Education (No. 2) Bill, 1997: Report Stage (Resumed).
Debate resumed on amendment No. 155:
In page 25, lines 27 and 28, to delete ", a practising barrister or solicitor of not less than seven years standing".
—(Minister for Education and Science.)
The purpose of the amendment is to delete the requirement to have a barrister or solicitor sitting on the appeals committee to be established in accordance with section 29. My aim is to address a concern expressed on Committee Stage and at the same time to increase flexibility in the composition of appeals committees. The presence of a barrister or solicitor on the committee might lead to appellants bringing their own legal representation. This would run contrary to the intention of the section which is that the committee should operate with the minimum of formality.
For the same reason I do not intend to accept Deputy O'Shea's amendment to amendment No. 155. It would have the effect of reinstating the requirement that a barrister or solicitor sit on the appeals committee. I do not intend to accept Deputy Bruton's amendment No. 156. It would have the opposite effect of restricting flexibility in this regard. While I accept that people with front line experience may have much to offer to the work of appeals committees, others with different experience are also likely to be valuable additions to committees. Deputy Bruton's amendment might have the undesirable effect of limiting the flexibility to appoint such persons to appeal committees.
I move amendment No. 1 to amendment No. 155:
In the first and second lines, to delete "a practising barrister or solicitor".
In the debate on Committee Stage the Minister proposed that a practising barrister or solicitor should have no less than ten years standing. An amendment of mine was agreed to reduce the limit to seven years. It is extraordinary that the Minister is now proposing to completely remove the provision.
I agree with the idea that appeal hearings should be as informal as possible and people should not feel intimidated. However, the public is orientated towards litigation and it is important that a legal person is in situ to advise the committee on points of law which may arise, particularly in the context of an appellant having legal representation at an appeal hearing. The position regarding procedures is unclear, but my fear, which I expressed on Committee Stage, is that the legal costs in this area could be high.
The basic consideration is that appeal hearings are as consumer friendly and informal as possible. However, regardless of whether the legal person sits as a member of the appeal committee or acts as a legal adviser to it, it is unwise to remove him or her completely from the proceedings. This could lead to unnecessarily extended hearings.
The purpose of my amendment is to remove the reference to not less than seven years standing. There should be no restriction on the experience of the practising barrister or solicitor. It is unwise to completely remove a legal person from the hearing process, particularly in circumstances where the appellant can have legal representation.
Question, "That the words proposed to be deleted stand", put and declared carried.
Amendment to amendment declared lost.
Amendment put and declared carried.
Is Deputy Bruton pressing amendment No. 156?
Unfortunately, I was not aware that it was being discussed with amendment No. 155. Do I have an opportunity to address it?
Is the Deputy moving the amendment?
I move amendment No. 156:
In page 25, line 29, after "appropriate" to insert "who shall include a person who has experience in managing a school, a person who has experience as a teacher and a person who has experience as a parent".
Amendment put and declared lost.
I move amendment No. 157:
In page 25, between lines 40 and 41, to insert the following:
"(a) the parties to the appeal are assisted to reach agreement on the matters the subject of the appeal where the appeals committee is of the opinion that reaching such agreement is practicable in the circumstances,".
There was discussion on Committee Stage about the need to introduce an element of conciliation and arbitration into the appeals process. The amendment provides that the parties to the appeal should be assisted to reach agreement on matters the subject of the appeal where the appeals committee is of the opinion that reaching such agreement is practicable in the circumstances.
I do not object to the amendment. It is reasonable that there should be such a process. Deputy O'Shea's idea of a conciliation process separate from the appeals committee is a more logical approach than taking it to the level of legalistic presentations to appeals committees. A process of conciliation and intervention at an earlier stage is more appropriate. However, Deputy O'Shea's amendment did not find sympathy with the Minister and we cannot debate that issue again. I will accept this faute de mieux.
I welcome the amendment in as much as it moves in the direction I sought. However, it is extremely vague. There is nothing about the mechanics of how it may work. I am concerned that it may lead to a protracted appeals system. I ask the Minister to assure me about the effectiveness of whatever conciliation procedure is put in place. As presented in the amendment, it appears informal and unfocused.
The issue of conciliation was raised on Committee Stage by Deputy O'Shea as a potentially preferable option in terms of appellants and school managements reaching agreement in relation to disputes or matters of concern. It is a good idea and I introduced the amendment to try to incorporate it. However, some flexibility must be allowed in terms of how the appeals committee will operate. Invariably subjective judgments will have to be made by those most closely involved. It is difficult to be prescriptive in legislation but it is not the intention — this can be provided for in regulations — that this should lead to a protracted appeals process. The central objective should be the processing of appeals as quickly as possible. One cannot have children out of school for three or four months waiting for a result.
While I accept the Minister's good faith and that regulations will be put in place, students and parents should be aware that they have access to a conciliation process.
Amendment agreed to.
We now proceed to amendment No. 158. Amendment No. 159 is an alternative. Amendments Nos. 158 and 159 may be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 158:
In page 25, line 43, to delete "in the shortest time possible" and substitute "within a period of 30 days from the date of the receipt of the appeal by the Secretary General, except where, on the application in writing of the appeals committee stating the reasons for a delay in determining the appeal, the Secretary General consents in writing to extend the period by not more than 14 days".
The purpose of the amendment is to introduce a timescale to the appeals process. All appeals must be dealt with within a period of 30 days from the date of receipt of the appeal with an additional 14 days permitted in particular circumstances. Amendment No. 159 would have the same effect. The amendment is in response to concerns articulated by Deputy Bruton on Committee Stage. It also meets the concerns expressed by Deputy O'Shea.
I welcome the amendment. On a matter as serious as this, the expulsion or suspension of a child from school for long periods, one would hope that appeals would be processed in less than 30 days. While similar provisions in other legislation have not always been honoured, they have acted as a spur to ensure due attention is given to the prompt handling of appeals.
Amendment agreed to.
Amendment No. 159 not moved.
I move amendment No. 159a:
In page 26, after line 47, to insert the following:
"(12) For the purposes of subsection (1)(c), ‘student' means a person who applies for enrolment at a school and that person or his or her parents may appeal against a refusal to enroll him or her in the same manner as a student or his or her parents may appeal a decision under this section.".
This is a technical amendment. Section 29 covers appeals by students. By definition, a person becomes a student only when enrolled in a school. Section 29, as it stands, does not cover those seeking to become enrolled. The amendment addresses this matter.
Amendment agreed to.
I move amendment No. 160:
In page 26, after line 47, to insert the following:
"(12) The Ombudsman may investigate any actions of the appeals committee under this section."
The Ombudsman deals with cases involving maladministration. He is precluded, however, from investigating cases under appeal in the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. If the parties to an appeal within a school initially and subsequently within the Department are dissatisfied with the outcome, there should be a final independent examination of the facts and the decisions reached.
My advice is that the amendment is unnecessary as the Ombudsman has the power to investigate the actions of Secretaries General. This power will extend to the appeals committee. To ensure the legislation is watertight I am, however, prepared to accept the amendment subject to drafting. I will bring it before the Seanad.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I move amendment No. 161:
In page 27, between lines 9 and 10, to insert the following:
(d) the guidance and counselling provision to be offered in schools.
Section 30 gives the Minister power to specify details of the curriculum. It is important that appropriate guidance and counselling services are provided within schools to help children make choices and cater for their wider needs. There is a debate about the adequacy of such services. There is also a debate about the way the time devoted to guidance and counselling is allocated. Frequently where this task is assigned to a particular person on a part-time basis the function is eroded. There is, therefore, a need to issue clear guidelines on access to guidance and counselling services which are an integral part of a successful curriculum.
As a result of the acceptance of amendment No. 17 guidance and counselling will be mentioned specifically in section 2 which deals with support services.
The provision of appropriate guidance and counselling services is listed as one of the functions of a school. Proper guidelines have not been issued by the Department. Surveys have found that early school leavers did not have access to guidance and counselling services. In practice such services are only provided for senior cycle students. The Minister is giving himself the power to deal with the syllabus and specify the time to be allocated to each subject. This should extend to guidance and counselling services. This area has not been developed.
