Before resuming on amendment No. 85, I understand the Minister wishes to suggest a correction following from proceedings on the last day the Bill was discussed.
Education (No. 2) Bill, 1997: Report Stage (Resumed).
Before continuing with the debate, I would be obliged if, in accordance with Standing Orders, the Ceann Comhairle would direct the Clerk of the Dáil to make the following verbal change to amendments Nos. 74 and 75. The amendment should read:
In page 15, line 26, to delete ", as directed by the Minister and" and substitute "on the initiative of the Inspectorate and, following consultation with the board, patron, parents of students and teachers, as appropriate,".
Is the correction agreed? Agreed.
The amendment concerns the inspectorate and requests that it produce an annual report on its works and findings on the strengths and weaknesses of the education system. This goes to the core of the business of an inspectorate. It should not just be an internal briefing for the Minister but should also work on key quality issues in the education system. It should examine issues such as the level of literacy performance, the success of science and mathematics and the successful transition of children from primary to secondary school. What marks out our education system is the remarkable lack of a systematic collection of information about any of these issues. Were it not for the OECD and others exerting pressure occasionally on the Department to conduct surveys, information would rarely be systematically collected, particularly on the proper placement of children with special needs. It is a serious weakness that we do not seem to find it necessary to systematically collect information to allow policy makers make informed decisions. This handicaps every occupant of the Minister's office.
This is a good opportunity to rectify that matter and to ensure the inspectorate will be a vehicle for reform through the systematic collection and publication of information about the strengths of the system but more particularly its weaknesses, of which there are many. We have failed those with the greatest needs. Information is not collected systematically on the number of children with literacy problems. It came as a shock when the Education Research Centre recently discovered that one in five of 16 and 17 year olds was unable to make sense of the information carried on the back of an aspirin package. The Minister should be willing to publish the findings of the inspectorate to allow an informed debate. We have been starved of hard information for far too long.
I commend the amendment to the Minister. The least we should expect from the inspectorate is that it would carve out a strong role for itself in the way that those who authored this section had in mind but it seems it will be far too dependent on the Minister through whom much of the information collected will be filtered before it will see the light of day.
I move amendment No. 87:
In page 16, between lines 11 and 12, to insert the following:
"(d) to promote excellence in the management of, teaching in and the use of support services by schools and in the procedures for consultation and co-operation within and between schools and centres for education;
(e) to disseminate information relating to—
(i) the performance by the Inspectorate of the functions provided for in this section, and
(ii) successful educational initiatives which have been implemented by schools and centres for education, and promote informed debate on those matters;
(f) to evaluate the effectiveness of the teaching, development, promotion and use of Irish in schools and centres for education and to report to the Minister on those matters;".
I move amendment No. 88: In page 16, line 12, to delete "Minister" and substitute "Chief Inspector".
I move amendment No. 89:
In page 16, line 21, to delete "Minister" and substitute "Chief Inspector".
We now proceed to amendment No. 90. Amendment No. 91 is an alternative. Amendments Nos. 90 and 91 may be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 90:
In page 16, line 25, before "to assess" to insert "in consultation with parents".
This section deals with the assessment of the psychological needs of students in recognised schools and the provision of advice for parents about their psychological development. What is remarkable is that it is not mentioned anywhere that parents have the right to be consulted. It is important in assessing a child's psychological needs which will lead to strategies to assist the child that his or her parents are at the heart of the process. If the amendment is not made, parents will find that they have been short-changed once again. They must be seen as partners in the education system. They are recognised by the Constitution as the primary educators of their children.
The right to be consulted is restricted by amendment No. 91 in the name of the Minister. Under that amendment parents will be consulted only where practicable. Parents will not have an automatic right to be consulted, rather it will be a matter for the would-be experts to decide whether they should be included. That is the wrong approach and it could be argued that it is in breach of the spirit of the Constitution which recognises parents as the primary educators of their children.
The Minister should withdraw his amendment and support the alternative which is much clearer. I cannot conceive of a situation where it would be necessary to provide for an exemption. The Minister should think again.
I support the amendment and have the same reservations about amendment No. 91 in the name of the Minister. If difficulties relating to students with special needs are to be resolved, parents must play a pivotal role. If in the consultation process parents do not co-operate, other methods can be looked at. Parents have inalienable constitutional rights and it is therefore probably unconstitutional not to consult them when a process such as that outlined in this section is embarked upon.
The Minister should withdraw his amendment and provide at least for an attempted consultation with parents in every instance. If parents refuse to co-operate then the needs of the children must be addressed in a different way, probably with the involvement of the local health board. However, not to have a system of mandatory consultation with parents is undemocratic, wrong and counterproductive.
This matter was raised on Committee Stage and I was anxious to meet the concerns which were raised then. I have no desire to place a bar on consultation with parents in relation to assessment. One can think of situations where that would be impractical, but I have no difficulty in withdrawing amendment No. 91 and allowing amendment No. 90 to stand.
I move amendment No. 92:
In page 16, line 31, to delete "Minister" and substitute "Chief Inspector".
I move amendment No. 93:
In page 16, line 37, to delete "Minister" and substitute "Chief Inspector".
I move amendment No. 93a:
In page 16, between lines 38 and 39, to insert the following:
"(5) In particular, without prejudice to the generality of subsecton (4)(a), the function of an inspector shall include to identify, assess and advise of needs and provide individual plans in relation to students with dyslexia, dyspraxia, attention deficit disorder, autism, Asperger's syndrome or similar conditions.".
I have presented the arguments for this amendment previously. I have often stated my growing alarm at the number of cases of dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADD and ADHD which are being diagnosed quite late in children's school careers and often at the end of their primary education. This is appalling. The Department must focus on the identification and assessment of these children and put in place individual plans to deal with their needs.
It is not sufficient to describe children with dyslexia, for example, simply as having reading problems. These are very specific difficulties and require specialised attention. I am a national teacher and I did some remedial teaching early in my career, but my training did not equip me to understand or identify conditions such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADD or ADHD. This amendment is necessary because we need to demonstrate to parents who have been through the trauma of having these conditions identified at a late stage in their children's careers that the Department will now focus on these conditions and that the trauma will be avoided for parents in the future.
