed education boards? It seems that the Minister is trying to justify a proposal by assembling a hotch potch of functions and responsibilities for these new boards which are scattered throughout the White Paper. They do not justify separately or in the aggregate the extremely high level of expenditure which these boards will involve.
On the subject of expense the Minister was quite breathtaking. She acknowledged that additional costs would be involved but did not go into detail as to the amount. Is the Minister content to say that any such costs the Minister may have to pay out of Department funds, which are overstretched, will be outweighed by positive outcomes? Can the Minister seriously expect a blanket approach for her proposals on the basis of such an assertion?
I accept the need for rationalisation, particularly in the area of vocational education. The scope for rationalisation in the vocational education committees is evident and, by the outline given of the geographical remit of the proposed educational boards, that is something that would be properly pursued as a separate issue. However, I am not convinced of the need for the new education board structure or the justification for the expenditure of very substantial resources at a time when there is a crying need for investment at all levels of the education system.
I am happy with the Minister's proposals for the governance of individual primary schools by an eight-member board representing a reasonable attempt to resolve the many difficulties that have arisen in this area. I hope the proposed discussions on second level and post primary education will lead to a similar resolution of the difficulties in regard to a difficult and vexed issue.
The White Paper refers to the new leaving certificate structure and what are referred to as three separate orientations. The case for the structures is a sound one, but I would strike one note of caution. The White Paper states that the leaving certificate is accorded a high social status by students, parents and employers. It is essential that there be no diminution of this status as a result of the projected development of the three separate orientations and that the students who follow the two new programmes should not suffer in any way in regard to self-esteem or social status by comparison with those who follow the established leaving certificate programme. This will be a matter of primary importance for the students concerned and their parents, and it is clear that the ultimate status of the two new leaving certificate programmes will in the end depend upon the attitude of the employer.
What specific modest change in the examination system does the NCCA consider would bring "substantial improvements to the teaching and learning process and to the quality of the educational outcomes in the schemes"? I refer in particular to page 60 of the White Paper. I would never have expected that the NCCA or the Minister would be so coy about the prospect of such an improvement. Who will carry the heavy responsibility for external scrutiny or internal assessment so as to ensure no falling off in the overall standard of assessment or of the acceptability to the community and to the employers in particular? Clearly the value of a system of internal assessment will depend primarly on the elimination of any undesirable element in the carrying out of that assessment in either a positive or negative direction. It will be a very heavy responsibility to ensure the internal system is not open to attack on such grounds. It is essential that the system is not open to attack.
I wholeheartedly welcome the recognition given in the White Paper to the role of further education which has up to now been discharged by the vocational education committees, community and comprehensive schools and to the indication that a wide range of second level schools will be encouraged to provide such programmes and activities. The contrast between the contribution in this area of the first category of schools and the secondary schools, of which only a small number is actively engaged in the provision of further education, could not be more marked. I would support any initiative taken by the Minister with a view to rectifying the imbalance. Can she give us any idea of the initiatives she is contemplating to prepare for this?
I wish to refer briefly to the proposals in the White Paper to extend participation by students from the lower socioeconomic groupings in third level education. It is important that all necessary steps are taken in the selection of such students and in the process of their integration in the college community to ensure that they benefit fully from the third level experience.
I note that the Minister has put a new system in place to facilitate students who wish to transfer from a PLC to an regional technical college but she has made one vital mistake. The one regional technical college over which she has complete control, Letterkenny, has not been included. This is a worthwhile and innovative programme and the Minister should ensure that Letterkenny is included to allow young people to benefit from the third level experience. Access to third level education is now an aspiration cherished by more and more members of the community. It is only right that all those with potential should have the opportunity to profit from the third level experience and proceed to degree level.
What is not always reckoned is the likely negative effect of the third level experience on those who fall by the wayside while pursuing college courses. This fate should be avoided at all costs and it behoves the authorities, particularly the third level institutions and the HEA, to ensure that the optimum support and advisory services are made available to all students given the projected annual increase in third level participation rates contemplated in the White Paper.
I am glad to read in the section dealing with quality assurance and accountability that emphasis is being placed on the need for the development of the teaching skills of third level staff. There has long been a belief that one of the key factors in the achievement by third level students of results equal to their potential is their relationship with their lecturers and tutorial staff. Just as much as it is desirable that ineffective teachers should not feature at first or second level it is vital that third level staff have the ability often lacking even in gifted research personnel, to explain their subject to students, to resolve problems of interpretation and communication and have an understanding of the problems encountered by the most gifted students following the trends of their lectures. Lecturers who lack this ability should not hold posts and it should be the task of the responsible authorities to ensure they do not.
The chapter dealing with sport is most intriguing. It states: "Sport covers a wide range of activities, including organised competitive sport, recreational sport and active leisure pursuits within the Sport for All concept”. One almost expected this “aiste” to be followed by “lá ar an bportach” ending with “thángamar abhaile, tuirseach traochta, tar éis an lae”. I have read the chapter several times and I am as wise now as when I started. It is as if someone decided that a chapter on sport should be included and some unfortunate officer in the Department in Marlboro Street was asked to write it but it was a poor iarracht.
It further states: "There is a close relationship between the physical education programme in schools and sports in the community". Whoever wrote this aiste could have gone a little further: there is a close relationship between the games programme which teachers engage in with their students during school hours and, more particularly, after school and participation rates in games and sporting activities throughout the community. People in County Donegal know this well; the close relationship between school games and participation rates in sporting activities throughout the community is one of the reasons Donegal has qualified for the national league final on Sunday week. Tá súil agam go mbeidh bua agaibh feasta. Given that we are trying to encourage people to be active in sport and reduce the health bill this chapter does not befit a White Paper.
While I welcome the White Paper, it is unfortunate that this debate is taking place the day after it was published. Parents and teachers are anxious to read it and to consider how we can develop what is an excellent education system. There is no need to fix something which is not broken but there is a need for change. This will present us with a challenge. Irrespective of which philosophy the Minister pursues in running her Department it will be irrelevant and the White Paper "Charting our Education Future" will gather dust unless she can secure the required funding package for the development of the education system. We need to ensure full participation at all levels. This will cost money. When decisions are made they should be justifiable and we should not put bureaucratic structures in place whereby moneys are spent on chief executives, principal officers, HEOs and typists with the result that pre-schools, national schools, secondary schools and third level institutions are starved of resources.
I wish the Minister well. She has a difficult task and we will do our best to keep her on her toes. We look forward to the implementation of the legislative programme as soon as possible. I hope the Minister will consider some of the ideas we have put forward given that politicians were not offered an opportunity to participate in the discussions which took place in the formulation of the Green Paper or at the convention. While it is important that the education providers make a contribution the legislators should also be entitled to have an input. I hoped we would have had time to read each of the 257 pages at least twice; some of us only had an opportunity to read the White Paper once.