Amendment agreed to.
I move amendment No. 162:
In page 27, line 24, after "in" to insert "religious instruction or".
Amendment put and declared lost.
I move amendment No. 163:
In page 27, between lines 27 and 28, to insert the following:
"(e) shall seek to ensure that the subjects and syllabi followed in a school will be appropriate and relevant to the educational and vocational needs of the students."
The Minister is amplifying his powers in this section in terms of the curriculum and is taking on powers to require syllabi to have regard to the characteristic spirit of the school and the time allotted to different subjects, etc. . A requirement to seek to ensure the subjects and syllabi followed in a school would be appropriate and relevant to the educational and vocational needs of the students is remarkable by its absence.
There is an extraordinarily rigid structure in our education system, which is very much oriented to the leaving certificate and, ironically, even those who pursue its vocational aspects do not get preferential access afterwards to apprenticeships, for example. It is a remarkably rigid system very much dictated by entry to third level, which is the touchstone against which the success of students is judged. That is an inappropriate orientation for many students and the Minister cannot break from it entirely in the Bill. It will be a more gradual process to build up recognition for non-conventional streams and ensure there are routes to allow progress to third level if students so choose.
There may be merit in the Minister taking up powers to ensure there is a reasonable match in schools between subject choices and the needs of pupils. If this is left exclusively to schools, the Minister may perpetuate areas which just do not cater for the needs of certain pupils and there will be gaps with children struggling in schools whose orientation is inappropriate. There is a role for the Minister in protecting and developing the vocational strands in the system. He and his predecessors have done good work in developing the leaving certificate applied and although it has gained a certain foothold, it is still not accepted by the third level sector. A great deal of work must still be done on accreditation.
I hope the Minister will play a role in trying to ensure schools cater for a broad range of needs among pupils and do not simply say that they have always offered Latin and Greek, for example, and that will remain the case. The Minister may feel the wording of the amendment needs to be modified or improved. However, I outlined what I hope the amendment will achieve in this neglected area of the education system. It has developed too rigidly and focused with few opportunities for progression and recognition of other activities in schools. This may provide a small bridgehead for the Minister to develop this area.
There is merit in the argument advanced by Deputy Bruton and I wish to instance a situation that has pertained during my time as a public representative. There is no VEC presence between Dungarvan, County Waterford and Fermoy, County Cork. This area comprises towns such as Cappoquin, Lismore, Tallow and Ballyduff. There is a project under way whereby there will be an amalgamation and a community school will be provided but the needs of students in that area who are not academically inclined have not been met appropriately. A campaign for a new school in the area has been running for years. It has ebbed and flowed and hopefully the Minister will see it through to its conclusion. The curricula of schools should be tailored to meet the needs of students and it makes sense to provide for such a contingency.
I empathise with the Deputies. Partnership is a feature of the Bill. No Minister would wish to unilaterally engage in forcing schools in a certain direction in terms of their curricula but recent research carried out by the Department on early school leavers suggests that certain schools would have benefited if they had taken up alternative leaving certificate programmes. There is merit in the Minister having a legislative basis to intervene in such situations in order to provide students with an education that would be relevant to them. I accept the amendment subject to its being redrafted before the Bill is sent to the Seanad. The uptake on leaving certificate applied and vocational courses has been very good generally and the numbers are going according to plan. The foundation course for the junior certificate and transition year have been successfully implemented, although there is evidence in certain areas that schools have still not taken up transition year. There is merit in the amendment but it will have to be used sensitively by future Ministers.
I thank the Minister for accepting my argument and I withdraw the amendment subject to its being redrafted before the Bill is sent to the Seanad.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment No. 164a is related to amendment No. 164 and both may be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 164:
In page 27, line 40, after persons "to insert (to be called the National Committee on the Irish Language) the overall remit of which shall be to examine the methods of teaching Irish in the education system, to greatly improve speaking and communicative ability in Irish, and".
The amendment relates to the section that deals with teaching through Irish. Amendment No. 164a states: “In page 27, line 42, after “teaching” to insert “of Irish and,”. My concerns relate to the fact that major resources have been invested in teaching Irish, but in general the level of communication in and usage of the language is unsatisfactory. I am seeking that the body which the Minister proposes to establish be given a firmer footing and be called the National Committee on the Irish Language and that its remit be more clearly defined. That remit would be to examine the methods of teaching Irish in the education system and to greatly improve speaking and communication ability in Irish.
Amendment No. 164a is more fundamental.
Section 31(1) states:
The Minister shall establish a body of persons—
(a) to plan and co-ordinate the provision of textbooks and aids to learning and teaching through Irish,
I am seeking to change this wording to include the phrase "to the learning and teaching of Irish and through Irish". There is a need for appropriate materials for Gaelscoileanna and schools in Gaeltacht areas. The Minister has addressed the need for materials for teaching Irish. However, people move to Gaeltacht areas whose children may not even speak English but a European language. Such situations give rise to more specific and difficult problems.
The aids developed by this body as described in the Bill should be available to all schools. Is there evidence that the standard of Irish of children who attend Gaelscoileanna is higher than that of children who attend mainstream national schools? There is quite a high standard of Irish in many national schools. The Minister referred to the need for materials such as audio-visual aids and books which relate to subjects other than Irish for use in Gaelscoileanna. These materials should also be available to children in mainstream schools who would be able to understand and read them and, more importantly, benefit from them.
There is a danger that we will send out the message that the revival of the Irish language will come through Gealscoileanna. An impression could be created that the fine work being done in mainstream national schools is not making an equal contribution. The Oireachtas should not discriminate against children attending mainstream schools. The parents of many of these children are equally committed to the revival of the Irish language and to the achievement of Patrick
Pearse's vision of a bilingual society. I am worried about section 31. It could be harmful in the long-term as the Oireachtas would be seen to be making specific provisions for Gaelscoileanna and schools in Gaeltacht areas and not for mainstream schools. This could create the impression that we are giving up the fight in the context of achieving a revival of Irish through mainstream schools.
It is important that we are given information regarding other developments which may be taking place in Departments. We should not be divisive in the context of the Irish language as our objectives are similar. I have thought about this section more than any other in the past few days. I want to see us achieve our objectives as regards the Irish language. The provision of textbooks and other aids should apply to the entire primary and secondary sectors and not only to Gaelscoileanna and schools in Gaeltacht areas.
I wish to speak to amendment No. 164a. I am a product of the type of schooling system which many people have gone through. I spent 14 years learning Irish and I cannot understand a news bulletin in Irish. I studied French for four years and can understand a news bulletin in French. There is something radically wrong with the way we have taught Irish. I am going back a long time but the impression I get from my children is that the situation has not radically changed. Although Irish is taught in a better way, it has not developed to its full potential. We have a lot to do as regards teaching Irish to those who are not in Irish-speaking schools.
Like Deputy O'Shea, I am not suggesting that we do not provide curricular material to Irish schools, it is important that we do so. There is a need for specialist work in this area. Technical support is necessary if we are to teach Irish, science or geography through Irish. However, if we want to teach Irish in a meaningful way to people who are predominantly English speaking, we must break away from traditional ways of doing so. Much of the material which will be developed for Irish speaking schools will be the sort of material which should also be used in English-speaking schools to teach Irish. Exercises which use geography, history or science as a way of bringing Irish into the classroom in a meaningful way would be more useful and people would see the relevance of such a step rather than spending 40 minutes devoted exclusively to Irish.
The interesting curricular material which would come from this body would have the best chance of addressing the real problem which is improving the retention levels of Irish learnt in school. The problem is not one of the quality of teaching but the combination of the motivation of students and the material involved. We have a better chance of motivating students if we come up with new curricular material and new project and exercise work which use Irish. The remit of this body should not only include the teaching of Irish in Irish-speaking schools but in all schools. The Minister seems to be supportive of this position and I am puzzled by his decision to withdraw his Committee Stage amendment which was along the same lines. My understanding of why he has done so is that he believes he can meet commitments in this area through some other vehicle. I do not know what that vehicle is but it sounds like we may have a parallel body doing similar work. This would not make much sense.