I recently tabled questions in the Dáil about the definitions of these conditions and I am concerned at the content of the Minister's answers. I am particularly concerned at the Department's definition of autism. This condition was first identified in 1943 so we have not known about it for very long. Until relatively recently not much was known within the education system about the other conditions. My amendment seeks to have the functions of an inspector include to identify, assess and advise of needs and provide individual plans in relation to students with the conditions I have mentioned. This is the least we can provide for these children. In the present climate, it is necessary that the conditions be specifically mentioned in the Bill and that the inspectorate have a clearly defined role in relation to them.
I support Deputy O'Shea's amendment. There is no doubt the conditions described by Deputy O'Shea have not received a great deal of attention in the past. Our knowledge and understanding of them is developing and it is important that the inspectorate include a centre of excellence to identify how they can best be dealt with and help schools to develop plans for the education of children who have these conditions. Deputy O'Shea's amendment has much to recommend it. The Minister may argue that the Bill's general provision, which states that an inspector may conduct assessments of the educational needs of students, embraces the needs identified here. Nonetheless, in view of the general belief that there has been a lack of attention to these needs there is merit in singling out conditions such as those mentioned in the Bill. The amendment complements what the Minister is seeking to do. He may say this amendment is redundant. However, the specific statement in the Bill that it is one of the duties of the inspectorate to deal with these conditions makes it impossible to avoid doing so. If these conditions were included in a general category it is possible that they would be forgotten about as they have been in the past. There is merit in what Deputy O'Shea is proposing and I support his amendment.
I have sympathy with the points made by the Deputies and these are issues with which I am very concerned. However, the amendment is not appropriate. Most of what is in the amendment is already covered by other sections of the Bill. Section 13(3)(a)(II), provides for inspectors to conduct assessments of the educational needs of students. This includes the conditions and categories outlined by Deputy O'Shea in his amendment.
I clearly signalled during our discussions the last day in the House that I was interested in moving towards the statementing position in terms of individual school plans for children in the context of a Seanad amendment. On that occasion I said that my aim would be to make provision for statementing and to review the situation within three years of the enactment of the Bill with a view to subsequent amendment. In other words, we would include a general provision on Committee Stage in the Seanad to cover the individual needs of children. We should see how it works initially rather than imposing an obligation that it must be done tomorrow or next week. I could arrange for an amendment to that effect on Committee Stage in the Seanad. That deals with the latter half of the amendment in terms of the individual plans for students with dyslexia and dyspraxia.
The amendment states that it would be the function of an inspector to "identify, assess and advise of needs and provide in individual plans .". I have been aware of the lack of research into autism, for example, since I became Minister. There has been a lack of official recognition of autism in the educational world and in official policy for some time. It is interesting that the CIRC review body did not categorise autism as a separate category which would require its own staffing and scheduling. I acknowledge there is a deficit and I intend to put it right. There is a significant lack of indigenous research into autism. I have met the Irish Society for Autism which is made up of parents, many of whom have considerable experience. I have noticed that different groups of parents have different attachments to different methodologies for dealing with autism. We tend to import many teaching methodologies for autism. The predominant method in Ireland is the TEACCH method which we use in Beech-park. However, other parents have said that they believe in the Lovaas method.
We are anxious to meet the various interests and to try to accommodate as best we possibly can the concerns and needs of parents. It would not be fair to expect the inspector to identify all these needs. As regards autism, for example, a child should ideally be diagnosed as being autistic before an inspector sees them because the earlier the diagnosis, the better the chances of intervening in a more positive way and helping that child with their subsequent quality of life.
We need earlier diagnosis of and comprehensive research on autism. It would be an unfair burden to expect inspectors to accommodate all the obligations in the amendment. This goes back to the pre-school situation. Children with autism need early intervention and I am satisfied we will do something about that. We set up a number of classes and a special school in September to try to give children with autism greater access.
I am carrying out a comprehensive review of our treatment of children with dyspraxia and dyslexia, in particular, from the beginning through to examinations and the arrangements we put in place for many young students who are studying for the junior and leaving certificate. I am not satisfied that we are giving them a fair crack of the whip. It will take a lot of hard thinking and there might be significant shifts in our approach to the examination system to accommodate children with these conditions, but that is the road I want to travel while at the same time protecting the overall integrity of the examination system. Our philosophy should be to facilitate children to learn and to show off in examinations what they have learned rather than allowing the examination system to be an undue penalty on children with these conditions, which I suspect it is at present. I am anxious to have a good debate on this issue.
The Bill allows for the inspector to cater for all the educational needs of children. I am prepared to introduce an amendment on Committee Stage in the Seanad to deal with the issue of individual plans for children with special needs, which would be a radical departure. I have said it will not be all-embracing initially but that we can include a provision to review it within three years. There are many issues pertaining to these conditions that extend beyond the role of the inspector. We cannot place all the obligations on the inspector to assess, identify and deal with the needs of children. A more comprehensive approach is needed.
I do not question the Minister's good intentions in this area and I am sure he will deliver on what he has said. However, I have come across cases where it was known that a child was failing at school, but it took someone outside the system to refer them to the health services for diagnosis. That type of situation must be avoided at all costs. When children are under-performing in school, the inspector should have a base line responsibility to see that the conditions listed in the amendment or similar ones are diagnosed as early as possible.
The Minister mentioned a number of measures he is putting in place to improve the examination system. Many parents have children who will face State examinations in the near future, yet they are not aware of what the Minister has told us. These parents must be told what is happening. If they do not get information, they may feel abandoned or distressed and that can have a horrific effect on family life. I accept the Minister is doing all he can but, as someone who is adroit at public relations, he should use all the methods available to him to get this information across to the people involved.
I am not particularly adroit at public relations but that is a matter for another debate. Parents of children with dyslexia and other special needs who have gone through the examination system are painfully aware of its shortcomings. I have outlined my personal view of how we should move forward. It will be difficult, although possible, to change the way the examination system works and responds to young students with particular needs.
The great argument against liberalising the situation too much is that it will damage the overall integrity of the examination and results. I have initiated a review in the Department of the existing arrangements for students with special needs who are sitting examinations to see if we can be more responsive and sympathetic to their needs. The Bill covers the points raised in the amendment. It does not specify each condition but it deals with the issues in a comprehensive way.
The time lag between the application by the school and the decision to put special measures in place for special needs students who are taking State examinations is distressing for parents. A decision can be reached at five minutes to midnight which is unacceptable. The system must be urgently improved so students and parents know at an early stage the special provisions which are being made.
The section to which the Minister referred states that the inspector "may" conduct assessments of the educational needs of students. However, the percentage occurrence of these conditions among Irish children is considerably below the international average. I am afraid there is a large number of children with these conditions in the education system who have not been identified.
If progress is to be made, the buck must stop somewhere. Inspectors should be made aware of children who are not functioning normally or obviously have a difficulty which cannot be identified in school. Teachers are not trained in this area and it is a job for educational psychologists. A child with a difficulty should be brought to an educational psychologist as early as possible. I will not make negative remarks about the present psychological service. However, there should be some method of referral for children who do not have access to an educational psychologist. Some areas have more than one whereas other have none.
I appeal to the Minister to urgently address this area. I have seen parents anguished and distressed because of this problem. As an Oireachtas, we cannot stand by and allow it develop. In some areas diagnosis is provided in the private sector but I would be much happier if diagnosis in all cases was provided in the public sector. It undermines parents' confidence in the educational system and the Department when families who can ill afford it have to go outside the public sector to get a diagnosis especially when it was known for a long time that their children were underperforming or behaving in a dysfunctional manner. It is appalling that if parents do not go outside the public system, their children can finish their schooling without any diagnosis being reached. I have put down this amendment to change this. There is a fundamental need to signal to support groups that the diagnosis of these conditions is a priority of the Department. I withdraw the amendment pending the consideration of the Bill in the Seanad.
I move amendment No. 94:
In page 16, lines 43 and 44, to delete "or expedient".
This amendment proposes to delete the words "or expedient" from section 13(6) as it applies to the inspectorate. The section states:
An Inspector shall have all such powers as are necessary or expedient for the purpose of performing his or her functions and shall be accorded every reasonable facility and co-operation by the board and the staff of a school or centre for education.
The word "necessary" is adequate to describe the powers an inspector should have. It can mean that something must be done, or is required or is indispensable. The word "expedient" is more transient than the word "necessary". I suggest it means "useful". Something can be useful to an inspector but is not necessarily useful to the education system. I am concerned that the use of the word "expedient" could lead to an inspector dealing with specific circumstances. The word "necessary" is more important as there is a strong standing interpretation of the word as regards the way in which inspectors work.
The word "expedient" means desirable. It could be desirable to the inspector to have particular powers but this does not necessarily mean it is in the interest of schools, students or teachers. I do not see why it is necessary to include the word "expedient". It has connotations of flying by the seat of one's pants and it is not appropriate in terms of the functions of inspectors.
The word "expedient" as used in this provision is defined in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary as "advantageous, suitable to the circumstances of the case". It is also a standard word used in legislation. My legal advice is strong that it is a very appropriate word to use in relation to the powers of the inspector. We should bear in mind we spent the past few hours debating the kind of powers we want to give the inspectorate.
It is not a question of defining what is suitable for schools and everybody else. We are giving serious functions to the inspectorate and are inserting a clause here to ensure the inspector will have the necessary and expedient powers for the conduct and performance of his or her functions. The use of the word "expedient" is not inappropriate, dangerous or undesirable. This is not the first time it has been used in legislation. It is a safe word and does not have connotations of flying by the seat of one's pants.
I understand Deputy O'Shea's concern on the grounds that this could be a compulsive power and the inspectorate could exercise rights which could affect peoples' human rights. "Expedient" would be a curious word to use in this context as it would imply that inspectors made up their own needs. In the context of the inspectorate it is not offensive. However, I will listen to Deputy O'Shea's summing up.
I accept the Minister's remarks and legal advice but I still feel the word "expedient" is not appropriate. The other question which arises is who will interpret what is expedient. The legal advice concerns what the courts will ultimately say but an inspector may tell the Minister he has done the expedient thing, which may not be the correct thing in a given case. However, I do not intend to pursue the matter. I will withdraw the amendment and accept the Minister's legal advice.
I move amendment No. 95:
In page 17, line 18, to delete "and 1958" and substitute "to 1996".
I move amendment No. 96:
In page 17, line 21, to delete "Minster" and substitute "Minister".
This is to correct a spelling error.
Amendments Nos. 97, 99 and 108 are related and may be discussed together. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 97:
In page 17, line 26, to delete "where practicable".
These words are to be deleted from section 14(1), dealing with the establishment and membership of boards of management. The provision currently reads: "It shall be the duty of a patron, for the purposes of ensuring that a recognised school is managed in a spirit of partnership, to appoint where practicable a board of management". On Committee Stage I strongly made the point that it is not acceptable that a school in receipt of moneys from the Oireachtas should be allowed to operate without such a board.
The concept of partnership underpins this legislation, which will bring the education system into the next millennium. To allow schools to continue operating without a board of management which includes teachers' and parents' representatives, is utterly unacceptable. We are in the EU and we hear buzzwords like subsidiarity, inclusiveness and empowerment, yet in the fundamental matter of the education of children, the Minister has not produced legislation which clearly provides that teachers and parents must be involved in the management of all primary and secondary schools. This cannot be justified. The Minister has made a move in this but it should be a fundamental principle that all schools must be run on a partnership basis. This reneges on the republicanism underpinning the State. We can make excuses that particular circumstances do not allow for this but it is repugnant that parents and teachers should not be involved in the management of schools. Will the Minister remove these words which I, as a republican, find offensive.
My amendment No. 99 deals with some aspects of this matter. The previous Bill placed an obligation on every school to have a board — where a school failed to appoint one, its subvention was frozen at its then level and it did not benefit from any increases which might otherwise accrue. This provision was effectively the power to enforce the appointment of a board but that approach did not commend itself to the Minister.
The phraseology in this Bill has something to commend it because in a legal sense "where practicable" can be a narrow basis on which to escape responsibility — one could not argue that it was not practicable to appoint a board because one did not like the type of people who might be elected to it. However, I would like to hear the Minister's legal advice as to what exceptions might be covered by the phrase. About 180 out of 700 second level schools do not have boards. Perhaps the Minister could indicate why certain schools will be or are likely to be unwilling to appoint boards.