There is already some degree of confusion as to what is the remit of various bodies in this area. We have this new body, Comhairle Múinteoirí Gaelanna and others; if the Minister is planning to set up a second body in addition to this one to deal with the teaching of Irish in schools other than Gaelscoileanna, we will end up with a completely Irish solution to an Irish problem. As Brendan Behan said, "the first item on the agenda was the split". The Minister seems to be building the split in before we even have a chance to form the agenda.
Amendment No. 166, which describes what the body will do, seems to state it will advise the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment on matters relating to the teaching of Irish. The Minister has acknowledged the body will have a role in advising the NCCA in regard to the teaching of Irish but it will not have a role in advising the schools. That seems to be a very strange hybrid to develop. If we are going to give the body a role in advising the NCCA, we should also allow it a role in the development of materials for use in ordinary schools which wish to use innovative materials in ordinary classes. The body should be asked to consider developing materials for such needs. It is important that the content of this amendment be included in the body's remit and I hope the Minister will be able to accede to it. It follows from the logic of what he did on Committee Stage and what he appears to be doing through amendment No. 166.
I thank the Deputies for their contributions; I assure Deputy O'Shea that I have thought long and hard about this matter and regret it has not yet been finalised. Regrettably, division exists across the broad Irish language movement on this issue. Although various people and groups claim to be supportive of Gaelscoileanna, I detect significant tension in the movement in regard to this whole area. Between now and the weekend, I have committed myself to having one final round of consultations with the bodies involved. I have met with Bord na Gaeilge, Comhdháil na Gaeilge and the Gaelscoileanna and my officials have also held several meetings with these bodies. Each group perceives a threat, whatever approach is outlined.
The fundamental motive behind the establishment of this body was positive. Under the Constitution, parents have a right to have their children taught through Irish and there is, therefore, an obligation on the State to resource and fund that right. It has clearly emerged from the Gaelscoileanna movement and from Gaeltacht schools that specific needs pertaining to schools teaching through the medium of Irish are not being met at the moment. It was felt that it was necessary to establish a body to focus in on those needs, develop strategies to meet them and develop textbooks and curriculum materials for subjects other than Irish in which there is a shortage of publications and resources. Such concerns have been articulated for quite a long time and were aired in the debate on the Education (No. 1) Bill.
There is a view that if we were to broaden the body, we would somehow dilute its very specific remit to get to grips with that issue. I envisage redrafting section 31 to encapsulate the need to develop materials and resources for Gaelscoileanna and the view that whatever conclusions the body arrives at should be extended to the teaching of Irish in national schools. It was never intended to send out a signal that we were turning our backs on the teaching of Irish in the 95 per cent of gnáth bunscoileanna.
There is an obligation on everyone who is committed to the teaching of Irish, the development of the Irish language, bilingualism and so on to arrive at a consensus on this issue. There is no point in the Oireachtas or the Minister setting up a body which does not enjoy the confidence of the entire Irish language movement and of everyone involved in the teaching of Irish. There is a strong possibility that is where we are at the moment. I do not have to make a decision on this until the Bill goes to the Seanad.
It is envisaged that specific education centres will be set up to carry out research into teaching through Irish and the teaching of Irish. Deputy Bruton made the valid point that most people have learned Irish to some extent through the second level system but when they leave second level, there is no follow-on. It is necessary to carry out work into methodologies and so on. I envisage consulting with the various bodies involved in this area, namely Bord na Gaeilge, the Gaelscoileanna, Comdháil na Gaeilge, the representative body of Gaeltacht schools and the Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage, the Gaeltacht and the Islands, Deputy Ó Cuív, who has a specific responsibility and interest in the matter. He has also met with the various bodies involved.
I believe it is possible to accommodate the two major issues involved, namely that the body will have teeth and a clear focus on schools teaching through the medium of Irish in terms of the development of resources and that it will develop a remit in regard to the teaching of Irish in national schools. There is a fear that one objective could dilute the other and the body would not have any specific focus or commitment. I undertake to consult with the Deputies as soon as possible in regard to the final draft of section 31. I do not intend setting up two separate bodies.
I am reassured that the Minister is making a genuine effort and I welcome the fact that he does not intend setting up two bodies. However, he has recognised that there are two tasks involved, namely to provide materials for all-Irish schools and to provide better ways of teaching Irish in other schools. If the two tasks are to be tackled, that must be done by one body. That logic inexorably leads towards the acceptance of something along the lines of this amendment.
I find it difficult to believe that the role of this body could be significantly diluted if it also considered the needs of pupils learning Irish. Many foundation level materials which would be used in Gaelscoileanna could also be used for innovative curricular activity in other schools. They are not entirely separate tasks although they may have two different objectives, namely to encourage people to take an interest and learn Irish and to teach subjects such as science, geography and so on. It would be logical to try to achieve some agreement on this matter.
I wish the Minister well in his task. The Minister of State appears to have very trenchant views on the matter and I would like to be a fly on the wall during the discussions the Minister is planning for next week. If he is staggering around the corridors next week we will know what has happened.
I withdraw my amendments and am happy to give the Minister time to reach agreement between the differing interests. I take it the teacher unions will be part of the consultation process. I also believe the national parents councils should be part of the process. It is vitally important in the wider task of restoring the Irish language that all interests are on board in a positive sense and are committed and focused on a clear ideal.
One of my hopes for TnaG when it was set up was that it would include high quality children's programmes, something which is very important in the context of the Gaeltacht but also in a general context. Even though broadcasting is not part of the Minister's remit, there should be a focus in this direction. Television is a very important means of communication in all our lives, but particularly in the lives of children. From my days in the training college I recall that our capacity to absorb a new language is in decline from five years of age. The years up to then are vital in terms of children's ability to absorb and retain the language.
I was educated through Irish and studied maths and science, for example, through Irish. To this day I still have to translate some terms as my focus is on Irish. My retention of Irish had much to do with the fact that I taught for 20 years and that it was part of my everyday work. The point made by Deputy Bruton about what happens when children leave school and the outside environment in terms of its attitude to Irish is important.
In the spirit of consensus and a shared objective I wish the Minister well in his round of consultations and withdraw my amendments.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment No. 164A not moved.
Amendment No. 165 is out of order and may not be discussed.
Amendment No. 165 not moved.
Amendment No. 166 arises out of proceedings on Committee Stage and amendments Nos. 167, 168 and 169 are related. Amendments Nos. 166 to 169, inclusive, may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 166:
In page 28, between lines 9 and 10, to insert the following:
"(3) A body established in accordance with subsection (1) shall, from time to time, as it considers appropriate, advise the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment on matters relating to——
(a) the teaching of Irish,
(b) the provision of education through the medium of Irish, including matters relating to the curriculum for primary and post-primary schools which provide education through the medium of Irish and assessment procedures employed in those schools, and
(c) the educational needs of people living in a Gaeltacht area, and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment shall have regard to any such advice in the exercise by it of its functions.".
Amendments Nos. 166, 167, 168 and 169 are broadly similar. Considerable debate took place on Committee Stage on this matter. What is involved is the creation of a link between the body established by section 31 and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. There is scope in this relationship for considerable added value in the work of both bodies. My amendment covers the issues raised in amendments Nos. 167 and 169.
Deputy O'Shea's amendment proposes that "A body established under this section may co-operate with the education authorities and other educational organisations in Northern Ireland in the delivery of support services to Irish-medium schools in Northern Ireland". We strongly support co-operation between educational bodies in this jurisdiction and Northern Ireland as regards education through Irish. Such co-operation takes place and must be encouraged and I will accept the Deputy's amendment subject to redrafting. What is outlined in the amendment is done in practice in any event. Recently we had discussions on the matter with the former Secretary for Education in Northern Ireland and with Irish language bodies in Northern Ireland.
I think amendment No. 166 covers the other amendments which have been grouped together.
I think amendment No. 166 is better as it provides that the body will advise on the teaching of Irish in all schools, the issue which was of concern to us. Regarding amendments Nos. 167 and 168, there is considerable interest in having some legislative recognition of co-operation and I am glad the Minister is accepting it.
I will not press amendments Nos. 168 and 169. Amendment No. 166 adequately covers the proposal in amendment No. 169 while the Minister's undertaking to accept amendment No. 168, subject to redrafting, covers my concerns on that matter.