The other aspect of the matter is that certain minority church schools have democratic systems which would not necessarily comply with the requirement that the composition of their boards should be agreed between patrons, national associations, recognised school management organisations, and recognised trade unions and staff associations. Those schools have systems which they feel are operating well and with which the parents are happy but which would not fulfil the precise terms of the Bill. I presume the phrase "where practicable" is a vehicle through which they may continue to operate their existing boards and trustees, etc., while remaining within the legislation.
On Committee Stage the Minister did not explain who was covered by this, what difficulties there might be in appointing a board, and which schools have legitimate difficulties and viable alternatives accepted by the State. I can understand Deputy O'Shea's difficulties with the wording used because if the State is paying the costs, a democratic approach should be taken to running the school. That does not mean we should impose the Marlborough Street version if the existing version is acceptable, nor that we should insist that every board structure should be mediated through a partnership at national level.
I would like to hear more from the Minister in defence of the "where practicable" reason and whether it is robust as a vehicle for allowing that degree of diversity in the system, which I believe is acceptable. Legitimate systems are in place for running minority schools that have been established over time and which are not a cause of offence to the parents. I do not propose to kick those sleeping dogs although I understand the point Deputy O'Shea made. The Minister should elaborate on what exactly is in place here.
I am conscious that some minority schools believe their system is acceptable and do not want to come under this proposal. My amendment would require patrons of these schools to report every year to the Minister that they are not in a position to appoint a board of the type the Minister has in mind, and to inform the parents of that. Over time, therefore, pressure would be put on those schools to appoint boards that complied with a national norm. If those schools were seen to be operating effectively and capable of protecting their interests there would be an obligation on them to report every year to the Minister on what they were doing.
Based on the Minister's amendment, which is similar to my own, I am satisfied we have a vehicle that will evolve over time but the Minister must deal with the particular cases in the House. This section should not allow people to thumb their noses at parents or other partners in the system, with no forum whereby those interests are given expression in the running of the school. In that respect I agree with Deputy O'Shea. Some may say this is an Irish solution but our education system has evolved over a long time and we cannot immediately impose a particular version of orthodoxy. However, the bedrock principles for the running of schools must be respected by anyone who seeks exemption under this practicality clause.
I agree with almost everything Deputy Bruton said. He has outlined my own views in changing this section from the original section in the first Bill. I am trying to take compulsion out of the system because when people are compelled to do something, the results are never good. Partnership is the key ingredient of this Bill and if we want genuine partnership in terms of persuading different types of schools to form boards of management, we will achieve much more through consultation and consensus than compulsion.
The sanction proposed in the first Bill that schools which failed to observe a centralist orthodoxy, in the sense that everybody must follow whatever Marlborough Street agreed with some national associations — the thread running through the first Bill — would lose funding was completely unacceptable. If we impose mandatory obligations on schools it follows that there must be penalties if those obligations are not observed, and the only people who would lose out would be the students. If a school is deprived of funding the quality of the education provision in that school will be diluted. That is too heavy-handed and is unnecessary.
Over the past three years a facilitator was appointed from the different denominational groups and bodies, management, unions and parents. Following a great deal of time and diplomacy, we arrived last November at a conclusion to those discussions and established boards of management in every primary school in the country in line with that agreement. Indeed variations were signed by the respective partners without legislation, compulsion or threats from the State.
I am endeavouring in the Bill to replicate that at second level in terms of the management structures of schools. Second level is even more complex than first level because, as Deputy Bruton said, there is considerable diversity in terms of school types and that position must be monitored as it evolves. For example, as vocations drop in the schools that belong to religious orders we will see further change both in terms of trusteeship and boards of management. Many of the orders have been proactive in democratising their management structures and establishing boards of management. We would like some general principles to be accepted in terms of staff and trustee representation. Comprehensive schools have not had proper representative boards of management for over 30 years, and I instructed my officials in July to begin negotiations with that sector with a view to establishing such boards of management.
In their representations in respect of the Education (No. 1) Bill, the lay voluntary secondary schools, a relatively small but successful category, articulated real concerns about compulsion. However, I am anxious to persuade those schools of the merits of establishing representative boards to manage the schools.
The Church of Ireland schools made cogent representations also in respect of the Education (No. 1) Bill. They have a different structure of management and tend to appoint to their boards of management people in their community who have particular strengths in education, a system which is to be commended. A representative model is fine up to a point but in many rural areas schools experience difficulties in getting parents onto the boards of management. Some areas are not as well organised as others. That is the background to the approach I am taking.
The phrase "where practicable" is a strong legal term and a guarantor that we are moving towards the establishment of boards of management in schools. I intend to put forward an amendment arising out of the amendment Deputy Bruton put forward on Committee Stage concerning the responsibility on patrons unable to appoint a board of management on grounds of practicality, etc. If a board is not so appointed the patron shall, from time to time, as requested by the Minister, inform the parents, teachers and other staff. That is a further strengthening of the Bill in terms of narrowing the reasons boards of management are not appointed. I am confident that once the Bill is passed we will rapidly see the establishment of boards of management throughout the country in all second level schools.
I understand the Minister's point in relation to compulsion, which seldom brings success, but the reality is that teachers will be compelled as a result of this legislation. The optout clause remains for particular schools but the money provided by the Exchequer will come from the taxpayers. Therefore, the principles desired by the majority should be adopted by those responsible for managing all second level schools.
If a significant majority of people involved in a school do not want a board of management to be should they be allowed to have their way? Equally, if there is a significant minority of people who want a board of management, including representation from parents, when will the wishes or desires of these people be acted upon?
The model where people with a particular expertise in education are included among the members of whatever board manages a school seems to have merit, but I will return to deal with that point later.
The Minister has not explained the nature of the term "acceptable defences". I would not like schools to be allowed to deny parents or teachers a role in their operation. However, I can accept the use of reasonable alternatives which developed over the years and which have stood the test of time. Who will be responsible for testing the issue of practicality? If a school refuses point blank to give a role to parents or teachers, it is expected that someone will challenge such an action. Is it envisaged that the Minister will do so or will parents be obliged to initiate some form of litigation under the legislation? What legal advice has the Minister received in respect of the term "practicality"? What sort of defences will succeed or fail in instances where boards prove to be intransigent by refusing to put in place a system which helps to manage a school in a spirit of partnership?
We have not considered an entire scenario of cases where schools may state that they cannot put a board of management in place. It is our view that there will be few reasons to demonstrate why it is not practicable to establish a board of management. I envisage that my Department will be proactive in terms of initiating the process of the establishment of democratic boards of management which include sufficient representation of all interests.
One key practical issue here involves constitutional difficulties. It is clear that if we take the mandatory route, as was the case with the original Bill, a constitutional challenge would be forthcoming. I accept that it is open to argument because I am not a constitutional expert. However, where a lay voluntary school is established and owned by an individual who has a certain dynamic ethos and vision for it and parents — recognising the reasons for its establishment, its ethos, etc. — decide to send their children there, an argument has been put forward that the State would infringe upon the constitutional rights of the individual who owns and operates the school by endeavouring to impose a certain form of management structure on them. Others argue that this would not happen. However, that view was put to me by owners of lay voluntary secondary schools when I was in Opposition at a time when a great deal of legal opinion on this matter was doing the rounds. The mandatory route would create a significant difficulty for that small category of schools but I do not envisage any problems in respect of all other schools.
The philosophy underpinning my approach to this issue is that we should take the route of consensus, consultation and discussion in order to obtain agreement among the partners. If agreement is achieved in this manner, the boards will sustain themselves for a long period. However, if we take the other route we will become entangled in rows, arguments and debate and a negative atmosphere will govern the situation.
The word from which we should begin our deliberations is "democracy". I accept that democracy may not always be a perfect instrument, but our democracy requires that when we put structures in place we should take account of people's overall rights. In the context of this matter there is an argument that we should consider the rights of minorities whether that means the teachers in a school, less than the full complement of the parents of children attending that school or a minority of those parents. However, this is a much wider issue.
Democracy dictates that there must be a model of partnership for all schools and teachers. One could call this an "industrial democracy" but I believe it goes deeper than that. It is vital that, as we move into the next century, models are put in place which reflect an open, pluralist society. We can discuss the rights of individuals under the Constitution but I would argue whether the Judiciary has the right to instruct the Executive with regard to how scarce resources should be allocated across the education sector.
The Minister referred to sanctions and penalties. However, my amendment makes no reference to either and it merely seeks to remove the qualification of the phrase "where practicable". The Minister may state that this is a strong phrase in its way. Perhaps he is correct but the legislation must state the principle which is that each school at first and second level should and must put in place a board of management that is based on partnership and the input of the elected representatives of teachers and parents. There cannot be any democratic deviation from this principle. If people wish to take a particular line on this matter then so be it. The amendment makes no suggestions in respect of imposing sanctions, it merely suggests that the legislation should state the principle. That would still provide the Minister with the room he requires to negotiate with the various interested groups to bring about the situation everyone desires, namely, that democratically elected boards of management should be put in place in all schools.
We can discuss schools appointing people with a particular skill or expertise in education but as I understand it that concept is elitist. Who is responsible for deciding if a person has a particular skill or expertise? In the context of boards of management, patrons must also have the right to nominate people in addition to ensuring that parent and teacher interests are represented.
As we approach the new century we cannot allow individual schools to opt out of appointing boards of management. As Deputy Bruton stated, it appears there is something about which the Minister is not informing us in respect of situations where it would be acceptable to him that democratically elected boards of management would not be appointed in certain schools. There seems to be a contradiction in terms of what he states as a matter of principle. On the other hand he seems to suggest there are situations where it would be acceptable that democracy would not obtain in terms of the management of schools. I am totally unconvinced. This is a matter of fundamental principle and it is a bad day's work that we cannot agree to this amendment. The amendment merely seeks to remove the words "where practicable" and it does not mention sanctions. The Minister wants time and space to find an informal solution to this problem but in seeking it we are being asked to pass legislation which still gives a "get out" for particular schools or individuals who do not wish to have a democratic element of control in their management, in spite of the fact that taxpayers money is used in the management of those schools.
I move amendment No. 98:
In page 17, line 29, after "teachers" to insert ", organisations representing people with disabilities".
I move amendment No. 99a:
In page 17, line 32, to delete "fulfill" and substitute "fulfil".
I accept the amendment.
Amendments Nos. 100, 101, 105 and 106 are related and may be discussed together. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 100:
In page 17, line 45, after "school" to insert "following selection in accordance with procedures set out by the Minister in consultation with the education partners involved".
This amendment deals with the appointment of a board. Section 14(4) states:
The members of a board shall, except where articles of management otherwise provide, be appointed by the patron of a school.
There is no reference to the type of procedures used to select democratic members of the board who would be parents elected by parents. I suggest the addition of the words "following selection in accordance with procedures set out by the Minister in consultation with the education partners involved". This would confirm that it is not for the patron to nominate people to represent parents or teachers but the nomination of those board members would have to be in accordance with agreed selection procedures. The Minister may say that is implicit but it is confusing as to why it is not explicit.
The word is "appointed".
Yes, appointed, following selection. There is no reference to the selection procedures. The subsection merely provides for the appointment of members of a board. I am seeking that the patron continue to appoint members but following selection procedures set out by the Minister in consultation with the education partners involved. This matter was discussed on Committee Stage and it was considered strange by many that there was no reference to a process of selection that would be seen——
My amendment No. 105 covers the point raised by Deputy Bruton, and it substitutes "shall" for "may" in subsection (5).
There are two amendments in my name being discussed together. Section 14(4) states:
The members of a board shall, except where articles of management otherwise provide, be appointed by the patron of the school.
My amendment No. 101 seeks to add the words "in accordance with regulations made by the Minister". It could be argued that a set formula may not be appropriate in every case. However, there must be an assurance that the partners in education are represented uniformly on education boards.
In respect of section 14(5) my amendment No. 106 seeks to add the following "and qualifications for appointment, including awareness of, and experience in assessing and providing, special education needs". This has been fundamental to my approach to the Bill. In the absence of a repository of experience in special needs on the board of management, the agenda for people with disabilities will not move forward as rapidly and as effectively as it might. Expertise follows commitment. By and large those who have expertise in this area will be motivated to look after the needs of those with disabilities. I am not seeking formal qualifications but rather an understanding and a working knowledge of people with disabilities. It may be said that it is being unnecessarily restrictive and that it may debar people from entry to boards of management who would have a great deal to offer in other ways.