Amendment agreed to.
Amendments Nos. 167 to 169, inclusive, not moved.
I move amendment No. 170:
In page 28, line 23, after "teachers" to insert ", organisations representing people with disabilities".
Amendment put and declared lost.
I move amendment No. 171:
In page 28, line 25, to delete "him or her" and substitute "the Minister and other persons which the committee deems appropriate".
This amendment concerns the new section which provides for the establishment of a committee on educational disadvantage. The committee will be representative and its role will be to advise the Minister on the polices and strategies to be adopted to identify and correct educational disadvantage. I am seeking that the body not only advise the Minister but also advise such other persons which the committee deems appropriate. The role of the committee, if it is to be meaningful, will be to champion a cause even if it is not always to the liking of the Minister. It would not be helpful to have all its advice mediated through the Minister. While its primary role will be to provide information and advice to the Minister which will be incorporated into policy, it should equally have the right to publish its views and inform others of its work and views on developments in the community sector.
In relation to tackling educational disadvantage it is important to realise that the Department of Education and Science is extraordinarily absent in its support for most of the community and voluntary initiatives. My former Department, the Department of Enterprise and Employment, is the pre-dominant means of funding these initiatives through the community employment scheme. The Minister and his officials do not have a proper window on much of what is happening in the community and voluntary sector and it certainly is not providing the funds to back what they are doing.
This committee should have a wider brief than simply advising the Minister. The amendment will ensure that the committee produces a climate of opinion beyond the Department that will help others to have their cases heard. It will also allow it disseminate best practice and knowledge of successful initiatives elsewhere. For those reasons, it is desirable that this wider remit be given to the committee.
I share the idea that underlines this amendment. Yesterday, I attended a meeting of the subcommittee of the Joint Committee on Education and Science which is in the process of preparing a report on educational disadvantage. A number of people representing different aspects of disadvantage in the education system addressed the meeting. The common theme in those contributions was co-ordination. Giving an advisory role to those involved with educational disadvantage should not undermine the position of the Minister. In fact, it could be practical in the sense that it would give people who needed assistance more immediate access to that assistance than if they had to go through a procedure which involved the Department and-or the Minister. The principle underlying the amendment is an important one and I ask the Minister to give it favourable consideration.
I am not convinced of the argument in favour of the amendment. We must be clear about the objective of the committee on disadvantage. The primary objective should be to advise the Minister but also that the committee would be effective. Focus must be retained on this issue. It is one thing to be a champion of the cause but that does not always necessarily mean action follows or that practical steps will be taken. There is always a danger that if we broaden the remit of a committee like this and allow it advise anybody or issue general statements about the state of education today, it could lose its focus and, to a certain degree, its credibility in terms of policy makers. I am not talking about myself but future Ministers. In other words, we want to establish a body that will have a genuine impact on the implementation of policy, the allocation of resources and the strategies to counteract disadvantage. It could be argued that currently there is no shortage of bodies that will issue public statements and give advice to the Minister in respect of educational disadvantage. There is a raft of State-funded research bodies and many voluntary groups which attract considerable media attention, which is appropriate in a democracy.
I had hoped this committee would bring a clear focus to advising the Minister of the day. In other words, the focus would be on the Minister of the day in terms of the policies he or she formulates and implements. Of course, advice cannot be kept secret. That would be impossible under the Freedom of Information Act or the Public Management Act so there is no question of a Minister being in a position to withhold any of the advice.
I realise it may be politically more popular to say we should have a body that simply advises in a general way, but there is a distinction to be drawn between being the champion of the cause and the body that analyses a Minister's position in any given situation, and the restraints he or she is working under, and tries to develop within those constraints an effective strategy in terms of implementing a policy on educational disadvantage.
I would strongly argue the opposite case. It has been well established in other areas that the advocacy role accompanies provision of advice and service. Yesterday we heard consultants saying their role of advocacy requires them to highlight the current issues in Galway in relation to hospital services. That does not mean they are any less professional or thorough in their work. Indeed the role of advocacy is a complementary one.
It is all very well for the Minister to have a small kitchen committee to help him decide on work in this area; he could have that on a non-statutory basis. We are talking about giving long-term recognition to the issue of disadvantage, not just setting up a committee of a few people who will have the ear of the Minister from time to time.
If we are to have a proper committee dealing with disadvantage, we have to examine models such as the Combat Poverty Agency legislation. Under that legislation, the agency has an independent role. It evaluates programmes and is involved in activities like piloting and examining all policy proposals as well as monitoring the needs of the disadvantaged. That more active, independent and meaningful role is what people expect from the Minister.
Regardless of whether the Minister likes it, much of the work done to tackle educational disadvantage developed without the benefit of any money from the Department. It was carried out by the partnerships and the community employment initiatives. There is a vibrant voluntary and community sector that does not see the Department as an advocate for what it is trying to do. If we want to open that up, the Minister has to give them a wider brief than simply setting up a committee that has the ear of the Minister from time to time.
The Minister made the point that there is a plethora of organisations which require co-ordination. I draw his attention to the wording of the amendment which states that the committee will advise the Minister and other persons the committee deems appropriate. The amendment provides for the committee to exercise its good judgment.
If a school or board of management is experiencing a problem, this committee would be aware of resolutions that worked in other areas because of its experience. When we talk about advice we are also talking about consultation, and the more interaction this committee has with those at the coalface who are dealing with the problems, the better. I will be happy if the Minister brings forward proposals in the Seanad debate to better co-ordinate this whole sector. What came out in yesterday's meeting is something I have often spoken of, the need for broader co-ordination in the backup for the disadvantaged sector. That requires agreement between Departments, but substantial progress will not be made until that kind of co-ordination takes place and that will only take place when there is a statutory desk on which the buck stops. I saw this when I was an education welfare officer.
I see this amendment as a flexible touchstone for those at the coalface rather than as a body to be set up in opposition to the Minister or that could issue statements to embarrass the Minister. I know the Minister does not see it in that context. I welcome this initiative but it needs to interface with the players.
I have no difficulty with that. Obviously it would interface with the players, as if it were to advise the Minister it would have to interface. The group would have to take on the opinions and views of the whole range of partners and organisations. Those bodies would make up half of the board's composition. Part of the function to advise involves research, otherwise it cannot advise properly.
I have strong views on this; I am not being stubborn for the sake of it. I want to be careful regarding the route we take. The option of advising the Minister would be better in the long-term for all those who suffer from educational disadvantage. The Higher Education Authority model is a clear example of a body which has been a considerable success. Its primary function is to advise the Minister on third level education, and university education in particular. It was established to advise the Minister from time to time and works with the bodies under its remit, and now other third level sectors want to come under its authority.
What tends to happen is that a body such as that proposed here may decide to stand back from the Minister and publish a report. We do not want a gulf between this body and a future Minister. We do not want it to hold back, but the committee needs to have the Minister's ear. The relationship is important as otherwise a future Minister may not be predisposed towards a body that is just interested in publishing reports and in recommending, for example, that the Minister spend £500 million to remedy ills. That is not helpful to the Minister; it would be helpful to have a body whose function is on advising the Minister on how to deal with educational disadvantage within his or her context and constraints.
I ask the Minister to think on this again. He is being very honest in saying that he wants a group which will advise the Minister and which will, in the words of the next amendment, be conscious of the resources, including financial resources, available. He wants some of his people who are conscious of his constraints and of the problems he will have in going to the Minister for Finance for approval for his proposals. He wants people to come up with proposals that have a chance of getting the Minister for Finance's approval.
It is all very well for the Minister to say he wants such a group, but there is no merit in giving it statutory recognition. With respect, that is what civil servants should be doing for the Minister if they are close enough to the subjects concerned. That is what they are paid to do: to know the constraints and the ways through the various corridors that must be travelled to get agreement for proposed policies. We are talking here about a committee on educational disadvantage being given statutory recognition, and people feel that this recognition, if it is to be meaningful, signifies a new direction in relation to priorities within the Department. That cannot be achieved, in the Minister's words, by someone who has the Minister's ear if another Minister pays no heed to him or her. That would be the worst of all situations.