In the composition of boards of management if the Government is not prepared to ensure, against a background of a strong lobby group, the mainstreaming of people with disabilities, particularly those with intellectual disabilities, and move away from the special school system that has served people with disabilities admirably up to now, many people will choose to send their children to special schools. That expertise is in the special schools. If we are seeking to break new ground in the provision for pupils with special needs, it is imperative a prerequisite should be the appointment of board members with basic knowledge and expertise in this area.
Regarding Deputy Bruton's amendment No. 100 and Deputy O'Shea's amendment No. 101 which relate to the procedures for the selection of members of boards, I do not consider them necessary as the matters covered by them are covered in subsection 5. My amendment 105 provides that the Minister shall prescribe matters relating to the appointment of the board. The Bill, as originally drafted, provides that the Minister may make such regulations. Amendment 105 strengthens that by providing that the Minister shall make such regulations. Subsection 5 deals with the Minister having powers to prescribe matters relating to the establishment and the making of regulations relating to the appointment of boards.
I do not agree there should be a statutory requirement for board members to have particular experience of special needs as required under amendment No. 106. Some board members may have such experience, but in regard to this area a board would have to be assisted by the education support centres or by way of access to expertise in the area of special needs. One would expect a board would have a policy on special needs in the school and that experts in the field would be consulted by a board in that respect. This amendment is unnecessarily restrictive in that some boards have only two parents and two teachers and they may find it difficult to select members that meet this requirement. Later amendments propose gender should be taken into account in the formation of boards. If we were to do all that, it could be difficult to establish boards, particularly the representative boards we are anxious to establish as in the primary school model. If this obligation were imposed in regard to the school boards of one or two teacher schools in rural Ireland, there is no guarantee we would find someone who would meet this requirement. The amendment, as phrased, does not fit in appropriately in line 50 after the word "board".
What is meant by the words "qualifications" and "experience" and how does one assess that? The procedure is that parents convene a meeting for the purposes of electing parents to the board of management. How would the general body of parents assess who has the relevant experience or qualifications? They must vote on two representatives to be appointed to the board. I accept the motivation behind the Deputy's amendment is to continue to create an awareness of special needs at every level of the system, but there would be many logistical difficulties in including such a provision. This requirement should be an integral part of the school plan and the relevant expertise appertaining to that area should be solicited by the board. That is the way we should proceed.
The Minister's amendment which substitutes the word "shall" for the word "may" does not mention the matters he intends to prescribe. My amendment provides that, at a minimum, the Minister should prescribe selection procedures having consulted the partners.
The regulations provide for that.
This may be nit-picking, but the matters he might prescribe are left vague under the present formulation. It does not specify that the selection procedure would be democratic, which is the point we are making. I have no doubt the Minister will prescribe in a reasonable way and I do not propose to press my amendment.
I understand the intent of Deputy O'Shea's amendment, but he may be over-prescribing in respect of the test a member or all members of a board may have to pass. It is too much to expect every member of a board to have an awareness of and experience in assessing and providing special education needs. As the Minister said, the school plan and other elements of the Bill should be designed to ensure that special education needs are to the fore. I share Deputy O'Shea's sentiment that in some ways the Bill has failed to do that, but this may not be the best vehicle to make up for lost ground in other sections of the Bill.
I will withdraw my amendment No. 101 on the basis of the Minister's amendment. I accept there are difficulties in accepting amendment No. 106, but if we do not seek to include a provision such as this a board could be appointed whose members may not have any interest, knowledge or expertise in the area of special needs. That would not be progressive in catering for pupils with special needs when additional resources will be allocated to that sector in the future. I tabled this amendment to seek to avoid the establishment of a board whose members would not have any empathy with disability. I am not criticising members of school boards, but those dealing with the area of special needs must have a basic understanding of that area. Some people may not have any knowledge or awareness of the requirements of people with special needs. If one board was established whose members did not have such an understanding, it is one too many. I will not press my amendment, but between now and passage of the Bill through the Seanad will the Minister consider a mechanism which would ensure members of a board of management at first and second level would have some element of understanding and empathy with disability?
We now come to amendment No. 102, amendment No. 103 is related and, therefore, we will deal with amendments Nos. 102 and 103 together.
I move amendment No. 102:
In page 17, between lines 45 and 46, to insert the following:
"(5) In making appointments to the board the patron and other partners involved in nominating members to the board shall, as far as is practicable, ensure an appropriate gender balance as determined by the Minister from time to time among the membership thereof.".
This matter was discussed on Committee Stage. The Minister considered the requirement that membership of a board made up of 40 per cent of each gender was too rigid an approach. He favoured a more gradualist approach. However, he has failed to introduce a Report Stage amendment to ensure gender balance on boards. My amendment is worded to secure a reasonable gender balance, that a substantial number of both sexes would be appointed to boards. The amendment provides that in making appointments to the board, the patron and other partners involved in nominating members shall, as far as practicable, ensure an appropriate gender balance is determined by the Minister from time to time among the membership thereof. From the parent's point of view there should undoubtedly be one male and one female member of the board. From a teacher's point of view, if it is not an all single sex teaching staff an effort should be made to have one member of each sex on the board. Similarly, from the point of view of the trustees one of each sex should be appointed.
There may be an argument for providing exceptions in the case of single sex religious orders. However, in failing to prescribe anything in this area the Minister is short changing. There is no problem with parents deciding that a mother and father will be their representatives on the board and in running elections on such a basis. We run such elections in the Seanad with the various inside and outside panels. I am not aware if the Minister had the good fortune to contest one such panel, but compiling panels that are reasonably balanced both from inside and outside does not bewilder the electorate. There should be a legislative procedure here to provide for such balance.
While it cannot apply to single sex panels, such exceptions would be admitted under the formulation provided in the amendment. It addresses the difficulties arising from the previous formulation of 40 per cent, which was discussed on Committee Stage, and which might be too tight a procedure to allow a Minister make amendments based on the way a school is run. This amendment is robust in that it can allow the Minister prescribe that both genders be represented in the case of parents, of teaching panels in mixed teacher schools and so on. That is a reasonable way to proceed.
To fail to make any legislative measure of this kind turns the clock back on ground won in recent years. In Government sanctioned appointments to boards there has been a clear policy to increase women's representation to a target of 40 per cent. The Minister should reflect that desire in this legislation and use the mechanism provided in this amendment. I hope it is commendable to him. On Committee Stage I recall he was sympathetic to the idea.