Educational disadvantage has been and continues to be a non-mainstream concern of the Department, but this is a watershed. Some of the most interesting initiatives have grown up outside the Department's funding mechanisms, and the Department needs to stake out and provide leadership for the many organisations doing interesting work on a shoestring in this sector. Many pilot projects are begun, but those pilot projects never become mainstream models for application across the country. The reason is that the Department has not focused in on and staked out this territory. I am not pointing the finger at this or any other Minister, but that is the reality.
It has not been a priority. When the economy was moving from an underdeveloped point to its present prosperity, the focus was on throughput and on getting more people qualified for the labour market. However, if this amendment means anything, it means a new departure. That departure will not be achieved by a group with the Minister's ear and which is conscious of the various constraints a Minister must work under. A Minister cannot work entirely on his own discretion; he must be conscious of constraints. However, if we mean to give statutory recognition to a committee to tackle disadvantage, it cannot simply be given the role of helping the Minister past various obstacles in his way. It must have a more long-term commitment and must survive the passage of this brief to another Minister who may not have a particular interest in it. It must have ground that it can hold, and that will not be achieved if the Minister of the day can screen out the parts of its work he does not like, making it into a meaningless tool.
The Minister's thinking on the role of this committee is not sufficiently developed. While he may make use of it, he will not have made a permanent impact with this section of the Bill. I appeal to the Minister to accede. In itself the amendment is only a small step in the direction I am advocating, but it is nonetheless significant, as it would show where this is leading. That is why I hope the Minister accedes to this amendment.
Question, "That the words proposed to be deleted stand", put and declared carried.
Amendment declared lost.
Amendment No. 172 arises out of Committee proceedings. Amendment No. 174 is related. Amendments Nos. 172 and 174 are to be taken together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 172:
In page 28, between lines 37 and 38, to insert the following:
"(5) The educational disadvantage committee may, as soon as it is practicable after it has been established, and, thereafter, from time to time as it considers appropriate, prepare and submit to the Minister a statement containing —
(a) proposed policies and strategies for the identification and correction of educational disadvantage, relating to such period as it considers appropriate, and
(b) the areas of activity to which the committee accords priority.
(6) In preparing a statement as provided for in subsection (5), the educational disadvantage committee shall have regard to—
(a) the resources, including the financial resources, available, and
(b) the public interest in ensuring that the resources available are applied in an effective and efficient manner.".
The main aim of this amendment is to provide that the educational disadvantage committee may formally set out its policies, strategies and priorities in the form of a strategy statement. In terms of a strategy statement we are providing that the committee would have regard to resources and that they would be applied in an effective and efficient manner in the public interest. That embraces what Deputy O'Shea endeavours to achieve in his amendment No. 174.
The Minister's amendment goes some way towards meeting the concerns I expressed on Committee Stage. My amendment seeks to tighten things up in terms of time but I will not pursue it, bearing in mind the Minister's amendment. In this area an analysis which moves towards co-ordination and reaches beyond the Department of Education and Science is important. Some Minister has to take hold of this area. The resources provided are not achieving as much as they could and would achieve, if better co-ordinated. I have in mind essentially the support services for families and individuals.
The one issue the Minister has not included is that a report should be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. It is important that Deputies know exactly what is happening in the context of educational disadvantage. I have stated more than once that the situation is deteriorating. It is important that Deputies know what is being recommended, the extent of the problem and what the Department of Education and Science intends to do. In light of the Minister moving substantially in the direction about which I expressed concern on Committee Stage I will not move amendment No. 174.
I would prefer if Deputy O'Shea moved his amendment because it is better than the Minister's amendment, for more than one reason. The first reason is that adverted to by Deputy O'Shea that his amendment requires that a copy of this plan be laid before the Oireachtas. That would ensure it would be in the public arena and available for discussion in the Dáil and in the wider community. The strategic plan will be a significant contribution to the debate about educational disadvantage. Referring to the previous amendment, if all of this is done in the privacy of consultations between the Minister and the committee it will not be an inclusive process. It is far better that the strategic plan be published, in the public arena and the subject of debate.
The second reason is that it does not include the rather insidious term that the "committee shall have regard to the resources, including the financial resources, available". Deputy O'Shea's amendment focuses solely on the need to ensure the "most beneficial, effective and efficient use of the resources available". I fear that under subsection (6)(a) there will be substantial tick-tacking between the committee and the Minister and his Department as to what will be possible and that the committee will be told that "having regard to the financial resources" means the Department cannot provide more than £3 million this year in a strategic plan to tackle educational disadvantage. Effectively that would stymie the whole operation of the committee. Words such as "shall have regard to" may seem innocent in a Bill but the legal advice is that if the Department says that financial resources afford £4 million or £3 million to this area, the committee shall have regard to it; in other words it cannot think up plans which would require more than that amount. Words such as "shall have regard to" seem reasonable and sensible in that everyone must have regard to financial resources but in this context it means much more than just prudence. It means, effectively, that the Department and the Minister will be in a position to tell a committee it has £10 million to spend this year and that the committee should not draw up plans to spend more. This is the type of amendment the Department of Finance would be pleased to have included. These terms which are speckled through legislation appear to be all right until one tries to do something with them. Deputy O'Shea's amendment is better. It provides that the strategic plan will be in the public arena and the committee will not be told it has to be constrained by the realities that may confront the Minister. I accept the committee must be prudent and cannot seek ridiculous things. It is aware that if it seeks ridiculous things it will destroy its reputation. I would prefer to support amendment No. 174 which is linked with amendment No. 172.
We can have a look at the words "shall have regard to" in the Seanad debate. The other side of the coin is that if committees have no regard to financial resources they lose their credibility straight away as well as any chance of having a meaningful impact in terms of implementation.
The Deputy is saying that will not happen. I would equally say what the Deputy is suggesting will not happen either. It is not a case of trying to put people into a straitjacket or constrict them in terms of what they can say. This is trying to bring back the issue of focus. Do we want a body that advises society generally on what is needed and what should happen? It would become an independent body and over time a buffer may develop between it and the Minister and his Department and nothing would happen as a result.
I have seen many reports published. Policy makers response to reports are to the effect that they are seeking the sun, moon and stars. As usual the report is put to one side and that is the end of it. My experience is that the one way to kill any report or advice to a Minister, a Department or the Government, is to look for everything. A committee may say £200 million is required to complete the picture. It will not decide on what should be chosen but will put the whole menu into the report and allow the Minister and the Government decide. I am trying to avoid that scenario. That would not serve anybody's interests. I am more interested in getting a structure in place that will have an impact.
This is the first time ever we are establishing an educational disadvantage committee; it was not provided for in the original Bill. We are trying to give a clear focus from the beginning. Obviously it is subject to review. Access to the information is available under the Freedom of Information Act. We are not saying it should advise the Minister in secret but it will be interesting to see how it evolves. I do not accept the conspiracy theory on the one side, just as Deputy Bruton would dismiss the conspiracy theory I have just advanced, that there is a danger that a committee that simply advises everybody, loses its focus and its capacity to have an impact on policy formulation and implementation in the future.
I would welcome modification, if the Minister is willing to do that, during the Bill's passage through the Seanad. A future Minister could use the words "shall have regard to" as a vehicle to tell the committee to just advise him or her on its priorities for spending £3 million. We should have a committee which would on occasion say things which might embarrass the Minister and make him push the boat out a bit further.
Such a change would be of advantage to everyone including, ironically, the Minister in his battles with the Department of Finance and also those who are advocating reform in this area because they would feel they had someone on their side who was not solely a lapdog within the system. Despite the Minister's arguments, I feel the amendment tabled by Deputy O'Shea, which recognises the need for the committee to prioritise matters, is the preferable one.
The Minister's amendment essentially achieves a strategic approach to this area. The later part of my amendment, to which Deputy Bruton alluded, refers to ensuring that the resources available are applied in an effective and efficient manner in the public interest. Perhaps I was naive, but I read the reference to "the resources, including the financial resources, available" as referring to how the resources available in a particular year should be used. I did not envisage that it could be used as a tool to constrain the committee's plan.
In regard to placing a report before the Houses of the Oireachtas, I take it that it is intended that this body would be added to the list of bodies to which the Freedom of Information Act applies — or does it apply to this in any case?
There would be merit in the Oireachtas sub-committee on education——
I do not think the Freedom of Information Act would apply to it.
To the report of that group.
I cannot be definitive about that offhand. It is not our intention to keep it secret, if that is what people feel we are doing. I cannot see how such a strategic report could be kept secret. Half the composition of this committee will come from the voluntary groups dealing with disadvantage and it is highly unlikely that any Minister could hand pick 20 people who would remain silent lambs in a society where leaks to the media are the norm. It would be very foolish of any Minister to think he or she could proceed on the basis of keeping secret a strategy statement produced by a committee on educational disadvantage such as this one.
In terms of laying the plan before the House, I see merit in the education sub-committee having access to it, being able to discuss it and meeting the committee. I can deal with that in the Seanad debate.
Do I understand correctly that this will be looked at in the context of the Seanad debate on the legislation?
I think people are reading too much into this but, then, people tend to be very fearful about what we have in mind. It is a bit exaggerated but I will look at it for the Seanad debate.
Amendment put and agreed to.
I move amendment No. 173:
In page 28, line 49, after "schools" to insert "or the impediments to education which arise from special education needs".
This amendment grew out of much of the debate on this Bill. There is concern on this side of the House that the Minister's definition of "special education needs" has been very narrow, in that it does not include specific learning difficulties which are not linked to a physical or mental disability. As a result, there is a feeling on this side of the House that there is a gap in the legislation.
Similarly, when we come to educational disadvantage we find that the needs of those children who are not disabled in the conventional sense — they are of normal intelligence but have difficulties with the traditional academic system of instruction — have not been mentioned. The educational disadvantage committee deals solely with social or economic disadvantage. However, a very significant group of people has needs which are not related to social or economic disadvantage alone, although that might be a factor, but are more predominantly related to certain difficulties. There are many conditions, such as dyslexia and attention deficit disorder, whereby children of otherwise normal intelligence find it extremely difficult to relate to the school setting.
That should be part of the remit of this committee or, if the Minister felt it desirable, of an alternative committee dealing with that area alone. It is not possible to set up another committee by amendment in this House because it would be disallowed for procedural reasons. However, if the Minister feels it would be better to divide the two tasks between two groups advising the Minister rather than making them both the remit of this committee, I would be quite happy to go along with that.
However, there is a feeling throughout this debate, which is shared by the wider public, that many children face impediments to learning in school which are not getting sufficient recognition from the Department or in this Bill. When the Bill is passed such parents will still need to litigate to seek their rights under section 6, in which the Minister undertakes to provide appropriate education.
There is merit in the Minister receiving consistent advice on the needs of these children which have been overlooked in this Bill. This is a last chance for the Minister to give half the loaf, if he is unable to give the whole loaf, in response to the concerns which have been articulated on this side of the House.
I support the amendment. The sub-committee on educational disadvantage of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science met yesterday. Evidence was provided to the sub-committee from the residential care sector, to which those with educational disadvantages are sometimes referred by the courts or other agencies. It seems a high level of people who would be referred to as "dull normal" or "mentally handicapped"— I do not like the terminology — are referred to such centres. It struck me as I listened to that evidence yesterday that there is a correlation between educational disadvantage, mental handicap or low IQ and those who are referred by the courts or health boards to such centres. We cannot deal comprehensively with disadvantage in its broadest context without being mindful of such factors. The inclusion of a reference to special educational needs in the remit of that committee would give it an added dimension which, in the context of what I heard yesterday, is necessary for it to best discharge the duties that will be given to it by the Oireachtas.
We had this debate on Committee Stage. I am against bringing the whole area of special needs within the remit of the educational disadvantage committee. The focus of that committee's remit is educational disadvantage arising from socio-economic disadvantage. The Bill covers comprehensively children with special needs and it is far superior to the Education (No. 1) Bill in that respect. We have addressed many of the concerns of groups outside this House who deal or work with children with special needs in education and accepted a number of amendments tabled by the Deputies. Therefore, I am not predisposed to accepting this amendment on that ground. We had a long debate on this, but I strongly believe we have provided comprehensively in the Bill for issues pertaining to special needs. The key issue is resources. We took a significant step last week in mainstream education by providing child care assistants for national schools to facilitate greater integration and to provide the requisite child care assistants for special schools. Despite all that has happened through the years and various court cases, until last month special schools did not have the required number of child care assistants. In some instances autism was not officially recognised by the State as an education category. Addressing that area requires decisions by the Minister of the day and resources. The special needs area requires a specific focus and this Bill could lose focus by concentrating on it.
I am disappointed the Minister will not accept this amendment. I can understand why he said tackling social and economic disadvantage and its impact on the education system is an issue that has a precise focus. I would be quite happy if he agreed to set up an advisory group to examine the wider issue of special needs. I am also anxious that should include children with learning difficulties who are otherwise deemed normal as well as the Minister's definition of special needs. We have covered this ground a number of times and the Minister may believe he is catering adequately for this area, but many Members of this House and many people outside it would not agree with him. They would see a gap in the system that is not being properly provided for. There is merit in setting up a committee where good expertise would be available to advise the Minister specifically on this complex area. It would help him to keep abreast of research on the needs of those children if he had such a systematic link with people in that field. We cannot have a rerun of the debates we had on earlier amendments, but I am not persuaded by the Minister's arguments. By making such a concession, which would not backtrack on what we have discussed already, useful ground would be made in the future.
Amendment put and declared lost.
Amendment No. 174 not moved.
I move amendment No. 175:
In page 29, after line 41, to insert the following:
"(2) Without prejudice to the application of the Intermediate Education (Ireland) Act, 1878, to both male and female students, section 6 of that Act is hereby amended by the repeal of subsection (4).".
Amendment agreed to.
We now come to amendment No. 176 in the names of the Minister and Deputy Richard Bruton. This amendment is in substitution for amendment No. 176 circulated with the principal list of amendments dated 3 July 1998.
I move amendment No. 176:
In page 30, line 7, after "for" to insert "schools,".
This amendment includes schools among the list of groups to whom services will be provided by education support centres. As drafted, the section does not exclude schools, but I am pleased to make their inclusion explicit by means of this amendment.
Amendment agreed to.
I move amendment No. 177:
In page 31, line 16, after "teachers" to insert ", organisations representing people with disabilities".
Amendment put and declared lost.
We now come to amendment No. 178. Amendments Nos. 179, 180 and 182 are related and, therefore, amendments Nos. 178, 179, 180 and 182 can be taken together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 178:
In page 31, line 16, after "teachers" to insert ", national Irish language organisations".
Part VII deals with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. If accepted, amendment No. 178 would have the effect of including national Irish language organisations in the consultation process that would be undertaken prior to the Minister determining the composition of the council. Section 40 (1) states: "The composition of the Council shall be determined by order, made by the Minister following consultation with patrons, national associations of parents, recognised school management organisations, recognised trade unions and staff associations representing teachers. ..". At that point my amendment seeks to include the national Irish language organisations as one of the groups that should be consulted. It is regrettable the Minister is not disposed to including organisations representing the disabled as part of that consultation process. Given the large amount of State resources allocated to facilitating the teaching of the Irish language, it is extraordinary the Minister is not agreeable to consulting those organisations on the composition of the council.
There can be tensions between the various groups, but tension is often healthy because it can lead to creativity and better solutions. A formula should be arrived at for consultation with these organisations. Given that the Irish language constitutes an enormous part of education provision, we cannot allow the composition of a council like the national council for curriculum and assessment to be finalised without the views of the Irish language lobby being considered.
With regard to amendment No. 180, the Minister has indicated that those participating in the national council for curriculum and assessment will be involved at primary and post primary level. Pre-school and adult continuing education should be included as part of the remit of the body. I am glad the Minister accepts the pre-school element of my amendment in his earlier amendment No. 179.
People involved in adult and continuing education should be included within the membership of the group because this would colour the way in which the council develops its work. The Minister of State will probably agree that the position of adult and continuing education has been seriously downgraded. There is a need to mend many fences in this area.