I was not. My recollection is that I held out little hope of accommodation on this issue.
The Minister's approach is foolish. If he cannot see the wisdom of having both genders represented on the various boards involved he has missed a dramatic trend in society. He is not looking beyond the end of his nose if he hopes single sex boards will reflect a balance of the types of pressures and demands in the education system today. This is not a symbolic measure to genuflect to a lobby that wants balance. It is important in ensuring there is a genuine balance in the approach to education issues. Anybody with an appreciation of developments in education will see the wisdom of that. The Minister should think again. I thought he was somewhat sympathetic to the issue and I am amazed that he rejects the idea of gender balance on school boards. It is incredible.
Deputy Bruton has cogently presented a number of points I intended to make. A superficial glance at amendment No. 102 in my name could give the impression that it is prescriptive. However, management boards at first and second level are a focus for parental representation. Deputy Bruton referred to profound changes in the social order. Too many children — it is an increasing number — are growing up without a male role model in their lives. This is unhealthy.
This issue should not be seen solely in a feminist context. Difficulties may arise with male representation on the boards of single sex schools. Given the balance between the sexes on parenting and the role of parents, there should also be a balance in the context of the boards of management. I know of people who were single when they were appointed to boards of management and served admirably on them, so I have no problems in that area. However, in single sex schools, be they boys or girls schools, the opposite gender should have at least 40 per cent representation on the board of management.
I am surprised the Minister appears to be refusing to consider taking any action to provide for some gender quota in the context of boards of management. In the recent by-election his party selected a woman candidate. I am sure he had an input into that. Although her campaign was not successful does it not indicate that the Minister has some sympathies in the direction of feminism? His involvement may be greater than I suggest, but it is not for me to comment further on that.
If the Minister fails to ensure an adequate level of representation for both genders on management boards it is a step backwards. My recollection is that both a male and a female parent had to be elected by the parents to management boards at primary level. We should not divide the House on this issue, nor on the fundamental issue of gender participation at all levels of society.
I have no problem with gender equity generally throughout the system and my appointments reflect that. However, we are here concerned with more than 3,500 schools around the country. We must be simple and practical. I have not come across too many male nuns since my involvement in education. If a national school is organised by a religious order of nuns and has a completely female teaching staff how do we ensure that 40 per cent of the board of management is male, especially when we take into account that trustees, teachers and parents have the right to nominate two members to the board? How do we get the 40 per cent gender balance, if that is what we put into the Bill? I am not running away from anything, but I have looked at this matter in detail and the logistics are quite baffling. We should be a little careful. There is evidence that we have some way yet to travel in terms of getting boards established, particularly in many rural areas where the population is not large.
The key priority should be to get people who are anxious and enthusiastic to serve on boards to put themselves forward. We do not have a problem with women going on to boards of management; there are plenty of women available to serve on such boards. As in social developments which have been reflected in other reports, men are not always as forthcoming as women in becoming involved in areas like this. The last thing I want for a primary school board of management is someone literally running around the parish, making phone calls to ask someone to join the board of management because they need a man, just for the sake of it. I am against that approach and that is why I will not accept the amendments.
Because of the way education here has evolved we have single sex schools. If one has an all female or all male teaching staff I do not know where we will find a male or female teacher to make up the 40 per cent gender balance. We have about 700 to 800 two-teacher primary schools with a relatively small catchment of parents. Unfortunately, not everybody wants to serve on a school board of management. I can see some potential for getting one male and one female parent, but there are real problems with staff and, obviously, there will be real problems where religious orders are trustees of or are managing schools. These are practical difficulties. We can all make general political statements about feminism but I am dealing with the practicalities of implementing this section and establishing boards of management.
We know, for example, that far more women teach at primary level. That in itself, would create difficulties with the 40 per cent gender balance requirement. The real issue at primary level would be how many men can be found to serve on the board of management. It is actually the reverse of the norm throughout other sections and strata in society.
Given that we are in the first year and at the first stage of the new boards of management at primary level — even though before that, sporadically throughout the country, schools had boards of management — let us see how things emerge. We could do some useful research in the area to see how things are panning out in terms of gender balance. It would be very interesting and I am committed to doing that kind of research. I will leave it at that.
The amendments as they stand would be practical, particularly those relating to the 40 per cent. I accept that Deputy Bruton's amendment is not as prescriptive in terms of how many, but there are very practical issues at stake here. My main commitment is to try and get boards of management established.
I am amazed by the Minister. My memory has not failed me that much. I recall that on Committee Stage the Minister said that "one could put in an overall provision for gender balance, but I am reluctant to go along the lines of the amendments which seek to insert exact quotas". He went on to say: "I am prepared to look at this on Report Stage. I am against being too prescriptive because of the variety of school types. I am prepared to look at amendments which read ‘where practical, should have appropriate gender balance'." The Minister was asked on Committee Stage whether concern had been expressed to him about the previous provisions and he indicated that only the management bodies had expressed concern. He indicated that he would look at the deeds of variation to refresh his memory, having been reminded by Deputy O'Shea that the previous provisions had required the parents' representatives to be a man and a woman. That was the existing provision.
The Minister has gone off on a bender of his own, contrary to the views of the partners, it would seem. He has his own views about this matter, which are very backward looking. We should be encouraging and providing vehicles that require gender balance to emerge. In the past, the tradition was that males served on State boards. Umpteen reasons were always produced why they could not find an appropriate female, but it was just because they did not bother to look. There are plenty of eminently qualified men and women to serve on school boards around the country. We are not confined to beating the bushes for some token man, as the Minister said.
In some cases we are.
Parents are interested in the operation of schools.
The Minister spoke about practical difficulties and also talked about token men and women. At the moment, political parties are seeking candidates for local elections and in some cases they have to go and ask people.
That is exactly the point.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that. There is a more fundamental question about what is becoming a predominantly female profession. The figures for women in the teaching profession are as high as 85 per cent. If children see boards of management that are predominantly female, the subliminal message may not be a particularly good one in terms of changing young male attitudes towards pursuing a teaching career. If it means that schools have to seek men or women to obtain a gender balance on their boards then so be it. People will not act on a board unless they give a commitment to do so for the term of office of that board. There is nothing wrong with seeking to recruit people who are willing to go forward. In the parents' situation that is taken as read.