However, part of the problem is that we have a very rigid education structure that does not easily permit re-entry to the system. It is very much a one chance education system where the system of assessment and certification is solely based on an academic examination, a one-off chance undertaken over a couple of weeks every June. That militates strongly against adult and continuing education gaining access to the high status certification that the leaving certificate enjoys.
It is very important that the national council for curriculum and assessment, which will set the standards for school assessment at the end of the school period, will be conscious that it is part of a unified structure where anybody can participate. That consciousness has been absent in our system to date and if we perpetuate it in this Bill by again leaving out the representatives of adult and continuing education the ramparts will stay up and the leaving certificate will continue to be largely inaccessible to those who wish to have a second chance. There will not be the kind of desired progression and existing turf divisions will continue, which have sadly beset the need for continuing progression through the system.
Ladders and progression routes are not a feature of our system and it is almost impossible for those who leave school before their leaving certificate to get back into the system. They are always told why it is so difficult, rather than the easy ways in which it can be done. There must be much more openness about the system of certification and assessment in the leaving certificate to make it also accessible to those who did not gain the opportunity to advance far in the education system and are now trying to re-enter it.
While it will not be possible to dismantle the present system in a day, it is very important that the representatives of adult and continuing education be on the curriculum and assessment council. They have a point of view to express, not only about what would be regarded as a second chance and the continuing remit of adult and further education, but also the routes from that into the more formal schooling system and school certificates that are available.
The Minister will no doubt point to VTOS, etc., as evidence that there are ways back. There are opportunities for people to get income support while they do courses leading to sitting the leaving certification examinations. However, that is not the point. There are few well established progression ladders to enable people gain the same high status qualifications through adult and continuing education that has been accorded the leaving certificate. If the Minster spoke to people in adult and continuing education, as I have, they would express their disappointment with the progress that has been made in breaking down these barriers. The Minister has an opportunity to include their representatives in the national council for curriculum assessment.
I am sure I will have the support of the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy O'Dea, because he has given much thought to this. I am sure he has encountered the frustrations of people with the existing system of linkages and progression in the system. Development of the council will provide an opportunity to stake out some ground for that neglected area.
This is a worthwhile amendment. It will not change the world overnight but it will at least open a window for the views of people whose voices have not been effectively heard.
Amendments Nos. 179 and 182 in my name take on the broad objectives of amendment No. 178, in the name of Deputy O'Shea, and No. 180, in the name of Deputy Bruton, in so far as the Irish language and pre-school or early education is concerned. Amendment No. 179 inserts "early childhood and" while amendment No. 182 deletes lines 26 to 31 and substitutes a new subsection (2)(b), which states at paragraphs (ii) and (iii):
(ii) have a special interest in, or experience of, the education of students with a disability or other special educational needs, or
(iii) are representative of Irish language organisations,
as the Minister considers appropriate.".
In terms of the adult education issue, a comprehensive exercise is ongoing under the responsibility of the Minister of State at my Department, Deputy O'Dea, in terms of a Green Paper on adult and continuing education. The Green Paper will be comprehensive and will involve curriculum and access issues.
I am also preparing a National Qualifications Bill, which is very advanced and which I hope to introduce in the next session. In that context it would be inappropriate to take a patchwork approach by including in the national council for curriculum assessment something about adult and continuing education because it does not fit at present. One of the results of work on the Green Paper is that adult and continuing education has specific needs and demands approaches and strategies which are different to those that have been the norm at second and primary levels. Broadly speaking, to date the national council for curriculum assessment has had its focus on primary and secondary education in terms of curricular reform and so on.
It is important that we take on board the inputs of all those who have contributed to the Green Paper, including all the bodies that have been consulted and so on. It would be wrong to pre-empt that exercise by inserting a clause, sentence or phrase on adult education. In this respect the Deputy will be pleasantly surprised by the content of the Green Paper. It will contain a number of challenging ideas.
I accept the Deputy's point, but we have made considerable progress. Part of the national qualifications framework, which was known as Teastas, is to put progression and quality assurance on a statutory basis. We should not forget the National Council for Vocational Awards which has done considerable work in providing alternative entry routes to those who left school some time ago and who wish to re-enter second level education or a form of education. It is assumed that people who wish to return to education have to do the leaving certificate — they do not have to do that. The NCVA strategy is to develop a new level of qualification from foundation level up which has links into post-leaving certificate courses and specific vocational qualifications.
We are moving rapidly in terms of a qualifications framework and in terms of progression. We are going some distance to meet the concerns of Deputies. In terms of adult and continuing education, it would be better to leave that to the Green Paper.
It would be interesting to hear the point of view of the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea, on this. It seems it would not be preemptive to include representation for those from adult and continuing education on the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. It would be a recognition of a right, and a perspective that should be in this council. Far from pre-empting the work of the Minister of State, which I have no doubt is very worthwhile, it would be a very useful indicator of the seriousness with which the Minister was taking that work, because the assessment and the curriculum within the conventional education system should be much more aligned to this national structure of certification that the Minister is establishing. School should not be seen as one thing and adult education as something completely different. We need to break down such barriers. While I do not have a readymade resolution of how to do that, I can certainly see that by excluding the representatives of adult and continuing education from the membership of this council the Minister has tied one arm behind his back.
We have not excluded them.
They are not being given a position. The Minister has specified the people who will be on it, and they include people from the pre-school, primary and post-primary areas, but not the adult and continuing education area.
I very much support what the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea, is doing. I am certainly not trying to pull the rug out from under the work he is doing. What I am suggesting is complementary and gives representatives of adult and continuing education a window on a very important part of a high-status element of our education system. To exclude them from having a voice in that area is a mistake.
Section 40(1) deals with the consultation process. At the end of the various categories listed here, there is the catch-all phrase, "with such other persons or bodies of persons as the Minister considers appropriate". That gives the Minister a free hand here. This relates to the consultation process prior to the Minister determining by order what the membership or composition of the council should be.
My point in putting down two amendments to this section was to ensure that there would be specific mention of organisations representing the disabled — we have dealt with that — and that formal recognition would be given to the Irish language organisations. I am fairly certain that, as part of the consultation process, and under that catch-all phrase, the Minister will deal with these organisations anyway.
I welcome the Minister's amendment No. 182, which deals with the composition of the council and what the Minister should take on board in determining that. However, the inclusion of the phrase "as far as is practicable" means that there is a qualification — it is not certain that we will have a representative from, for example, the Irish language lobby or one with a special interest in the area of special needs education. Both groups will be consulted in the consultation process, but it is important that we recognise them formally.
I will examine those last two points in relation to the consultation process before the Seanad debate.
The Minister has agreed to look at the consultation process in the context of the Seanad debate. Given that, I will not press my amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I move amendment No. 179:
In page 31, line 22, after "at" to insert "early childhood and".
Amendment agreed to.
I move amendment No. 180:
In page 31, line 22, after "at" to insert "pre-school, adult and continuing education and at".
I got the impression that the Minister was softening.
The Deputy may not speak on the amendment.
I was just clarifying the Minister's point. To quote LBJ, I did not want the Minister bringing people in on the basis that it is better to have them inside the tent. I was hoping for statutory recognition of certain rights.
Amendment put and declared lost.
Amendment No. 181 not moved.
I move amendment No. 182:
In page 31, to delete lines 26 to 31 and substitute the following:
"(b) includes other persons who—
(i) have experience or skills, including experience of and skills in business and industry, which in the opinion of the Minister are relevant to the work of the Council and would complement the experience and skills of the persons appointed in accordance with paragraph(a)
(ii) have a special interest in, or experience of, the education of students with a disability or other special educational needs, or
(iii) are representative of Irish language organisations, as the Minister considers appropriate.".
Amendment agreed to.
We now come to amendment No. 183 in the name of Deputy Brian O'Shea. Amendments Nos. 183 and 184 are related to amendment No. 188. Amendments Nos. 186 and 187 are also related to amendment No. 188. It is proposed, therefore, that amendments Nos. 183, 184, 186, 187 and 188 be taken together. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 183:
In page 31, line 42, after "primary" to insert , "special".