The Minister said he had not met any male nuns and neither have I. When patrons are seeking their nominees, I have known nuns to successfully seek men for boards and I do not see anything wrong with that. I am taken aback that the Minister is not prepared to take this matter on board. He talks about practical difficulties but if something is the right thing to do, one should do it.
This is an important issue but the Minister has attempted to trivialise it and to suggest that it is some sort of political coat trailing.
No, I have not.
That is the impression I have formed. This matter is pretty important. We do not get many opportunities to say that we want and expect both parents to take an interest in the education of their children. On this occasion we can say that. Equally, we can say that trustees should have a balance in these sort of appointments. Both genders can bring experience and value to the successful managing of a board.
I accepted on Committee Stage that the Minister had problems with the flexibility of what we were putting forward. That is why I tabled an amendment along the lines that he indicated would be acceptable to him. We now find, however, that he has gone backwards. That is inexplicable.
No one has come forward with any practical arrangement. There are different schools of thought.
The practical arrangement is quite flexible. It is that one has appropriate gender where it is practicable.
What does that mean?
That means where there is a mixed teaching staff there will be one male and one female, in the case of parents there will always be one male and one female, and there will be an expectation that the trustees will be one male and one female. The regulations which are determined by the Minister could recognise that there could be some exceptions in the case of, say, an order that wanted to have two of its members on the board and for particular reasons they were all of one sex. That is why I did not repeat the 40 per cent rule. However, in case of mixed teaching staffs there should be one male and one female and in the case of parents there should undoubtedly be one male and one female.
It is good for a school that has always had two female or two male board members offering, to have to look to see if it can find someone of the opposite sex who is suitable to bring a new perspective to the board. That is good and healthy. Parents are much more interested in the way their school is run than the Minister gives them credit for. If he puts in this legislative provision, people will accept it. It would be like the Seanad system where there is one person inside and one outside and votes are taken on that basis. We have done it at political conventions up and down the country where those requirements are imposed on us in the selection of candidates. Everyone understands how it is done. It will not be a foreign idea to parents electing their members. The Minister should revert to the position he took on Committee Stage, which was a reasonable one. We could understand where he was coming from then. It is inexplicable where he is coming from now.
- Allen, Bernard.
- Bell, Michael.
- Belton, Louis.
- Bradford, Paul.
- Broughan, Thomas.
- Browne, John (Carlow-Kilkenny).
- Bruton, John.
- Bruton, Richard.
- Burke, Ulick.
- Clune, Deirdre.
- Cosgrave, Michael.
- Coveney, Simon.
- Crawford, Seymour.
- Creed, Michael.
- Currie, Austin.
- De Rossa, Proinsias.
- Deasy, Austin.
- Deenihan, Jimmy.
- Dukes, Alan.
- Durkan, Bernard.
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- Fitzgerald, Frances.
- Flanagan, Charles.
- Gilmore, Éamon.
- Hayes, Brian.
- Higgins, Jim.
- Higgins, Michael.
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- Carey, Pat.
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- Cullen, Martin.
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I move amendment No. 103:
In page 17, between lines 45 and 46, to insert the following:
"(5) In making appointments to the Board the patron shall ensure a gender balance of at least 40% of each gender on the Board.".
I move amendment No. 104:
In page 17, line 49, after "teachers" to insert "and organisations representing people with disabilities".
I move amendment No. 105:
In page 17, line 49, to delete "may" and substitute "shall".
I move amendment No. 107:
In page 18, line 3, after "good faith" to insert "and taking reasonable care".
The phrase "in good faith" is inadequate in terms of the liability of members of boards of management. Even though it is highly unlikely that this section will come into play, the phrase "in good faith" is inadequate in terms of the liabilities of members of boards of management. Most people agree there is a compensation culture. Those who serve on boards of management should therefore take reasonable care in discharging their duties and assess the full implications of proposed initiatives. On Committee Stage the Minister said it was hard enough to get people to serve without introducing additional restrictions but boards of management have important responsibilities and to an extent act in loco parentis. Those who serve on them should therefore take the same level of care as parents in discharging their duties.
It is important that members of boards of management are indemnified against potential actions. The legal advice I have received is that the phrase "in good faith" is strong enough and the most appropriate. I hope the day will not come when teachers and parents will say it is too risky to serve in a voluntary capacity on boards of management.
I will take the Minister on trust that the legal advice he has received is that the terminology used is strong enough to cover any contingencies that may arise.
I move amendment No. 108:
In page 18, between lines 4 and 5, to insert the following:
(7) Where a patron determines that the appointment of a board in accordance with subsection (1) is not practicable, the patron shall inform the parents of students, the teachers and other staff of the school and the Minister of that fact and the reasons therefor at the time of such determination and, thereafter, if a board is not so appointed, the patron shall, from time to time or as requested by the Minister, inform the parents, teachers and other staff and the Minister of the reasons therefor.”.
I move amendment No. 109.
In page 18, lines 5 to 7, to delete "to manage the school on behalf of the patron and for the benefit of the students and their parents and".
This section lays out the functions of boards of management. I have a problem with the layout of section 15(1) which states "It shall be the duty of a board to manage the school on behalf of the patron and for the benefit of the students and their parents and to provide or cause to be provided an appropriate education for each student at the school for which that board has responsibility". The second part of the subsection is most relevant. The initial part is draconian. It is understood and does not have to be restated that it is the duty of a board to manage the school on behalf of the patron and for the benefit of the students and their parents. Its main duty is to provide or cause to be provided an appropriate education for each student. The words that I wish to delete are superfluous. It seems to be suggested that the duty of a board to the patron should take precedence over its duty to students.
I do not accept the Deputy's argument. The section strikes a reasonable balance, which is desirable, between the rights of school owners, parents, students, teachers and the community. At first and second level we have in the main, privately owned but State funded schools. The added strength comes from co-operation. We have consulted all the partners in education on this section which is necessary for legal and constitutional reasons. The balance would be disturbed if we were to accept the amendment.
It is not suggested that one phrase takes precedence over another. The duty to manage a school on behalf of the patron does not take precedence over the duty to provide an appropriate education for each student.
Will the Minister outline the constitutional reasons to which he referred?