This arises in the context of the objectives and functions of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. The object of the council, as the legislation now reads, shall be to advise the Minister on matters relating to the curriculum for early childhood education, primary and post-primary education. Even though special education is within the primary sector, I am seeking that special education or special schools be specifically mentioned in this section. There is a difference between special schools and mainstream national schools. Children can continue to attend special schools until they reach the age of 18 years. With the agreement of the Department, they have the option of participating in a further life skills year. Special schools are not excluded, but in the context of the concerns articulated in the House recently about parents of children with special needs, clear reference should be made to the schools which many of those students attend.
My amendment No. 184 states that the council will advise the Minister on matters relating to the need for a special curriculum for students with particular needs including those with special educational needs. I note amendment No. 188 in the Minister's name states that it will be one of the functions of the council to advise on requirements, as regards curriculum and syllabuses, of students with a disability or other special educational needs.
This goes a certain distance, but the Minister's definition of special education, which refers to physical or mental disability, excludes all those with learning difficulties but who otherwise have full faculties. If the Minister intends to reject our amendments, it would be better to include in his amendment some reference to students with particular needs or learning difficulties rather than sticking rigidly to his definition of special needs which hinges on physical or mental disability or exceptional ability. The problem of this definition recurs in the Bill and affects amendment No. 188 which otherwise addresses the point of my amendment.
The contributions of Deputies O'Shea and Bruton on an earlier Stage inspired amendment No. 188 which has two main objectives. First, it provides that the NCCA will have the function of advising the Minister in regard to curriculum and syllabuses for students with a disability or other special educational needs. Second, it requires the council to advise the Minister on strategies to improve the teaching and use of Irish in schools. I am advised that in doing so, it takes on board the objectives of amendments Nos. 183, 184, 186 and 187. Therefore, the amendments are not necessary.
Will the Minister of State assure the House that the reference to other special educational needs in paragraph (f) of amendment No. 188 includes, for example, special learning difficulties or dyslexia? Although the definition of special educational needs at the start of the Bill does not refer to these types of conditions, will the Minister of State assure the House they are encompassed by the amendment?
My understanding is that they are encompassed.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment No. 184 not moved.
I move amendment No. 185:
In page 32, between lines 11 and 12, to insert the following:
"(d) to advise the Minister of the appropriate principles for curricular provision in schools which will promote equality of access to subjects amongst boys and girls and facilitate non-stereotyped subject choice by students;".
The amendment relates to the functions of the National Council for Curriculum Assessment. There is a need to specifically ensure we do not allow attitudes or a culture to continue in education where certain subjects are seen as more appropriate to boys than girls and vice versa. Changes are taking place and these are welcome. However, the Minister will require continuing advice in this regard. I ask the Minister of State to respond favourably to the amendment.
I support the principle underlying the amendment. Paragraph (h) states that the council will have a function to promote equality of access to education generally and to instructions in any particular subjects between male and female students. The issue is to what extent the amendment adds to that position. It develops the idea that there are certain principles in curricular provision which would make it easier to successfully carry out that task. Deputy O'Shea's amendment spells out in more detail how this might be addressed. As such, it has merit and amplifies the existing provisions in the Bill.
We have examined this matter carefully. All the advice available to us is that Deputy O'Shea's aim is already amply covered in section 41(2)(h) which makes it a function of the NCCA to promote equality of access to education generally and to instructions in any particular subjects between male and female students.
I take Deputy O'Shea's point. What he is attempting to achieve is more specific in relation to stereotyping and certain subjects being considered more appropriate for boys than girls or vice versa. If the Deputy wishes, I will ask the officials to reconsider this matter between now and the introduction of the Bill in the Seanad. However, the preponderance of advice is that the point is already adequately covered in the subsection to which I referred.
I thank the Minister for his response. However, I continue to argue that my amendment goes further than the subsection to which the Minister referred. It is important to clearly state in legislation that it is the firm intention of the Oireachtas to remove gender stereotyping in the context of subjects which are suitable for boys or girls. However, I will not pursue the amendment on the basis of the Minister of State's undertaking to have the point reviewed before the Bill is presented to the Seanad.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendments Nos. 186 and 187 not moved.
I move amendment No. 188:
In page 32, between lines 21 and 22, to insert the following:
"(f) to advise the Minister on the requirements, as regards curriculum and syllabuses, of students with a disability or other special educational needs;
(g) to advise the Minister on strategies which have as their objective the enhancement of the effectiveness in the teaching and use of the Irish language in schools;".
Amendment agreed to.
We now proceed to amendment No. 189. This amendment is in substitution for amendment No. 189 circulated on the principal list of amendments.
I move amendment No. 189:
In page 32, line 46, to delete "and participation in" and substitute ", participation in and benefit from".
The purpose of the amendment is to insert the words "benefit from" in section 41 which deals with the functions of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. This reflects the concern expressed on Committee Stage.
Amendment agreed to.
I move amendment No. 190:
In page 33, between lines 2 and 3, to insert the following:
"(e) have regard to the practical necessity to devote additional educational resources to students with special needs.".
Amendment put and declared lost.
We now proceed to amendment No. 191. Amendment No. 192 is related. Amendments Nos. 191 and 192 may be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 191:
In page 33, line 35, after "functions" to insert "as the Minister considers appropriate".
The amendment is in response to concerns expressed on Committee Stage.
Amendment agreed to.
Amendment No. 192 not moved.
I move amendment No. 193:
In page 33, line 44, to delete "and 1958" and substitute "to 1996".
Amendment agreed to.
We proceed to amendment No. 194. Amendment No. 199 is related. Amendments Nos. 194 and 199 may be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 194:
In page 34, after line 47, to insert the following:
"‘examiner' means a person who is employed by the Minister for the purpose of—
(a) the preparation of examination papers or other examination materials,
(b) the marking of such papers or other such materials, or
(c) the carrying out of any other functions in respect of examinations;".
The purpose of the amendment is to provide a definition of "examiner". Amendment No. 199 provides indemnity for examiners in respect of anything done by them in good faith and in pursuance of their functions as examiners.
Amendment agreed to.
I move amendment No. 195:
In page 35, between lines 19 and 20, to insert the following:
"51. —The Minister shall ensure—
(a) that examinations are a fair test of a student's competence in the subject being tested,
(b) that examinations are conducted in a way that is equitable to all students taking the exam,
(c) that candidates are permitted to have their performance in an exam reviewed independently of the marking made by the original examiner,
(d) that students with special needs are facilitated in so far as is practicable to take the exam.".
What is remarkable about the section which deals with examinations is that it does not set out what we are trying to achieve with the examination system and what constitutes fair play for those taking examinations. The Bill creates offences and penalties. It should also set out what we are trying to achieve with the examination system and what students should expect from it.
The amendment would require the Minister to ensure examinations are a fair test of a student's competence in the subject being taken; that examinations are conducted in a way that is equitable to all taking the examination; that candidates are permitted to have their performance in an examination reviewed independently of the marking made by the original examiner, and that students with special needs are facilitated in so far as is practicable to take the examination.
Concern has been expressed about the way in which examinations are conducted. The public is anxious that they are conducted fairly and that where problems arise the Minister will intervene. I fail to understand why this cannot be placed on a statutory basis. It is expected that the Minister would vindicate the rights of students and take it upon himself to ensure examinations are conducted in an equitable way. Regulations should be introduced, letters issued to examiners and good procedures put in place. This function should be underpinned by legislation. We are moving towards a situation where candidates can expect to have their performance reviewed. They can now see papers. No Minister should be able to suddenly withdraw the right of independent appeal.
The Department has not been seen to be successful when it comes to students with special needs. Many students seeking to sit examinations believe the obstacles that they face are not taken into account adequately. As a result of recent changes, examiners will not be notified of a student's particular disability, including dyslexia. There will be general advice that examiners must take reading and writing difficulties into account. This is highly unsatisfactory. We know from experience that teachers in the classroom find it difficult to identify pupils with learning difficulties. It will be far more difficult for examiners to identify such pupils. This is a retrograde step. Many are of the view that the changes will undermine the rights of students. Many fail for the want of proper assessment and diagnosis. The amendment seeks to set out the rights of students in the examination system which is not perfect.
Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.